Selecting MLB’s all-time greatest players is an inherently subjective exercise. It requires sifting through stats from disparate eras (the dead-ball era, the steroid era, etc.) and putting them into context, while considering intangibles, historical importance and other difficult-to-quantify factors.
All of those things went into our picks for the 10 best players in baseball’s long, long storied history. Your mileage may vary; in fact, there’s a good chance many of your favorite franchise’s biggest icons didn’t make the cut.
And, of course, the calculus shifts with time. A handful of active players—most notably the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout—could easily crack the top 10 when they hang ‘em up. Entering the 2021 season at age 29, Trout’s 74.6 WAR already ranks 81st all-time by Baseball-Reference’s calculation, ahead of multiple Hall of Famers.
Quibble if you want (that’s part of the fun). But you’d be hard-pressed to argue the 10 players listed here don’t belong squarely in the conversation. Let’s count them down, beginning with 10 and ending with our choice for MLB’s GOAT.
Greatest Baseball Players of All Time
10. RHP Roger Clemens
All statistics, including WAR, are courtesy of Baseball Reference.
The first of two PED-tainted players we’ll encounter on this list, Roger Clemens was one of the greatest pitchers to ever toe the rubber—alleged chemical enhancement aside.
Over a 24-season career, Clemens posted a 3.12 ERA and 143 ERA+ along with a 354-184 record. His 139.2 career WAR ranks eighth all time and second among pitchers. The Rocket also won seven Cy Young Awards spanning three separate decades and was named the American League MVP in 1986 with the Boston Red Sox.
How much did PEDs help him achieve that elite success and pitch effectively until age 44? We’ll never know for sure.
9. 1B Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig played in the shadow of a certain New York Yankees teammate who (spoiler alert) we’re going to encounter later. But the Yanks first baseman carved out his own indelible place in baseball lore.
Gehrig, a two-time MVP and seven-time All-Star, finished with a career .330 average and 1.080 OPS, along with 493 home runs and 1,995 RBI.
He was forced to retire after his age-36 season because of the illness that would come to bear his name, leaving a tragic what-if at the end of an undeniably brilliant career.
8. 1B/OF Stan Musial
Stan “The Man” Musial was selected to an eye-popping 20 All-Star teams and won three MVP awards during his brilliant 22-year MLB tenure.
He finished his career with a .331/.417/.559 slash line, won seven batting titles, swatted 475 home runs and ranks fourth all time with 3,630 hits and second all time with 6,134 total bases.
And while this shouldn’t factor too heavily into any GOAT discussion, it’s worth noting Musial spent all 22 of his big league seasons (with one missed in 1945 due to military service) with the St. Louis Cardinals, making him the defining face of one of the game’s most iconic franchises.
7. RHP Walter Johnson
No pitcher dominated his era like Walter Johnson. In 21 seasons with the Washington Senators, the right-hander they called “The Big Train” went 417-279 with a 2.17 ERA and 147 ERA+ while throwing 5,914.1 innings, including a record 110 complete-game shutouts.
Again, it was a different era, when pitchers were expected to go far deeper into games. But those last two stats are still astounding.
Add it up, and you’ve got a workhorse hurler whose 164.5 WAR ranks second all time.
6. LF Ted Williams
The last player to hit .400 (.407, to be exact, in 1953), Ted Williams was as pure of a hitter as the game has ever seen—or, likely, ever will see.
Williams, a two-time MVP and 17-time All-Star, finished with a .344 career average and all-time record .482 on-base percentage. He won six batting titles, smacked 521 home runs and rapped out 2,654 hits earning the nickname "Splendid Splinter."
All of that, despite the fact that the Boston Red Sox legend lost three years of his prime between 1943 and 1945 while serving in World War II.
5. CF Ty Cobb
The stories of Ty Cobb’s infamous temper and, shall we say, problematic social views are well known. If we were ranking a list of the 10 nicest guys or best citizens in MLB history, the Georgia Peach wouldn’t make an appearance.