In compiling this list of the top 5 greatest baseball players of all time, we considered these two factors -- a player's statistics and his place in the game's history. The five finalists are Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Greg Maddux.
1. Babe Ruth
Nicknamed "The Bambino", Babe Ruth was America's first sporting superstar. His namesake remains very relevant today, while his place in both America's and baseball's history is assured. In term of statistics, Ruth was a one-of-a-kind player. Among his biggest achievements were 714 home runs, a career batting average of .342 and nearly 3000 hits. One could not recall a milestone or accolade he failed to accomplish. A world series title? He helped the Red Sox and Yankees win it seven times. A batting title? He won it in 1924 to compliment a MVP award and 12 home run titles. His accomplishments did not end there however. Before becoming a permanent everyday player, Ruth spent five years as a pitcher, earning 94 wins and an ERA of 2.28. There are not many pitchers in baseball's history with 94 wins in their careers, let alone 94 wins in only five years.
Babe Ruth's biggest contribution to baseball was bringing power into the game. Before Ruth, hitting singles and stealing bases were primary means to score runs. After Ruth, home runs and doubles became quintessential parts of baseball. As a result, the sport's popularity dramatically increased as fans filled the ballparks to watch power baseball. The Yankees particularly benefited from Ruth's popularity. The Pinstripers went from a moderately known team to the most successful and popular franchise in baseball's history; the team had no world series title prior to Ruth's arrival. This is the reason why one would be hard pressed to find a list of the greatest baseball players that does not have Ruth sitting atop the rankings.
2. Cy Young
Denton True Young's accomplishments on the mound were equivalent to Babe Ruth's achievements in the hitter box. Better known as Cy Young, the Ohio native held some of the most prized pitching records in baseball. The one statistic that really pops out is 511 wins. For most pitchers, the magic number of 300 wins is the near-automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame; Young managed to easily surpass it. In fact, his victory count is 94 wins ahead of the closest competitor Walter Johnson! Unlike today's starting pitchers who often pitch 5-6 innings for a decision, Cy Young had to really earn his wins, frequently going the distance. The righty holds the records for most innings pitched and most complete games.
There is no pitching achievement he failed to accomplish. Cy Young won a world series title with the Red Sox in 1903, pitched three no-hitters including a perfect game, and achieved a pitcher's Triple Crown. He also led his league in saves twice. Young's greatest legacy is the Cy Young Award, which is given annually to the best pitcher of each league. This pitching award shares the same importance as the MVP award and is a key metric for Hall-of-Fame considerations. The fact that the Cy Young Award was established just one year after his death demonstrated the high regard the baseball community had for him and his accomplishments.
3. Willie Mays
The man from Westfield, Alabama was considered by many as baseball's most complete player. Willie Mays could bat for average, hit for power, steal bases and make fine defensive plays. His numbers were staggering - 338 stolen bases, 3283 hits, 660 home runs and a .302 career batting average. His offensive prowess earned him a Rookie of the Year, two MVP awards and 24 All-Star appearances. He was also a fantastic outfielder, winning the Gold Grove 12 times. Mays' over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series was probably the most famous defensive play in baseball's history, often used as a showcase piece for the game of baseball. The New York Giants would go on to win the world series title in four games.
4. Ted Williams
If hitting the ball was a science, Ted Williams would have earned a PHD for it. The last major league player to bat over .400 in a season was the purest hitter the game has ever seen. Despite losing four of his prime years to military service, Williams still managed a lifetime batting of .344 and 521 home runs. He also earned two Triple Crowns (led batting average, home runs and RBIs in a season) and two MVP awards.
Although age did take a physical toll on Williams, it did not slow down his hitting. At the age of 40, he led the major leagues with a .388 batting average! There were not many great hitters who could match this feat even in their prime years. He won the AL batting title again the following year at the age of 41. True to his fashion, Williams ended his career spectacularly, hitting a home run in his last at-bat. One is left to wonder how much better his career would have been if he did not lose the four years to the war.
5. Greg Maddux
Although he played in the steriod era, few have ever doubted Maddux's ability. Nicknamed "The Professor", the Texas native was out to prove that pitching is not just about power. While his fastballs rarely reached the mid-90s in velocity, they were some of the most difficult pitches to hit. Maddux's superior command and location stymied the best hitters of his era, who were left to wonder why they could not hit a mid-80s fastball. For someone who was not known as a strikeout pitcher, Maddux ranks among the all-time leaders in strikeouts with 3,371 Ks in his career.
The "Professor" was best known for his amazing consistency. Maddux finished a season with at least 15 wins 18 times. He won four consecutive Cy Young awards from 1992-95 and made the all-star team eight times. His superb fielding skills earned him 18 Gold Gloves, solidifying his place as the greatest fielding pitcher. He won a world series title with the Atlanta Braves in 1995.