There are five dozen living Hall of Famers, a handful of recently retired players like Randy Johnson awaiting enshrinement, and one Hit King marooned outside. From that group of baseball greats, all titans of their industry, culling a top 10 of the greatest living players is an imperfect exercise.
By definition, any list is doomed to be incomplete, like asking Tony La Russa to select his 10 favorite lineups.
Start with the sainted trinity of Musial, Mays and Aaron and then . . . where? Longevity like Nolan Ryan's has to be considered, but so too should brief brilliant bursts of excellence like Sandy Koufax's. Postseason performance, pennants and the glittering rings of championships should be a factor, but why penalize some of the game's best individuals who toiled on teams not good enough for October? Steroids stain the best pitcher and best hitter of the past 20 years, just as a lifetime ban for gambling keeps Pete Rose out of Cooperstown. Does that discolor their numbers, undermine their careers, diminish their greatness?
To help celebrate Stan Musial's 90th birthday, the Post-Dispatch considered all of the above and more in order to sort through all of the game's retired players and select baseball's 10 greatest living players:
HENRY AARON, OF
Braves, Brewers • (1954-1976)
Age: 76 … Hall of Fame: 1982
Baseball's regal slugger built his career through a relentless torrent of production. Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a single season, yet with an indefatigable march he bested baseball's unreachable record, Babe Ruth's 714 career home runs. Aaron is the only player to hit 30 or more homers in at least 15 seasons, and while his iconic record of 755 home runs was surpassed 30 years later Aaron still stands as one of the game's most productive hitters. The Braves' great was the first player with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. His 6,856 total bases are 722 more than any other player, and his 2,297 RBIs remain a record nearly four decades later. Aaron's stature in the game includes the Hank Aaron Award, which goes to the top hitter in each league, and a legacy of persistent greatness "played out," as his autobiography's co-writer says, "patiently and inexorably, over a whole generation."
YOGI BERRA, C
Yankees, Mets • (1946-1965)
Age: 85 … Hall of Fame: 1972
One of baseball's endearing characters, Berra's fame will always be as a dugout philosopher. But lost in the congenial malapropisms are the numbers that make him, to borrow a phrase, the most popular catcher nobody knows. The St. Louis native (he grew up on The Hill) was the constant in the second Yankees Dynasty, winning 10 World Series and 14 American League pennants from 1947 to '63. He was an 18-time All-Star, three-time MVP, and for seven consecutive seasons he finished in the top five in MVP voting. In short, the height of his career was a mouthful. While Johnny Bench has been elevated at catcher, the Cincinnati backstop had fewer RBIs, fewer hits, far fewer rings, a lower career OPS, only 31 more homers and Berra played catcher before the Gold Glove Award. If there was a Yogism for Yogi, Mel Ott said it: "He seemed to do everything wrong, yet everything came out right. He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it."
BARRY BONDS, OF
Pirates, Giants • (1986-2007)
Age: 46 … Hall of Fame: Eligible in 2012
What had all the hallmarks of a legendary career started to warp and discolor the moment Bonds bulked up and bludgeoned records. The outfielder's reputation has been irreparably damaged by allegations of performance-enhancing drug use and a related criminal investigation. But his dominance in the 2000s is impossible to dismiss. Bonds' seven MVPs are more than twice as many as any other player, his 73 homers in 2001 is the single-season record, and his 762 career homers eclipsed Aaron's. The surly All-Star reached base in an uncanny 61 percent of his plate appearances in 2004, and from 2001 to 2004 he slugged .809 and had an OPS of 1.368. The single-season OPS record before Bonds was 1.381, set in 1920. Steroids stained Bonds' entire career — remember that 40/40 season in 1996, back before "flaxseed oil" was a derogative? — and could cost him a place in Cooperstown, his greatness complicated by the avarice of baseball's inflated era.
RICKEY HENDERSON, OF
Athletics, Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Angels, Mets, Mariners, Red Sox, Dodgers
Age: 51 … Hall of Fame: 2009
The day he swiped third base to race past Lou Brock and set a new record for career stolen bases, Henderson hoisted the bag and announced, "Today I'm the greatest of all time." Turns out he wasn't exaggerating. For a time, he was the greatest. The game's best leadoff hitter and base-stealer, Henderson has the single-season record with 130 steals, kept running after 939 all the way to 1,406 steals, and drew more unintentional walks (2,129) than anyone. If there's a record that includes the phrase "to leadoff a game," it's a safe bet the 1990 MVP owns it. At its most base level, the game is about scoring runs and Henderson did that more than anyone, breaking the oldest offensive record by surpassing Ty Cobb's 2,246 and raising the bar to 2,295. At his peak, Henderson's speed bent the game to his will. No player in baseball history got on base as often, got around the bases faster and got home as often as Rickey.
SANDY KOUFAX, LHP
Dodgers • (1955-1966)
Age: 75 … Hall of Fame: 1972
At age 30, when some pitchers are soaring through their peak, Koufax had the best year of his career and then — poof! — abruptly retired. The sum of Koufax's career doesn't measure well against the 300-win brutes or 3,000-strikeout sharpshooters, but no other pitcher dominated the game like Koufax did with a 129-47 record from 1961 to '66. Koufax led the NL in ERA in his final five seasons, three times at 1.88 or less. The "Left Hand of God," bedeviling hitters with an artist's palate of pitches, threw no-hitters in four successive seasons, including a perfect game in 1965. He had a 0.95 ERA in eight World Series games. When he retired, after winning more than 25 games for the third time in four years, Koufax had more strikeouts (2,396) than innings (2,234 1/3). Other legends may have won more, may have pitched longer, but because his brilliance was distilled into a handful of summers, it's impossible to say anyone ever pitched better.
WILLIE MAYS, OF
Giants, Mets • (1951-1973)
Age: 79 … Hall of Fame: 1979
The personification of the fabled five-tool player, Mays played with an energy, electricity and enthusiasm few could match, and left the game with numbers that were equally vibrant. The center fielder totaled 3,283 hits, 660 home runs and 338 stolen bases, and he is one of only three righthanded hitters with more than 2,000 runs. Ted Williams once said, "They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays," who appeared in 24 of them. Mays also won 12 Gold Gloves for his defensive acumen, highlighted by the most famous catch in World Series history, the back-to-home snag in Game 1 of the 1954 championship. Author Pete Hamill wrote that Mays brought an "almost magical quality" to baseball, and he did so at a transcendent time for the game. Mays' tenure as the game's best and most charismatic player coincided with the rise of television and baseball's westward expansion, where as an Alabama native and New York superstar transplanted in California he became an emblem of the game's reach.
STAN MUSIAL, OF/1B
Cardinals • (1941-1963)
Age: 90 … Hall of Fame: 1969
When Musial retired from baseball he held 29 National League records, 17 major-league records and nine All-Star Game records, and while many have been surpassed Musial's 22-year body of work has aged well. Until recently, Musial was the only player whose career totals ranked in the top 20 in all of the most significant offensive categories. It's the rare column on his baseball card that doesn't contain a season with a league lead. Batting average? Seven times. Runs scored? Six times. Slugging? Six times. Triples? Five times. Only one player has more MVPs than Musial's three, and few others can claim that their dominance on the field paled to their elegance of it. In a 2003 poll of living Hall of Famers, his peers named him "the greatest living hitter," and no less an expert than Ty Cobb once said Musial was as close to "perfect" as any ballplayer gets. That is a common and timeless description of The Man.
FRANK ROBINSON, OF
Reds, Orioles, Angels, Indians • (1956-1976)
Age: 75 … Hall of Fame: 1982
An uncompromising player, Robinson's feats on the field have been overshadowed by his first in the dugout. In 1975, Robinson moved from the starting lineup to writing it and became baseball's first black manager. Manager was one of many roles Robinson held in baseball, from All-Star to executive to broadcaster. Where he was his best was at the plate, where he remains one of the best. Robinson's 586 home runs were the fourth-most when he retired, and he ranked in the top 10 in runs scored. Robinson is the only player to win an MVP in both leagues, and in 1966 he claimed the AL's Triple Crown with a .316 average, 49 homers and 122 RBIs. That season Robinson won the second of his two MVPs, and four other times he finished in the top five of MVP voting. During his induction speech in '82, Robinson said he didn't see a current player who combined "both the talent and intensity" he had. Few could.
TOM SEAVER, RHP
Mets, Reds, White Sox, Red Sox • (1967-1986)
Age: 66 … Hall of Fame: 1992
It is difficult for one legendary righthanded starter to elbow the others off the crowded rubber. Bob Feller, the oldest living Hall of Famer, lost four years to World War II in the middle of leading the AL in wins five times. Bob Gibson may be the best postseason pitcher ever. Greg Maddux has the trophies. Roger Clemens, who has attacked steroid allegations with the same disdain he had for hitters, dominated with 354 wins, 4,672 strikeouts and seven Cy Youngs during an era ruled by offense. Seaver has the slightest edge. The Mets' great emerged as hitters took over. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in '67 and was 259-143 with a 2.60 ERA in his first 15 seasons. After he retired with 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts and three Cy Youngs he was voted into Cooperstown with a record 98.84 percent. Seaver's power game and drop-and-drive delivery inspired the current generation of pitchers and, when Gibson, Nolan Ryan and other peers were polled they agreed that Seaver was the best of their generation.
MIKE SCHMIDT, 3B
Phillies • (1972-1989)
Age: 61 … Hall of Fame: 1995
The way broadcaster Harry Kalas popularized it, Schmidt's middle name became much more than his identification. It was a verb, an exclamation. Michael Jack Schmidt hit more home runs than any player in the 1980s. He started the decade with a career year (48 homers and 121 RBIs), the Phillies' first World Series title, and the NL MVP. When he retired, Schmidt had won two more MVPs, hit 548 homers and driven in 1,595 runs. Schmidt has a rare claim among Hall of Famers: He is clearly the best at his position. Schmidt won 10 Gold Gloves, including nine consecutive. Only Brooks Robinson has won more at third. Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez are the only two players to win three MVPs while also playing the defensively demanding left side of the infield. "If you could equate the amount of . . . effort put in (to) succeeding on the baseball field and measured it by the dirt on your uniform," Schmidt once said, "mine would have been black."