Picking an all-Century baseball team isn't the most imaginative use of anyone's time, but it's hard to resist. Even if the current Major League Baseball balloting is a shameless scam designed to give MasterCard your E-mail address, the temptation persists.
But when it came time to do my ballot, I decided to follow certain principles. I believe in the doctrine of one man, one position: I'm picking only a starting nine ( Major League Baseball's ballot provides berths for 25 players), and each outfield position is a separate category; no spreading three centerfielders across the grass. Now, let's play ball.
Pitcher: For some inexplicable reason, the greatest pitcher in history doesn't even make many top five lists. In one three-season stretch, Lefty Grove won 79 games and lost 15. Four times (including 1939, when he was 39 years old), his ERA was more than two runs lower than the American League average. He won the ERA championship nine times; no other pitcher has done it more than five times.
Catcher: Johnny Bench, by an arm, over Yogi Berra. Berra was the better overall offensive player, but Bench's defensive skills more than made up for whatever deficiencies he had at the plate—such as hitting only 389 career home runs, including the most of any catcher in history (327).
First base: Poor Hank Greenberg, who played in the American League at the same time as Jimmie Foxx. And poor Jimmie Foxx, who played in the American League at the same time as Lou Gehrig. Greenberg and Foxx were Garciaparra and Jeter to Gehrig's Alex Rodriguez.
Second base: Joe Morgan is not the only man to have led his league in both slugging percentage and walks, but he's certainly the only one to do both while playing the best second base of his generation. His stolen base percentage of .810 compares favorably with Lou Brock's and Rickey Henderson's.
Shortstop: Honus Wagner was the National League's best player, challenged only by Cobb as the game's best, during the first dozen or so years of this century. He led the league in batting eight times and slugging percentage six times. At no other position is one player so dominant. Some might say that a lineup like this one could afford to have a great glove at short—say, Ozzie Smith. But a lineup like this one could afford to have Adam Sandler at short.
Third base: Mike Schmidt by a hair, over Eddie Mathews, George Brett and Brooks Robinson. Oddly, until the last 20 years or so, the inevitable name at third was Pie Traynor, who wasn't a match for any of these four. Then we came to the Periclean Age of third basemen. Schmidt was a sleek and powerful blend of Robinson and Mathews, golden of glove and silver at bat, including 13 seasons out of 14 in which he hit more than 30 home runs. Not even Henry Aaron did that.
Rightfield: Nor did Aaron, great player that he was, supplant the one indisputable choice on any All-Century team: Babe Ruth.
Centerfield: Willie Mays. Mickey Mantle at his best was better, but Mays did it longer, and Joe DiMaggio didn't do quite as much as either.