This is part two in a series in which I select teams representing four eras in baseball history and pit them against each other. Click here for part one.
A quick note on the four eras before we continue: I started with the era with which I’m most familiar. The Modern Era includes players who played (or accrued most of their value) since 1980. This happens to coincide precisely with my lifetime, so I could have called it the Replacement Level Era, but that might have been confusing. And a little narcissistic. I called the years between 1950 and 1979 the Golden Era, mostly in parody of the Veterans Committee’s term for the similar timeframe from which they can’t seem to elect a Hall of Famer, even with Ron Santo on the ballot. Perhaps the only golden things about this era were that baseball was finally racially integrated and that the Yankees stopped winning the pennant ever year about halfway through.
I’m calling the last two (or first two) eras Post-Babe and Pre-Babe, as I don’t think any player has had as profound an impact on the game as Babe Ruth did when he became an outfielder and starting swinging for the fences. Without the Babe, I’m not sure Jimmie Foxx would have been a major league baseball player, let alone one of the greatest hitters ever, and I’m not sure the sport would have struggled from 1919’s Black Sox scandal. I’ll draw the line in 1920, so each of the last three eras represents about 30 years and the Pre-Babe era represents 19 years of what historians call modern baseball and almost 30 more years of somewhat organized baseball, when Old Hoss Radbourn pitched 441 innings in a season and an outfield rope meant a home run one year and a triple the next.
In the pre-integration years, I would love to include Negro League players, since some of the era’s best players were banned from the Major Leagues, but WhatIfSports doesn’t include Negro Leaguers, and even if they did, I’m not sure we could trust Negro League stats to help simulate their performance against the era’s white players. So we’ll limit the teams to Major Leaguers.
Post-Babe Era, 1920-1949
Catcher- Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey: Without Josh Gibson, catcher is a weak spot for this team. Cochrane carried a remarkable .419 OBP throughout his career, but his career lasted just 11 full seasons. Dickey was nearly as good with the bat and lasted longer, but was no Yogi Berra or Johnny Bench.
First Base- Lou Gehrig: I struggled to find a worthy first baseman in the Golden Era, but the subsequent era had Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, and Jim Thome, while the previous era had Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize, and Hank Greenberg. Gehrig’s 118.4 WAR stand out even in an age loaded with heavy-hitting first basemen.
Second Base- Rogers Hornsby: With all due respect to Charlie Gehringer, second base is an easy choice in each of the three oldest eras, as the three best second baseman ever fall neatly into the three groups. Hornsby’s 127.8 WAR are almost 50 more than any other second sacker in his era.
Speaking of Rogers, during my last trip through the Hall of Fame’s plaque room, I noticed that there are two Hall of Famers named Roger who played before Hornsby. Do you think Hornsby’s parents named him after both Roger Bresnahan and Roger Connor?
Shortstop- Arky Vaughan: Like the Golden Era, this was a time when shortstops were not expected to hit much, and Rabbit Maranville’s glove doesn’t quite justify inclusion on this team. Vaughan hit .318/406/.453 in a 14-year career with the Pirates and Dodgers.
Third Base- Pie Traynor: A horrible time for third basemen. 490 players in baseball history have accumulated more WAR than Traynor, but none was a regular third baseman who played most of his career between 1920 and 1949. Mel Ott’s 764 career innings at third weren’t enough for me to move him here (and I’m guessing the simulator wouldn’t let me more him here anyway). We’ll find a place for him.
Left Field- Ted Williams: Williams played more seasons after 1950 than before, but all four of his 10-win years came in the ’40s, and if not for World War two, there may have been three more.
Center Field- Joe DiMaggio: WAR isn’t as kind to DiMaggio as the MVP voters often were, but I think we can agree that he was the best center fielder of this era.
Right Field- Babe Ruth: Were you expecting Enos Slaughter?
Designated Hitter- Jimmie Foxx: Ott was more valuable over the course of his career, but much of his value was defensive. Foxx hit .325/.428/.609 over 20 seasons. Whenever I think Albert Pujols has already established himself as the second best first baseman ever, I should probably take another peak at Foxx’s baseball-reference page.
Bench- We have to start with Mel Ott, who’s already been thwarted twice despite more career WAR than Mike Schmidt or Alex Rodriguez. The best infielder left is Charlie Gehringer. With Foxx DHing, Johnny Mize can back up the fragile Gehrig at first. Ok, he’ll pinch hit for Traynor late in games. Paul Waner hit .333 with a .404 OBP for 20 years, so he’s in. We’ll round out the roster with Luke Appling‘s defensive versatility and big bat. Apologies to Frankie Frisch and Al Simmons.
Pitchers- This era is marked by shooting stars who lost significant time to war, injuries, or both. After Lefty Grove, the rest of our starting rotation- Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean, and Carl Hubbell– is lower on the career WAR leaderboard, but each was an undeniable force when active. Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander were still pitching well in the ’20s, but they accumulated more value before 1920 so we’ll staff the bullpen with Hall of Famers Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Hal Newhouser, Red Ruffing, Early Wynn, and Red Faber.
1. Hornsby, 2b
2. Williams, lf
3. Ruth, rf
4. Gehrig, 1b
5. Foxx, dh
6. DiMaggio, cf
7. Cochrane, c
8. Traynor, 3b
9. Vaughan, ss
Pre-Babe Era, before 1920
Catcher- Roger Breshanan, Buck Ewing– Bresnahan was easily the best-hitting catcher in the early twentieth century, hitting 71 triples and stealing 212 bases in 17 seasons. I’m digging pretty deep to get to Ewing, but he did hit 29% better than his peers in the late nineteenth century.
First Base- Cap Anson– The slugging first baseman didn’t really come around until the days of Gehrig and Foxx, but Anson was an institution in early Chicago baseball, reaching 3,000 hits before any other player and accumulating more WAR (99.3, though no one knew it then) than any other nineteeth-century position player.
Second Base- Eddie Collins– Nap Lajoie seems to have found more fame, perhaps since he hit .426 in 1901, but Collins was one of baseball’s best players in the early twentieth century, reaching base at a .424 clip over 25 years.
Shortstop- Honus Wagner– If any pre-Babe player can still make a case as the best player ever to play his position 100 years later, it’s Wagner, the slugging, slick-fielding superhero who accumulated 123.6 WAR before the home run was a popular weapon (though Wagner did hit 101).
Third Base- Home Run Baker– Baker earned his nickname with a few World Series dingers. He hit just 96 in his regular season career, but he was more than just a home run hitter, his OPS 35 percent better than his peers over a 13 year career. He also stole 235 bases.
Left Field- Tris Speaker– Both Speaker and Ty Cobb are considered center fielders, and excellent ones, but records from that era are incomplete in terms of how many innings each outfielder logged at each position. I’ll take the second best outfielder of the day in left. I don’t see a lot of balls falling in the gaps against this team.
Center Field- Ty Cobb– Anyone good enough to move Speaker off center field is a pretty good choice.
Right Field- Sam Crawford– The two best outfielders of the era, by far, were center fielders, so one needs to be shifted to left or right. That means either Ed Delahanty gets booted from left or Crawford gets booted from right. I’ll boot Delahanty, as Crawford came along at a more competitive time and was a more rounded player, stealing 369 bases while batting .309/.362/.452 for 19 years and still holding the career triples record with 309.
Designated Hitter- Roger Connor– A first- and third- baseman for several teams in the 1880s and ’90s, Connor hit .316/.397/.486 with 138 home runs.
Bench- We’ll start with Delahanty, the best outfielder not already on this team, and Lajoie, the WAR leader among non-starters in the Pre-Babe era. Shortstops George Davis and Bill Dahlen are both worthy as defensive replacements who could hit a little. Dan Brouthers is the best hitter left. We’ll leave Fred Clarke and Harry Heilmann on the outside looking in.
Pitchers- On the surface, this era’s rotation will look like the best, with Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, and Pete Alexander all in any discussion of the best pitcher ever. Of course, they all did most or all of their pitching in a low-offense era, so it’s hard to compare them to a Grove, Spahn, Carlton, or Clemens, but that’s what our simulation will try to do. Our bullpen will also be loaded with guys who pitched a ton of innings and were no strangers to sub-2.00 ERAs, namely Kid Nichols, Addie Joss, Amos Rusie, Eddie Plank, and Tim Keefe. And we’ll throw in Old Hoss Radbourn in case a game goes 90 innings.
1. Collins, 2b
2. Speaker, lf
3. Cobb, cf
4. Wagner, ss
5. Anson, 1b
6. Connor, dh
7. Crawford, rf
8. Baker, 3b
9. Breshanan, c
There you have it. Maybe not the 100 best players of all time, but the 100 who best fit into an all-era roster. A few observations:
-The player with the most career WAR who didn’t make a team is George Brett with 85. Modern Era corner infielders Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, and Paul Molitor are three of the next six, which speaks to the depth of today’s first- and third base pools. I never even mentioned Scott Rolen, Rafael Palmeiro, or Mark McGwire.
-The pitcher with the most career WAR who didn’t make a team is Robin Roberts with 82.7. If I’d picked Roberts on the Golden Era team, I would’ve left off Phil Niekro or Gaylord Perry, each of whom had more WAR.
-It appears as though the Yankees (as one would expect) have the most players on one team or another. Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Mariano Rivera spent their entire careers playing for New York, while Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, and Alex Rodriguez spent significant portions of their careers there and Home Run Baker, Paul Waner, Dazzy Vance, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson stopped by for at least a cup of coffee.
-While only two players on these teams (Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski) were career Red Sox, fifteen more (Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and John Smoltz) swung through at some point.
-The best-represented National League team was the Giants, who were at least once home to Buck Ewing, Bill Dahlen, Tim Keefe, George Davis, Amos Rusie, Roger Connor, Roger Bresnahan, Christy Mathewson, Rogers Hornsby, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Johnny Mize, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, and Barry Bonds.
Part III will be the actual simulation. Before I do this, I’ll offer a prediction. In real life, I think the Modern Era team would win this showdown, not just because their team has the fewest dead players, but because the game and its athletes have evolved over time, and I don’t think the other eras would be prepared to dig in against Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez or match up against Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez. In the WhatIfSports simulation, though, I think the Post-Babe Era team will win. It’s hard to compete with an outfield of Williams, DiMaggio, and Ruth, and the lineup also has Gehrig, Foxx, and Ott. Their pitching looks the weakest, superficially, but Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean in their prime could match up with anyone on any team.
The Pre-Babe Era team has devastating pitching, and Wagner, Speaker, and Cobb will be hard to put out, but there are holes in that lineup. The Golden Era team is well balanced offensively and throws Koufax, Gibson, Seaver, and Spahn, but I think it’s a hair short of the eras preceding and succeeding it.
Again, please feel free to use the comments to tell me why I’m an idiot.
And click here for Part III.