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Posted: Thursday July 9, 2009 10:57AM; Updated: Thursday July 9, 2009 12:53PM
Tom Verducci Tom Verducci >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Thrill List: Baseball

Story Highlights

Jackie Robinson's daringness and speed kept fans riveted and changed baseball

Babe Ruth was the first superstar of professional baseball in America

Ty Cobb's personality demanded attention -- as did his baserunning

nolan-ryan.jpg
In his 773 career starts, Nolan Ryan threw seven no-hitters.
Ronald C. Modra/SI

These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.

10. Ted Williams

He most likely was the most advanced hitter there ever was -- with the sweetest swing. Williams received MVP votes in every season of his career, including his last, when, at age 41, he posted a 1.096 OPS. Teams deployed a defensive shift to try to stop him, but Williams still hit .344 lifetime.

9. Nolan Ryan

Every time Nolan Ryan took the ball -- and he started 773 games in his epic career -- you believed you might see a no-hitter. He threw seven no-nos in his career, but that Ryan could make the spectacular seem possible at any opportunity was a tribute to the ferocity of his pure stuff. Nobody ever threw harder and longer than the Ryan Express. He struck out 10 batters in a game 215 times. Of course, he also walked 10 batters in a game twice, including a kind of signature game June 14, 1974, when he did both: 10 walks and 19 strikeouts in a 13-inning complete game victory, 4-3, over the Red Sox. He faced 58 batters in that start; half of them either walked or struck out.

8. Sandy Koufax

The arc on his curveball and the velocity of his fastball were among the great natural wonders of the world in the 1960s. People -- most of them hitters who had been humbled by him -- talked about Koufax in awed terms. Koufax threw four no-hitters, two one-hitters and eight two-hitters. At the time of his sudden retirement, he had won 90 of his previous 114 decisions -- getting beat only 24 times in 139 starts.

7. Bo Jackson

What's a career .250 hitter doing on this list? Bo Jackson had to be seen to be believed. He climbed outfield walls, broke bats in half with his bare hands, ran over catchers and hit baseballs ridiculously far for someone who spent a good chunk of his career playing in the NFL and was rumored to have leapt tall buildings in a single bound.

6. Mickey Mantle

At a baseball writers banquet once, when Jose Canseco was honored after his 40/40 season, Mantle, after finishing a speech, walked back up to the microphone and said, "And another thing, if I knew y'all would make such a big deal out of 40/40 I would have done it all the time." Of course, he was right. Mantle could do it all on the ballfield. He was rarely thrown out stealing (he owned an 80-percent success rate on 191 attempts), played superb defense in the outfield, batted from both sides of the plate and hit the ball just about as far as any man who ever lived.

5. Rickey Henderson

Few players could beat you in more ways than Henderson, who was so great and prolific that sabermetrician Bill James once remarked that he subsumed the equivalent of two Hall of Fame careers into one. Henderson won 12 stolen-base titles, including one at age 39 when he stole 66 bases in 79 tries, and hit 297 career homers. He once scored 146 runs in 143 games for the Yankees. Henderson was a rally waiting to happen when he stepped into the batter's box. He reached base 39 percent of the time he led off an inning and scored 56 percent of times he reached base leading off.

4. Willie Mays

Mays was jazz brought to the ballfield, a style so full of soul, passion and joy that it was unlike anything else before it. Watching Mays fly out from under his cap running the bases or running down a flyball was one of the real treats of those times, as if seeing him smack a tape-measure home run with that ferocious, spinning hack wasn't enough to please the crowd. Mays won four stolen-base championships and four home-run championships. It wasn't just that Mays could do it all on a ballfield; it was that he could do all of it better than just about everyone else.

3. Ty Cobb

Before Ruth, there was Cobb, whose personality made him difficult to like, but whose game demanded your attention. Casey Stengel called him the fastest player he ever saw, saying, "I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even comes close to him. He was the greatest all-time ballplayer. That guy was superhuman. Amazing." At his best, at age 24 in 1911, Cobb hit .420, stole 83 bases, drove in 127 runs, scored 147, collected 248 hits and slugged .621 -- all league-leading totals.

2. Babe Ruth

Ruth led the league in complete games one year and home runs the next, an astonishing testament to his athleticism. With a swing designed for power and loft, Ruth changed how baseball was played more than any ballplayer who ever lived. He was the first true superstar and an icon of popular culture.

1. Jackie Robinson

The shame of it is Robinson already was 28 years old by the time Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers dared to break the color line in major-league baseball. In his debut season, the first of his only 10 big-league seasons, Robinson reached base 258 times and scored nearly half of those times (125). His speed and daring on the bases kept fans riveted and pitchers distracted. He received MVP votes in eight of his 10 seasons without ever hitting 20 home runs in a season, and stole home 19 times. Said teammate Duke Snider, "He was the greatest competitor I've ever seen. I've seen him beat a team with his bat, his ball, his glove, his feet and, in a game in Chicago one time, with his mouth."

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