The question I started with here was: Which team has had the best first basemen over its history? So, with the help of Baseball-Reference.com, I decided to try to answer that question.
First of all, two caveats in this “study.” One is that I wasn’t interested so much in a collection of names as a collective contribution. In other words, I’m not going to highly rank a team like the Mets that has had a lot of Hall-of-Famers – when they were past their prime. I’m more interested in production than name recognition.
Secondly, I decided to weigh my rankings to give some credit to expansion franchises. The Giants and Cardinals have a lot of great players in their histories, but that’s partly because they’ve been around for 100-plus seasons. So a franchise’s age is taken into account when looking at a list of players.
So who had the best first basemen of all time? Here’s my own personal Top 10, in reverse order. Note that the players listed under each team are just some of the highlights in team history.
10. Boston Red Sox
Jake Stahl, Stuffy McInnis, George Scott, Carl Yastrzemski, Mo Vaughn, Kevin Youkilis
Only Stahl and McInnis make it in from the first half of the 20th century. Both were good, but not great, and McInnis had better years with the A’s. Yaz was indeed great, but his best seasons came as a left fielder. A good crop, but nothing overwhelming. And who would have guessed that Kevin Youkilis is perhaps the third-best first basemen in franchise history already?
9. Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins:
Joe Judge, Joe Kuhel, Mickey Vernon, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek, Justin Morneau
There are two Hall-of-Famers on this list: Killebrew and Carew. But both men spent their time with the team at more than one position; Carew started as a second basemen, while Killebrew spent significant time at third and in the outfield. They’re supported by several guys that may not be Hall-of-Famers, but would all make it into the Hall of Very Good. Plus, everyone on the list but Carew spent the vast majority of their careers with the franchise.
8. Houston Astros
Lee May, Bob Watson, Glenn Davis, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman
The Astros have only been around half as long as most teams on the list, but the list of names above is impressive. The Astros have never gone very long without a top-notch player manning first. The key here is Bagwell, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer (no matter what the voters say) who spent his whole career in Houston.
7. Detroit Tigers
George Burns, Harry Heilmann, Lu Blue, Dale Alexander, Hank Greenberg, Rudy York, Norm Cash, Jason Thompson, Darrell Evans, Cecil Fielder, Tony Clark, Miguel Cabrera
There are two Hall-of-Famers here: Greenberg, who also spent some time as a left fielder, and Heilmann, who was primarily a right fielder. I placed the Tigers ahead of the Astros based on the fact that first base has almost never been in poor hands, at least not for long. And there are many names on this list that are just one notch below the Hall of Fame; and Evans is, arguably, a notch above.
6. Chicago Cubs
Cap Anson, Frank Chance, Fred Merkle, Charlie Grimm, Phil Cavarretta, Ernie Banks, Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, Mark Grace, Derrek Lee
This is a cavalcade of stars, headed by one of the elite first basemen ever in Cap Anson. Chance and Banks are also Hall-of-Famers, and guys like Cavarretta and Lee offered MVP-caliber seasons while with the club.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
Dave Foutz, Dan Brouthers, Jake Daubert, Jack Fournier, Dolph Camilli, Gil Hodges, Frank Howard, Wes Parker, Steve Garvey, Pedro Guerrero, Eddie Murray, Eric Karros
Brouthers, Daubert and Murray are Hall-of-Famers. This list is notable for the number of guys who are just one notch below Cooperstown, like Camilli, Hodges, Howard and Garvey.
4. Colorado Rockies
Andres Galarraga, Todd Helton
The Rockies have only had two regular first basemen in their 17-year history. One of them, Helton, has had a Hall-of-Famer career. The other, Galarraga, had a terrific career of his own. On a per-year basis, few teams can match the production the Rockies have gotten from first base.
3. Cincinnati Reds
John Reilly, Charlie Comiskey, Jake Beckley, Hal Chase, Jake Daubert, Wally Pipp, Jim Bottomley, Frank McCormick, Ted Kluszewski, Frank Robinson, Lee May, Tony Perez, Dan Driessen, Pete Rose, Sean Casey, Joey Votto
A plethora of potent players. I count five Hall-of-Famers, not including Comiskey (inducted as an executive) or Pete Rose (who, on the field, is a Hall-of-Famer). Plus, there are guys like Pipp, McCormick and Kluszewski who had outstanding careers.
2. New York Yankees
Hal Chase, Wally Pipp, Lou Gehrig, Del Ennis, Johnny Mize, Moose Skowron, Mickey Mantle, Chris Chambliss, Bob Watson, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira
The Yankees don’t have as many big names as the Reds, but they do have Lou Gehrig’s whole career, which boosts them all the way to #2. Mize and Mantle were Hall-of-Famers, but Mize only spent a few years as a Yankee, whereas Mick only spent a few years at first base.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
Charlie Comiskey, Roger Connor, Jake Beckley, Ed Konetchy, Jack Fournier, Jim Bottomley, Johnny Mize, Stan Musial, Bill White, Orlando Cepeda, Joe Torre, Keith Hernandez, Jack Clark, Gregg Jefferies, Mark McGwire, Albert Pujols
To give you an idea of how great this array of players is, they’d probably be number one even without Albert. There are seven Hall-of-Famers here (if you count Comiskey), and there will eventually be at least nine once Torre is inducted (as a manager) and Albert sails in.
After I finished this list I found myself wondering who was at the bottom. In case you’re also curious, here are my bottom three:
28. Philadelphia Phillies
Kitty Bransfield, Fred Luderus, Dolph Camilli, Dick Allen, Pete Rose, John Kruk, Jim Thome, Ryan Howard
They’ve been around for 120-something years and have yet to produce a full-time* Hall-of-Famer at first.
* -- I would be remiss if I did not note that megastar Mike Schmidt finished his career at first base.
There’s nothing wrong with Kitty Bransfield and Fred Luderus. But if they’re the best first basemen you’ve ever had for the majority of their career, it’s a bit embarrassing (Ryan Howard will probably take that title in years to come). Allen was great, but started at third base and soon left the team, and Rose and Thome were only there for a handful of seasons.
29. Florida Marlins
Greg Colbrunn, Jeff Conine, Derrek Lee
If your moment of glory is the weaker half of Derrek Lee’s career, that’s pretty sad even if you’ve just had 17 years.
30. Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals
Tony Perez, Al Oliver, Andres Galarraga, Nick Johnson
None of the players here a) spent a good chunk of their careers with the team, or b) had their best years there. The rest of the 40-year franchise record is filled with names like Wil Cordero and Lee Stevens.
Up Next: The Second Basemen