Several websites have recently come up with a list of the twenty five most important people in baseball history. I’ve decided to compile my own list but in the interest of space, I’m limiting myself to the top six, which complicates matters exponentially.
Among the candidates are the more than 18,000 players and hundreds of managers and executives who worked in baseball. Also considered were outsiders who had an impact on the game, like union leader Marvin Miller and Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon who pioneered the operation known as Tommy John surgery after the first and most famous patient.
The exercise is purely subjective, strongly influenced by one’s view of baseball history. Most of the lists I’ve seen are heavily weighted in favor of star players based on their accomplishments on the field. My primary consideration is an individual’s lasting impact on the game, whether they played the sport or not; hence, the absence of such greats as Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron. There are no guidelines and no analytical formulas to rely on, just opinions. Here are my selections, in no particular order.
Babe Ruth: There is no way to overstate Ruth’s importance to baseball. He was already a star pitcher and outfielder with the Red Sox when he was sold to the Yankees after the 1919 World Series, the year of the infamous Black Sox scandal. The game was sorely in need of a savior and fortunately Ruth obliged. He was bigger than life in the largest media market in the world. His exploits on and off the diamond are legendary and it’s no exaggeration to say he remains baseball’s biggest star.
Branch Rickey: Rickey is best known for signing Jackie Robinson in 1945, a move that effectively integrated baseball. But if Rickey hadn’t done it, someone else, perhaps Bill Veeck who tried to employ Negro Leagues players before 1945 and signed Larry Doby as the first black to play in the American League three months after Robinson debuted in the National League, would have. Rickey’s lasting impact on the game doesn’t begin or end with Robinson. His legacy includes the creation of baseball’s first farm system, an emphasis on scouting and player development and spurring MLB expansion in 1959 by working to create the Continental League.
Jackie Robinson: Ken Burns claims that Robinson is the most important person in baseball history. I don’t agree. Without Ruth there may not have been a Major League to integrate. And without Rickey, Robinson may not have been given an opportunity. But it was Robinson who carried out Rickey’s vision and paved the way for the hundreds of other Negro Leagues players that followed.
Kennesaw Mountain Landis: After the Black Sox scandal, Landis was given unlimited authority as the first commissioner in baseball history. He immediately banned eight White Sox players for life and virtually eliminated gambling from the sport. That move may have saved baseball from becoming irrelevant. Landis deserves credit for creating a climate that allowed the game to flourish, even though as an avowed racist he used his unchallenged authority to delay baseball’s integration by 25 years.
Marvin Miller: Miller could easily be number one on this list. He was the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, serving from 1966 to 1982. He led the union through three strikes and two lockouts that resulted in lasting changes, most notably free agency, in the relationship between owners and players. No one has had a greater impact on the game.
Ban Johnson: Johnson was one of baseball’s early 20th century pioneers. He single handedly transformed the Western League, a Minor League, into the American League in 1901 after many others had tried and failed to compete with the established National League. He was also responsible for creating the World Series.
With apologies to the likes of Curt Flood, whose legal challenge to baseball’s reserve clause paved the way for the players to earn free agency via arbitration; Bud Selig, who will go down in history as the sport’s greatest commissioner for presiding over unparalleled financial success and a number of innovations including the wild card and revenue sharing; whoever, among a half dozen candidates, invented the game and countless others who would have made an expanded list.
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)