Top 10 Baseball Legends

Take a tour of some of the best ball players of all time, and the lives they led.

Babe Ruth

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?

Babe Ruth in home-run stance at Yankee Stadium, May 1942, seven years after his retirement as a major-league player. (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Open Walls Baltimore, Baltimore United States

Joe DiMaggio

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.

Joe DiMaggio on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1939. (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

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.

Marilyn Monroe in the Night Sky, Hyung Koo Kang, 2010 (From the collection of Korean Art Museum Association)

Richie Ashburn

“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.

Baseball player Richie Ashburn making a belly-whopper slide into base during practice, Ralph Morse, 1950-03 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

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.

Richie Ashburn surveys the ruins of Connie Mack Stadium, where he once starred as a centerfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies. (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Ernie Banks
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

Ernie Banks played at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, for eighteen years. (From the collection of National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

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.

View of Wrigley Field Coliseum Stadium, Ralph Crane, 1957-05 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Christy Mathewson

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.

Christy Mathewson in 1911 at the Polo Grounds, home of his New York Giants. (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

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.

Gil Hodges

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.

Manager of the NY Mets Gil Hodges, 1969, Co Rentmeester (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

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.

Roberto Clemente

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.

Roberto Clemente , Osvaldo Sales (From the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Rogers Hornsby

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.

Edward Clark, 1952-03, Roger Hornsby (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Willie Mays

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.

Willie Mays hits a home run in a 1960s game with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Jackie Robinson

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.

In 1997, the U.S. Mint struck a $5 gold coin to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. (From the collection of Museum Of UnCut Funk)

Duke Snider

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.

Duke Snider selects his bat in the Dodgers dugout. (From the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
Written by Edward Moran
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