Monday, February 1, 2016

The Greatest Players From Each Franchise (Part V--NL Central)


Stan Musial
Anyone who thinks Musial was NOT the greatest player in Cardinal history needs to reexamine the facts. In May of 1954, Musial had 4 hits, 3 homers and 6 RBIs in the first game of a doubleheader at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. With the hometown crowd cheering him on, he added 2 homers and 4 RBIs in the second game, finishing the day with 21 total bases. The 5 long balls are still a record (tied by Nate Colbert of the Padres). Though he had some less exciting days at the plate, the performance was typical of Musial's remarkable career. Despite losing a full season to military duty during WWII, Musial is still among the all time leaders in runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, RBIs and times on base. He won three MVP Awards and seven batting titles. He narrowly missed a Triple Crown in 1948, finishing just one home run behind league leaders Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. Musial rarely struck out, recording less than forty whiffs in sixteen seasons--a major league record. He was pretty good on defense too, leading the NL in fielding percentage three times. His efforts guided the Cards to four World Series berths, three of which were winning causes. Off the field, Musial was a consummate gentleman and tireless ambassador of the game. Even the great Mickey Mantle was in awe of Musial's all around greatness. "He was a better player than me because he was a better man than me," said Mantle. Before his death in 2013, Musial received the Presidential Medal of Freedom--the highest honor bestowed upon a U.S. civilian.


Honus Wagner
Wagner was widely hailed by his contemporaries as one of the greatest players in the game. A hundred years later, those endorsements still hold up. Sabermetric similarity scores place Wagner above Napoleon Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker--three of the most prolific hitters in baseball history. Statistical guru Bill James once ranked Wagner as the second best player of all time behind Babe Ruth. Wagner won eight batting crowns and led the league in slugging percentage on six occasions. He still holds the record for most triples by a right-handed batter (252). By the time MVP Awards were handed out, Wagner was thirty-seven years old. Still, he finished among the top ten in voting every year from 1911-1913. There was no All-Star Game in his day, but he would undoubtedly have been a perennial choice. Nicknamed "The Flying Dutchman," Wagner was oddly proportioned with huge hands, a barrel-chest and bowed legs. Though he must have looked a bit awkward doing it, he ran the bases well, accumulating more than 700 steals during his career. He was mild-mannered and approachable off the field. He never hesitated to give teammates and opponents due credit. He was always ready with an interesting anecdote or a joke. After missing out on a managing opportunity in Cincinnati, he served as Pirates coach from 1932 to 1952.


Pete Rose
Of all the players outside the Hall of Fame, Rose is among the most worthy of inclusion. He once remarked that he would "walk through Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball." Few players have matched his level of enthusiasm. Hank Aaron famously joked: "Does Pete Rose hustle? Before the All-Star Game he came into the clubhouse and took off his shoes and they ran another mile without him." Rose's fierce desire to win became infamous. He once brawled with pint-sized infielder Bud Harrelson during a playoff game the Reds were losing handily. In the 1970 All-Star Game, he laid a nasty hit on AL catcher Ray Fosse while delivering the winning run. The resulting injury derailed Fosse's promising career. Over the past two and a half decades, Rose has served as an outspoken proponent of the sport. Banned for life after being caught betting on games he was involved in, he holds the all time record for hits and times on base. He is also the only player to log at least five-hundred games of experience at five different positions. Describing Rose's importance to the "Big Red Machine" of the 1970s, manager Sparky Anderson said: "He is Cincinnati. He is the Reds." 


Ernie Banks
Nicknamed "Mr. Cub," Banks was the living embodiment of baseball in Chicago. Even when his team failed to make it to the World Series year after year, he maintained his zest for the game. He became famous for the statement: "Let's play two." A fourteen-time All-Star, he was the National League's first back-to-back MVP recipient. In an era when shortstops were known mostly for their defense, he went deep 512 times, reaching the 40-homer threshold on five occasions. Highly versatile, he made the switch to first base in 1962. As a shortstop, he led the league in fielding percentage three times. At first base, he led the league once and finished among the top three during five other seasons. He won a Gold Glove in 1960. When sportswriters asked him during spring training how the club would fare in any given year, he always offered a memorable quote. Some examples are as follows: "The Cubs are due in sixty-two," "Wrigley Field will be heaven in sixty-seven," and "The Cubs will shine in sixty-nine." Before he died in 2015, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  


Robin Yount
When discussions of great Milwaukee players surface, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount inevitably enter the mix. While Molitor was undoubtedly among the most gifted hitters ever to don a Brewers uniform, he can't match Yount's record for longevity. Yount spent his entire twenty-year career with the Brewers and appeared to be on pace to reach the 4,000 hit mark when he unexpectedly retired at the age of thirty-seven. In 1982, Yount put together one of the finest seasons ever by a shortstop, leading the American League in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases. He led the Brewers to their first ever World Series appearance. After hitting .414 in a losing cause, he was named AL MVP. Yount was the third youngest player to gather 3,000 hits. He is among a select group of players to be named MVP at more than one defensive position. In 1989, he captured the honor as a center fielder. He is among the top twenty of all time in hits and doubles. He held the franchise record for homers until 2015.    

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