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The Sporting News Selects Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players

and

The Real 100 Best Baseball Players Of All Time...And Why!

by The Sporting News publishing Company; by Ken Shouler

The dumbest sign ever brought to a ballpark is unintentionally highlighted in a photograph on the back cover of The Sporting News Selects Baseball's 100 Greatest Players. We all remember the moment. It is September 6, 1995, and Cal Ripken is jogging the perimeter of Camden Yards, high-fiving fans. Everyone is excited, cheering. Different people are holding up different placards: "2131: Iron Man" and "We Love You Cal." And in the center of this celebration a fan brandishes a homemade sign which reads, "Lou Who?"

Lou Who? What goes through such a fan's mind? Does he imagine that in playing in his 2,131st consecutive game, Cal Ripken has just defeated Lou Gehrig in the same way that, say, Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston? That with Gehrig sprawled on the canvas we have to forget him now? That, as Patton put it, Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser, and that's just what Lou Gehrig is now, a loser, because he's only second on the all-time consecutive games list?

A quick glance through this book will set the record straight for such dimwits. Sporting News ranks Gehrig sixth all-time for his .340 average, 493 homeruns, and 13 consecutive 100-RBI seasons. Ken Shouler, in his book The Real 100 Best Baseball Players of All Time...And Why! ranks Gehrig third for being "the greatest RBI-machine the game ever saw." Ripken, the man for whom we are supposed to forget Gehrig, is ranked 78th and 30th, respectively.

Books such as these, inevitable given our end-of-millennium list-loving ways, don't really set the record straight, of course; they merely lead to more arguments.

Babe Ruth is #1 in both books. The top ten of each, with some jiggering here and there, include the same players. Both books select Willie Mays before Henry Aaron, Ted Williams before Joe DiMaggio. Neither book leaves out modern ballplayers, with Barry Bonds leading the way (SN's #34, KS's #16), dogged inevitably by Ken Griffey Jr. (SN's #93, KS's #27). All in all, there are only 18 differences between Sporting News' and Shouler's lists, a number which would surely be smaller if Shouler had included Negro League players as Sporting News did.

That's where the similarities end.

The Sporting News version is a coffee table book with big full-length pictures, and various top ten lists selected by former players and managers. Stan Musial gives us his top ten "Toughest Righthanded Pitchers," Bill Rigney his "Best Clutch Hitters," etc. But there's precious little text here, and for the most part it's bland, corporate text. You get the feeling the writing went through twenty editors until it reached such a numb state of existence that it would offend (or excite) no one.

Shouler, a New York University philosophy professor, has smaller photos, more text and a more irascible point of view. His writing isn't even particularly good, and some of his choices are wacko -- Joe Carter but no Shoeless Joe Jackson? -- but at least you get the sense that a human being wrote the book.

He also gives us, in effect, two lists: the 75 greatest position players, and then the 25 greatest pitchers. Sporting News mixes the two, which leads to purely arbitrary decisions. Placing Christy Mathewson (#7) ahead of Ted Williams (#8)? Why? In their configurations did Mathewson prevent more runs than Williams created? They don't say. They probably don't know. It's hard enough comparing Honus Wagner and Mickey Mantle -- players from different eras and positions -- without worrying over a set of players who are judged on a completely different set of statistics. You might as well add football players to the mix: #16 Johnny Bench; #17, Johnny Unitas...

Read either book, however, and I can guarantee you this: you'll know enough about baseball history never to bring a sign like "Lou Who?" to the ballpark.

—originally published in The Grand Salami

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard