Who Was the Best Baseball Player Ever?

My father once asked his best friend, Nate, “Who was the best baseball player ever?” Nate thought about it for a few seconds and then he said, “Well, first we have to eliminate any players whose main contribution dated from before 1948.” By this he meant that before black players were allowed to compete in the National and American Leagues, white players were only competing against a reduced pool of talent. If every single great black pitcher had been pitching in the major leagues between 1914 and 1935, how many home runs would Babe Ruth have hit? The honest answer has to be, “Less than 714.”

But how many less? 10? 100? 250?

It is impossible to measure the true value of the white players from the pre-integration era, because they never had to face the black players of the same era. It is exactly the same logic that eliminates Sadaharuh Oh from the conversation – if a player isn’t measured against the best of his contemporaries, how do you measure him? So, according to Nate’s implacable logic… THEY DON’T COUNT!

“Ruth? Lou Gehrig? Stan Musial? Cy Young? Ty Cobb?” my father asked breathlessly. Disqualified, every single one.

If we agree with Nate’s perfectly reasonable conclusion, we must also adjust the record books. Not just individual statistics but team statistics. So the Cleveland Indians last won the World Series in 1948. By Nate’s yardstick, that championship counts, just barely – and indeed they had two black players on that team, Larry Doby and one player who would most certainly be in the running for “greatest baseball player ever” but whose main contribution was made in the Negro Leagues, before integration – Satchel Paige.

But the Cubs? The Cubs never won the World Series before 2016. Not in 1908, not in 1907. Never.

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