Joe Posnanski, Brian Kenny and I were sitting in a bar ... well, it'd be nice if true, but it was only in my imagination. Posnanski and Kenny did, however, inspire my thinking for a question that baseball fans often debate: who is the King of Baseball?
Kenny, as big a boxing guy as he is a baseball guy, often refers to the "lineal title," a mythical contention that allows boxing fans to avoid dealing with the myriad alphabet agencies that crown champions, deserving or not. The lineal title is simply explained as "to be the man, you've got to beat the man." Not be a little better, not eek out a round here or there, but truly beat the man, the way it used to be.
Posnanski, for his part, tried answering a similar question in his recent post speculating about past MVPs. While Posnanski's take is good, there's just too much variance in year-to-year baseball performance to truly crown a lineal champ based on any one year. When it comes to this crown, there needs to be a 'smell test'. Having a Brady Anderson or even a Roger Maris as King just simply doesn't work. It's hard to be The King, which is as it should be. Great players like Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench, based on the method described below, never got to wear the crown, though that hardly takes away from their greatness.
I asked my research assistant, Dan Wade, to take a look at various methods for crowning the King and he came up with a good one. Looking at the top of Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement leaderboard on a year-to-year basis would give a reasonably good picture of who the dominant players of this generation and of past generations are, but it does make flash-in-the-pan successes look better than they are. (We excluded pitchers, since the comparisons are hardly apples to apples.) A rolling five-year total on the other hand, credits those who put up consistently great numbers without unduly rewarding the player who has a season or two of top class performance, but can't keep the success up for longer than that.
The modern era of baseball is commonly considered to have started with the birth of the American League in 1901. That gives us a nice jumping off point and a worthy first King:
The first King is always the yardstick others will be measured by and Wagner holds up to any that came after him. He defined the game in a changing era as both a defensive wizard and an offensive force. The Pirates could certainly use him today.
Total WAR: 89.6
Trivia: Played every position except catcher at least once over his reign.
Could there be any other answer? Cobb, acknowledged by many of the era to be the best ballplayer they had ever seen, combined a slashing style at the plate and on the bases and rangy outfield defense to make him an easy choice to follow Wagner as king, though he wasn't nearly as dominant as the Flying Dutchman.
Total WAR: 65.3
Trivia: Cobb was one of two players during the span to hit 120 or more triples. The other was his Tigers teammate Sam Crawford.
If baseball were to ever have a War of the Roses, Eddie Collins would be the one on the white horse. Cobb would be ok with that. Collins truly was Cobb's equal for a time. Seeing that Collins not only took Cobb's crown, but held it for three blocks may serve to remind many just how good Collins, a future Hall of Famer, was.
Total WAR: 63.9
Trivia: In the first year of his first block as king, Collins stole a career best 81 bases.
Cobb regained the title, losing it not so much to another player, but to the end of an era. With the death of Ray Chapman to a pitched ball (still the only on-field player fatality in baseball history) and the introduction of the "live ball", Cobb's era and style were about to be swept aside. Cobb is the personification of that era as much as the next king was of his.
Total WAR: 60.8
Trivia: From 1907 to 1920, Cobb failed to lead the American League in batting average just twice, both times finishing second.
Ruth put aside his stellar pitching career in 1920 and became an offensive force unlike any the game had ever seen, launching 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 in 1921. That massive addition of power, both to Ruth and to the game in general, changed baseball in a way not seen before or since. Ruth truly was the King of Baseball, a larger than life character that would have had to have been invented if he had not existed. His dominance over the era was such that despite other great players in the game, Ruth really had to take the crown off himself with a lost season rather than any player taking it from him.
Total WAR: 78.5
Trivia: Not only did Ruth win the MVP only once, he received votes just three times in his 22 year career.
Ruth played just 98 games in 1925, leaving an opening for Rogers Hornsby to take the crown. Hornsby isn't a one-year wonder, but just stuck behind Babe Ruth like a lot of other players. That he's able to grab the crown for one block is testament to the fact that he was pretty close to Ruth for a time, despite lacking the same massive power stroke (though he did hit 42 home runs in 1922 and 39 in '25).
Total WAR: 51.9
Trivia: His five-season batting average from 1921-25 was .402, including an astounding .424 in 1924.
Absent that one year, Ruth would have held the crown for twelve consecutive blocks. That's just an astonishing run. Ruth's crown goes along with all the home run titles (10), AL pennants (seven) and World Series championships (four) that he accumulated during the period. Simply put, the Babe dominated the game like no player ever has.
Total WAR: 117.7
Trivia: From 1919-1933, Ruth failed to reach 500 PAs in a season just once: 1925, the year he lost his crown to Hornsby.
There's a nice narrative quality to these reigns. Gehrig takes the crown from his teammate Ruth, and while the two could not have had more divergent personalities, both were sluggers of historic greatness who kept the Yankees' dynasty humming. Gehrig's reign was derailed by the disease that forced him out of the game in 1939 and took his life in 1941.
Total WAR: 86.3
Trivia: Despite hitting 40 or more home runs five times, including 49 twice, Gehrig was never able to break the 50 home run barrier and finished his career with 493.
Ott, the Giants legendary slugger, debuted as a 17-year-old in 1926, but it was his peak years where he was able to take the crown for one block. He was in the midst of an 11-year run as an All Star, which meant something back then, from 1934-44. Ott was fading as a 30-year-old, but he'd done just enough to hold the crown for one year, in between Yankees legends.
Total WAR: 35.4
Trivia: Ott drew 100 walks in a season or more 10 times during his 22 year career, and never struck out more than 70 times in a season.
DiMaggio is true baseball royalty and a continuation of the Yankees dynasty that would be passed down to Mickey Mantle. While he was always great and always graceful, his reign was short and is highlighted by his magical '41 campaign, when he hit in 56 consecutive games. Think of him as baseball's Edward VIII. Not a long reign, but one that created a story we're still telling.
Total WAR: 52.0
Trivia: DiMaggio was an All-Star every year of his career and received MVP votes in all but his final season.
Wait a minute. Williams wasn't even playing for parts of these blocks, having traded his Red Sox uniform for a military uniform during World War II, but he was so good (and so many other greats of the game followed him into the service) that he took the title from DiMaggio. Williams' reign, like his predecessor's, is helped by his unforgettable season of 1941, when he hit .406 to become the last man to top .400.
Total WAR: 35.1
Trivia: After missing all of the 1943, '44 and '45 seasons because of his service in the war, Williams returned in 1946 and led the American League in runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases while hitting .342 with 38 home runs and 123 RBIs.
Nicholson is as close to a "fluke King" as exists, but the effects of the war helped out the guy known as "Swish." Cubs fans might be the only ones that really remember Nicholson, but he was a dominant force during the war years (and a bit before.) He led the league twice -- in both 1943 and '44 -- in homers and RBI. He was more a peak player than a long term great, but he's an interesting footnote in baseball royalty.
Total WAR: 25.2
Trivia: Ted Williams finished less than 3 wins behind Nicholson, despite playing just two years of the five-year block.
No one would argue with "Stan The Man" as King -- he was as popular as he was productive -- but it did take a couple blocks of Ted Williams' absence to get Musial his time with the crown. Musial's first reign (spoiler alert!) came due to his play during the war years. That's no knock on him, as he proved that he was among the game's elite even after players returned.
Total WAR: 49.9
Trivia: Musial may not have missed the same amount of time as Williams, but he did take the crown despite sitting out all of 1945 while with the Navy.
With the war absences now gone from the blocks, Williams took his crown back with some vintage Williams seasons. It would take another absence due to another war to get the title away from him. It's fascinating to think what his numbers would look like without those lost seasons.
Total WAR: 44.6
Trivia: From 1945 to 1950, Williams had more than three times as many walks (688) as strikeouts (201).
Musial took the crown back from Williams, ending their back and forth of the title. Today, many would be surprised that Musial would take any block over Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Musial might be the first victim of East Coast Bias, but that hardly tarnishes his crown.
Total WAR: 47.7
Trivia: From 1947-1952, only three players averaged an OPS over 1.000: Musial, Williams and Ralph Kiner.
Yes, to be the man you have to beat the man, and over one five-year block, Robinson did so. It's hard to overstate the importance of Robinson socially, but it's often forgotten just how good he was on the field. He led his Dodgers to three pennants, won the NL MVP in 1949 and treated himself to the crown over one five-year period.
Total WAR: 43.6
Trivia: Only two players stole more than 100 bases in this block: Robinson and his Brooklyn teammate Pee Wee Reese. Robinson was slightly more efficient, getting caught just 19 times to Reese's 25.
Just like any good boxing rivalry, Musial came back, just edging a fading Robinson as well as the likes of Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, both of whom were in the prime of their careers. Musial did it without a big defensive boost to his adjusted numbers as well.
Total WAR: 44.0
Trivia: From the beginning of Williams' first block in 1939 to the end of Musial's last in 1955, these all-time greats both amassed over 100 WAR. The next player on the list is DiMaggio at 64 WAR.
It's actually a bit more surprising to many that Mantle didn't reign longer as King. He was certainly great, but repeated injuries eventually sapped his effectiveness. His reign wasn't predicated on mythical home run distances, but consistent production as a young player on the biggest stage.
Total WAR: 89.1
Trivia: Mantle lead the majors in strikeouts from 1952-1961 with 1062 and was second in walks with 1086.
Mays not only took the crown from his onetime fellow New York centerfielder Mantle, he never looked back. The career arcs are quite different for Mays and Mantle, with Mays trending upwards and then sustaining a peak level through the later years of his career. Mantle was the opposite, peaking early and then fading slightly through a combination of bad knees and late nights. Mays' defensive prowess kept the crown on his head until his offensive numbers completely collapsed.
Total WAR: 98.6
Trivia: From 1954, when he returned from the Army, to 1965, Mays lead the NL in WAR every year but two.
Perhaps Santo, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this July just over a year after his death, would have been in the Hall of Fame while he was living if we'd calculated the King of Baseball a few years ago. As Mays faded, Santo came into his own, leading a Cubs team that never quite got over the hump and into the postseason, but it was never Santo's fault for that.
Total WAR: 37.8
Trivia: The only player to play in more games during this block than Santo was his teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams. They were the only players to break 800 games over the five seasons.
It's no surprise that "Yaz" held the crown, even for just a short time, given his tremendous all-around production, especially in his Triple Crown- and MVP-winning season of 1967, when he hit .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBIs.
Total WAR: 44.7
Trivia: From 1965 to 1970, Yaz lead the AL in on-base percentage four times and slugging percentage three times.
Clemente's legend can hardly be raised any higher, but being the first Latin King of Baseball is another feather in an inner circle career. Clemente's untimely death after the 1972 season probably didn't keep him from holding this title much longer since he was past his peak, though one or two more blocks is likely.
Total WAR: 31.2
Trivia: While few would dispute that Clemente deserves a spot on this list, this block actually excludes his best season by WAR, which was 8.2 wins in 1967. His is a crown of assiduousness more than abnormally outstanding play.
There's always one name on any list that functions as the headscratcher. While every other King could be argued, they're all clear baseball royalty. Bando, on the other hand, seems a pretender. Is this our Richard III in spikes? No, it seems he's more Phillip II, the forgotten king. Bando was a very solid player, finishing in the top five of MVP voting two times during this block (and another one year later.)
Total WAR: 33.6
Trivia: With Santo's admission into the Hall of Fame later this year, Bando is left as the only eligible player on this list since 1945 to not be in Cooperstown.
It wasn't Johnny Bench or Pete Rose that wore the crown during the years of the Big Red Machine. Instead, it was a welterweight in Joe Morgan whose combination of speed, power and fielding at a premium defensive position helped him win consecutive NL MVPs and Cincinnati back-to-back world championships in 1975 and '76.
Total WAR: 65.8
Trivia: Morgan had many tools, including enviable speed, stealing 441 bases over eight seasons, 27 more than the next hitter on the list. He was still outrun by Lou Brock -- five years Morgan's senior -- who stole 513 bags.
One can almost hear Harry Kalas intoning the name of "Michael Jack Schmidt, King of Baseball." Again, it was a combination of skills that kept him at the top: His power (he finished his career with 548 home runs) and his slick fielding (10 career Gold Gloves) at the hot corner.
Total WAR: 87.7
Trivia: Over the 11 seasons from 1974-1984, Schmidt put his contemporaries to shame. George Brett is his closest rival at 60.1 WAR, almost 30 wins behind Schmidt.
As great as Henderson was for such a long period, it's more of a surprise that he was only King for two blocks than that he's on this illustrious list.
Total WAR: 43.7
Trivia: Henderson finished his Hall of Fame career as baseball's all-time leader in stolen bases, runs and walks (since passed by Barry Bonds).
Just before what became known as "The Steroid Era", it was a slap-hitting throwback that took the crown. Boggs did have one big power year (24 home runs) in the power-blip season of '87, but it was his consistent stay at the top of the batting title and the OPS leaderboard that made him King. Boggs may not have hit many homers, but he crushed doubles like they were made of chicken.
Total WAR: 59.3
Trivia: From 1983 to 1990, no player in baseball got on base more times than Boggs did.
Bonds wasn't just the King. He held the title for fifteen blocks, more than double anyone else. To give you an idea of how long this was, he first wore the crown in '91, when Albert Pujols was still eligible to be playing for the Little League World Series. And before you start, more of Bonds' reign came before his alleged use of PEDs than after it.
Total WAR: 161.0
Trivia: Bonds' 161 WAR is more than double the next best player over that era. Ken Griffey Jr. had a very respectable 80.3 WAR for second best, Jeff Bagwell was close to Griffey at 79.9 WAR, and yet literally neither was half as good as Bonds.
Pujols' current six-block run as King could go on much longer, or so the Angels hope. The longtime Cardinals star is only the second reigning King to switch teams (after Bonds, who moved from the Pirates to the Giants after the 1992 season), but the shift didn't hurt Bonds' production at all. Pujols' career has been in slow decline for years, but has been at such an elevated level that he's just starting to look human. It's unlikely that he could keep the crown as long as Bonds did, but he could challenge Ruth for the second-longest reign.
Total WAR: 82.2
Trivia: Despite having the sixth most home runs among active players, Pujols only topped the NL in homers twice, in 2009 and 2010.
It's unlikely that Pujols will concede his crown in the next segment. For the four seasons that will be included in the next block -- 2008 to 2011 -- he has a seven win lead over the rest of the pack, ahead of Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who are themselves separated by just one-tenth of a win. While Pujols may soon be entering in a declining phase and Longoria and Mauer are still in their ascendancy, seven wins is nearly impossible to make up in a single season, unless Pujols misses the entire year and Longoria or Mauer has an MVP-caliber season.
Looking at the blocks ending in 2013 or 2014, however, it is possible that a new king will be crowned, and the most likely successor is Longoria. While Mauer will always have the advantage of being a catcher and getting a nice positional adjustment from that, he has struggled mightily to stay healthy and may soon lose that positional boost if he has to move out from behind the plate. Add in the fact that Minnesota's Target Field has been particularly unkind to hitters so far, and it seems more likely that Mauer will fall back into the rest of the field than surge to the top.
Longoria has the advantage of being two years away from his theoretical peak, which has to be a terrifying idea for pitchers. He has been healthy, amassing at least 500 plate appearances in all four of his major league seasons so far. Perhaps most importantly, he has been consistently great: Since his rookie season of 2008, Longoria has been worth at least 6.4 wins.
High peaks, like Matt Kemp's 10-win season in 2011 are great, but baseball's kings have traditionally been players who perform consistently well rather than players who ebb between being phenomenal and merely above average. Longoria has already achieved that level of consistency and still has a few years to grow before he plateaus and even longer to go before he declines, which makes him the heir-apparent to Pujols' throne and crown.
That said, there have been plenty of "almost Kings" along the way that never quite got over the hump. It could be that the next King is playing in the minors or even on a sandlot somewhere. Kings don't have a lot of overlap, it seems. While there are many players that can be described as good and some that can be described as great at any given time in baseball history, there are a surprisingly small number who can legitimately claim to have been the best.