Baseball BeatJune 27, 2008
Open Chat: Best Players of Each Decade
By Rich Lederer

Who were the best players in each of the decades of so-called modern baseball (1900-present)?

While I hesitate to compartmentalize players by decades, viewing players in this manner helps us identify the most dominant participants in the game. Sure, we could stretch out the time frames to 20 years or even by quarter centuries but certain players will overlap two periods and not fare quite as well under one of the formats. Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt are two players who dominated parts of two decades, yet may not be the best in either of their "clean" 10-year periods.

As food for thought, here are some of the top players in each of the past 11 decades (presented in alphabetical order):

1900-1909. Nap Lajoie, Christy Mathewson, Rube Waddell, Honus Wagner, and Cy Young.

1910-1919. Grover Cleveland Alexander, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Pop Lloyd, and Tris Speaker.

1920-1929. Alexander, Oscar Charleston, Harry Heilmann, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Turkey Stearnes, and Dazzy Vance.

1930-1939. Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Josh Gibson, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Satchel Paige, and Arky Vaughan.

1940-1949. Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, Buck Leonard, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams.

1950-1959. Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Musial, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, and Williams.

1960-1969. Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Mays, and Frank Robinson.

1970-1979. Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer, Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt, and Willie Stargell.

1980-1989. Wade Boggs, George Brett, Rickey Henderson, Dale Murphy, Tim Raines, Cal Ripken Jr., Schmidt, and Robin Yount.

1990-1999. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, and Frank Thomas.

2000-2009. Bonds, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Johan Santana.

My choices would be as follows:

1900s: Wagner
1910s: Cobb
1920s: Ruth
1930s: Gibson
1940s: Williams
1950s: Mantle
1960s: Mays
1970s: Morgan
1980s: Henderson
1990s: Bonds
2000s: Rodriguez

Of the above, I believe Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, Williams, and Bonds are no brainers. A case could be made for Gehrig in the 1930s, Aaron in the 1960s, and maybe Schmidt in the 1980s.

How do you see it?


A-Rod (2000-Present): .306/.402/.593
Bonds (2000-Present): .322/.517/.724

That is so overwhelming that I think it overrides the counting numbers that favor A-Rod. If we're talking BEST, based on pure quality, it's Bonds.

I agree completely with you when you say you hate to compartmentalize players by decades. Your examples of Schmidt and Mays are perfect examples. Another example is that you completely leave out a player currently fighting to get in the HOF like Jim Rice off your list cause he excelled within a 4 year period on each side of a decade. There are certain periods in baseball history where its just not right to use decade marks to pick best players of generations because too many players get left out. I regress to just say its not truly fair to compartmentalize players by decades but you did make a nice attempt, just think how different your list would be if you went by 1905 to 1914, 1915-1924; 1925-1934,...etc..

I find it hard to believe the guy that lead the 90's in hits is not on the list.

I think, based in their statistics, the following players should have been mentioned:
30's Hank Greenberg
60's Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey
2000-2009 Manny Ramirez

Re the first comment, a strong argument can definitely be made on behalf of Bonds for the current decade. I chose Rodriguez because of his positional value, counting stats, and the fact that he is still putting up outstanding numbers in 2008 and likely to do the same next season. He also played in a tougher league and perhaps the best division for a number of these years. That said, I respect your preference of Bonds over A-Rod.

As it relates to the second comment, I don't think the players would change all that much if we categorized the 10-year periods that way. Cobb and Wagner would get the nod from 1905-1914, Ruth would still be an easy pick for 1915-1924, Ruth by a nose over Gehrig from 1925-1934, Gibson looks even that much more dominant in the 1935-1944 period, Musial (counting stats) or Williams (rate stats) for 1945-1954, and Mantle and Mays from 1955-1964. The 1965-1974 period works nicely for Willie McCovey (although arguments could be made for Aaron and Morgan, too). Schmidt would clearly get my pick for 1975-1984, as would Bonds for 1995-2004. The most difficult of them all might be that 1985-1994 stretch where one could argue Boggs, Henderson, or Clemens.

As it relates to the fourth comment, I think Greenberg falls a tad short as he only played six seasons during the 1930s, but he certainly belongs in that group based on his rate stats. I could live with the other suggestions for sure although I don't see how any of them would contend for the top player of their decade.

I would think that if we went 1995-2004 Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera should be mentioned as amongst the best players of that decade.

Pedro Martinez was definitely the best pitcher from 95-04

00's - Cy Young
10's - Ty Cobb
20's - Babe Ruth
30's - Josh Gibson
40's - Ted Williams
50's - Mickey Mantle
60's - Willie Mays
70's - Pete Rose
80's - George Brett
90's - Ken Griffey, Jr.
00's - Alex Rodriguez

Mid-decade list would different.

Regarding 95-04 pitcher, as great as Pedro was then (and I believe he's a HOF'er), Randy Johnson was the best.

I think Griffey Jr was the best in the 90's. I can see why you say Bonds, but he's NOT a no-brainer. Griffey drove in more runs and hit more HR's, in less games than Bonds. JR's D was better too (JR won 10 gold glove's that decade). In more than half the 90's, JR had a better fielding percentage than Bonds too. Oh, and JR played CF, a more demanding defensive position than Bonds. In fact, Ken Griffey Jr was voted as player of the decade for the 1990's. You can even Google that and find 900 results saying so.

I'm also surprised you'd pick Mays over Aaron for the 60's, since Aaron had better offensive stats.

I'll nominate a player for the period 1965-1974 not many will remember well (he's not even in the Hall of Fame) but in this 10 years was in my opinion, certainly better (in quantity and quality) than McCovey, Aaron and Morgan:
Dick Allen!

Eddie Murray in the 80's?

I think you need to have a separate poll for pitchers. They simply cannot compete with the players in any decade.

The only disagreement I have is that I would select Bonds for the 2000-2009 period, but I wouldn't argue the point very intensely.

As much as it pains me, I would have to give Bonds the award for the '00s.

I'm actually inclined to go Maddux for the 90s. I mean, that time period basically captures his peak completely. Bonds OTOH has a couple great years but we're missing his four best. 3 MVPs for Bonds, 4 Cy Young's for Maddux (you can argue which of those is thougher).

And I don't think Bonds can match Maddux's 94/95 (271/262 OPS+) years if we're just looking at the 90s.

Fun discussion.

Griffey vs. Bonds during the 90s is easy.
Bonds has a huge advantage in OBP; he was a fearsome base-stealer; and while he played a less premium outfield position, advanced fielding stats like FRAA back up his Gold Gloves in left field. Griffey, on the other hand, was just an average CF by FRAA.

With a .394 season and four others over .350, Tony Gwynn deserves a mention.

ARod vs Bonds in the 2000's is very interesting. In terms of total value, ARod will pass Bonds by the end of the decade. However, Bonds from 2001-2004 was pretty much the best any baseball player has ever been. I guess it just depends on what you mean by best. It does seem to me, however, that the arguments that favor ARod over Bonds may also favor Aaron over Mays for the 1960's.

Where's Curt Schilling? Is he in the 'Most Titles Won Category'?

Yeah, I think it makes more sense to make seperate lists for pitchers and batters. Batters list:

00: Wagner
10: Cobb
20: Ruth
30: Gibson
40: Williams
50: Mays
60: Robinson
70: Morgan
80: Henderson
90: Bonds
00: Bonds

A-Rod will probably end up beating out Bonds for the 00's, I guess. It's strange, because Bonds had the four greatest offensive years we're likely to see in a long, long time, but he's out of baseball 4 years later. I guess Bonds' likely absence for two years (and a lost year to injury) will eventually give A-Rod the leg up. But I'm going with Bonds based on that four year stretch.

For the 90's, a lot of people say JR, but Bonds was pretty clearly a better hitter, a better baserunner, and only slightly less valuable on defense. Also, I'd argue that the Big Hurt was a better hitter than JR, although obviously a worse baserunner and defender.


00: Mathewson
10: The Big Train
20: Grover Cleveland Alexander, although I'm not really sure.
30: Satchel Paige
40: Bob Feller
50: Warren Spahn
60: Bob Gibson
70: Tom Seaver
80: Man, I don't know. Nolan Ryan, I guess.
90: Greg Maddux
00: Pedro Martinez (strangley like the case of Bonds. Unreal dominance, fizzling out before the end of the decade. Maybe Johan would be a better choice. RJ emphatically would NOT be a better choice.)

I was starting by agreeing with others that guys like Marichal (who basically established ALL his HOF credentials in the 1960s) deserved mention. But then I decided that the real purpose of this list was to pick the best single player in each decade. No way does Marichal beat out Gibson or Koufax as best pitcher, and I don't think anybody who deserves consideration as best of a decade is missing.

I agree that segregating pitchers and hitters is a good idea. And I kind of agree with your choices for each decade. I mean, I may favor Campy for the '50s or Seaver for the '70s, but I can't complain about Mantle or Morgan.

As for ARod versus Bonds, and even ignoring the whole steroids issue, ARod has (so far) played 1322 games in the 2000s, with two gold gloves and above average fielding numbers almost every year at more important positions, and 156 stolen bases. Bonds only played in 986 games with below average fielding numbers at the least important defensive position, and with only 54 steals (both players had excellent success rates). If gold glove defense at shortstop matters at all, if helping your team win by being on the field day in and day out instead of getting lots of days off matters, if not being a cancer in the clubhouse matters, then I think ARod is the right choice. I mean, Bonds is a negative in so many ways that according to his agent he can't sign for the MLB minimum this year, and there are plenty of AL contenders that would be MUCH better off with Bonds at DH. I would say that ARod, had he chosen to go free agent and was willing to reduce his salary demands to (say) $15M/year, could be playing for any team in MLB, and probably several abroad. So it's pretty clear that MLB teams have decided that Bonds is not worth his negatives. Can we do any less?

And again, that's before the steroids issue raised its ugly head. As Trudeau wrote in Doonesbury following the Watergate scandal, "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" Not that it's certain that ARod is clean, but Bonds hasn't argued that he hasn't taken steroids; he's just argued that he didn't think the cream and the clear and all that stuff was steroids when he was taking it.

Pujols has a career 169 OPS+ and plays a better 1B than ARod (career 148 OPS+) plays 3B....Pujols has already been more valuable than ARod so far this decade and the gap likely will only get bigger. Considering defense and the additional years, I'd have to take Pujols over Bonds or Arod for th 2000s.

I'm glad Al Doyle suggested Gwynn in the 80s. Boggs has him on hits & BA in the 80s, but Gwynn's certainly worthy of the list.

Also, I think the pitcher/hitter lists are a good idea--it makes sense for the position players to make the 'best' list from a mixed group. And for a little perspective, Eric Seidman's Why Cy? in The Hardball Times last February (2/19/08) really does a fine job of providing perspective on those early hurlers, especially CY, Mathewson and early Johnson.

No love for Oscar Charleston in the 1920s? To paraphrase the great Buck O'Neil, he was Willie Mays before Willie Mays, possibly better.

Comment not aimed at Mr Lederer... it's just sad to me that the best players of that time couldn't stand toe-to-toe except for exhibition games

As much as I like Charleston, Babe Ruth is probably the greatest player in baseball history. If not, he's top three, for sure. There's really no need for debate in best player of the 1920's. It's Ruth, and it's not close.

If you're starting a team of 1920's players, and you had first choice, would you really have to think about it? He might be the second choice, although Hornsby has to be pretty close, but Ruth is probably the first choice in baseball history.

Good stuff.

I believe the best players of each decade from the last century were about equal to each other. Some only look much better because they had poorer competition to beat up on. So looking at it this way, and using something like Average Ranking Best Year (ARBY), tells you who was the man.

I say Mantle was the best of all time tho.

Good stuff.

I believe the best players of each decade from the last century were about equal to each other. Some only look much better because they had poorer competition to beat up on. So looking at it this way, and using something like Average Ranking Best Year (ARBY), tells you who was the man.

I say Mantle was the best of all time tho.

Good stuff.

I believe the best players of each decade from the last century were about equal to each other. Some only look much better because they had poorer competition to beat up on. So looking at it this way, and using something like Average Ranking Best Year (ARBY), tells you who was the man.

I say Mantle was the best of all time tho.

It looks like the ultra-consistent Musial (1815 career hits at home, 1815 on the road) is the only player to be listed in two different decades.

Smart move to include the Negro League stars, Rich. In the imaginary "going back in time to see great players" game that baseball addicts enjoy, Satchel Paige is at the top of the list of players I'd like to see.

Oops, I missed Mays in the '50s and '60s.

James Cole: As a lifelong Braves fan, I like the idea of Spahn as the best pitcher of the 1950s, but that clearly should be Robin Roberts.

"Oops, I missed Mays in the '50s and '60s."

Al: Williams and Bonds

Really? I thought about Robin Roberts, but for me it's still Spahn. In the 50's, Spahn had 202 wins, Roberts had 199, so, by that crude measure, it's a wash. Roberts had the best peak, for sure, but Roberts was nothing special from 56 - 59, when Spahn finished in the top 5 for MVP balloting each year, and finished top 3 in Cy Young balloting three times. I'm not saying that I'm 100 percent correct, but it's certainly close.

Everyone forgets about Jack Morris. Won more games thean anyone else in the 80's. Also one heck of a post season pitcher.

Jack Morris was no Nolan Ryan..... wins (and losses) are meaningless.

Josh Gibson best of the the 30's? Someone arguing for Charleston for the 20's? I'm surprised we don't have people arguing for Sadaharu Oh. Oh played as many major league games as Charleston or Gibson. Folks, it is absolutely despicable that black players were excluded from playing in the major leagues. But no matter how bad it was, it makes no sense and does nothing to make it up to them to pretend you can rank them as major league players. It is a sad story, but such silliness doesn't erase the mistakes of the past. All accounts say Gibson was a phenomenal hitter. However, there is no way of saying exactly how he would have done in the majors. People argue that Ruth, Gehrig etc didn't have to face black pitchers. And that is true. However, Gibson also didn't face the white pitchers on a regular basis. There is anecdotal evidence of hitting white pitchers in exhibition games. That is much different than 6 games a week facing different pitchers all the time. U.S. population at that time was around 80+% white and baseball was the sport of choice for all kids. Today some kids choose to play soccer, football, and basketball rather than baseball. I only throw out those last couple items to respond to the inevitable response that Ruth, Gehrig and others never faced black pitchers. Okay, Hank Aaron never faced Dan Fouts, Wade Boggs never faced Warren Moon, Mark McGwire never faced Dan Marino. You can only face the guys in the games you play.

The fact that the players from the Negro Leagues didn't get a chance to prove themselves in the majors is a key element of the injustice done to them. In a way, pretending that we know where they would have ranked minimizes the real evil of the segregation era. Separate but equal was never a truism.

I'm as big a supporter of Pedro Martinez as you'll find (and I'll happily make the arguement for him as the best SP ever), but I can't see him included in the list for best of the '00s. His time really did run out mid-decade, and really he wasn't the same, best "Pedro" after 2000...right at the beginning of the decade. As far as this criteria goes, he shouldn't be there. I right in assuming that you write Manny Ramirez off so easily because of his fielding? If so, I think we can all agree that he takes a clear back seat to some in the '00s...but how can you leave him off the list? I don't think you can fairly argue that anyone has been a clearly better hitter over the course of the decade, and his only company is probably Alex Rodriguez (whose numbers partially need to be taken with a grain of salt, such as in his years in Texas) and Pujols (who missed 2000, which counts for something). Maybe he isn't the top dog, but do you pass on listing a guy who is in the debate for "best hitter of the decade"?

Finally...seriously how is Bonds part of the '00 debade? Let's say this again...HIS NUMBERS ARE FAKE. I don't like astericks, and I don't think numbers should be taken out of the books, but in terms of qualitative arguements like "best in the decade", it's absurd to give him an equal footing in the debate. I'll never get why people are so happy to pretend his numbers are real. If a guy showed up 10 years from now, played for 20 years, put up rate stats of .400/.500/.700 with 1000 steals and 20 deserving gold gloves, and we found out he was a cyborg with robotic arms, legs, eyes, etc, would you still confidently call him the best player ever? I know that's taking it to the absurd extreme, but Bonds is only a more conservative version of that scenario.