Friday, May 6, 2011

Living Legend

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.  In December, pitching great Bob Feller's death led me to wonder who of the Golden Era of Baseball was still around.  Below is the list I came up with of players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame that were born in the 1930s or earlier, and played in the 1950s or earlier (in order of age).  (Duke Snider has since passed away.)  Willie Mays is certainly the greatest player on the list, and perhaps the greatest baseball player period. 

1.  Bobby Doerr.  Born in 1918, the oldest living Hall of Famer.  He was a great hitting and fielding 2nd baseman for Red Sox.
2.  Monte Irvin.  Stellar Negro Leagues player before being signed by the SF Giants.  He didn't play in the majors until he was 30. Irvin was part of the first all-Black outfield, with Mays and Hank Thompson.
3.  Stan Musial.  Stan the Man was one of the greatest hitters ever, somewhat overshadowed because he played his entire career in St. Louis.  He won the MVP 3 times and was an All Star 24 times.  The current great Cardinal Albert Pujols refuses to be called El Hombre out of deference to Musial.  According to Pujols, "Stan is The Man. You can call me whatever else you want, but just don’t call me El Hombre.”
4.  Ralph Kiner.  A powerful home run hitter for the Pirates, Kiner famously said, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, single hitters drive Fords."  Beloved by Met fans as part of the part of the original broadcasting team, he still makes occasional appearances in the booth. 
5.  Red Schoendienst.  Scrappy, switch-hitting 2nd basemen who mostly played for the Cardinals. I remember him vividly as the Cardinals manager for their great World Series teams of 1967 and 1968.
6.  Yogi Berra. With all of Yogi's famous sayings (although, as he put it, "I really didn't say everything I said"), it is easy to overlook the fact that he was one of the greatest catchers ever to play the game.
7.  Duke Snider.  Although Brooklyn's loyal fans tried to argue that he was the best of the NY center fielders of the era, he comes in third after Mays and Mantle.
8.  Whitey Ford.  Great Yankee pitcher on great Yankee teams.  He has the highest winning percentage of pitchers with at least 300 decisions.
9.  Ernie Banks.  I remember him as a slugging first baseman, but before my time, he was a shortstop who won the NL MVP back-to-back in 1958-1959.  Epitomizing his love of the game is his great quote, "It's a beautiful day for baseball, let's play two."
10.  Willie Mays.  Perhaps the greatest player ever.  I'm sorry I never really saw him in his prime. When he came to the Mets in 1972, he had little left, but he did contribute to the 1973 team that made the World Series.

11.  Jim Bunning.  More recently a crazy Republican Senator from Kentucky, as a pitcher, he won 100 games in each league.
12.  Hank Aaron.  I can still remember sitting on my grandmother's couch in Florida and watching Aaron hitting his 715th homer to pass Babe Ruth.
13.  Luis Aparicio.  Classic speedy, great-fielding shortstop.  He won 9 Gold Gloves and led the American League in stolen bases for 9 years.
14.  Al Kaline.  Mr. Tiger played 22 years for the Tigers and never played a minor league game.  Great right fielder, great hitter.
15.  Frank Robinson.  When he retired in 1976, he was fourth on the all-time home run list behind Aaron, Mays and Babe Ruth.  In one of the most lopsided trades in history, the Reds sent him to the Orioles before the 1966 season for pitcher Milt Pappas because he was an "old 30."  He won the Triple Crown in 1966, and became a cornerstone for the great Orioles teams of the late 1960s-early 1970s.
16.  Bob Gibson.  After Tom Seaver, Gibson was the favorite pitcher of my youth.  His autobiography, From Ghetto to Glory, which I read as a kid in1968, taught me about poverty and racial discrimination.
17.  Sandy Koufax.  Those last six years of his career, 1961-1966, were the most dominant of any pitcher ever.  Dodger manager Walter Alston should be reviled for the way he abused and misused Sandy's left arm, forcing him to retire because of arthritis at the age of 30.
18.  Harmon Killebrew.  Iconic American League slugger for the Twins, nicknamed "Killer."  He hit the ball very very far.
19.  Bill Mazeroski.  Known more for his slick fielding at second base than his bat, he probably is in the Hall of Fame for one hit, his dramatic home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series to win the series for the Pirates over the Yankees.
20.  Brooks Robinson.  Known as the "Human Vacuum Cleaner," Brooks was probably the greatest fielding third baseman of all time.  I still use (and treasure) my Rawlings Brooks Robinson model glove that I bought in about 1976.
21.  Orlando Cepeda.  Nicknamed "Cha Cha" and "The Baby Bull," Cepeda was the son of "The Bull," a legendary player in Puerto Rico.  Orlando was a star for the Giants and Cardinals, winning an MVP award in 1967 with the champion Cardinals.  Busted for drug possession in the late 1970s, he later became a Buddhist and has been involved in many humanitarian and charitable causes.  Orlando's Caribbean BBQ concession at the Giants' AT&T Park features the popular Cha Cha Bowl.
22.  Willie McCovey.  Willie Mac was probably the most feared hitter when I was growing up.  I still remember watching a Met game on TV when he hit one off the outfield scoreboard.
23.  Billy Williams.  Williams was a great left-handed hitter with a beautiful swing.  He played 1,117 games in a row, from Sept. 22, 1963 to Sept. 2, 1970, which was a National League record that stood for 10 years until broken by Steve Garvey.  Like his great teammate Ernie Banks, Williams never appeared in a World Series.


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