With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day upon us, here's Part 2 of my ranking of the greatest black baseball players ever. (If you missed Part I, check it out here.)
As a reminder, I primarily based my rankings off Baseball-Reference.com's career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) leaderboard (with career totals noted in parentheses after each player), which is nice because it compares players to their contemporary peers, minimizing the effects of pitching- or hitting-friendly eras. I allowed somewhat for mitigating circumstances, such as time lost to injury or to segregation. I also allowed for a little bit of boost based on impact upon the game, for those players who either changed the landscape or the way the game was played in some way. And yes, there's a bit of nostalgic bias on a few of these picks.
#12: Rod Carew, 2B/1B (76.6) - BR Page
OK, Carew was born in Panama, but he is of African-American heritage, and served our country for six years in the Marine Corps reserves. The Hall of Famer earned 18 consecutive All-Star Game nods over a 19-season career. He won seven batting titles, the 1967 Rookie of the Year award, and an MVP award in 1977. Carew was never a slugger, but he was as consistent as you can be in baseball, batting .300 for 15 straight seasons. In 1977, when he won the MVP award, he led the league in batting at .388, also taking top honors in OBP and OPS.
#11: Ferguson Jenkins, P (79.4) - BR Page
Here's another foreign-born player. Jenkins is actually Canadian (which I hadn't realized prior to starting the list), but he surely wouldn't have been allowed to play without the color line being broken, so in he goes to the list. Jenkins appeared in three All-Star Games, won the 1971 NL Cy Young Award, and struck out 3,192 batters (12th on the all-time list). In seven seasons between 1967 and 1974, he won at least 20 games six times. His enduring curse was that he pitched in the National League at a time when #8 on this list was dominating for the Cardinals. Still, Jenkins was a certifiable Hall of Famer, and has his place in Cooperstown.
#10: Josh Gibson, C (WAR not available/applicable) - BR Page
We don't know exactly what Gibson did in the Negro Leagues and independent baseball, because as with so many others, the myth exceeds the recorded deeds. I'll just quote his Hall of Fame plaque: "[The] power-hitting catcher... hit almost 800 home runs.... Negro National League Batting Champion in 1936-38-42-45." Gibson was known as the "black Babe Ruth", and could have conceivably been better. Sadly, Gibson died in January of 1947 at the age of 35 after living four years with a brain tumor, just a few short months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Gibson was part of the inaugural class of Negro League players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, alongside Buck Leonard and #3 on our list. If he had more official stats, we might be talking about him at #1.
#9: Ken Griffey, Jr., OF (79.2) - BR Page
Short of Ted Williams, there has never been a sweeter swing than Ken Griffey, Jr.'s. He was born to play baseball, son of Reds and Yankees star Ken Griffey. The wunderkind son burst onto the scene with 16 homers in 1989 at 19 years old with the Seattle Mariners, and never looked back. He and his dad are the only father-son combo to hit homers for the same team in the same game. Junior slammed 630 homers in his career, including back-to-back seasons of 56 in 1997 and 1998. If not for repeated injuries based on his aggressive style of play in the outfield, Griffey might stand atop this list. He'd probably also have 300 stolen bases instead of just 184 if the Mariners and Reds hadn't wanted to protect him from the wear and tear of that style of baserunning. He earned 13 trips to the All-Star Game, 10 Gold Gloves (tied for third among outfielders), an MVP award and four home run titles, and looks like a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer when he's eligible in 2015. Griffey, like the men atop this list, took your breath away.
#8: Bob Gibson, P (85.3) - BR Page
Perhaps the greatest compliment an athlete can receive is that the powers that be change the rules of the game to make it easier on your competition because you're just too good for them. That was how it was for Gibson, who played his entire 17-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals and was the most feared pitcher in the league for most of that time. Gibson won 251 games and struck out 3,117 batters for the Redbirds. His crowning achievement remains his 1968 season, when he went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA for St. Louis. That ERA is still the single-season record today, and no pitcher has come within half a run of it. Gibson won two Cy Young Awards, nine Gold Gloves, and the 1968 NL MVP honor, appearing in eight All-Star Games. He was also a two-time World Series MVP. You won't be surprised to know he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
#7: Joe Morgan, 2B (97.1) - BR Page
Of the players on the fabled Big Red Machine of the 1970s, Morgan, not Pete Rose or Johnny Bench, was the most prolific in terms of WAR. (Rose, in fact, ranks behind Griffey and just ahead of Carew; Bench is barely ahead of Whitaker. Morgan is tied with CHRISTY MATHEWSON.) Over 22 pro seasons, Morgan hit 268 homers, drew 1,865 walks and stole 689 bases; he never struck out more than he walked over a full season. Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976, appeared in ten All-Star Games, and won five Gold Gloves. Morgan's whopping walks total is fifth all-time, and his stolen bases put him in 11th place on that list. Say what you will about his broadcasting career, but Morgan was arguably the greatest second baseman ever, and his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is richly deserved.
#6: Frank Robinson, 1B/OF (100.9) - BR Page
Robinson only hit 40 homers in a season once in his career. Of course, that was 1966, when he also batted .316 and drove in 122 runs to win the AL Triple Crown. Frank Robinson was a monstrous slugger and competitor who racked up 586 homers in his remarkable Hall of Fame career. His Triple Crown season came immediately after the Reds traded him to the Baltimore Orioles, thinking his best was behind him. That qualifies as a whopping mistake. Robinson earned the 1956 NL Rookie of the Year award, appeared in 12 All-Star Games, won the MVP award in both the National AND American Leagues, led the league in OPS four times, and even won a Gold Glove in 1958. Robinson continued to impact the game after his playing career, winning AL Manager of the Year with the Orioles in 1989.
#5: Jackie Robinson, 2B/1B/3B (58.7) - BR Page
Jackie's numbers pale compared to some of those on this list, but the mitigating factor is that he compiled his career totals in just ten seasons, all with the Brooklyn Dodgers who broke the color barrier by signing him. He didn't play in the Major Leagues until 1947, when he was already 28 years old and some of his best years were likely behind him. If you take his average WAR from Years 2-6 of his career (after he had acclimated to MLB play) and give him six more seasons at that level, that comes to another 46.6 WAR, which would put him at 105.3, where he rightfully belonged.
Robinson led the league in WAR three times, made six All-Star Games, was the first ever Rookie of the Year, won the 1949 NL batting title, and took home MVP honors in 1949 to boot. He was a four-sport letterman at UCLA (track, baseball, football and basketball), and served his country in World War II. He was part of the 1955 World Series championship team that brought Brooklyn its only title. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. He even played himself in his first biographical film (and Han Solo/Indiana Jones will play Branch Rickey in the new one this year). And he changed the game forever.
#4: Rickey Henderson, OF (106.8) - BR Page
Henderson was a marvel, the game's greatest speedster who could also hit for power and get on base. To hear him tell it, he could do (and had done) everything. In his first full season, Rickey stole 100 bases. Two years later, he set the all-time single-season record with a staggering 130 stolen bases. He led the league in runs scored five times, led it in steals 12 times, and owns the all-time marks in runs scored, steals, and caught stealing. He led the league with 66 stolen bases in 1998 when he was 39 years old.
Henderson also led the league in OPS in 1990, appeared in ten All-Star Games, won the 1990 AL MVP award, and finished second career in walks drawn. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but somehow the BBWAA only gave him 94.8% of the vote. Apparently, he needed to do MORE for some of them.
#3: Satchel Paige, P (9.7/NA) - BR Page
Stats don't do Satchel Paige justice; he was more myth than man. Here are some fun facts to give you an idea:
• As a reliever for the St. Louis Browns, he was an American League All-Star in 1952 and 1953 at the ages of 45 and 46.
• In his first MLB season, he went 6-1 out of the bullpen for the 1948 Cleveland Indians at the age of 41. He threw two shutouts.
• In 57 games at the age of 46 (all but four of which were relief appearances), Paige threw 117.1 innings. He had a 3.53 ERA.
Satchel Paige could throw anything to anyone at any time, and feared no hitter. Dizzy Dean, who faced Paige many times in exhibition games, called Paige "the pitcher with the greatest stuff I ever saw." Joe DiMaggio, who faced him while still a Pacific Coast League prospect, echoed those sentiments. You couldn't stop Satchel Paige; you had to hope he'd let you on. Had he played his whole career in the majors, we might consider Paige the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
#2: Hank Aaron, OF (137.3) - BR Page
The home-run king (if you don't count Bonds), Hank Aaron was the single most consistent hitter of all time. Between 1957 and 1973 (17 seasons), Aaron AVERAGED 38 homers, 110 RBI and 105 runs scored per season with a .311 batting average, a .382 OBP, and a .960 OPS. He had more walks than strikeouts for his career, and stole 240 bases in his career. Hammerin' Hank is the all-time leader in multiple categories, with a staggering 2,297 RBI, 1,477 extra-base hits and 6,856 total bases, putting up a career OPS of .928. He won three Gold Gloves, 21 All-Star appearances IN A ROW, the 1957 NL MVP award, and finished third all-time with 3,298 games played. His 137.3 WAR rank ninth all-time. Hank Aaron was the greatest player the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves have ever had, and probably the best they'll ever have. Somehow, nine HOF voters left him off their ballot in 1982.
#1: Willie Mays, OF (150.8) - BR Page
The Say-Hey Kid was (other than perhaps his godson, Barry Bonds) the most complete player not named Babe Ruth to play the game. Mays made the National League his playground during his 22-year career, slamming 660 homers (fourth now that Bonds is first), driving in 1,903 RBI (11th), and scoring 2,062 runs, as well as racking up 338 stolen bases. He led the NL four times in stolen bases, once in batting average, twice in OBP, five times in slugging, five times in OPS, four times in homers and three times in total bases. Mays won 12 Gold Gloves, 2 MVP awards, and appeared in 20 consecutive All-Star games. And he missed his age-22 season to serve in the military in 1953, only to come back and win an MVP award and the World Series. In the 13 seasons from 1954 to 1966, Mays averaged a .315 batting average and .992 OPS with 40 homers, 109 RBIs, 21 SB and 117 runs scored, while winning a Gold Glove every year from 1957 to 1966. (He'd probably have won it in '54, '55 and '56 if they had existed; the Gold Gloves weren't handed out until 1957.) No outfielder ever won more Gold Gloves, although Roberto Clemente tied him.
And then there was "The Catch".
Seriously, look at this play. Al Rosen thought he'd be going around to score; he didn't advance past first base. Larry Doby was at second, and could perhaps have scored if he tagged up immediately; he only made it to third base. Mays caught on a dead sprint, planted, spun and fired about 300 feet straight to the infield. It is perhaps the most gorgeous fundamental baseball play ever made. And it was made by a man who was perhaps the most gifted player the game has ever seen.