It is the considered opinion of most baseball fans that the greatest player who ever lived was either a) Ty Cobb or b) Babe Ruth. Right at the outset of this essay, I would like to lay the controversy at rest once and for all. The greatest player was Babe Ruth.
How can you be sure, you may ask. Was it because he hit more home runs? Could pitch, too? No. It was because he won. It's that simple.
In Ruth's 15 years with the New York Yankees, the team won seven pennants, four world championships. In Ruth's six seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the team won three pennants, three world championships. In short, Ruth was a winner.
In Ty Cobb's 22 years with Detroit, the Tigers won three pennants, no world championships. In Cobb's two years with Philadelphia, the Athletics won no championships. In short, Cobb was a loser.
It is not the purpose of this thesis to examine solely the relative merits of Babe Ruth vs. Ty Cobb. But it is my intention to claim that baseball's Hall of Fame and the honor rolls of the sport generally are barnacled with athletes who, like Cobb, were able to hang up an impressive number of personal achievements which, on the face of the record, meant little whatsoever to the teams they played for.
The object of baseball, after all, is to win the pennant and world championship. Cobb's record of three pennants in 24 seasons—all in the first five years of his baseball life—presupposes something was wrong with the great Cobb as a team player. It is not unreasonable to expect that, somewhere along the line, a lifetime batting average of .367 (highest in baseball), 12 batting championships, batting averages of over .400 three times and over .300 for 23 years, and the most total hits in history, 4,191, would translate themselves into a long succession of championships.
That they didn't argues that Cobb's admitted individual brilliance had a deleterious effect on the success of the team as a whole, a fact which teammates of his have privately confided in the past but never quite dared to say out loud.
As a matter of fact, the Cobb syndrome crops up throughout baseball history. Consider the modern case of Ted Williams. Williams is generally conceded to be the best hitter in baseball today. He has won four batting titles, four home run championships, has a lifetime average of .348. Yet, in 15 seasons with the Red Sox (two of them fractional, due to his Korean service as a Marine fighter pilot), his team has won exactly one pennant, no world championships.
It is interesting that in his only World Series—1946—Williams stubbornly played right into the hands of the opposition, the St. Louis Cardinals, who made a low bow to Ted's acknowledged prowess and fielded an overshifted defense which saw the left side of the infield practically undefended while the fielders were stacked like a picket fence on the right side. Williams insisted on trying to power the ball through this massed defense, even though he proved in the third game with a safe bunt down the third base line that he had a virtual sure base hit every time he pushed the ball toward the left side of the infield. He got exactly five hits, all singles, in the Series and was, as a result, about as much use to the Red Sox as a reserve outfielder named Tom McBride who was out of the league three years later.
It probably could be argued, on the basis of Williams' performance in the '46 series, that Ted was more interested in personal glory than in the Red Sox. It is noteworthy that many of Williams' other brilliant afternoons came in All-Star games, which are a kind of showcase for talent where the managers let the players swing from the heels and the hell with the game. The fans come to see stars, not victories, which makes this game more uniquely suited to Williams' frame of mind than is the pennant chase.
There have been other brilliant soloists. Paul Waner played in the big leagues 22 years and—save for 11 games with the 1951 Dodgers—played on precisely one pennant winner, the 1927 Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost the World Series in four fast games to the Yankees. Yet, Waner had a lifetime average of .333, batted .380 one year, .373 another, .370 in another. Those who watched him play had the distinct impression Waner got his three-and-a-fraction hits every 10 times at bat and was very little concerned over whether the team was winning or losing. He led the league in runs batted in only one year—the year the Pirates won the pennant. He led the league in batting three times—in two of which Pittsburgh did not even threaten.
It is possible there is something insidious about becoming a supreme virtuoso in baseball, that one's first individual championship chips away at the general team effort. It is extraordinary to note how many so-called superstars were able to lead their teams to pennants in the early days of their careers when they themselves were naive, earnest youngsters, and not public figures. (Cobb's Tigers won the flag in his third year, 1907, when Ty was only 20 years old.) Once they get notorious, these celebrities seem to concentrate on their own careers, rather than the welfare of their team. It is possible, of course, that their success inspires jealousy and resentment on the part of their teammates and that this dissension rather than the player's disinterest untracks the team. It is also possible that the superstar anticipates this reaction and begins to think of himself as apart from his own common herd. The fact that he usually makes three or four times the salary of his nearest fellow player cannot be expected to smooth the situation.
How then do you explain the success of Babe Ruth who was all of these things—a superplayer, the most hysterically publicized man in the game and an employee whose salary occasionally topped that of the President of the U.S.? Well, as I see it, there were three factors: first was Ruth's personality itself—a lovable, clownish, uncomplicated juvenile who treated all the world, king or bootblack, with the same offhand heartiness—not, in short, a man to antagonize his fellow players or inspire jealousy or resentment in anyone. Can this be said of Cobb or Williams? Second, there was Manager Miller Huggins, a psychologist even if he didn't know it, and a mature, thoughtful individual who could channel Ruth's herculean talents to redound to the club's, as well as Ruth's, benefit. Third, there was Lou Gehrig.
It occurs to me that—just as there are ballplayers who succumb to the dread Cobb syndrome—there is the reverse side of the coin, ballplayers who never excited the wildest acclaim but who were congenital winners and whose talents were translated regularly and unobtrusively into pennants and championships. Lou Gehrig was unquestionably the key piston in the Yankee machinery. Ruth's eruptions of awful power would spurt the engine riotously along the track from time to time, but Gehrig's drive was relentless and unstoppable. He was always on hand to steady not only the great Ruth but the whole Yankee team. He was a perfect team man—a raucous, unafraid giant without guile, deceit or overleaping ambition. Gehrig was glad to be a Yankee, not glad to be just Gehrig. This is the man who batted .373, .374, .379, .363 and other prodigious percentages.
Gehrig was probably the greatest team player who ever lived. His mere presence was a comfort to the team, and it was undoubtedly Gehrig to whom Pitcher Red Ruffing referred when he said, "I feel like a guy with eight big brothers when I take the field with the Yankees." There is no evidence Cobb or Williams or Waner inspired the same unshakable confidence in their pitching staffs—or even their managers.
The Yankees, of course, have habitually been blessed with this kind of quietly capable team player, it may be the reason they insist on a certain code of behavior in their players. Certainly Joe DiMaggio was up to the Ruthian role he had to play, but he was primarily a team player, a superstar whose only enduring record book entry is for batting safely in 56 consecutive games. Not only that, but Team Players Gehrig and Bill Dickey were still on hand for the first part of his career. And the shortstop Phil Rizzuto was cast in the same mold for the last half.
The present-day Yankees have the brilliant Mickey Mantle. Personally, I would not put Mantle in the Gehrig or Dickey category. I doubt if he alone could lead the Yankees to a perennial world championship. The team player on New York today, it seems to me, is the catcher, Yogi Berra. Here is another athlete with no pretensions. His statistics will never skyrocket right off the pages of the baseball record book the way Cobb's, or Williams' will. But his World Series winners' shares may someday top everybody's.
And let us not forget the great George Sisler, who until his eyes began to go bad in 1923 was able to hoist the sickly St. Louis Browns into pennant contention in the American League. That alone should be example enough of the value of the team man.
The argument is raised that some players just find themselves on chronically inferior teams which keep on losing despite their best efforts. This has happened—but not as often as the fan thinks. As a matter of fact, if a superior player continues to play superior ball and does not let-discouragement or ennui set in, the chances are good that the franchise as a whole will begin to pick itself up and edge toward the pennant. Then, the addition of only one or two catalytic ballplayers, and suddenly there's a pennant.
This happened, I am positive, in the case of Detroit's Charley Gehringer. Gehringer's average (lifetime) is almost 50 points below Ty Cobb's. But Gehringer began to play second base for the Tigers toward the end of Cobb's career. He played steady, impeccable baseball—and the general level of excellence of baseball on the club started to rise as he reached full maturity. In 1933 the club bought a demonstrable winner—the Athletics' catcher, Mickey Cochrane—and made him player-manager. Immediately, everything fell into place, and Detroit went on to win two quick pennants and a world championship.
There have been other spectacular manifestations of the winning attitude. Frankie Frisch was second baseman on eight pennant winners. His teams won four of their World Series. Frisch was even manager of the 1934 Cardinals and, in the seventh game of their World Series with Detroit that year, it was Frisch who broke the back of his opponents. It was the third inning and the game was scoreless when the Cardinals loaded the bases, Manager Frisch at bat. He cleaned the bases with a double. The Cardinals swept on to a seven-run inning and the world championship.
The point is, an examination of Frisch's record might have told the baseball observer what to expect. Just as in the sixth game of last year's World Series when Jackie Robinson came to bat in the last of the 10th inning with the winning run on base, a study of the past should have tipped off the immediate future. Robinson brought it in with a screaming single to left. It is my belief that Robinson, next to Gehrig, was the greatest team player in baseball history. In his 10 years in the big leagues, his team won six pennants, finished second every other year but one. His team could not win its share of World Series; the Yankees, as it happened, had more team players than the Dodgers.
Cleveland, through the years, has had, it seems to me, more than its share of ballplayers of the Cobb persuasion. There were few stylists in baseball with the artistry of Earl Averill in the batter's box. In his prime he would seldom bat below .300 and his high mark was an eye-popping .378 on a team which had other sluggers like Joe Vosmik and Hal Trosky.
What it takes apparently is a special quality of caring which, it seemed to their fans, was the one quality the Cleveland Indians of the time lacked. The team on paper—which is to say on statistics—should have been winning its share of championships and giving the Yankees a mighty battle in other years.
It will be interesting to see what becomes not only of Mickey Mantle but of Willie Mays. What made Willie Mays a "live" candidate for the Hall of Fame before he had had much more than a turn or two around the circuit was the fact that he lifted the Giants—a mediocre team to say the most—right into two pennants. Mays can very easily start playing for Willie Mays Enterprises rather than for the New York Giants. It may become decidedly easier for Mays to lead the league in batting and base stealing and home runs than to lead New York to the pennant. It will be interesting to see.
In the case of Mantle, he may very well become a separate entity from the Yankees—say in the way Cobb became an entity almost away from team-play baseball altogether. But the pressure will not become telling until the demonstrated team player, Berra, has retired.
What it adds up to, it seems to me, is that there should be another dimension added to the measure of a baseball player. It is not enough to hail a man as a great athlete and in the next breath say "What a shame he couldn't play on a winner." A superplayer makes his team a winner—or should. Ted Williams had plenty of first-rate help on the Red Sox. He was a contemporary of Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr and other outstanding hitters. But who can forget the spectacle of Ted Williams tossing his bat in the air in disgust last year because he was given a base on balls which merely won a game for the Red Sox but did nothing for Ted Williams?
The plain truth would seem to be that a prerequisite for admission into the Hall of Fame should be victory. After all, it's the object of the game of baseball. To make the Hall of Fame, a player should have demonstrated in himself the resources of victory at least once in a while and, if he has not, it should at least be admitted that he was in some ways not quite the extraordinary baseball player—whether for reasons of temperament, selfishness or indifference—that election to the Hall of Fame proclaims he is.