Choosing your greatest Major League Baseball starting lineup of all time isn’t just about picking the best hitters ever. It’s about building your dream lineup, whatever that may be. Perhaps you’re the type of fan that favors power over batting averages and on-base percentage. Maybe you dig the small ball.
Or maybe you fancy a lineup that features a little bit of both.
Note: The positions of the players in this lineup are not necessarily where they featured every day during their careers.
Here is the greatest MLB starting lineup of all time.
1. CF — Ty Cobb, Detroit Tigers
It’s impossible to reflect upon Cobb’s career without at least acknowledging the dark side of the all-time great. Cobb was known to slide into bases with his cleats up in attempts to inflict pain and inspire fear in opposing players trying to tag out “The Georgia Peach.” He once climbed into the stands to pummel a fan who had heckled him (that man had lost one whole hand and three fingers of his other hand because of an accident) for over half of a game.
This piece is primarily about hitting, however, and those who favor batting average over any other stat would have to claim that Cobb is the greatest hitter of all time.
Cobb won the American League battle title every year from 1907 through 1919. His batting average of .3664 remains the highest in MLB history among eligible candidates. No current player is close to even flirting with matching that mark. He retired with the most recorded hits and most recorded runs in history.
Some have speculated that Cobb’s demons helped push him to his overall greatness. One can’t help but wonder, however, if Cobb couldn’t have been even more if he hadn’t been so psychologically beaten.
2. RF — Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners/New York Yankees
Imagine a modern-day Cobb minus the hate and minus the demons that plagued Cobb from his youth all the way up through the final days of his life. You’d have Ichiro, the former Seattle star and current member of the Yankees who, like Cobb, has been a hitting machine throughout his professional career.
The “slap hitter” label that some analysts have placed on Ichiro since he joined the league in 2001 fails to acknowledge both his hand-eye coordination and to his ability to control the bat and place the ball where it needs to be placed in certain situations. Bruce Jenkins of SFGate.com wrote the following about Ichiro back in 2004:
“The man lives for hits, little tiny ones, and the glory of standing atop the world in that category. Every spring, scouts or media types write him off, swearing that opposing pitchers have found the key, and they are embarrassingly wrong.”
Ichiro is, with his Nippon Professional Baseball numbers included (MLB counts those stats), the third player in history to have notched over 4,000 professional hits. He also earned Gold Glove honors every season from 2001 through 2010. Ichiro will, when his playing days come to an end, be remembered as the best natural hitter of his era.
3. LF — “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Chicago White Sox
This was the hardest spot of the lineup to fill, as it involved a battle between Jackson and Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, the man known in many baseball circles as “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.” Jackson gets the nod for several reasons. He remains third all-time in career batting average (.3558), and he was a mainstay in the top-ten in home runs hit per season during the “dead-ball” era.
Jackson could also be the biggest “what if?” player to ever participate in Major League Baseball.
What if Jackson had been fortunate enough to have been born ten years later than he was, which would have resulted in his playing in the era revolutionized by Babe Ruth? What if Jackson didn’t play for Charles Comiskey, notorious for being one of the worst owners in baseball at that time? What if Jackson did, in fact, tell the truth about his not having anything to do with the notorious 1919 White Sox team that threw the World Series? What if his career should have been longer than it was?
4. 1B — Hank Aaron, Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves
Hank Aaron is the greatest power hitter in MLB history. I’ll say it again for those at the back of the class. Hank Aaron is the greatest power hitter in Major League Baseball history. The 755 home runs belted by Aaron in 23 Major League seasons is the mark that should be recognized as the most homers ever hit by a single player, and anybody who says otherwise ignores logic and refuses to live in reality.
The “755” number is the one that’s usually associated with Aaron. Don’t forget about 3,771. That is the amount of Major League hits he had when he retired, good for third all-time on that list. Aaron was named to an incredible 25 All-Star squads.
Consistency. Power. Production. Aaron, at his best, can hit cleanup for me any day of the week.
5. DH/P — Babe Ruth, New York Yankees
American League or National League, designated hitter or no DH; Babe Ruth cares not about your rules. Perhaps the best comparison I’ve ever seen is that Ruth was, in the 1920s, what NBA star Shaquille O’Neal was in his prime. Neither were, technically speaking, the best athletes of their times, but both were unstoppable forces and both changed how their games were played.
Ruth’s legend, which continues to grow 70 years after the fact, has gotten to the point where it overshadows his actual greatness. His season and career home-run records have since been topped, but Ruth remains first in career slugging percentage and in career OPS. He still sits second overall in career on-base percentage and career RBIs, and Ruth is third all-time in base on balls.
Ruth remains, to this day, an American icon, but don’t forget that he was also a damn good hitter.
6. C — Mike Piazza, LA Dodgers / New York Mets
Full disclosure: I am a fan of the Mets, and no, I don’t think that makes this in any way a “biased” selection. Piazza is the best power hitter to ever feature as a Major League catcher. His number speak for themselves. The 1993 NL Rookie of the Year was a Silver Slugger every season from ’93 through 2002, and he has the record for most homers hit by a catcher.
There’s one reason that Piazza has not yet been enshrined in Cooperstown, and it is because of when he played. A star during the “Steroid Era,” Piazza has, by some in the court of public opinion, been accused of using performance enhancing drugs despite the fact that there has never been any legitimate evidence brought against him. Piazza deserves better from fans and from baseball writers.
7. 2B — Rogers Hornsby, St. Louis Cardinals
Of the players who sit in the top four spots of the list of all-time highest batting averages, three of those marks belong to left-handed hitters. Hornsby is the only righty of the bunch, and that along with his combined career resume made him arguably the most prolific right-handed hitter to ever play the game. In all of MLB history, only Cobb retired with a higher overall batting average than that had by Hornsby (.3585).
Hornsby twice won the NL Triple Crown; in 1922 and 1925. He also belted 42 homers in ’22, making him the only player to pull off the .400-40 double. He batted .4235 in 1924. The last person to come close to that single season mark?
Hornsby in 1925 (.4028).
8. SS — Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Flying Dutchman is famous for being featured on what is one of the most valuable playing cards on the planet. Wagner also happens to be maybe the greatest shortstop in MLB history, and some historians and contemporaries of the shortstop view him and not Cobb as the best overall player of the dead-ball era.
From 1900 through 1911, Wagner won eight NL batting titles. That mark has thus far only been matched by the great Tony Gwynn. He is still third in career triples, and Wagner led the National League in stolen bases on five occasions.
Just as impressive as Wagner’s offensive stats was the work that he put in while in the infield. Only three shortstops have more career putouts than Wagner’s 4,576. He led the NL in fielding percentage as a shortstop every season from 1912-1915.
9. 3B — Pete Rose, Cincinnati Reds
“Charlie Hustle” makes completing this lineup easy due to the fact that he played multiple positions. He also serves as a makeshift “second leadoff hitter” here. You could do a lot worse for such a spot in any lineup than Rose.
Career hits. Career singles. Career times on base. Rose, a switch-hitter, holds the all-time records for those and for several other marks. He was also excellent in the field, making 17 total All-Star Game squads at five positions; second base, left field, right field, third base, and first base.
It’s time to forgive and to forget, Major League Baseball. Forgive, and let Rose into the Hall of Fame where he belongs. He has served his sentence for long enough. One of the greatest to ever put on a baseball uniform should be honored for all that he achieved.