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It is the considered opinion of most baseball fans that the greatest player who ever lived was either a) Ty Cobb or b) Babe Ruth. Right at the outset of this essay, I would like to lay the controversy at rest once and for all. The greatest player was Babe Ruth.
How can you be sure, you may ask. Was it because he hit more home runs? Could pitch, too? No. It was because he won. It's that simple.
In Ruth's 15 years with the New York Yankees, the team won seven pennants, four world championships. In Ruth's six seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the team won three pennants, three world championships. In short, Ruth was a winner.
It is not the purpose of this thesis to examine solely the relative merits of Babe Ruth vs. Ty Cobb. But it is my intention to claim that baseball's Hall of Fame and the honor rolls of the sport generally are barnacled with athletes who, like Cobb, were able to hang up an impressive number of personal achievements which, on the face of the record, meant little whatsoever to the teams they played for.
The object of baseball, after all, is to win the pennant and world championship. Cobb's record of three pennants in 24 seasons—all in the first five years of his baseball life—presupposes something was wrong with the great Cobb as a team player. It is not unreasonable to expect that, somewhere along the line, a lifetime batting average of .367 (highest in baseball), 12 batting championships, batting averages of over .400 three times and over .300 for 23 years, and the most total hits in history, 4,191, would translate themselves into a long succession of championships.
That they didn't argues that Cobb's admitted individual brilliance had a deleterious effect on the success of the team as a whole, a fact which teammates of his have privately confided in the past but never quite dared to say out loud.
As a matter of fact, the Cobb syndrome crops up throughout baseball history. Consider the modern case of Ted Williams. Williams is generally conceded to be the best hitter in baseball today. He has won four batting titles, four home run championships, has a lifetime average of .348. Yet, in 15 seasons with the Red Sox (two of them fractional, due to his Korean service as a Marine fighter pilot), his team has won exactly one pennant, no world championships.
It is interesting that in his only World Series—1946—Williams stubbornly played right into the hands of the opposition, the St. Louis Cardinals, who made a low bow to Ted's acknowledged prowess and fielded an overshifted defense which saw the left side of the infield practically undefended while the fielders were stacked like a picket fence on the right side. Williams insisted on trying to power the ball through this massed defense, even though he proved in the third game with a safe bunt down the third base line that he had a virtual sure base hit every time he pushed the ball toward the left side of the infield. He got exactly five hits, all singles, in the Series and was, as a result, about as much use to the Red Sox as a reserve outfielder named Tom McBride who was out of the league three years later.
It probably could be argued, on the basis of Williams' performance in the '46 series, that Ted was more interested in personal glory than in the Red Sox. It is noteworthy that many of Williams' other brilliant afternoons came in All-Star games, which are a kind of showcase for talent where the managers let the players swing from the heels and the hell with the game. The fans come to see stars, not victories, which makes this game more uniquely suited to Williams' frame of mind than is the pennant chase.