The road has been long in naming the best possible starting lineup in MLB history. Thousands of fans voted in scores of polls. Writers scrutinized the ballots, nominating players missed by would-be cumulative statistical captures like wins above replacement. Voters deliberated with themselves and others. Once tallied, nine players stood above the rest.
The First Team represents consensus. Almost every player named would rank at or near the top of most expert lists. The battery serves almost as bookends in terms of eras: one straddled Dead Ball and the birth of Live Ball, while the other starred in the integrated expansion era. The first baseman never missed a game until a now-eponymous disease forced him to. The second baseman ushered in a new and better era for the national pastime. The left side of the infield features two greats of Pennsylvanian professional sports. The outfield is just about as iconic as this beloved sport can offer.
These nine players were voted by baseball writers and fans as the best possible starting lineup of all-time. This article is the latest in a series revealing the 100 players in MLB history who comprise the newly-established Golden Hall. For previous entries, see:
- The Bench
- Tenth Team
- Ninth Team
- Eighth Team
- Seventh Team
- Sixth Team
- Fifth Team
- Fourth Team
- Third Team
- Second Team
Without further ado, Overtime Heroics presents the Golden Hall First Team.
MLB History: Golden Hall First Team
Pitcher: Walter Johnson
As the Washington Nationals closed in on the 2019 World Series, the television announcers and their columnist counterparts made frequent reference to the team’s Washington-based predecessors. For the most part ignoring the Montreal Expos history, this trend somewhat bucked the convention of viewing clubs as continuations of their corporate charters. The embrace of the city as the cornerstone of an MLB franchise was refreshing. After all, the Nationals play to represent their city and fanbase. That city and fanbase, not a faceless corporate entity, are the true inheritors of the legacy of the Washington Homestead Grays and Washington Senators.
That latter club won back-to-back American League pennants and one World Series. And the vehicle that propelled Washington to that success: the Big Train. Though the championship season took place toward the twilight of Walter Johnson’s career, the hurler posted one of his best campaigns. Johnson led the majors in starts and shutouts while leading his league in earned run average, strikeouts, adjusted ERA, fielding independent pitching, and walks plus hits per inning pitched. He topped off this typical-for-him regular season with a respectable 3.00 ERA, 0.53 win probability added, 47.6 percent championship WPA, and a clutch four innings of scoreless relief in game seven.
With a sidearm delivery relying primarily on fastballs and curveballs, Johnson led the American League in ERA and innings five times, strikeouts 12 times, WHIP and ERA+ six times, and FIP ten times. He holds the major league record for career shutouts (110) and struck out hapless batters 3,509 times.
The Kansan-Californian and DC’s hero more than earned recognition by the modern Nationals and his place in MLB history.
Catcher: Johnny Bench
Every summer, I use my birthday to guilt trip friends and family into playing a baseball game. It’s a difficult task without this emotional pull. Arkansas is hot and humid in July, and the national pastime just does not enjoy the popularity it once did. Moreover, my cohort is beginning to age, making schedules and exercise more difficult to balance. In the 12 editions so far, an average of 14 or so people show up.
Even when we have enough for full nines on both sides, the catching position remains vacant. Typically, due to insufficient numbers, a player on the opposing team temporarily takes catching duty, standing off to the side and participating only if there is a play at the plate. We are decidedly amateurs (those who actually have talent are encouraged to skip the game and meet for birthday cake), and we simply lack the skills needed to avoid injury.
Catching is almost undoubtedly the most dangerous position in baseball. Moreover, a good catcher must know pitching in and out and have a serviceable enough bat to avoid consistent embarrassment at the plate.
The best catcher in MLB history therefore should be a coveted title, and Johnny Bench is a deserving candidate.
On the offensive side, Bench twice led the majors in home runs and once in total bases. He posted a career adjusted OPS of 126, belted 389 homers, and legged out 381 doubles. The Oklahoman placed slashed a career .267/.342/.476, respectable for any position and praiseworthy for a catcher.
On the defensive end, Bench knew how to get through to his pitchers. Noting that one hurler’s fastball was weak, he called for other pitches. The pitcher refused and kept throwing fastballs. To prove his point, Bench dropped his glove mid-pitch and caught the fastball barehanded. The pitcher finally understood, and Bench would later guide him through a no-hitter.
This story demonstrates what the stats further prove: Bench was a superb defensive catcher. He led the National League in catching would-be base stealers percentage three times (and finishing in the top ten another five times). In ten different seasons, Bench placed in the top ten in fielding percentage.
All put together, Bench accumulated 75.2 wins above replacement, two most valuable player awards, and votes for MVP in eight other seasons. Bench rightfully has earned his place in MLB history.
First Base: Lou Gehrig
For most of his life, Lou Gehrig’s statement, “I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” rang true. Gehrig had loving parents, immigrants who worked hard to give Lou a better life. Through athletics, he gained a spot in a coveted Ivy League school. The native New Yorker caught the attention of scouts and played his entire big league career with his hometown Yankees. Gehrig led his club to multiple World Series and set individual records.
Even as death prematurely arrived and his luck seemed to run out, the Iron Horse received universal love and compassion from fans of the Bronx Bombers and their rivals. A shortened life, surely, but a lucky one.
Over the course of 2,130 consecutive games and a few score more before and after the streak, Gehrig earned his place in MLB history. He led the American League in on-base percentage five times, total bases four times, home runs, walks, and OPS+ three times, doubles twice, and triples once. Hitting led to his run creation (a -5 runs from base running and only two from fielding), with Gehrig collecting 114.1 wins above replacement.
Gehrig appeared in 34 World Series games and won six titles. He slashed .361/.483/.731 with 10 home runs and 87 total bases. Even after factoring in the expanded postseason available to later generations, Gehrig still ranks in the top ten in career playoff on-base percentage, slugging percentage, win probability added, and championship WPA. He remains the single postseason leader in slugging percentage and OPS.
His contemporaries saw him as one of the best of all-time, even if occasionally overshadowed by other stars. In the 14 seasons in which Gehrig was eligible for a most valuable player award, he received votes in 11 and twice won. This generation has chosen to continue honoring the Iron Horse, who received the highest weighted vote count among all Golden Hallers.
Second Base: Jackie Robinson
Opening day is always a special occasion. In America, the start of the baseball season is inextricably tied to spring and new life. Families gather outdoors again, basking in the company of their community as they cheer their local club. Players have the opportunity to continue their successes from last year or begin anew if the previous campaign did not meet expectations. Rookies, most of all, surely approach opening day with the greatest combination of excitement and nervousness to see just how their potential will play on a big league diamond.
On May 6, 1945, Jackie Robinson made his major league debut. In their Sunday best, the Kansas City crowd gathered to welcome their Monarchs. The college football star proved himself before the faithful. Robinson’s first test was the Chicago American Giants’ ace. Gentry Jessup pitched well that year, posting a 2.38 earned run average, 1.06 WHIP, and striking out 14 percent of batters that dared to face him. The shortstop passed this initial examination, going one for four with a double, run scored, run batted in, and a stolen base.
Two years later, Robinson starred in a different kind of opening day. For the first time in 63 years, a Black man played in the National League. At first base, Robinson recorded 11 putouts without an error. He had the same on-base percentage as his 1945 opening game, reaching once in four appearances. He tacked on a sacrifice hit along the way.
Over the course of the year, Robinson slashed .387/.383/.427, led the majors in sacrifice hits, and swiped a league-leading 29 bases. Writers rewarded him with rookie of the year honors and a third-place MVP finish. He even made it to the World Series, posting respectable numbers.
Opening a new and better, Robinson’s career numbers speak highly of his place in MLB history. The Californian placed in the top ten in WAR, OBP, and fielding percentage six times, OPS+ four times, and home runs once. He led Brooklyn to its first title in 55 years. Despite the possible racist bias of some writers of his era, Robinson received MVP votes in eight of ten seasons in the National League.
For opening seasons in every sense, Jackie Robinson is the Golden Hall’s all-time greatest second baseman.
Third Base: Mike Schmidt
A new franchise almost always encounters years of defeat before winning an MLB title. On average in MLB history, it takes 25 seasons for a club to win its first title. The Houston Astros went 55 years and the San Francisco Giants 52 (dating from their arrival in the Bay Area) before theirs. The San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers both have gone more than 50 seasons without a championship.
Some teams buck the trend. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series-equivalent title in their first year of existence, as did their crosstown rivals, the White Sox (technically their second in Chicago, but they did win a minor league pennant in their first season). The Los Angeles Dodgers won in just their second year in LA. The Boston Red Sox won a World Series in their third. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Saint Louis Cardinals in their fourth years, and Marlins and Oakland Athletics in their fifth.
The Philadelphia Phillies did not enjoy such early success, nor did the club win a title within the Astros’ 55-season mark. It took the Phillies 97 years to win their first World Series. Mike Schmidt was key to ending this record-setting drought.
In 1980, the Phillies’ third baseman led the majors in home runs, total bases, and sacrifice flies. He was on the top of the leaderboard of the Senior Circuit in runs batted in, slugging, OPS, and OPS+. With an 8.9 WAR, Schmidt was named an all-star and awarded a silver slugger, gold glove, and most valuable player. He capped off the regular season with a literally World Series MVP performance, slashing .381/.462/.714 with two home runs and 15 total bases in six games.
This seminal season was representative of his career. The Ohioan slashed a career .267/.380/.527 with 548 home runs. He led the National League in homers eight times, OPS+ six times, slugging five times, walks four times, and on-base percentage and total bases three times. Contemporaries recognized his excellence with three MVP awards and votes in nine other seasons. Today’s writers and fans have done so as well, enshrining Mike Schmidt in the Golden Hall and securing his place in MLB history.
Shortstop: Honus Wagner
Baseball has long been a game excelled in by immigrants and their children. The reasons why are likely multifold and some combination of sports an escape from poverty, baseball in particular as means to join American society at large, and the determined work ethic common to many new arrivals and their descendants. On the Golden Hall First Team alone, three players spoke a first language other than English. In addition to Gehrig and Ruth, Honus Wagner grew up in a German-speaking household.
Of that household just outside of Pittsburgh, three Wagner sons would play professional baseball. Honus, of course, would go on to legendary status, starring for his hometown Pirates. Before Allegheny fame, however, Wagner spent three seasons with Louisville, also of the National League. He slashed .322/.369/.457 before the Colonels were contracted. He was quickly snatched up by the Pirates (in a most definite conflict of interest, the same person had ownership stakes in both Louisville and Pittsburgh).
It was in his home state that the Pennsylvanian truly shined. Wagner led the National League in on-base percentage four times, slugging and OPS+ six times, stolen bases five times, double seven times, and triples thrice. He placed in the top in the majors in home runs on seven occasions and in fielding percentage twelve times. As John McGraw once said regarding Wagner’s fielding, “The only way to get a ball past Honus is to hit it 8 feet over his head.”
Wagner led his club to a World Series victory and pennants in two years without a postseason. Though he struggled in his first World Series appearance, Wagner more than made up for it in his second. In an epic confrontation with Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers, Wagner slashed .333/.467/.500 with two doubles, a triple, and six stolen bases.
Along the way, the Flying Dutchman collected 130.8 wins above replacement, good enough for seventh all-time in MLB history. Though his playing days took place in the Dead Ball Era, he still ranks 30th in OPS+ and in the top 100 for on-base percentage. Stealing home was a bit more expected in his era, and Wagner set the career mark (though it would be broken a few years after his retirement).
Wagner continued to play a critical role in baseball after his playing retirement. Most notably, he helped train the Pirates’ star shortstop two generations after him: Arky Vaughan. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wagner has remained somewhat in the public’s consciousness. His T206 baseball card routinely sets records for the most expensive in MLB history.
Left Field: Ted Williams
I have always been partial to players who make it to their hometown league club. There is just something poetic about seeing a child’s dreams realized of being a star player that helps his city win the pennant. Of course, Ted Williams played his entire big league career with the Boston Red Sox, but Williams is not from Beantown. The Splendid Splinter is a native of San Diego.
The San Diego Padres joined the National League in 1969. For 33 seasons before that, the San Diego Padres competed in the Pacific Coast League. So are the NL Padres a continuation of the PCL Padres? Or are they an entirely new team? What constitutes a club?
Most official histories list teams by their corporate charters. Under this framework, the Minnesota Twins are a continuation of the 1901-1960 Washington Senators. Yet, without a season missed, the Washington Senators played another dozen years of major league baseball (managed by Williams in the later seasons). The corporate charter changed. The players were new. But the city represented, the team name, the stadium, and the fan bases were the same. Which club truly had a greater claim to the legacy of the old Senators: the Twins or new Senators?
Today’s Padres seem to come down on the side of the latter. In 1999, the team created its own Hall of Fame. Given that the major league club shares a name, city, fanbase, stadium (until 2004), and the same ownership/front office (from 1958 to 1974), the team logically decided to include its minor league iteration’s history as well. When the plaza housing the hall opened, one of its first inductees was a San Diegan who led the PCL Padres to its first pennant: Ted Williams.
In his second year of professional baseball (at just 18 years of age), Williams played a critical role in the Padres championship run. The hometown hero hit .291 and slugged .504. Over the course of 138 games, he homered 23 times, doubled 24 times, and tripled twice. The Swinging Friars were in first or second throughout most of the season but ended with a losing streak to finish third. However, the club competed superbly in the playoffs, besting the Portland Beavers for the PCL title.
Williams then crossed the country to play for the Boston Red Sox (after a brief detour in Minneapolis). The Splendid Splinter would perform superbly, though he would add only one pennant to his accomplishments.
The Californian led the American League in home runs four times, doubles twice, walks eight times, batting average six times, on-base percentage 12 times, and OPS+ nine times. He posted more than nine wins above replacement in six campaigns.
In all of MLB history, Williams ranks first in on-base percentage (.482), second in OPS+ (191), fourteenth in WAR (121.9), and twentieth in home runs (521). His swing was envied by contemporaries and studied by generations since. From winning the pennant for his hometown team to becoming the best left fielder in the game’s history, Williams is a worthy holder of a spot on the Golden Hall First Team.
Center Field: Willie Mays
As a rookie, Willie Mays appeared in his first World Series. In the only documented game from that series, Mays went 0 for 3 with a walk and a run scored. His Birmingham Black Barons lost to the Washington Homestead Grays. The best was yet to come.
After a brief, successful sojourn in the minors, Mays returned to the majors, now in the beginnings of its integrated era. Despite a few slumps here and there, the Alabaman proved himself proficient enough to be named Rookie of the Year.
Mays became perhaps the greatest five-tool player in MLB history. He hit for contact, hit for power, fielded exceptionally, ran the bases strategically, and had an arm that rivaled or exceeded that of any competitor.
In his 23-year big league career, Mays hit safely 3,290 times to the tune of a X batting average. He led the National League in the category once (batting over .300 ten times). He combined that contact with power, smashing 660 home runs with a 156 OPS+ (19th all-time). His offense was rounded out by superb baserunning, featuring 338 stolen bases (leading the league four times) and 78 runs from baserunning.
Mays holds the all-time record for career putouts (not including one signature catch in the World Series). His arm strength was said to be so great that it was said “that he could make effective throws from the most unlikely locations and from the most unlikely body positions.”
Put these five tools together, and Willie Mays collected a fifth-best 156.2 wins above replacement and the top center field spot in the Golden Hall.
Right Field: Babe Ruth
The Great Bambino. The Big Fella. The Sultan of Swat. The Colossus of Clout. The Big Bam. The Maharajah of Mash. The Golden Haller of Golden Hallers.
George Herman Ruth received nearly unanimous support among fans and writers alike for the top right field spot in the Golden Hall. Ruth is easily the most famous baseball player in history. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend just how ubiquitous his presence was in the Roaring Twenties, and deservedly so. Ruth came to represent the particular moment in time of his country: the son of immigrants, boisterous, consumptive, genial, confident, loving of life, and excelling at the national pastime.
It is this last point that will serve as the focus of this short description of the star. Ruth, of course, set new records for both single-season and career home runs. With a livelier, cleaned up ball, a powerful swing, and excellent timing, Ruth transitioned from pitching phenom to homering machine, ushering in the next era of baseball (and one that has largely continued for a century).
Ruth’s career rankings remain most impressive: first in OPS+, first in slugging, first in OPS, second in WAR, second in OBP, and third in home runs. He led the American League in home runs 12 times, walks 11 times, OBP ten times, and slugging twelve times. The Marylander’s career slash line is a ridiculous .342/.474/.690.
Ruth brought a humdrum New York franchise to the pinnacle of baseball clubdom, winning seven World Series. This mini-biography should be much, much longer, but it shall conclude with this reminder: in addition to Ruth’s hitting, his career earned run average over 1,221.1 innings was 2.28.
The Golden Hall will return
All 100 players enshrined in the Golden Hall have now been revealed. This journey through MLB history has been immensely rewarding, and this author hopes you have enjoyed the discussions produced throughout the voting and announcements.
Comment letting us know if you agree or disagree with the final rankings. Fear not if you think something is amiss: writers and fans will have an opportunity to vote again in 2030. In the meantime, let the debate commence!
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images