Take a tour of some of the best ball players of all time, and the lives they led.
Others may have eventually broken his records, but George Herman “Babe” Ruth arguably remains the best-known and most iconic baseball player of all time. The so-called “Sultan of Swat” hit a then-awesome 60 home runs in 1927 while playing with the New York Yankees, whose stadium was long known as “the House that Ruth Built.” Ruth got hooked on baseball while living at a Catholic reformatory in Baltimore, where he had been sent by his parents for unruly behavior. Stealing bases, perhaps?
Known as Joltin’ Joe and the Yankee Clipper, Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio hated the smell of dead fish. He chose baseball as a career to avoid floundering as a fisherman, the trade pursued by his Italian immigrant father. DiMaggio starred for the Yankees during and after World War II, when the team won the World Series nine times. His 56-game hitting streak during the 1941 season still stands.
But perhaps his biggest grand slam was marrying glamorous screen actress Marilyn Monroe. Their 1954 marriage lasted a scant nine months, shorter than a baseball season.
“It looked like a ballpark. It smelled like a ballpark. It had a feeling and a heartbeat, a personality that was all baseball.” (Source: A History of American Sports in 100 Objects) Thus, spake center fielder Richie “Putt-Putt” Ashburn, who from 1948 to 1959, starred as the lead hitter with the Philadelphia Phillies when they played in the legendary Connie Mack Stadium.
He retired from the game in 1962 after a season with the “lovable losers” of the New York Mets, which lost 120 out of 160 games during their first, disastrous season. Still, Ashburn was the only player to bat over .300: his nearest rival achieved only a .248 average.
When Chicago Cubs shortstop and first baseman Ernie Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, he began his speech with his typical cheerful attitude: “There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two [games].” baseballhall.org
During his eighteen-year career with the Cubs, he became known as “Mr. Sunshine” (Wrigley Field never installed lights, so it was the last major league ballpark to host daytime games exclusively). He hit more than 40 home runs during five seasons, amassing 512 over his lifetime.
A pioneering pitcher from the early days of major-league baseball, Christopher “Christy” Mathewson spent 17 seasons with the New York Giants from 1900 to 1916. A devout Christian, Mathewson refused to pitch on Sunday, and avoided the womanizing ways of many of his teammates.
With a prowess for squares as well as diamonds, he is also acclaimed as a champion checker player. During World War I, he was accidentally gassed in a training mishap with the U.S. Army’s Chemical Service, which led to tuberculosis, which later led to his death.
A first baseman for the Dodgers in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Gilbert Ray Hodges helped lead “Dem Bums” to its legendary World Series win in 1955 by making the final out in the final game. He and his teammates were revered as “The Boys of Summer” in Roger Kahn’s 1972 book published around the time Hodges died suddenly of a heart attack two days shy of his 48th birthday.
Though he managed the Washington Senators for a few years after his retirement from the diamond. Hodges he is best remembered for managing the New York Mets in their meteoric rise to the World Series championship in 1969.
Playing 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1955-1972), the Puerto Rico-born Roberto Clemente was usually called “Bob” or “Bobby” by announcers who were not comfortable with a name that sounded “foreign” to them. His batting averages led the National League four times during the 1960s. Clemente was killed in a charter-plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1972, while attempting to deliver relief supplies after an earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente personally chartered the plane as an affront to dictator Anastasio Somoza and corrupt henchmen who were diverting aid packages meant for the victims.
With his .424 batting average in the 1924 season, and a lifetime average of .358, Rogers Hornsby
remains one of the legendary players from the early twentieth century, though he often alienated his teammates by his arrogant attitude and gambling habits. He wore the jerseys of teams from St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and New York during his 22-year playing career, and later managed the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Redlegs. He was considered the fastest runner in baseball, appropriate since he had dropped out of high school to work for the Swift meat packing company.
Unlike the cheerless Rogers Hornsby, Willie (“Say Hey”) Mays “lit up the room” and “was a joy to be around,” said Leo Durocher (source: ESPN - http://www.espn.com/classic/s/000725williemaysquote.html), who was briefly his manager at the New York Giants. Mays spent 21 seasons with that team, which moved to San Francisco in 1957. He led the National League in homers four times and finished with a lifetime record of 660, just 54 short of Babe Ruth’s. In February of 2018, the 87-year-old Mays, now nearly blind, showed up at the Giants’ spring training, eating tacos and bemoaning the absence of his favorite drink, Coca-Cola.
The first African American player to play in the modern-day major leagues, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947 and remained with them till 1956. In hiring him, manager Branch Rickey famously spouted, “I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a g--damn’ zebra stripes. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.” Baseball Almanac
Robinson later became the first black vice president of a large American enterprise: the Chock full o’Nuts coffee company, and was a co-founder of the Freedom National Bank in Harlem.
When Edwin Donald Snider was a young kid around 1930, his parents nicknamed him “Duke” because of the way he “strutted around like royalty,” says the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1980. A star center fielder and power hitter for the Dodgers for most of his major-league career, Snider swatted more homers and batted in more runs during the 1950s than any other player. His sweetest accomplishment was hitting the very last home run at Ebbets Field before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.