From Wagner to Pujols, these men have been King of Baseball
The author attempts to find out which players were best over a five-year reign
Some legends, such as Hank Aaron and Yogi Berra, never wore the crown
Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds had the longest reigns; Albert Pujols is king now
Joe Posnanski, Brian Kenny and I were sitting in a bar ... well, it'd be nice if true, but it was only in my imagination. Posnanski and Kenny did, however, inspire my thinking for a question that baseball fans often debate: who is the King of Baseball?
Kenny, as big a boxing guy as he is a baseball guy, often refers to the "lineal title," a mythical contention that allows boxing fans to avoid dealing with the myriad alphabet agencies that crown champions, deserving or not. The lineal title is simply explained as "to be the man, you've got to beat the man." Not be a little better, not eek out a round here or there, but truly beat the man, the way it used to be.
Posnanski, for his part, tried answering a similar question in his recent post speculating about past MVPs. While Posnanski's take is good, there's just too much variance in year-to-year baseball performance to truly crown a lineal champ based on any one year. When it comes to this crown, there needs to be a 'smell test'. Having a Brady Anderson or even a Roger Maris as King just simply doesn't work. It's hard to be The King, which is as it should be. Great players like Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench, based on the method described below, never got to wear the crown, though that hardly takes away from their greatness.
I asked my research assistant, Dan Wade, to take a look at various methods for crowning the King and he came up with a good one. Looking at the top of Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement leaderboard on a year-to-year basis would give a reasonably good picture of who the dominant players of this generation and of past generations are, but it does make flash-in-the-pan successes look better than they are. (We excluded pitchers, since the comparisons are hardly apples to apples.) A rolling five-year total on the other hand, credits those who put up consistently great numbers without unduly rewarding the player who has a season or two of top class performance, but can't keep the success up for longer than that.
The modern era of baseball is commonly considered to have started with the birth of the American League in 1901. That gives us a nice jumping off point and a worthy first King:
The first King is always the yardstick others will be measured by and Wagner holds up to any that came after him. He defined the game in a changing era as both a defensive wizard and an offensive force. The Pirates could certainly use him today.
Total WAR: 89.6
Trivia: Played every position except catcher at least once over his reign.
Could there be any other answer? Cobb, acknowledged by many of the era to be the best ballplayer they had ever seen, combined a slashing style at the plate and on the bases and rangy outfield defense to make him an easy choice to follow Wagner as king, though he wasn't nearly as dominant as the Flying Dutchman.
Total WAR: 65.3
Trivia: Cobb was one of two players during the span to hit 120 or more triples. The other was his Tigers teammate Sam Crawford.
If baseball were to ever have a War of the Roses, Eddie Collins would be the one on the white horse. Cobb would be ok with that. Collins truly was Cobb's equal for a time. Seeing that Collins not only took Cobb's crown, but held it for three blocks may serve to remind many just how good Collins, a future Hall of Famer, was.
Total WAR: 63.9
Trivia: In the first year of his first block as king, Collins stole a career best 81 bases.
Cobb regained the title, losing it not so much to another player, but to the end of an era. With the death of Ray Chapman to a pitched ball (still the only on-field player fatality in baseball history) and the introduction of the "live ball", Cobb's era and style were about to be swept aside. Cobb is the personification of that era as much as the next king was of his.
Total WAR: 60.8
Trivia: From 1907 to 1920, Cobb failed to lead the American League in batting average just twice, both times finishing second.
Ruth put aside his stellar pitching career in 1920 and became an offensive force unlike any the game had ever seen, launching 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 in 1921. That massive addition of power, both to Ruth and to the game in general, changed baseball in a way not seen before or since. Ruth truly was the King of Baseball, a larger than life character that would have had to have been invented if he had not existed. His dominance over the era was such that despite other great players in the game, Ruth really had to take the crown off himself with a lost season rather than any player taking it from him.
Total WAR: 78.5
Trivia: Not only did Ruth win the MVP only once, he received votes just three times in his 22 year career.
Ruth played just 98 games in 1925, leaving an opening for Rogers Hornsby to take the crown. Hornsby isn't a one-year wonder, but just stuck behind Babe Ruth like a lot of other players. That he's able to grab the crown for one block is testament to the fact that he was pretty close to Ruth for a time, despite lacking the same massive power stroke (though he did hit 42 home runs in 1922 and 39 in '25).
Total WAR: 51.9
Trivia: His five-season batting average from 1921-25 was .402, including an astounding .424 in 1924.
Absent that one year, Ruth would have held the crown for twelve consecutive blocks. That's just an astonishing run. Ruth's crown goes along with all the home run titles (10), AL pennants (seven) and World Series championships (four) that he accumulated during the period. Simply put, the Babe dominated the game like no player ever has.
Total WAR: 117.7
Trivia: From 1919-1933, Ruth failed to reach 500 PAs in a season just once: 1925, the year he lost his crown to Hornsby.
There's a nice narrative quality to these reigns. Gehrig takes the crown from his teammate Ruth, and while the two could not have had more divergent personalities, both were sluggers of historic greatness who kept the Yankees' dynasty humming. Gehrig's reign was derailed by the disease that forced him out of the game in 1939 and took his life in 1941.
Total WAR: 86.3
Trivia: Despite hitting 40 or more home runs five times, including 49 twice, Gehrig was never able to break the 50 home run barrier and finished his career with 493.
Ott, the Giants legendary slugger, debuted as a 17-year-old in 1926, but it was his peak years where he was able to take the crown for one block. He was in the midst of an 11-year run as an All Star, which meant something back then, from 1934-44. Ott was fading as a 30-year-old, but he'd done just enough to hold the crown for one year, in between Yankees legends.
Total WAR: 35.4
Trivia: Ott drew 100 walks in a season or more 10 times during his 22 year career, and never struck out more than 70 times in a season.
DiMaggio is true baseball royalty and a continuation of the Yankees dynasty that would be passed down to Mickey Mantle. While he was always great and always graceful, his reign was short and is highlighted by his magical '41 campaign, when he hit in 56 consecutive games. Think of him as baseball's Edward VIII. Not a long reign, but one that created a story we're still telling.
Total WAR: 52.0
Trivia: DiMaggio was an All-Star every year of his career and received MVP votes in all but his final season.
Wait a minute. Williams wasn't even playing for parts of these blocks, having traded his Red Sox uniform for a military uniform during World War II, but he was so good (and so many other greats of the game followed him into the service) that he took the title from DiMaggio. Williams' reign, like his predecessor's, is helped by his unforgettable season of 1941, when he hit .406 to become the last man to top .400.
Total WAR: 35.1
Trivia: After missing all of the 1943, '44 and '45 seasons because of his service in the war, Williams returned in 1946 and led the American League in runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases while hitting .342 with 38 home runs and 123 RBIs.
Nicholson is as close to a "fluke King" as exists, but the effects of the war helped out the guy known as "Swish." Cubs fans might be the only ones that really remember Nicholson, but he was a dominant force during the war years (and a bit before.) He led the league twice -- in both 1943 and '44 -- in homers and RBI. He was more a peak player than a long term great, but he's an interesting footnote in baseball royalty.
Total WAR: 25.2
Trivia: Ted Williams finished less than 3 wins behind Nicholson, despite playing just two years of the five-year block.
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