The title Greatest Living Ballplayer was officially bestowed on Joe DiMaggio by Major League Baseball in 1969, and for the last 30 years of his life he wore the crown proudly. DiMaggio liked the sound of that phrase, often insisting that it be included in his introductions. The Yankee Clipper may have had a .325 career average to Ted Williams's .344 and may have hit fewer homers than Darrell or Dwight Evans, but the label seemed to fit so well that hardly anyone objected.
When Joltin' Joe left and went away earlier this year, his title should have been bequeathed to the No. 1 contender, but the process hasn't been so simple. One thing baseball fans across Talk Show Nation can agree on, however, is that the new Greatest Living Ballplayer was expected in Boston for the All-Star Game. Ted Williams was to throw out the first pitch at Tuesday's game, and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were to be introduced beforehand.
While seas of fans would part for all three baseball deities, nobody was going to be introduced as the new GLB. Though Williams, the last man to hit .400, was DiMaggio's on-field rival, the two had an informal agreement: Ted called Joe the greatest ballplayer he ever saw, and Joe called Ted the greatest hitter he ever saw. Unlike the Clipper, the Splinter didn't glide across the outfield or on the base paths. All Williams wanted was for people to point to him and say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived," and so they do. Ted Williams is the Greatest Living Hitter.
Aaron's the guy with the numbers—755 homers, 2,297 RBIs—but in his 23 seasons he wasn't always considered the greatest active player. He never hit 50 homers and won only one MVP award. ( Mays and Williams had two apiece.) Aaron gets too little credit for his defense and baserunning (20 or more steals six times) and usually falls short in comparisons with Mays, his more complete contemporary.
Mays, who broke in with the New York Giants in 1951—DiMaggio's final season—was exceptional in every way. A spectacular centerfielder, he led the National League in home runs four times and steals four times. His 660 careers homers put him third behind Aaron and Babe Ruth and 299 ahead of DiMaggio. Indeed, if it hadn't been heresy, Mays could have laid claim to DiMaggio's title while Joe D. was still around.
Greatest living player? One other candidate was in Boston this week. Ken Griffey Jr. passed DiMaggio on the home run list in May—at age 29. Griffey has already hit 379 homers, won seven Gold Gloves and started 10 All-Star Games. He is on pace to shatter Aaron's home run record before he turns 40 and people start introducing him as the Greatest Living Ballplayer. Until then, the honor belongs to Mays.