The answer, that is. It’s always Lou Gehrig.
Actually… we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll come back to answer in a minute or two. Let’s first discuss the question.
So there’s a game baseball fans like to play (and by “fans” we also include anybody, anywhere, who has ever written any words, at any time, about the sport). The game, or exercise if you prefer, is to rank the best player who ever lived at every position. Think of it as the all-time, “All-Time Starting Lineup.” Entire books have been devoted the topic, TV shows, countless articles, blog posts… it’s a favorite pastime of devotees of the national past time.
Outfield? Well, it starts with Ruth of course. Mays. Ted Williams. You might swap Mantle for Mays if you place an emphasis on peak, and you wouldn’t be wrong. You might substitute Bonds for Williams, and you wouldn’t be wrong. If you want to get Rickey or Aaron or Cobb into your lineup, you wouldn’t be wrong. Other than Ruth, who has to serve as the keystone for any all-time team, you have some wiggle room in the outfield.
Second base? You have some options. Joe Morgan or Eddie Collins are always popular choices, and one can’t exactly make an argument against Rogers Hornsby. Catcher? Johnny Bench is probably the consensus pick, but Yogi Berra, Josh Gibson, maybe Pudge Rodriguez are going to get their share of votes. Shortstop? For the better part of a century, there was only one answer: Honus Wagner. But then Alex Rodriguez came along to muddle up that picture (and connoisseurs of the finer arts may prefer Ozzie Smith). Pitcher? Psshh. How much time do we have? You might pick any one of six or seven pitchers and not be wrong.[i]
The point being, there’s a basis for reasoned debate and rational discussion at most positions. One has options when filling out this lineup card. The exceptions, other than Ruth, are third base (obviously Mike Schmidt) and first base, which has always been the easiest pick on the field.
Forget the legend. Forget, even, the character of the man. Just look at the record: Gehrig towers over all other first baseman to ever play the game. Long before May 2, 1939 (the day he took himself out of the lineup for the good of his team), the Iron Horse had played his way onto every “all-time” infield.
And he’s never been challenged. Not really. Jimmy Foxx caused quite a stir for a while, but history (and advanced statistics) reveals the significant gap between Gehrig and Foxx as hitters.[ii] Frank Thomas was a monumental hitter, at his peak rivaling even Gehrig. But the Big Hurt was such a defensive liability he was moved off the bag after his first few years in the league. With his superior defense and base running, Jeff Bagwell has a case as the most well-rounded first baseman of all-time – but Gehrig’s advantages as a hitter overwhelm Bagwell’s relative fleetness of foot and glove work.
Nope. The best first baseman of all time is Gehrig. Always has been.
But here’s a thought: What if… he’s not?
What if the easiest question in the history of baseball has a different answer?
What if Albert Pujols – not Lou Gehrig – is the best first baseman to ever man the bag?
Of course, this might not be the fairest of comparisons. After all, Gehrig is one of the few superstars to not suffer a decline phase at the tail end of his career (due, of course, to the worst possible circumstances). Pujols, hamstrung and hobbled for years by injuries (he heads into his 17th season recovering from yet another foot surgery) is but a brittle shell of the hitter he once was. Hey, it happens to the best of them—we can say the same of Ruth, Mays, and countless others. Tailing off at the end of your career doesn't detract from one's greatness.
In other words, it doesn’t seem fair to penalize Pujols because Gehrig didn’t play long enough to see his career averages weighed down with age and infirmity. So let’s even this playing field a bit, and compare them at their absolute best. A happy coincidence for us is that their respective peaks fall into neat, 10-year sequential periods.
Again, Pujols acquits himself extraordinarily well. His 2001-2010 run is one of the most dominant decades ever.
But as we’ve established, Gehrig is of another type:
Fair enough. But let’s wade out into deeper analytical waters. The fact is, OPS+ is only one way to measure production—and it’s far from the best way as it ignores base running and defense (more on this in a second). For a more complete picture of player contributions, we turn to more advanced statistics. And it’s here Pujols begins to make his move:
If, in fact, any gaps exist at all.
Well… probably not. OPS+ tells us how a player performed relative to his league – but it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of that league, about the degree of difficulty attendant to that league. And Gehrig, like every player who stepped onto a major league field prior to 1959, suffers by way of this comparison.[vii] Simply put, the talent pool is much larger, much deeper, much better today than it was in Gehrig’s time – to say nothing of surgically calibrated defenses and bespoke bullpens stocked with fire-breathing robot dragons.
Larrupin’ Lou competed in an eight-team league comprised almost exclusively of white players born in America. We can say with utter certainty that this talent pool did not accurately represent the best players in the world at the time: Roster spots that should have been taken by the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson instead went to vastly inferior players of a preferred skin tone.
None of this is Gehrig’s fault, of course.[viii] But the fact is, he was a thoroughbred who competed against a field that had its share of pack horses.
Pujols, on the other hand, has competed in a 15-team league (more, really, when one considers interleague excursions) against nothing but thoroughbreds (and some chemically enhanced thoroughbreds at that). It's true Pujols has dominated his league to a lesser extent than Gehrig – but Pujols has played in a much tougher league. How much tougher? We can't say with any certainty – but is it a stretch to think the level of competition in Pujols’ time is, say, 14% better than Gehrig’s era?
Because if you buy that, you buy that Pujols has been just as good a hitter as the Iron Horse relative to his league (on a percentage basis, Gehrig’s OPS+ is 14% better than Pujols’). And if you buy that, you buy that Pujols is a viable alternative at first base on your “all-time team.”
Because if Pujols is Gehrig's equal as a hitter, and his superior in every other facet of the game, he's the best first baseman of all-time.
Is it definitive? No, of course not. You can still make the argument in favor of Gehrig without much effort. But the fact that an argument exists at all speaks to the greatness of Albert Pujols. The fact that the easiest question in the history of baseball might now, after nine decades, have a different answer...
Well, that might be as important as the answer itself.
[i] Well, you wouldn’t be wrong if your pick is Roger Clemens. But that’s another article for another time.
[ii] Foxx was a beneficiary of his environment, spending his entire career in favorable hitter’s parks. Foxx slugged .345/.454/.663 at home; .307/.405/.561 on the road, for an adjusted OPS of 163. He’s still an extraordinary hitter, of course. But he’s no Gehrig. It might come as a surprise to learn that Yankees Stadium hurt the Iron Horse over the course of his career: .329/.436/.620 at home vs. .351/.458/.644 on the road, for a gilded 179 OPS+, fourth best in history. Gehrig was probably the second greatest road hitter in baseball history (behind Ruth, of course).
[iii] On-base + Slugging Plus (OPS+), compares the sum of player’s on-base and slugging percentages (OPS) against the league average while accounting for playing conditions. Here’s how it works: League-average OPS+ is always given a value of 100. If a player generates an 80 OPS+ in a given season, that means his OPS production was 20% below league average. If a player generates a 120 OPS+ in a given season, his OPS production was 20% above league average. Ted Williams compiled a career 190 OPS+; Williams, by this measure, was 90% more productive than a league-average hitter over the course of his career. Since it measures player production relative to his league, OPS+ allows us to some degree to compare offensive performance across eras.
[iv] Mark McGwire just misses the cut with 1874 games played. His 163 OPS+ would tie him for second on the list.
[v] And in fairness to Pujols, he more than holds his own in the more traditional categories. He’s already the all-time leader at the position in home runs and doubles, and should he play another two or three seasons, has a reasonable chance to pass Gehrig as the all-time leader in runs and RBI.
[vi] Defensive numbers are, on the whole, suspect. And the further back in time we reach, the more suspect the numbers become Even basic stats like putouts and assists can’t be fully trusted. That said, Gehrig was generally recognized as a competent if unremarkable first baseman. A summary of the anecdotal evidence we have at our disposal: How good was Gehrig with the glove? Well... he was a helluva hitter.
[vii] The Red Sox were the last major league team to add a black player. Jerry Green made his Boston debut July 21, 1959 – more than a decade after Jackie Robinson blazed his trail.
[viii] That would be the owners, and Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Albert Pujols by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Lou Gehrig, by Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons