What’s the greatest baseball era ever?

Caleb Slinkard
5 min readMay 5, 2023

I want to answer a simple question: what are the best baseball lineups ever, based on WAR?

WAR is a relatively recent invention, a baseball statistic that attempts to combine everything a player does and convert it to wins (specifically, how many wins that player produces above a hypothetical replacement-level player, thus Wins Above Replacement or WAR).

WAR has its fans and detractors, but it’s widely considered perhaps the best single statistic to determine how good a baseball player is (or was). I’m looking at Baseball Reference’s career WAR (different sites, like FanGraphs, calculate WAR slightly differently than Baseball Reference, but I’m most familiar with BR).

The final wrinkle to this little project is that I thought it would be fun to split baseball evenly into three different eras. While the MLB was founded back in the 1870s, the first World Series was in 1903, and that’s when I want to begin. That’s when baseball first really exits a fairly murky past.

That first era, which I’m calling the Founders, didn’t include Black ball players. They were relegated to barnstorming teams, exhibition games, foreign leagues and the Negro leagues. Last year, MLB finally acknowledged Negro leagues statistics for what they are — major league baseball statistics. But the stats are incomplete, a lasting legacy of racism and segregation. That means that the best Black players before 1947 won’t show up in this list. Josh Gibson, for instance, is one of the greatest catchers of all-time — my twin brother holds that he’s THE greatest catcher ever — but his WAR, based on spotty statistics, puts him 28th all-time. Thus, the Classic Era, 1944–1983, is the first team to truly benefit from Black baseball excellence.

I’ll tally up the career WAR of each team and declare a winner. Each team has a first and second teamer at each fielding position, five starters and four relievers for a 25-man roster (no designated hitters. Sue me). Positions are determined by Baseball Reference.

A quick note: If a player’s career bleeds into different eras, I stick him into the era that makes the most sense AND allows me to get the best players in this list, within reason. Players will be put in the position where they had the most service time. Guys who spent the majority of their career before 1903 won’t be included (so no Cy Young).

The greatest home run hitters of all time: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds.

Founders: 1903–1943

Catcher: Bill Dickey (1928–1946, 56.3 WAR), Gabby Hartnett (1922–1941, 55.4 WAR)

First Base: Lou Gehrig (1923–1939, 113.8 WAR), Jimmie Foxx (1925–1945, 93 WAR)

Second Base: Rogers Hornsby (1915–1937, 127.1 WAR), Eddie Collins (1906–1930, 124.2 WAR)

Third Base: Home Run Baker (1908–1922, 62.8 WAR), Stan Hack (1932–1947, 55.5 WAR)

Shortstop: Honus Wagner (1897–1917, 131 WAR), Arky Vaughan (1932–1948, 77.9 WAR)

Left Field: Al Simmons (1924–1944, 68.3 WAR), Fred Clarke (1894–1915, 68 WAR)

Center Field: Ty Cobb (1905–1928, 151.5 WAR), Tris Speaker (1907–1928, 134.9 WAR)

Right Field: Babe Ruth (1914–1935, 162.2 WAR), Mel Ott (1926–1947, 110.9 WAR)

Starting Pitchers: Walter Johnson (1907–1927, 165.1 WAR), Pete Alexander (1911–1930, 119.3 WAR), Lefty Grove (1925–1941, 106.8 WAR), Christy Mathewson (1900–1916, 106.5 WAR) and Eddie Plank (1901–1917, 90.8 WAR)

Relief Pitchers: Firpo Marberry (1923–1936, 30.7 WAR), Syl Johnson (1922–1940, 27.4 WAR), Clint Brown (1928–1942, 20.8 WAR) and Al Benton (1934–1952, 18.7 WAR)

Total WAR: 2,277.9

Walter Johnson (center, right) shakes hands with President Calvin Coolidge. He led the Founders Era with 165.1 WAR.

Classic: 1944–1983

Catcher: Johnny Bench (1967–1983, 75.1 WAR), Gary Carter (1974–1992, 70.1 WAR)

First Base: Willie McCovey (1959–1980, 64.5 WAR), Harmon Killebrew (1954–1975, 60.4 WAR)

Second Base: Joe Morgan (1963–1984, 100.4 WAR), Rod Carew (1967–1985, 81.2)

Third Base: Mike Schmidt (1972–1989, 106.8 WAR), Eddie Mathews (1952–1968, 96 WAR)

Shortstop: Pee Wee Reese (1940–1958, 68.4 WAR), Ernie Banks (1953–1971, 67.7 WAR)

Left Field: Ted Williams (1939–1960, 121.8 WAR), Carl Yastrzemski (1961–1983, 96.5 WAR)

Center Field: Willie Mays (1948–1973, 156.1 WAR) Mickey Mantle (1951–1968, 110.2 WAR)

Right Field: Henry Aaron (1954–1976, 143 WAR), Stan Musial (1941–1963, 128.6 WAR)

Starting Pitchers: Tom Seaver (1967–1986, 109.9 WAR), Warren Spahn (1942–1965, 100 WAR), Phil Niekro (1965–1987, 95.9 WAR), Bert Blyleven (1970–1992, 94.5 WAR) and Steve Carlton (1965–1988, 90.2 WAR)

Relief Pitchers: Hoyt Wilhem (1952–1972, 46.8 WAR), Rich Gossage (1972–1994, 41.2 WAR), Bobby Shantz (1949–1964, 34.6 WAR) and John Hiller (1965–1980, 30.5 WAR)

Total WAR: 2,190.4

The “Say Hey Kid,” Willie Mays, widely considered one of the best, if not the best, players ever, and the best WAR in the Classic Era.

Modern: 1984-Today

Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez (1991–2011, 68.7 WAR), Mike Piazza (1992–2007, 59.5 WAR)

First Base: Albert Pujols (2001–2022, 101.5 WAR), Jeff Bagwell (1991–2005, 79.9 WAR)

Second Base: Lou Whitaker (1977–1995, 75.1 WAR), Robinson Cano (2005–2022, 68.1 WAR)

Third Base: Adrian Beltre (1998–2018, 93.5 WAR), Wade Boggs (1982–1999, 91.4 WAR)

Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez (1994–2016, 117.4 WAR), Cal Ripken Jr. (1981–2001, 95.9 WAR)

Left Field: Barry Bonds (1986–2007, 162.8 WAR), Rickey Henderson (1979–2003, 111.2 WAR)

Center Field: Ken Griffey Jr. (1989–2010, 83.8 WAR), Mike Trout (2011-present, 83.7 WAR)

Right Field: Larry Walker (1989–2005, 72.7 WAR), Tony Gwynn (1982–2001, 69.2 WAR)

Starting Pitchers: Roger Clemens (1984–2007, 139.2 WAR), Greg Maddux (1986–2008, 106.6 WAR), Randy Johnson (1988–2009, 101.1 WAR), Pedro Martinez (1992–2009, 83.9 WAR) and Mike Mussina (1991–2008, 82.8 WAR)

Relief Pitchers: Dennis Eckersley (1975–1998, 62.1 WAR), Mariano Rivera (1995–2013, 56.3 WAR), Tom Gordon (1988–2009, 35 WAR) and Greg Swindell (1986–2002, 30.5 WAR)

Total WAR: 2,131.8

Whether Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame is debatable. His 162.8 WAR, a Modern Era record, is breathtaking.

Conclusion

The Founders Era wins! Was that a surprise? It turns out that the starting pitching in the first 40 or so years of MLB was enough to overcome the stellar outfields of the Classic Era or the powerful middle infields of Modern baseball.

Again, the era splits were fairly arbitrary, there’s some messiness (Gary Carter certainly seems out of place) and I’m not saying these are the BEST players ever (you would need replace the fairly no-name relief pitchers in the Founders Era, add Negro league players and be less restrictive on outfielders to get that). But hopefully you had as much fun reading this as I had putting it together!

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Caleb Slinkard

I’m a journalist who has worked for community newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Georgia. I enjoy sci-fi books, chess and Fulham FC.