Baseball's Greatest Batters

By Don Weiskopf

Babe Ruth, New York Yankees

After he had established himself as one of the premier left-handed pitchers in the game, Babe Ruth began his historic transformation from a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, to slugging outfielder. He was part of three World Series championship teams.

Babe Ruth

Ruth exhibited so much hitting clout that, on the days he did not pitch, manager Ed Barrows played him at first base or in the outfield. As a full-time outfielder with the New York Yankees, Ruth quickly emerged as the greatest hitter to have ever played the game.

Nicknamed by sportswriters the "Sultan of Swat," in his first season with the Yankees in 1920, Ruth shattered his own single-season record by hitting 54 home runs, 25 more than he had hit in 1919. The next season he did even better: he slammed out 59 homers and drove in 170 runs.

With the opening of the new Yankee Stadium, called The House That Ruth Built, Ruth averaged 49 home runs per season while taking the Yankees to four league pennants and three World Series titles. In 1927 Ruth's salary jumped to $70,000. That season he hit 60 home runs, a record that remained unbroken until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.

Ruth and Lou Gehrig were the heart of the 1927 Yankees team, nicknamed Murderer's Row, regarded by many baseball experts as the greatest team to ever play the game. Ruth finished his career in 1935 with 714 home runs, a record that remained unblemished until broken by Henry Aaron in 1974. He was a major figure in revolutionizing America's national game.

Ruth learned to play during the dead-ball era of the early 20th century, when hitters swung down on the ball, kept it inside the park and relied on speed as their greatest asset. Baseball was strategic, built on grounders, bunts and stolen bases instead of power. While no other player in his day compared to Ruth in the ability to hit home runs, soon other players were also swinging harder and more freely.

Indeed, Ruth helped to introduce an offensive revolution in baseball. In the 1920s, batting averages, home runs, and runs scored soared to new heights. Between 1921 and 1932, the Yankees won seven pennants and four World Series. Because of his home-run hitting between 1919 and 1935, Ruth became, and perhaps remains to this day, America's most celebrated athlete. "It wasn't that he hit more home runs than anybody else," said 1976 Spink Award winner Red Smith. "Babe Ruth hit them better, higher, farther, with more theatrical timing and a more Flamboyant flourish."

Contributing to this story were Allan Wood, SABR; Benjamin G. Rader,; and Matthew Brownstein, New York

Ty Cobb, Detroit Tigers

Ty Cobb may have been the best all-around baseball player that ever lived. For 24 seasons, he earned his fame at bat, on the base paths, and in the outfield. He had a burning desire to win. "I never could stand losing," Cobb said. "Second place didn't interest me."

Ty Cobb

Hall of Fame teammate Sam Crawford said, "Ty didn't outhit and he didn't out run them, he out thought them." Cobb dominated the game in the batter's box and on the base paths. At the plate, the 6'1", 175-pound left-handed swinger often gripped the bat with his hands several inches apart, but usually brought them back together during his swing.

Known as "the Georgia Peach," Cobb had the ability to hit the ball to all fields. He won nine consecutive American League batting titles from 1907 to 1915 and three more in his career. Cobb hit .320 or better for 22 consecutive seasons including .400 three times. The 1911 season one of Cobb's finest, as he batted .420 and led the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI slugging percentage, and stolen bases.

When Cobb retired in 1928 as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, he hit .323 in his last season, at age 41. In 1909, Cobb led the American League in every major offensive category except home runs and was named the AL Most Valuable Player. Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel said, "I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one was even close to him. That guy was super human, amazing."

Cobb, however, was one of the most aggressive players in baseball history, and his short temper led to numerous on-field scuffles. Despite his gruff demeanor, he served as player-manager of the Detroit Tigers from 1921-1926. He led the team to three consecutive American League pennants. "The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever," said fellow Hall of Famer George Sisler.

Cobb concluded his career in 1928 by hitting .323 in 95 games. In 1936, the first balloting was held for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Cobb received the most votes of the five elected and came within four votes of unanimity.

Cobb invested his baseball earnings shrewdly and amassed a comfortable fortune. He died at age 74 on July 17, 1961 in Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia of prostate cancer. Cobb was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Royston, besides his parents and his sister.

Contributing were the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Society For American Baseball Research.

Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox

If the name of the game is getting on base, no one ranked above Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. He reached base safely 48.2% of the time he came up to bat, almost half the time.

Ted Williams

Babe Ruth comes in second, at .474. One of the reasons Williams ranked first was his self-discipline. He refused to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Williams won six batting titles. He led the American League in on-base percentage seven straight years and 12 times overall. His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all time. And he wasn't just doing it with walks and singles. Williams led the AL in home runs four times, and his .634 career slugging percentage is second to only Ruth.d

"He was absolutely the best hitter I ever saw," said Joe DiMaggio. And the Yankee Clipper's sentiments were echoed by many, including fellow Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Mickey Mantle.

As a youth, Williams spent endless hours playing ball on the North Park playground in San Diego where the climate allowed the children to play pick-up ball all year round. By the time he reached high school, he was an exceptional player. While still in high school, Williams signed his first professional contract with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.

With the Padres, he hit a modest .271. After completing high school, he played for the Padres again in 1937, upping his average to .291 and showing some power with 23 homers. Williams was signed by the Padres and went to the big-league training camp in Florida in the spring of 1938. He was assigned to the Minneapolis Millers where he won the American Association Triple Crown with a .366 batting average, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs.

The Kid was all that had been promised, and then some. Playing right field for the Red Sox, Williams hit 31 home runs and batted .327. The following year, 1940, he improved his average to .344, with 23 home runs and 113 RBIs. In 1941, Williams had a season for the ages --- batting .406. Few players had achieved the .400 mark, and no one has done so since. He led the American League in runs and home runs.

In his fourth year of major-league ball, Williams hit for the Triple Crown, leading both leagues, in average (.356), home runs (36) and RBIs (137). And then it was off to serve in World War II. He spent three prime years training and becoming a Navy pilot, serving the war training other pilots. After the war, Williams returned to the Red Sox and received his first MVP award.

Contributing to this story were the Society For American Baseball Research; and the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Hank Aaron, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves

With the swing of his bat, along with the 714 that preceded it, Hank Aaron not only passed Babe Ruth as Major League Baseball's career home run leader, but he also made a giant leap in the integration of the game.

Hank Aaron

Aaron, an African-American, had broken a record set by the immortal Ruth and the all-time major league home run record. In doing so, he moved the game and the nation forward on the journey started by Jackie Robinson in 1947. Aaron grew from humble beginnings in Mobile, Alabama. He passed through the sandlots with brief stops in the Negro Leagues and the minor leagues before he settled in with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves where he became one of baseball's most iconic figures.

Aaron was a consistent producer both at the plate and in the field, reaching the .300 mark in batting 14 times, 30 home runs 15 times, and 90 RBI 16 times. He captured three Gold Glove Awards en-route to 25 All-Star Game appearances. In 1956 Aaron hit .328 to win the first of his two National League batting titles. He led the league with 34 doubles, and was named The Sporting News NL Player of the Year.

The following season Aaron was dropped to the cleanup spot in the order, behind Eddie Mathews, and began using a 34-ounce bat instead of the 36-ounce model he had used before. With the increased bat speed, Aaron led the league with 44 home runs, a career-high 132 RBIs, batted .322 and won the National League Most Valuable Player award. On September 23, he enjoyed what he later called the best moment of his career when he homered in the 11th inning for a win that clinched the Braves' first pennant in Milwaukee.

In the 1957 World Series Aaron batted .393 with three homers against the Yankees, and helped Milwaukee to its only championship. In 1973, Aaron was thrust into the national spotlight on his successful assault on one of sport's most cherished records, Ruth's mark of 714 home runs. On April 8, 1974, Aaron sent a 1-0 pitch from the Los Angeles Dodgers hurler Al Downing into the leftfield bullpen.

For thirty years, he was recognized as baseball's all-time home run king until his record of 755 home runs was broken. Shortly after Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run, Georgia congressman Andrew Young declared: "Through his long career, Hank Aaron has been a model of humility, dignity, and quiet competence. He did not seek the adoration that is accorded to other national athletic heroes, yet he has now earned it."

Contributing to this story was the Society For American Baseball Research and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals

Stan Musial was one of baseball's greatest hitters and a Hall of Famer with the St. Louis Cardinals for more than two decades. "Stan The Man," was also known as The Greyhound because of his quickness. Stan Musial

Musial stole only 78 bases in his major league career, but he showed enormous agility in the field and impressive bursts of speed when legging out extra-base hits. He won seven National League batting titles, was a three-time most valuable player and helped the Cardinals capture three World Series championships in the 1940s. Musial was so revered in St. Louis, with two statues of him outside Busch Stadium. He spent his entire 22-year career with the Cardinals and made the All-Star team 24 times.

Born November 21, 1920 in Donora, Pa., Stanley Frank Musial began his pro baseball career as a left-handed pitcher in 1938 after signing with the Cardinals. But while playing the outfield due to a shortage of players, Musial permanently damaged his left shoulder while diving for a ball. His manager, Dickie Kerr, suggested that Musial turn to hitting, based on the fact that he hit .352 in his part-time outfield duty in 1940.

The next year, Musial sailed through the vast Cardinals' minor league system before hitting .426 in a late-season call-up with St. Louis. In 1942, he hit .315 as the everyday left-fielder. The Cardinals won the World Series that year, and the next season Musial won his first of three National League Most Valuable Player awards for leading the Cards back to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees.

The Cardinals won the World Series again in 1944, and after taking 1945 off to serve in the Navy, Musial won his second MVP in 1946 while leading St. Louis to its third World Series title in five seasons. He went on to hit .331 with 475 home runs before retiring in 1963. Musial had his greatest offensive season in 1948, hitting a career-high .376 while missing the Triple Crown by just one home run.

He won his third and final MVP that year. He played nearly until his 43rd birthday, adding to his totals. He got a hit with his final swing, sending an RBI single past Cincinnati's rookie second baseman, Pete Rose, who would break Musial's league hit record of 3,630 18 years later. Musial was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969 on his first appearance on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, garnering 93.2 percent of the vote.

A half century after his retirement, he remains the face of a Cardinals' franchise he helped turn into a dynasty.

Contributing to this story was; and National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

Lou Gehrig was a great slugging first baseman of the New York Yankees who set the record for consecutive games played in the major leagues. He wore uniform number four, because he hit behind Babe Ruth, number three. Lou

Gehrig and Ruth formed an unmatched power-hitting tandem. Gehrig ad a .340 career batting average with 493 home runs and drove in more than 100 runs in 13 consecutive seasons, including one in which he scored an amazing 184 runs. His 1934 triple-crown season was remarkable, as he hit .363, knocked 49 home runs, and drove in 166 runs. Gehrig's most incredible record was that he played 2,130 games in a row, from 1925 to 1939. That record stood until 1995, when it was broken by Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr., who eventually played in 2,632 consecutive games.

Henry Louis Gehrig was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan in New York City, on June 19, 1903. His parents, Heinrich and Christina Gehrig, were German immigrants who had moved to their new country just a few years before their son's birth. After graduating from high school, Gehrig enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied engineering and played on the school's football and baseball teams. Gehrig was the American League All-Star first baseman for the first seven All-Star teams, from 1933-39, though he retired just shy of the 1939 game.

During his 17 seasons, the Yankees won seven pennants and six World Series. Gehrig's World Series contributions include a .361 batting average, 100 home runs and 35 RBI in 34 games. He was so strong and durable that he was called "The Iron Horse." But in 1939, when Gehrig was 36 years old, everything changed. That spring, Gehrig looked thinner and less sure-footed around first base. He played so poorly that he removed himself from the Yankees lineup because he felt he was hurting the team.

Gehrig went to the Mayo Clinic, a famous hospital in Minnesota, and got some bad news. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare disease that attacks the body's nervous system. Gehrig knew he was very sick when he stood before the microphone at Yankee Stadium on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day (July 4, 1939). A dying man, he told the crowd he was "lucky." He was lucky of all the good people in his life, his wife and family, teammates, Yankees' owner and managers. He concluded by saying, "I may have had a bad break, but I have a lot to live for."

Lou Gehrig died June 2, 1941. His consecutive games streak came to an end on May 2, 1939, after a dismal start cause by his mysterious neuromuscular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, later known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

Contributing to this story were the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Fred Boren, The Washington Post; and

Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants

One of the greatest baseball players in history, Willie Mays was a versatile performer who amazed fans with his powerful home runs and speed on the base paths. He thrilled them over a 22-year major league career with his bat and defensive skills. His excellent glove work in center field matched his offensive abilities, and Mays did it with much enthusiasm.

Willie Mays

The 7,095 putouts he made is an all-time record for an outfielder. He won the Gold Glove Award 12 times, excelling as a hitter as well. His career batting average was .302. For eight years running, Mays drove in more than 100 runs a year, and his 660 home runs put him in third place for the all-time home run record. He became the first player in major league history to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases.

Willie was a hero in his Harlem community, playing stickball with the local kids, and his cheerful exuberance earned him the nickname, the "Say Hey Kid." At age 16, Mays joined the Birmingham Barons of the Negro American League. In 1950, the New York Giants purchased his contract, and he was soon playing center field at the Polo Grounds. After a slow start in 1951, he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

Mays spent most of 1952 and 1953 in the U.S. Army, but in 1954, he showed his all-around ability. He led the National League with a .345 batting average, while blasting 41 homers and 110 RBI's. The Giants again won the pennant. Mays capped the 1954 season with one of the most famous defensive plays in history. He ran down a long drive off the bat of Vic Wertz to deep center field in Game 1 of the World Series to help the Giants beat the favored Cleveland Indians for the championship.

"The Catch" is considered by many to be the greatest defensive play ever. Many consider it the greatest catch in baseball history, while some say the throw was even better. Mays clouted a league leading 51 home runs in 1955, and the following year, he won his first of four consecutive stolen base titles. Mays was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League in both 1954 and 1965, and in 1979, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1972, Mays formed the Say Hey Foundation to help underprivileged children through education and community support. In 1986, Mays returned to the San Francisco Giants organization, where he serves as special assistant to the president of the club. In 1993 the Giants made this a lifetime appointment. In 2000, the Giants dedicated a statue of the baseball icon outside the team's new ballpark at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. In 2015, Mays was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

Contributing to this story were The Greatest Baseball Players of All Time; National Baseball Hall of Fame;; and

Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs

Ernie Banks was one of the premier sluggers in baseball history and a great goodwill ambassador for the game. He never lost his enthusiasm for the game. "Let's play two!" is one classic quote attributed to the ever optimistic Banks. Perhaps no player defined his team as thoroughly as "Mr. Cub," who played with joy and immense talent for the Chicago Cubs from 1953 to '71, although never making a postseason appearance.

Ernie Banks

As a fine fielding shortstop and first baseman, he played his entire career with a second division team. A native of Dallas, Texas, a 19-year-old Banks made his professional debut for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues in 1950. At the time, he was hitting .386 with 20 home runs for the Monarchs. He broke in with Gene Baker in 1953, and the two men were the first African Americans ever to play for the Cubs.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army, he returned to the Monarchs, who sold his contract to the Chicago Cubs in 1953. His debut on September 17 marked the first appearance of an African-American player for the franchise. Banks started every game at shortstop for the Cubs in 1954, finishing 2nd in National League Rookie-of-the-Year voting and 16th in MVP voting. He would go on to win Most Valuable Player Awards in 1958 and '59.

Although Banks was an excellent player in the field, it was with the bat that Banks really shone, hitting over 40 homers five times and leading the league twice in homers and twice in RBI. In 1959, Banks clouted 45 homers, a career-high 143 RBI and a .304 batting average. His lifetime total of 512 home runs tied him with Eddie Mathews for 11th place on the all-time list. Five times Banks exceeded the 40-homer plateau. On May 12, 1970, he hit the 500th home run of his career, becoming just the ninth player and first shortstop to reach the plateau.

His 717 consecutive games played is the 14th-longest stretch in history. During his career, Banks earned a place on 14 All-Star squads. He was dubbed "Mr. Cub" and "Mr. Sunshine" by his followers in Chicago. In a 1969 fan poll, Banks was voted the "Greatest Cub Ever." In 1977, Banks became the eighth player in history to enter the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility. On August 22,1983, Banks became the first Cubs team member to have his uniform number (14) retired.

He was a three-time .300 hitter who compiled a lifetime batting average of .274, along with 2583 hits, 512 home runs,1305 runs scored, and 1636 runs batted in. Along with Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr., he was one of three shortstops named to Major League Baseball's All-Century team in 1999.

Contributing to this story were the National Baseball Hall of Fame;;; and

Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees

Mickey Mantle was one of the greatest all-around players in baseball history. He is widely considered one of the greatest switch-hitters of all-time. During his 18-year career with the New York Yankees, Mantle won four home run titles, a Triple-Crown (highest batting average, most home runs, and most RBIs (runs batted in) in one season, and three Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards (1956, 1957, and 1962). Mantle won seven World Series titles during his time in the Bronx.

Mickey Mantle

In 1956, he won the American League Triple Crown with a .353 batting average, 52 home runs and 130 RBI. He is one of 25 members of the 500 Home Run Club, and his 536 career home runs are the most ever by a switch hitter. As a child in Commerce, Oklahoma, his father, Mutt Mantle, after work in lead and zinc mines, would pitch right-handed while Mantle hit left-handed. Mickey's grandfather Charlie, would pitch left-handed while Mantle hit right-handed. Mickey made his debut with the New York Yankees on April 7, 1951, in right field, alongside Joe DiMaggio in center.

With DiMaggio retiring, Mantle moved to center field in 1952. In his first full season in the majors, Mantle finished third in the American League Most Valuable Player voting after hitting .311 with 23 home runs and 87 runs batted in. He earned his first selection in the All-Star game, and the Yankees repeated as World Series champion over the Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 17, 1953, Mantle hit a home run estimated at 565 feet at Griffith Stadium, still considered the longest measured blast in baseball history. Mantle dominated the American League for more than decade.

He hit a career-high 54 home runs in 1961 but finished second again in the AL MVP race behind Roger Maris, who hit a then-MLB record 61 home runs. It was one of the most dramatic home run races in baseball history, with two teammates battling to break Babe Ruth's mark of 60 set in 1927.

During the 1961 season, Mantle became the highest paid baseball player, signing a $75,000 contract. After finishing runner-up in the AL MVP race in back-to-back seasons, Mantle hit .321 with 30 home runs and 89 RBI and won a Gold Glove. In 1967, he became just the 7th player to join the 500 Home Run Club, when he hit his 500th career home run on May 14 against the Baltimore Orioles. He finished his career with 536 home runs.

His penchant for drink, however, led to debilitating alcoholism as he grew older, and he died of liver cancer on August 13, 1995 at age 63. At the time of his death, Mantle held many of the records for World Series play, including most home runs (18), most RBIs (40) and most runs (42). He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 in his first year of eligibility.

Contributing to this story were the National Baseball Hall of Fame;;; and Encyclopedia of World Biography.

Rogers Hornsby, St. Louis Cardinals

Rogers Hornsby is generally considered the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history. His major league career batting average is second only to Ty Cobb's .366. Hornsby's season-record .424 average and .358 lifetime mark for 23 big league seasons established him as the standard for right-handed batters. His 1924 average of .424 was the second highest attained in the major leagues in the 20th century, trailing only Nap Lajoie's .426 batting average in 1901.

Rogers Hornsby

He led the National League in batting seven times, including an amazing six-year stretch from 1920 through 1925 during which he averaged .402. He became the first National League player to hit 300 home runs. In the dugout, Hornsby's managerial career was less successful than his playing career. He managed for all or part of 15 big-league seasons with six teams, achieving his greatest success as player-manager of the 1926 world champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Hornsby served as a player-manager during select seasons with the Braves (1928) and Cubs (1930-32), as well as during his tenure with the St. Louis Browns. In addition, he was a full-time manager for part of the 1952 season with the Browns and part of one with the Cincinnati Reds, whom he also managed in 1953.

Hornsby also served as a scout and coach after his playing days ended. His overbearing personality, however, created poor relations with both players and owners, and led to his being fired at every post, sometimes in midseason. Like many great ballplayers who try to manage, he couldn't teach what had come so naturally to him, and he was easily frustrated by mediocrity. As one writer put it, "Hornsby knew more about baseball and less about diplomacy than anyone I ever knew."

His trade to the New York Giants in 1927 was a surprise to many in the baseball world. Hornsby had a batting average of .361 and hit 26 home runs, along with 125 RBIs. The Giants then traded him to the Boston Braves in 1928 and he led the National League with a .387 batting average that year. At the end of the season, the Braves reluctantly traded him to the Chicago Cubs in a multiple-player deal that included $200,000 for Hornsby.

In 1929, he helped the Cubs win the pennant that year. He was a player and manager until August 1932 when he was fired by Cubs' general manager, Bill Veeck Sr. Hornsby returned to the Cardinals briefly as a pinch-hitter and utility outfielder before leaving to become manager of the St. Louis Browns in June 1933. He and Ty Cobb were the only modern players to hit .400 three times. Hornsby was named the National League's Most Valuable Player in the league in 1925, and he repeated in 1929. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1942.

Contributing to this story were Encyclopedia Brittannica; Society For American Baseball Research; St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame; and National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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