The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 1)

April 3, 2020

For long stretches of time during the 1920s, Babe Ruth, like Jack Dempsey, was considered to be the best all-around athlete in his sport, by consensus, by acclaim, by the stats, by almost any measure you can imagine, and it’s a fairly easy call. But when, exactly, did Ruth assume this title, and when did he surrender it?

 

For Dempsey, of course, we can time this answer down to the minute, probably the second, but for Ruth, we have no clear idea. This ambitious project’s ultimate purpose is to give you a clearer idea of when anyone who was, at some point, the best player in Major League Baseball took on that title and when he gave it up. I can’t always specify the minute or the second (although sometimes I may) and I can’t promise you any more than my best estimate, as opposed to the universal agreement as to who the heavyweight champion of boxing would be.

 

People say that all the time: "Player X was the best player on earth in the late nineteen-somethings," but was he really? Player X, or let’s say Player Double-XX, because we’re going to use Jimmie Foxx as our example here, a younger, possibly more powerful, version of Babe Ruth who played for a decade after Ruth retired, and so was squarely in line to assume the title at some point late in Ruth‘s career, when the Babe was declining and the Beast was in his prime. Was Foxx ever really the best player in the game, though, or merely the second- or third-best player at his peak? Did he even get that close, or were there other contenders better than Foxx throughout his long career? Was Foxx perhaps a Leon Spinks, holder of the world’s heavyweight crown for about fifteen minutes in the 1970s, a blip who no sooner earned the title than he gave it up? 

 

I should specify what I’m NOT trying to do here: I’m not aiming to identify each season’s MVP, which would be unnecessary, unneeded, redundant, and repetitive. And I’m not seeking to find the years in which the best player in the game retired: very rarely if ever has someone retired when he was still the best player in the game. Maybe Sandy Koufax? We’ll have to see about that, but those circumstances will be very rare. Almost all the time, the champ will lose his crown to a younger player rather than lose it upon retiring. Great players become very good players for quite a long stretch, during which someone else would assume the title of "The Greatest."

 

To continue the parallel with boxing, you don’t get a new heavyweight champ every month—and that’s not what I’m looking for here, the guy who has a phenomenal hot streak, or even a guy who puts together two straight Player-of-the-Month awards. That isn’t becoming the champ—it’s more like a lower-ranked fighter knocking out even-lower ranked guys in six consecutive fights, a noteworthy, perhaps newsworthy, event, but not a change in title-holder. No, he would have to get a title bout with the reigning champ, and emerge with the ref holding up his gloved hand in the air while the now-former champ twitches on the canvas, struggling to breathe.  What’s the baseball equivalent of a challenger taking the title away? I’m thinking maybe a Babe Ruth has two sub-Ruthian years in a row, while someone else, a Foxx or a Gehrig maybe, has two strong years at the same time. This is definitely a multi-year sort of thing.

 

How many is "multi-"?   I’m thinking at least three, maybe four, possibly as many as five, great years in a row would be required to put someone on top. For now, I’m going with "three years" as my standard. I don’t think the championship ever rests on one great year, because when someone has a terrific year, a runaway MVP sort of thing, out of the blue, our typical response is "OK, but let’s see him do that again" before I’ll have his head fitted for the crown, and even after a second year, we’ll ask "Is he really great? Has he dislodged Player Y, who’s got a long track record and hasn’t exactly been chopped liver himself these two seasons?"  Think of Ken Harrelson in 1968—a phenomenal season, Player-of-the-Year and all that, but no one really thought that he was the best player in baseball at the time. He had the best YEAR in baseball, maybe, but we all knew (correctly) that he’d need to put together a few years in a row on that level before we’d think of him that way. And he promptly didn’t.

 

I must admit, the 1960s, when I first started following the game, exert a lot of appeal to me even to this day, and the question of who was the greatest player in baseball in the 1960s is one I’d like to find the answer to. My first thought is "Willie Mays" but then my next thought is "OK, even so, Mays lost the title by the end of the decade—but when, exactly? And to whom?" Aaron? Did he lose it to Frank Robinson, perhaps? Harmon Killebrew? We can’t forget entirely about Koufax either. In a perfectly fair world, all of these superstars would have a claim to being the best player in baseball at some point during the 1960s, to say nothing of Mantle, Maris, Yaz, Kaline—the list goes on for quite a while, of great players who contend for the title, however briefly. Dick Allen, and Tony Oliva. And Bob Gibson. But this isn’t a fair world, designed to dole out equitably the honor of supreme greatness. A fair world would have the honor split up twenty or thirty different ways so that all the greats get a piece of it, but that’s not how the heavyweight title goes, to this one and to that one so that every precinct is somewhat mollified.

 

No, I envision the opposite, a very unfair world, in which someone wins the title and, to give it up, he must be beaten, decisively. I’m thinking that Ken Harrelson’s 1968 gets him promoted from the thirtieth-best player in the world to a ranking of twelfth, perhaps, and then a quick falling off to thirtieth and lower when he fails to maintain the stellar level of his 1968 performance.

 

How will these rankings get decided? Am I seeking to impose my opinion as to where players rank, and when they move up and down the ranking charts? That would be hubris, and boring, even to me. I’m thinking of a number of objective rankings that I‘ll merge together (subjectively but fairly) to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not going to go on anyone’s opinion—not the sportswriters of the time, not the Hall of Fame’s decisions, not the often uninformed thinking of the man on the street.

 

What I’m thinking is this:  at any given point in time, there WAS a player who was the greatest in the world, even if the world didn’t know it at the time or ever, and it’s my task here to figure out who that might have been.  Imagine that there is a God in His Celestial Heavens, with nothing better to do with His time than to think about baseball. (That’s what I’d do, anyway, if I were to imagine excellent uses of God’s time.)  This God would be constantly assessing every MLB player, and disregarding commentators, writers, pundits, fans, managers, and everyone else who lacks God’s omniscience and wisdom, and He would have at all times a ranking in His mind. That’s what I’m shooting for here, anyway—the best possible assessment of who, at every point in time, was the #1 player in the world.

 

Another excellent reason I’ll be keeping my own personal opinions out of this is that while I might have obsessive views of certain decades, I am almost willfully ignorant of other decades, and indeed of an entire century, the 19th century, whose players I know as much about as I know of the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, a stray remnant from my 8th Grade Earth Science class that I remember only because I tried to write a song in 8th grade that used that rhythmic phrase in the chorus. (Lyrics on demand.)

 

My ignorance about 19th-century baseball is exceeded only by my apathy about 19th-century baseball, so why should anyone, including me, care what my opinion of it is?  No, to figure out who was the greatest baseball player in the world at any point in the 1800s I am going to rely very heavily on the stats, on analysts’ rankings, on every objective and semi-objective measure I can find. The upside is that by the time I start caring about who the greatest player is, sometime in the earliest 20th century, I’m pretty sure Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth hold the title so securely that we have located two definite points where I’m confident of the correct answer for a few years at least. (But is there a point at which Ruth takes it over directly from Cobb?  Did Joe Jackson hold it temporarily in the 19-teens, perhaps? Who did Cobb take it from, and when?) Another thing I’m going to do my best to ignore is the popular thinking—in some ways that’s my enemy here, what "most people" believe.  What I believe is that most people are idiots, believing what others want them to believe, susceptible to the suggestion (that sells popular magazines) that Soandso is a great player, or Soandso is the best player. Splash that idea across a magazine cover or two, and there are people who will think that it’s a fair idea, or that it’s a great idea or even that this great idea is something they thunk up by themselves, not by some greasy associate editor who thought, "Yeah, this headline will sell a few copies to a few extra saps this month."

 

It doesn’t have to be that direct, or that malevolent, of course. That greasy editor might have thought "Is Mays better than the Duke?" would interest a few readers in the mid-1950s when maybe Duke Snider had never been among the top seven players in the game and Willie Mays had comfortably been #1 for the past two seasons—but your average fan might not have perceived it that way, and went around thinking that the question was legitimate, or fair, or reasonable. Your average fan sitting in the loge is also fickle: maybe on Monday, he thinks Mays is #1 and by Thursday, he’s thinking "No, I like the Duke better—what the hell was I thinking on Monday?" when in reality, it’s been Mantle for the past few years. Or maybe it’s still Ted Williams hanging onto his title.  The point is, I’m not looking for "Who People Think is #1" but who, in an ideal world, IS #1, as best as I can figure it, by a variety of metrics, none of which will get the answer right but all of which, collectively, will shed a spotlight on the question.

 

This project began when I read Nap Lajoie’s Wikipedia entry which said that he and Honus Wagner were "thought to be" the two greatest players in the world in 1902 or 1905 or something, and I thought that was a curious way of looking at it, as if someone had actually kept a ranking and, at that moment, the rankings were deadlocked. Of course, that was merely the opinion of the person who wrote Lajoie’s wiki page, and for all we know they were ranked #s 3 and 4 at the time, or numbers 9 and 12, but the idea had been planted in my head: How might I figure out which one was ranked higher? What criteria would I use? What time span would I need to study to reach any firm conclusion? And when would the previous holder of the title have fallen to number 3 if Lajoie and Wagner were #s 1 and 2? Who was the previous holder of the title? And when did he win it? And so on.

 

One way in which I can be fair and objective is to apply stats that, for a long, long time in baseball history, hadn’t even been invented yet. Mega-stats like OPS+ (or when that’s not available just plain "Opie, Yes") that we all recognize now as separating the sheep from the GOATs effectively but which no one even envisioned roughly back in the day. Or WAR. Or dWAR, or Win Shares. And traditional batting metrics, too, like "HRs" or "Total Bases." Plus also including some opinion-based metrics, but only some, like "MVP shares." Whatever metrics I end up using, and weighting, it will take a dispositive amount of the evidence over a period of years to dislodge the reigning champ from his position. If Stan Musial should edge out Joe DiMaggio (or the other way around, depending on who the reigning champ is) in the late 1940s by a small number of OPS points in a season—well, that’s nothing, the equivalent of landing a few exploratory jabs in a title match. But if he swamps him in OPS+, and laps him in MVP shares, and creams him in HRs for three seasons running, well, at some point that starts looking like a knockout.

 

I’ll need to define "laps" and "creams" and "swamps," of course in an objective way, so it doesn’t seem as if I’m playing favorites or foisting off my own prejudices or idiocies on the study, but there is an objective reality here that I can’t get around, that dictates that at some point in his career, the best player in baseball will lose his standing. We all accept that as a truism: everyone gets old, and most players do it gradually, not all at once. Most holders of the title, I imagine, will hold it at or shortly after their career peaks, and it will take a little time before we can identify their declines clearly. Is the best player in baseball just having a bad month, or can he no longer get around on the fastball like he did a few years back?  Is he in a slump, and will he pull out of it soon, or is this the beginning of the end for him? Is he struggling manfully from that hamstring pull, or are his legs shot? Questions like these can’t be answered quickly or definitively very well, but they can be answered, and when the answer is "He’s done," I’m hoping the method I use will be able to identify the point at which the answer is clear and definitive.

 

The concept of One Single Greatest Player, perhaps still an outlandish or foolish one to you, is common in individual sports: boxing, or golf, or tennis, all depend on rankings of the best player in the world at any given point in time, because the sport itself is all about knowing who that player is. In team sports, no purpose is served by making such an ID, while a greater purpose is served by letting people argue about the question rather than providing them with a clear and definitive answer.

 

It may be unfair to certain players to view greatness in just this way. It may well be the case, probably is the case, that several all-time greats will never wear the heavyweight crown as I’ve set it up, and it might be that a lesser interloper will grab the crown at a freakish weak spot in baseball’s history. One of the more interesting junctures is during and just after WWII—I’m not sure how to handle the hiatus caused by protracted military service for most of the major stars, but in the years immediately following the war, there are at least three well-established superstars at the height of their powers, DiMaggio, Williams, and Musial. It’s entirely possible that one of these men will get utterly screwed out of a shot at the title: let’s say that Musial never dislodges DiMaggio or Williams during the war, and one of them or the other hangs onto it throughout the late 1940s, and then by the mid-fifties, let’s suppose that Mantle or Mays unseats the reigning champ, leaving Musial a perpetual bridesmaid. That’s unfair to Stan, who is clearly among the greatest of the great, but there can be only one King at a time, so maybe Musial never wears the crown for even a day.

 

Or maybe he does, or maybe a lesser star than Musial holds it for a year or two—I can imagine that Ralph Kiner finds himself seated in the final round of this game of musical thrones at some point in the early 1950s. It would be an injustice if Kiner, whom everyone I think would rank much lower on the scale of greatness than Musial, got to be the champion briefly while Musial gets shut out, but I can imagine that happening, if the numbers shake out that way, and I’m fine with that. This isn’t an exercise designed to identify the greatest players of all time, and certainly not the greatest careers of all time. It’s to identify the greatest player in the world at every point in time—there will be those who never get to wear the crown, and those who wear it for much shorter periods than you or I will think is just.

 

[Right now, of course, we’re living through such a freakish spot: if not for the pandemic, for all I know, Mookie Betts would move ahead of Mike Trout in the 2020 season, if there were a 2020 season.  But if there isn’t one, maybe Betts never gets his shot. Unfair, but whaddayugonna do?]

 

Another example of this problem: one of my favorite players of all-time, Jackie Robinson, a guy whom subjectively I’d list on my Top Dozen, probably never even gets a shot at the title. I don’t doubt for a second that Robinson was great—but the competition was in fabulous high gear when he came along, and just about the point when I think he started establishing that he was great, and some of the competition started getting old, Jackie got old too—I don’t think he put together enough years of greatness at his peak before he started to fade. That’s too bad. But I can’t be rejiggering the results just to favor someone I think was great. The numbers will show what they show.

 

The numbers would be different if I chose, say, a four- or five-year period for this illustration, and of course they would differ if I chose a different metric than OPS+--but not that different, I believe. A five-year study of Win Shares, for example, would introduce different seasons in which the championship would change hands, and perhaps introduce some new champions or eliminate some champs that this three-year study of OPS+ coronates. But most of the years, and most of the champions, would remain the same. No one is dislodging Cobb, or Ruth, or Williams, or Mays, or Bonds at their lengthy peaks of dominance. Nevertheless, I’ll start using the periods and metrics I’ve chosen.

 

To do this right, I would need to start at baseball’s beginnings, which I can’t do because no one can define when baseball began. So I’ll need to pick up at some arbitrary-seeming point in the nineteenth century to make sure that the correct player holds the crown—I can’t begin with Lajoie and Wagner, for example, because I have no idea who either one dislodged from the championship, or exactly when, though I could take a guess. No, I can’t just pick up in mid-course and start wherever I like.

 

But I can illustrate how this work by choosing some points where it’s clear who the champ is. I think it indisputable that Ty Cobb was the champ at some point in the early teens, and that Ruth was the champ in the 1920s. I could start there. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that DiMaggio wasn’t a no-brainer choice for the Greatest just before the war got underway: Williams hadn’t put together enough of a track record in his first season or two to rank just yet, and Musial hadn’t even gotten started, while DiMag had put together six of the best seasons ever from 1936 through 1941. So there are at least three points where we know who the best player in the world would be. For illustration’s sake, I’m going to go with the bold statement that Ruth was the greatest player in the world in 1927.

 

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to exclude pitchers from this initial stage of the exercise. I would guess that in the 19th century, when pitchers would be everyday starters, they would easily be among the greatest players in the world and, even in the late 20th century, a pitcher would occasionally deserve to win the MVP award. We can’t legitimately exclude pitchers from an exercise looking for the best player in the game, of course, nor can we minimize the role of fielding for position players, but for the moment, to illustrate the process, we’re going to identify the best hitter in the game. Further simplifying the process, we’re going to rely on only one metric, rather than the three or four metrics we probably need, and that one will be the single standard of OPS+.

 

Every player I’ve named up to this point—Ruth, DiMaggio, Trout-- is just speculation. Let’s see how the numbers actually shake out. We’ll start out, quite arbitrarily, in the late 1920s and maybe later on backfill the earlier seasons.

 

After the 1927 season, Ruth had led MLB in OPS+ for two years running. (Hornsby had led in OPS+ for three of the four years from 1922-25, so he probably was the World’s OPS+ Champ for a year or two in there, but Ruth had certainly fought his way back to the title by 1927.) I’ll start by showing how Ruth held a lock on the OPS+ title by 1929.

 

 

 

1927

 

OPS+

1. 

Babe Ruth

225

2.

Lou Gehrig

220

3.

Harry Heilmann

180

4.

Rogers Hornsby

175

5.           

Al Simmons

172

 

 

This is our base year. It proves very little, other than Ruth led that year narrowly. We’ll count it once. In 1928, Ruth maintains his lead by leading MLB in OPS+ once more:

 

1928

 

OPS+

1. 

Babe Ruth

206

2.

Rogers Hornsby

202

3.

Lou Gehrig         

193

4.

Goose Goslin     

176

5.           

Jim Bottomley  

162

 

 

The players change a bit, not much—Ruth obviously holds onto his OPS+ crown, so no matter. We will count 1928 two times, so Ruth is credited with 412 OPS+ points for 1928, Hornsby 404 OPS+ points, and so on, and we’ll count 1929, our target year, at three times the raw numbers:

 

1929

 

OPS+

1. 

Babe Ruth

193

2.

Rogers Hornsby

178

3.

Jimmie Foxx     

173

4.

Lou Gehrig         

165

5.           

Mel Ott                 

165

 

 

(The arithmetic for 1929 is:

 

1.            Babe Ruth           193 x 3 = 579

2.            Rogers Hornsby 178 x 3 = 534

3.            Jimmie Foxx       173 x 3 = 519

4.            Lou Gehrig          165 x 3 = 495

5.            Mel Ott                165 x 3 = 495, just as an example of the breakdown.)

 

After the 1929 season, weighting them so that 1929 counts the most (three times its nominal value) and 1928 counts the second-most, and 1927 counts the least (but still counts),  Ruth would be the OPS+ champ for the 1927-29 period with 1216 OPS+ points, and Hornsby a fairly close second, with 1113 OPS+ points.  The number-two contender for the heavyweight crown (who had no idea what kind of shit was about to go down) is Gehrig with 1101.  Foxx and Ott will do well in the 1930s, I’d imagine, so let’s go back and recalculate their figures, which were not among the top 5 for the 1927-9 period: Foxx who turned 20 after the 1927 season put 130 OPS+ points (in a partial year, which we’d need to discount if it mattered, which it doesn’t)  and then in 1928 put up a 148 OPS+, so:

 

173 x 3, 148 x 2, and 130 x 1 equals 945, not too shabby for an up-and-comer, while Ott’s OPS+ numbers add up to 864, not bad at all, considering that Ott was even younger (by a year and a half) than Foxx.  Think of them as two unranked but devastating young boxers, not nearly ready to challenge Ruth for the title but very dangerous young fellows.

 

Let’s try 1930:

 

I’ll give the top 10 here, because neither Foxx nor Ott made the top 5, and I think they may be the ones to watch:

1930

 

OPS+

1.           

Babe Ruth          

211

2.           

Lou Gehrig         

203

3.           

Hack Wilson    

177

4.           

Al Simmons     

175

5.           

Babe Herman

169

6.           

Jimmie Foxx      

161

7.  

Chuck Klein

159

8.           

Bill Terry             

158

9.

Mel Ott  

150

10.          

Ed Morgan         

150

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Who the hell is Ed Morgan? Ever hear of him? Me neither. Turns out he’s a 26-year-old first baseman for Cleveland who hit half his career HRs in 1930.)  This is Hack Wilson’s big year, of course, but we really don’t need to worry about him much because he has too short a peak (he stood only 5’ 6") to contend for the crown. Hornsby has wrecked his standing completely, too, by committing the triple sin of getting hurt, getting old, and compiling an OPS+ of 96—we can forget about the Rajah, I think, from here on in. Ruth is still the undefeated champeen of course, but let’s see how our two young contenders are doing:

 

Foxx now has 977 OPS+ points, well behind Ruth’s 1225, but ahead of Ott’s 919 for 1928-30. Gehrig meanwhile is still the top contender with 1132. So the top four by my calculations after the 1930 season are:

 

Rank 1928-30

 

OPS+

1.

Ruth     

1225

2.

Gehrig  

1132

3.

Foxx      

  977

4.

Ott        

  919

 

Ruth still has a comfortable but not unassailable grip on the crown. Let’s see if Gehrig can unseat him with a strong 1931:

 

Nope. Ruth leads MLB again in 1931, with Gehrig in his now-familiar second banana spot:

 

1931

 

OPS+

1.

Babe Ruth          

218

2.

Lou Gehrig         

194

3.

Al Simmons        

175

4.

Chick Hafey       

154

5.

Chuck Klein        

152

6.

Mel Ott               

151

 

 

I provided the top six slots this time to show where Ott wound up in 1931—Foxx didn’t make the Top Ten which is too bad for him for reasons I’ll explain shortly. Third-place Al Simmons, with his second consecutive OPS+ at 175, now ranks pretty high as well, while Chick and Chuck lack staying power. The three-year rankings after 1931 look like this:

 

Rank 1929-31

 

OPS+

1.

Ruth     

1205

2.

Gehrig  

1153

3.

Simmons

1034

4.

Ott        

 918

5.

Foxx   

 915

 

 

Foxx actually finished just out of the top ten in 1931, posting a 140 OPS +, barely behind Ott whom he continues to track very closely. But 1932 is a bust-out year for young Foxx, and the first year that Ruth fails to finish atop the pile in quite some time:

 

1932 season

 

OPS+

1.

Jimmie Foxx

207

2.

Babe Ruth          

201

3.

Lou Gehrig         

181

4.

Mel Ott               

174

 

 

But tracking OPS+, as we have been doing, over a three-year period, Ruth has effectively fought Foxx to a draw—Foxx edged him on points, but 207-201 is close enough to be judged even, and over the 1930-1932 period, the rankings show Ruth holding on:

 

Rank 1930-32

 

OPS+

1.                  

Ruth

1250

2.

Gehrig

1134

3.

Foxx

1062

4.

Ott 

  974

 

 

 

In 1933, Foxx again leads MLB in OPS+, so might be in position to take the title from the Babe in his first  title bout re-match:

 

 

1933 season

 

OPS+

1

Jimmie Foxx      

201

2

Lou Gehrig         

177

3

Chuck Klein        

176

4

Babe Ruth          

176

5

Wally Berger     

172

6

Mickey Cochrane            

158

7

Arky Vaughan    

146

8

Babe Herman    

142

9

Mel Ott               

138

10

Paul Waner        

135

 

 

This time, Foxx has jumped out to a decisive victory, 25 OPS+ points over Gehrig, Klein and Ruth in a virtual tie for second place. Is it enough? (Ott is stuck down in 9th place, so it looks like his chances of overtaking Foxx are very far in the future, if not gone entirely.)

 

 

Rank 1931-3

 

OPS+

1

Foxx

1157

2

Gehrig 

1087

3

Ruth

1082

 

 

At this point, the end of 1933 season, I would say that we have a winner and new champeen, Jimmie Foxx, at the age of 25. Ruth is now narrowly behind Gehrig, but approaching free-fall. There’s no way you can rank Gehrig over Foxx since Old Biscuit Pants has never held the annual OPS+ title, and Foxx has now won the yearly title the past two years.

 

So after six years of holding and defending his title against all comers, Babe Ruth’s reign finally ends in late 1933. (Ruth also held the title for a so-far indeterminate number of years in the early 1920s as well, of course, giving him a run, or two runs, that probably can’t be matched. But we shall see.) Now the question is whether Foxx can defend his newly won title against Gehrig and other contenders, and for how long. I’m anticipating that Joe DiMaggio, who will debut in 1936 and get his career off to a red-hot start will put up a pretty  good run until WWII derails him (we’ll deal with just how later on) but the mid-1930s looks to be up for grabs with Foxx and Gehrig the leaders at this point.

 

1934

 

OPS+

1.

Lou Gehrig

206

2.

Jimmie Foxx

186

3.

Mel Ott

168

4.

Ripper Collins

158

5.

Hank Greenberg

156

6.

Paul Waner

154

7.

Hal Trosky

150

8.

Earl Averill

150

9.

Len Koenecke

150

10.

Charlie Gehringer

149

 

 

 

 

Rank 1932-4

 

OPS+

1.

Foxx

1167

2.

Gehrig

1153

 

 

In his first title defense, all through 1934, Foxx wins a close decision over the challenger Gehrig. Like Foxx in challenging Ruth’s title the previous year, Gehrig leads baseball in the current year but the overall three-year results fail to knock the champ out of the ring, so Foxx narrowly retains his title. Ruth meanwhile falls out of contention entirely, posting a still-impressive 160 OPS but failing to qualify (with a mere 472 Plate Appearances) for the title. Mel Ott is obviously out of contention but still in the discussion with a 168 OPS+ mark, and youngsters Hank Greenberg and Hal Trosky have presented their credentials for a future challenge to Foxx with showings of 156 and 150 respectively.

 

In 1935, we see an up-and-comer, Arky Vaughan, leading for the year but lacking in long-term credentials for a shot at the title. (He’s about 100 total OPS+ points behind Foxx and Gehrig, who are virtually tied at this point.)  Since Foxx again barely edges Gehrig out, he hangs onto the title:

 

1935

 

OPS+

1.                       ​   

Arky Vaughan

190

2.

Jimmie Foxx      

182

3.

Lou Gehrig         

176

4.

Hank Greenberg              

170

5.           

Mel Ott

157

6.           

Gabby Hartnett

151

7.           

Joe Medwick     

151

8.

Wally Berger     

148

9.

Hank Leiber       

141

10.

Joe Vosmik

141

 

                             

 

Rank 1933-35

 

OPS+

1.

Foxx

1119

2.

Gehrig

1117

3.

Vaughan

1012

4.

Ott

  945

 

 

Hank Greenberg presents an interesting dilemma in determining who MLB’s greatest hitter is at any point in time: statistically, he has great cred for 1935, with a 170 OPS+, and his 1934 was none too shabby either, an impressive 156, but he’s not quite qualified by my three-year standard, because his 119 OPS+ in 1933 is A) not that hot, and B) not a full season (117 games), so he’ll have to wait for the 1936 results to come in to get a shot at the title. This statistical way of looking at it also tracks the way I’d put it verbally: Greenberg’s first two full years, 1934 and 1935, are really impressive and I’d put him close to the top, but I’d need to see him put in a similar performance in 1936 before I’ll crown him champ.

 

Unfortunately for Greenberg, though, his 1936 is the year he missed almost the complete season (wrist injury) so his clock gets re-set to 0. This, again, is how I’d put it subjectively and verbally: I’d need to see him come all the way back, not for just a month or even a season but to put together three straight years at the top of his game to show he’s back, to show he’s not easily injured, to move ahead of other hitters who are also having excellent seasons. He’ll get another shot at the title further on (his 1937-1940 OPS+es are excellent) but WWII will present a problem for him, and also for us in determining the identity of the greatest hitter in MLB.

 

1936

 

OPS+

1.

Lou Gehrig

190

2.

Mel Ott

177

3.

Johnny Mize

162

4.

Dolph Camilli

162

5.

Bill Dickey

158

6.

Joe Medwick

157

7.

Earl Averill

157

8.

Paul Waner

157

9.

Jimmie Foxx

155

10.

Arky Vaughan

148

 

 

OK, reviewing Joe DiMaggio’s career, I’m a little surprised to see him not on the top ten OPS+ list for 1936, his great rookie year, and a lot surprised to see him NEVER leading MLB in OPS+, not even once. (He did lead the AL one year, 1940.)  Our two champs so far, Ruth and Foxx, have each led MLB  in multiple seasons, so this doesn’t bode well for Joe D.’s dominance as the greatest hitter at any point in his career, though OPS+ is only one of several metrics we’d have to apply to the question.

 

One final synoptic chart, in which Lou Gehrig finally beats out Foxx decisively with his knockout 1936 OPS+:

 

Rank 1934-36

 

OPS+

1.

Gehrig

1128

2.

Foxx

1085

3.

Ott

1013

4.

Vaughan

  972 

 

 

In the final year of the 1927-1936 decade, Mel Ott has finally climbed as high as third-ranked, and for the first time he has cracked the 1000 OPS+ mark over three seasons. 1936 was Johnny Mize’s rookie season, in addition to being Joe DiMaggio’s. Mize’s 1936 slash numbers are slightly less impressive than DiMaggio’s, but in looking over their future careers, I’d have to judge Mize as being DiMag’s offensive equal, if not his better: remember what I wrote just now about DiMaggio never leading MLB in OPS+? Well, Mize did (in 1940) and he nailed it with an OPS+ just a hair under what he hit in 1939 (177/178) when he led the NL in OPS+, which was just a hair above his 1938 OPS+ of 176, which was just three hairs better than his 1937 OPS+ of 173. I haven’t done the work yet, but from those stats it seems inevitable that Mize will be the World’s Champ by 1940 at the latest. In other words, my speculations about DiMag’s offensive dominance may well apply instead to Mize’s early career.

 

This is a very satisfying outcome, fulfilling some of my expectations and upending others.

 

I’ll leave you with a list of 1929-1936 OPS+ title-holders by the standard I’ve been using here:

 

1929-1932  Babe Ruth (4 seasons)

1933-1935 Jimmie Foxx (3 seasons)

1936-          Lou Gehrig (1 season and counting)

 

 

Next installment, this study continues into the 1940s and beyond.

 
 

COMMENTS (4 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
davidt50--I'm pretty sure Hornsby gets in there when Ruth had his down years, but I won't know until I finish moving forward, and then I can try moving backwards.
10:17 AM Apr 5th
 
davidt50
Never would have thought of Rogers Hornsby as the best in baseball, he may have been, with Ruthhaving off years in 22 and 25, in the midst of the best six eight ten twelve fourteen year run anyone ever had. If we count 1916/17 as great years as a pitcher then his hitting builds on that.
4:36 PM Apr 4th
 
DrewEck
Congrats! Great, fun work.
9:40 PM Apr 3rd
 
bearbyz
Interesting study, I'm looking forward to it.
2:28 PM Apr 3rd
 
 
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