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01/22/2013 2:00 PM ET
Musial's successor as greatest living hitter? It's Aaron
Former home run king, from era of less offense, leads in career RBIs, total bases
By Tracy Ringolsby / MLB.com
As part of Major League Baseball's centennial celebration in 1969, writers voted Joe DiMaggio the game's greatest living player, a phrase he soon required to be used whenever he made a public appearance. In response, Ted Williams, DiMaggio's long-time rival, adopted the claim as the game's greatest living hitter. While nobody ever assumed the Greatest Living Player distinction following the death of DiMaggio, after Williams died in 2002, a survey of Hall of Famers by the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News bestowed that designation on Stan Musial. The title has been vacated, again. Musial passed away on Saturday. Let the debate begin. Who is now the greatest living hitter? Pete Rose has more hits than anyone in the history of the game. Barry Bonds hit more home runs. They both, however, have baggage. Rose is on a lifetime suspension from MLB for his involvement in gambling, which has kept him from even having his name listed on a Hall of Fame ballot. Bonds, appealing a conviction on obstructing justice during testimony regarding steroids before a federal grand jury, fell well short earlier this month in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame. But was either really the most complete hitter of all-time? Do they match, swing for swing, the accomplishments of the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson? Each era, after all, puts a different weight on the accomplishments of players. The debate can be waged using the modern stats, such as WAR (wins above replacement), at which Bonds is second on the all-time list among position players at 158.1, behind only Babe Ruth (159.2) and just ahead of Mays (150.8). The five living Hall of Famers with the highest WAR among position players are Mays, Aaron (fifth overall at 137.3), Rickey Henderson (14th at 106.8), Mike Schmidt (17th at 103.0) and Robinson (19th at 100.9). And there are the old-time statistical debates. Bonds, a seven-time Most Valuable Player, hit a record 762 home runs, including a single-season record 73 in 2001, and he did have a 40-homer/40-steal season in 1996. But he played in an era of increased offense, frequently attributed to the impact of steroids, which begs the question of whether his production needs to be handicapped when compared to earlier stars. Mays was a 24-time All-Star and is one of only three right-handed hitters to score more than 2,000 runs. He hit 660 home runs and stole 338 bases. And as a center fielder who won 12 Gold Gloves, Mays would seem a no-brainer to assume the Greatest Living Player label for his overall abilities, but as a hitter? Robinson hit 586 home runs, which ranked fourth at the time of his retirement, won a Triple Crown in 1966, and he is the only player in history to win an MVP in each league. And then there is Aaron. He never had a 50-home run season but he broke Ruth's career home run record by hitting 755, thanks to a consistency of 15 seasons of hitting at least 30, and five more in which he hit at least 20. He was a 25-time All-Star and is the all-time leader in RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856). The respect that the opposition had for Aaron is as evident as his 293 career intentional walks, a Major League record at the time of his retirement, since surpassed by Bonds. If that is not enough an argument on Aaron's behalf, he also has an intangible edge on the others. MLB's annual award for the best hitter in each league is called the Hank Aaron Award. Enough said? The death of Musial brought up the question. Aaron's resume would seem to provide the answer.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.