These nine players were voted by baseball writers and fans as the third-best possible starting lineup in MLB history. This article is the latest in a series revealing the 100 players who comprise the newly-established Golden Hall of Fame. For previous entries, see:
The Third Team is primarily constituted by postwar, integration era stars. Some of these modern-day greats competed against and with each other, making it a bit easier to imagine just how strong this lineup would be on the field. They are joined by two prewar heroes, including arguably the greatest player in MLB history.
Enough teasing and time to reveal the results. Without further ado, Overtime Heroics presents the Golden Hall of Fame Third Team.
Pitcher: Randy Johnson
When I was a young boy in Arkansas, my brother, neighbor, and I went “hunting” for birds. We picked up rocks, walked shortest to tallest, and spotted some robins or mockingbirds in a small tree. I aimed and let loose, hitting my avian prey. The stone made contact at a minimal speed. The bird was shocked more than stunned, and I had another rock ready to finish the job. Yet the bird’s reaction and pitiful squawk stopped me from hurling the death blow.
Randy Johnson did not set out with avian destruction in his mind nor did he have an opportunity to change his subsequent action. In a 2001 spring training game, fireballer Johnson threw a nearly 100 mile per hour pitch. Typical stuff from the 6 feet, 10 inch Californian. Yet this time, the pitch encountered a bird on its way to the plate. Neither the ball nor the dove made it to their destination. Johnson continues to express remorse over this accident.
Fortunately, the southpaw did not let this incident impact his career. Johnson ranks second all-time in career strikeouts per nine innings, ninth in wins above replacement, and 24th in adjusted earned run average. He led his league in ERA four times, walks plus hits per inning pitched three times, and strikeouts nine times. Respected by his contemporaries, Johnson won five Cy Young Awards (four consecutive) and received votes in another five campaigns.
Catcher: Josh Gibson
The voters have spoken, and in a rare rebuff, this author disputes the placement of Josh Gibson. Though the third-best catcher of all-time is nothing to scoff at, Gibson’s legend and statistics arguably warrant the top spot. Gibson is the all-time leader in Negro Leagues home runs with 238 in just 911 documented games in the Negro National and Mexican Leagues. That is an average of 42 over a 162 game season. Once the research is complete, it is likely that the number will grow even higher.
His slash line of .365/.449/.690 is almost unparalleled. Playing primarily for his hometown Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, the Pennsylvanian brought nine titles to the Keystone State.
In addition to prodigious offense, Gibson was a stellar catcher. In nine different seasons, he placed in the top ten in fielding percentage. Greatness often interacted with greatness, as Gibson formed batteries with stars like Satchel Paige, Ray Brown, and Smokey Joe Williams. These duos dominated the majors in the 1930s and 1940s.
Gibson placed in the top ten in the Negro Leagues in on-base percentage in 12 different seasons, adjusted on-based plus slugging percentage 14 times, home runs 14 times, and wins above replacement nine times. When incorporating statistics from the integrated majors and segregated leagues, Gibson ranks second all-time in batting average, seventh in on-base percentage, second in slugging, and second in adjusted on-base-plus-slugging.
With accomplishments like these, readers should easily see why this author voted Gibson as the best catcher of all-time.
First Base: Jimmie Foxx
Records tend to breed controversy and dispute. Fans place meaning and importance on numbers associated with athletic accomplishments, momentarily putting aside the knowledge that a single numerical difference here or there does not reflect the reality that players accomplished essentially the same feat. There is fun in this, and the process is waged for the sake of determining who really is the best of the best.
The single-season home run record is perhaps the most discussed record in sports. Three players tied to set the record in the first season of major league professional baseball, hats off to Fred Treacey, Lip Pike, and Levi Meyerle for slugging four apiece in 1871. Pike surpassed them all the next season with seven. Charley Jones took it over with nine in 1879 followed by Harry Stovey rounding the bases with 14 in 1883.
Ned Williamson knocked 27 dingers in 1884, holding the record for 35 years. Yet his feat was mired in controversy, as 25 of his homers came in his home Lakeshore Ballpark. Chicago’s grounds gave him an unfair advantage with a right field fence less than 200 feet from home plate. So Stovey’s mark arguably stood longer, and some fans consider Buck Freeman’s 25 home runs in 1899 as the true record broken by Babe Ruth in 1919 with 29 homers.
Ruth, of course, topped this figure with 60 home runs in 1927. Ruth played weaker competition in a segregated circuit, and his record was arguably beaten by Josh Gibson. Gibson played 39 documented major league games in 1937 and smashed 20 home runs in that shortened schedule, putting him on pace for 83 over a 162-game season or 79 over 154 contests. The Ruth record was broken by Roger Maris in 1961, owing in part to a longer schedule (though notably facing stronger competition thanks to integration).
Maris’s record, in turn, was shattered by three players using performance-enhancing drugs in 1998, 1999, and 2001. So some fans still consider Ruth’s 60-homer mark to be the true record. However, even this arguably is shared, as Jimmie Foxx slugged 60 in 1932, only to see two taken away as two games were rained out, taking his accomplishment out of the official record book.
When discussing the best single-season home run performance in MLB history, Foxx earns contention. Regardless, the Maryland-native put forward a season after season of longball heroics. He led the majors in home runs in four different seasons and placed in the top ten in another eight campaigns.
Over his career, Foxx hit 534 homers, good enough for 19th all-time. He paired his slugging accomplishments with an ability to get on base, ranking tenth all-time in on-base percentage and 11th in OPS+. After his playing career, Foxx helped pioneer women’s inclusion in the game, managing the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Second Base: Rod Carew
Rod Carew would have been at home on the field in the Dead Ball Era, producing excitement almost every time he made a plate appearance or reached first base. Carew overcame childhood adversity and a violent father to excel on the diamond, producing hit after hit and steal and steal.
Carew did not hit for power (he even went a season without a home run), but he more than made up for this deficiency with superb contact hitting, a knack for getting on base, and rounding the bases to home once there. In his first big league season, he even managed to steal his way from first to home.
Carew’s statistics paint the picture: he led the American League in on-base percentage four times and batting average seven times. With his penchant for doubles and triples, he even led the majors once in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and slashed a more than respectable career .328/.393/.429.
Lauded by his contemporaries, the Panamanian won the Most Valuable Player award in 1977 by leading the league in runs, hits, batting average, triples, OPS+, and on-base percentage. Carew received MVP votes in an additional eight seasons, and he earned high votes from fans and writers alike for inclusion in the Golden Hall of Fame.
Third Base: Chipper Jones
The Golden Hall of Fame is in many ways, an attempt to honor players based on the statistics they accumulated during their playing careers. Baseball, more than any sport, is a game built on the application and study of statistics. Stats both represent and are apart from, athletic prowess displayed on the diamond.
One such statistic that has garnered additional attention since the sabermetrics revolution is the slash line. In the past, batting average and home runs dominated analysis and discussion. With the recognition that getting on base, rounding those bases, scoring runs, and achieving wins matter as much if not more, a player’s worth is often quantified by looking at his batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. An excellent offensive season can be summed up in a .300/.400/.500 slash line. An outstanding career features the same, and Chipper Jones did just that.
Across 19 seasons, 2,499 games, and 10,614 plate appearances with the Atlanta Braves, Jones slashed .303/.401/.529. Though he led the majors only once in batting average and on-base percentage (2008) and never in slugging, the Floridian produced hits (2,726), walks (1,512), doubles (549), and homers (468) so consistently that he resembled a certain Brave predecessor. His performance earned MVP votes in 13 seasons, including receiving the award in 1999, and now Golden Hall of Fame inclusion.
Shortstop: Ernie Banks
Baseball has a transcendental element missing from many other games. Perhaps it is the history of more than a century, the ease with which the game can be practiced, the emotional investment over the long season, or the statistical counting that lends itself to intellectual and nerdish discussions. Whether it is parents imitating their own parents with their own children by playing catch, imbuing fandom, or playfully debating the greatest of all-time, baseball somehow offers a deeper meaning than should logically be expected.
This thread across generations, this tool of familial bonding, makes baseball special and valuable beyond mere entertainment. It is this unique and treasured quality that brings us to the third-best shortstop and the father of the author’s personal favorite player: Ernie Banks.
As a child in 1950s Chicago, the Cubs as a team offered little hope for success. The club sported its worst decade in its now 150 seasons with a lowly .437 winning percentage. The Cubs could not make it out of the second division for the entire decade (for a record 20-years in total). It was in this nadir that Mr. Cub rose to personify all that is good and endearing about baseball and Cub fandom.
Banks started his career with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs before joining the Cubs after two years of military service. As the first Black player on the Cubs, Banks opened the door for many others. Moreover, the Texan quickly endeared himself to the Cubs faithful with his outstanding play and captivating demeanor. Even as his club suffered loss after loss, Mr. Cub remained the eternal optimist and famously spoke the phrase “let’s play two,” inviting even the despondent to join in his infectious love of the game.
While the North Siders mired themselves in defeat, Banks put forward stellar numbers. His 512 career home runs ranks 23rd and came at a time when few shortstops hit for power. He finished in the top ten in OPS+ five times and WAR five times and did the same in home runs and fielding percentage seven times. On the woeful 1958 and 1959 editions, Banks led the majors in runs batted in.
Feared by opposing pitchers, acknowledged by the press, and beloved by fans, he twice led the big leagues in intentional walks, received back-to-back MVP awards (and votes in nine other campaigns), was named an all-star in 11 seasons, was voted into the Golden Hall of Fame, and was chosen by my dad as his favorite player.
Left Field: Barry Bonds
How to rank a player who benefited from unfair competition? Where should a batter place who used performance-enhancing drugs that helped him out him all-time leading numbers, besting his contemporaries, predecessors, and successors alike? What about a player who accomplished similar feats but did so when many of the best athletes were barred from competing against each other because of race? How to factor in dynamics like smaller populations, rival sports drawing away from the best athletes, or workout regiments of such intensity that the bodies molded resemble those of steroid users and far surpass the players of yesteryear who depended on spring training to get them back into passable shape a winter of boozing and loafing?
Ultimately, the Golden Hall of Fame does not put forward a definitive answer to these difficult questions. Rather, the decision has been left to each individual voter, fan, and writer alike. After an exhaustive process, the final rankings included players from each of the above categories. We now come to one that will surely generate controversy.
Barry Bonds played against the best baseball had to offer, drawing players from every race and around the world. He played at a time when his competitors trained their bodies and minds in ways not really done in previous generations. Yet, with the eye of league officials deliberately turned the other way and many of his contemporaries doing the same, Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs in the latter half of his career.
All these factors, combined with his own talent and work ethic, allowed Bonds to become the career leader in home runs, walks, intentional walks and wins above replacement among position players. He set the single-season mark for home runs, adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage, walks, intentional walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. He is among the leaders in multiple other offensive categories and slashed a career .298/.444/.607.
Bonds received accolade after accolade. His defense was recognized in the form of eight Gold Gloves. On the offensive side, Bonds won three Hank Aaron Awards and would likely have more if the prize had existed before its 1999 creation. His combined efforts resulted in a record seven MVPs and votes in eight other seasons. And now voters have chosen to enshrine the Californian in the Golden Hall of Fame.
Center Field: Ken Griffey Jr
All Ken Griffey Jr. ever wanted was to go home. Sometimes this was metaphorical and took the form of 630 home runs, 1,662 regular season runs scored, and one epic series-winning run. But this desire was also literal: Griffey, the tortured soul always seeking refuge, whether by welcoming his father as his teammate, signing with his hometown Cincinnati, or driving faster than physics allows from Seattle to his Orlando home.
Griffey’s off-field desire to come home was understandable. A combination of depression, discrimination, and generational judgment made for rough times away. Griffey projected an always smiling image, the Kid who loved life and relished his opportunity to participate in the show.
And that was true, he was and did. Simultaneously, he suffered from depression and even attempted suicide early in his career. His desire to return home surely was enforced by the disdain thrown at him by traditionalists, who threw a verifiable fit over his choice to wear his hat backward in batting practice. Further exacerbating was his childhood brush with likely discriminatory practices by the New York Yankees.
Of course, Griffey’s desire to come home on the field owes itself not to deeper meaning but to the very objective of the game. He averaged 38 homers, 111 RBI, and 101 runs scored per season. His advanced stats tell an even more compelling story: 440 Rbat, 489 RAA, and 881 RAR. His defensive run prevention wonderfully complemented his offensive production. Griffey received ten Gold Gloves playing a mesmerizing centerfield.
Griffey made it home literally and metaphorically, and now he has a home in the Golden Hall of Fame.
Right Field: Roberto Clemente
There is something in fans and people generally that love to honor the legacies of individuals, perhaps even more so than ideas. The number of schools in America named after presidents far outpaces those titled liberty, freedom, or other core national values. Baseball is no different. Baseball stars routinely have awards and structures named in their honor and more frequently than their athletic ideals or unique attributes. Of all those heroes of the game with such honors, none (except perhaps for Jackie Robinson) come closer to embodying and becoming an ideal than Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker.
Clemente graces the names of a humanitarian award, a professional baseball league, a post office, a coliseum, two stadiums, a bridge, a state park, streets, schools, a museum, and an asteroid. His beliefs, lived through action, tell a tale of service. He enlisted in the Marines and routinely spent his early off-seasons in military uniform. After leaving the Corps, Clemente’s offseasons were full of charitable work.
Famously and tragically, Clemente sought to ensure the arrival of relief supplies to victims of the 1972 Nicaragua earthquake. After the corrupt and criminal dictatorship stole the first three shipments of aid, Clemente organized a fourth flight. He hoped that his physical presence would increase the chances that relief reached victims, so he boarded what turned out to be a doomed flight. Clemente would perish with four others.
Clemente’s service was paired with joy and excellence on the field. The Puerto Rican joined the 3,000 hit club in his final season. He also posted career totals of 440 doubles, 166 triples, and 94.8 wins above replacement. He led his Pirates to two World Series titles while winning 12 Gold Gloves, an MVP, and receiving MVP votes in another 11 campaigns. His 54.4 peak WAR far outpaces the average right fielder. For his baseball performance and contributions off the field to the game and to life in general, Clemente easily earns his spot in the Golden Hall of Fame.
Agree or disagree? Writers and fans will have an opportunity to vote again in 2030. In the meantime, let the debate commence!
Be sure to check out previous installments of the Golden Hall of Fame. Look for the Third Team to be revealed soon.
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