Greatest First Basemen in MLB History

This is the second in a series of articles dealing with baseball’s greatest players, position by position, culminating in an overall list of the greatest players.  This volume covers First Basemen..  Who are the greatest in MLB History?  Continue reading to find out.

First, a brief description of what this series of articles will be – for the most part, they will be top ten type lists; though they may be shorter (if there aren’t enough “great” players) or longer (if there’s a log jam of “great” players).  I will say if the player is in the HOF, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats.  All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball-Reference.  This series was originally published on Informative Sports in 2009, however, they have been edited for publication here - some players added, some rankings adjusted etc.

A couple of notes about the stats – they will include their total offensive numbers, not just stats for their main position (for example, Yogi Berra’s stats include his batting stats when he played LF or 1B) and any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list.  Also, players will be ranked where they were best known at (Ernie Banks at SS for example) or where they played the most games (Pete Rose played the most games at 1B as a single position but he played more total games in the outfield and of those at LF, so that’s where he ended up getting ranked).  To see how I evaluate/use stats, click here for a breakdown of hitting stats.  At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices and why I ranked them where I did.

Only three caveats to my lists: 

1 – the players have to actually be retired.  They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet

2 -  sorry, but no Negro League players will be on these lists unless they had long-term MLB service (any records or stats from the Negro Leagues are “questionable” at best due to the record keeping; i.e. Josh Gibson’s HR totals etc)

3- no confirmed or heavily-suspected PED users.  This includes anyone who admitted to using steroids knowingly or unknowingly (so guys like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield are not on these lists) and guys where the evidence is very strong that they used (Roger Clemens for example)

We covered the greatest catchers last week, so this time it’s the First Basemen’s turn.  What makes a great first baseman?  Defense?  How about hitting for power?  It really depends on the era the player was a part of; early on, defense in a first baseman was key, but over time, teams started looking for more and more offensive production leading to today’s game in which a balance of power, the ability to get on base and a decent glove is coveted but hard to find.  There have been some truly great first basemen in baseball’s history as you’ll see.  On to the rankings:

#1 – Lou Gehrig: HOF – 2 MVPs (and 6 other top-5 finishes), 7 time All-Star, 1 Major League Batting Triple Crown, 2164 games, .340 batting average, .447 OBP, .632 Slugging %, 1.080 OPS, 179 OPS+, 493 HRs, 1995 RBIs, 2721 Hits, 1888 Runs, 1508 BBs and 790 Ks.

#2 – Jimmie Foxx: HOF – 3 MVPs (and 1 other top-5 finish), 9 time All-Star, 1 American League Batting Triple Crown, 2317 games, .325 batting average, .428 OBP, .609 Slugging %, 1.038 OPS, 163 OPS+, 534 HRs, 1922 RBIs, 2646 Hits, 1751 Runs, 1452 BBs and 1311 Ks.

#3 – Hank Greenberg: HOF – 2 MVPs (and 2 other top-5 finishes), 4 time All-Star, 1394 games, .313 batting average, .412 OBP, .605 Slugging %, 1.017 OPS, 158 OPS+, 331 HRs, 1276 RBIs, 1628 Hits, 1051 Runs, 852 BBs and 844 Ks.

#4 – Harmon Killebrew: HOF – 1 MVP (and 5 other top-5 finishes), 11 time All-Star, 2435 games, .256 batting average, .376 OBP, .509 Slugging %, .884 OPS, 143 OPS+, 573 HRs, 1584 RBIs, 2086 Hits, 1283 Runs, 1559 BBs and 1699 Ks.

#5 – Frank Thomas: 2 MVPs (and 4 other top-5 finishes), 5 time All-Star, 4 Silver Sluggers, 2322 games, .301 batting average, .419 OBP, .555 Slugging %, .974 OPS, 156 OPS+, 521 HRs, 1704 RBIs, 2468 Hits, 1494 Runs, 1667 BBs and 1397 Ks.

#6 – Willie McCovey: HOF – 1 MVP (and 1 other top-5 finish), 1 ROY, 6 time All-Star, 2588 games, .270 batting average, .374 OBP, .515 Slugging %, .889 OPS, 147 OPS+, 521 HRs, 1555 RBIs, 2211 Hits, 1229 Runs, 1345 BBs and 1550 Ks.

#7 – Jeff Bagwell: 1 MVP (and 2 other top-5 finishes),1 ROY, 4 time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 3 Silver Sluggers, 2150 Games, .297 batting average, .408 OBP, .540 Slugging %, .948 OPS, 149 OPS+, 449 HRs, 1529 RBIs, 2314 Hits, 1517 Runs, 1401 BBs and 1558 Ks.

#8 – Eddie Murray: HOF – 6 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 8 time All-Star, 3 Gold Gloves, 3 Silver Sluggers, 3026 games, .287 batting average, .359 OBP, .476 Slugging %, .836 OPS, 129 OPS+, 504 HRs, 1917 RBIs, 3255 Hits, 1627 Runs, 1333 BBs and 1516 Ks

#9 – Johnny Mize: HOF – 4 top-5 MVP finishes, 10 time All-Star, 1884 games, .312 batting average, .397 OBP, .562 Slugging %, .959 OPS, 157 OPS+, 359 HRs, 1337 RBIs, 2011 Hits, 1118 Runs, 856 BBs and 524 Ks.

Honorable Mention: Richie Allen, Roger Connor, Steve Garvey, Mark Grace, Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff and George Sisler

Will/may be on this list someday: Albert Pujols (who if he can continue his career the way he has so far, will compete with Gehrig for #1).  Todd Helton, Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, Mark Texeira and Prince Fielder (all may have a crack at the top 10).

There’s been some tremendous first basemen in baseball’s history seeing how nine players got ranked and another nine are in the discussion but just fall short (not counting active players).

What more can be said about Lou Gehrig that hasn’t been said over the last 60 years?  Can you imagine the stats he would have put up if he didn’t get sick?  He was on pace for almost 700 HRs, 4000 Hits and 2500 RBIs.  He easily would have put himself into discussion of “greatest baseball player ever”.

Jimmie Foxx was a tremendous player as well.  He falls just short in key categories in comparison to Lou Gehrig even though he played longer.  Like Gehrig, Foxx was a consistent Triple Crown threat.

Hank Greenberg will always have a big question mark surrounding his career; what kind of numbers could he have put up if he didn’t miss time serving in the military?  He missed most of five seasons due to serving in the military.  Hard to play the “what if” game, but in Hank’s case, the what-ifs results in him being just behind Gehrig and Foxx.

The remaining people on the list were either too “one dimensional” type players or had short careers (or something else “wrong”) and could almost be put into any order depending on personal preference.  Killebrew and McCovey had high HR totals, but low batting averages.  Frank Thomas spent a lot of time at DH which hurts him as an all-time first baseman; and he and Jeff Bagwell played in the Steroid Era, so that question will always remain (less concerned about Frank Thomas than Jeff Bagwell though).  Eddie Murray was close to being a “compiler” due to longevity.  Mize just didn’t play long enough due to military service as well (although it was only two years compared to almost 5 for Greenberg) and because of that his numbers fall short in some categories to be moved higher.  The same can be said about the Honorable Mentions – short peaks, compilers etc.

So, what do you think?  Do you have a problem with the order?  Did I leave someone off?  If so, let me know.  Don’t just say “you left off so-and-so” — give me a good explanation of why they belong and where in the order they belong.  If you present a good enough case, I just might add them to the list.

Come back next week, when I continue around the diamond and we get to Second Basemen.

Related posts:

  1. MLB’s Greatest Players – Volume I: Catchers
  2. How to Evaluate/Compare Players: Part I – Hitting Stats
  3. Alex Gonzalez to Atlanta!


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