A decade ago, if we squinted hard enough and tilted our heads far enough, we could see a scenario where a talented 25-year-old Alexander Ovechkin already averaging 50-goals per year challenges Wayne Gretzky’s silly career goals record. With each passing season, our squint steadily relented to the point that entering the 2019 NHL season, the buzz had changed from if Ovi would do it to when. Then COVID-19 hit.
Although the pandemic has produced far worse effects than impacting athletic achievement, our little insignificant world of sports was turned upside down, nonetheless. Many of the impacts have been well-documented including the never-to-be March Madness 2020, the delayed Tokyo Olympics, two-thirds of the MLB season, and home-field advantage in every spectator sport. The macro impact has received most of our attention, but the micro impact is real, and it could be more punitive than we imagined.
While LeBron got the fully intact NBA playoff season he badly needed for his legacy, it is the truncated 2020 and 2021 NHL regular seasons that could prove troublesome for Ovechkin. When Rudy Gobert’s test heard round the world brought social life to a screeching halt, Ovechkin was 188 goals shy of The Great One’s record. The NHL was forced to cancel the last 13 games of Washington’s 2020 regular season and then implemented a 56-game regular season for 2020, resulting in 39 total games that Ovechkin will not get back. That might not sound too problematic, but, at 35, time is Ovi’s nemesis.
On March 12, 2020—the day the outbreak went viral (in the pop-culture sense)—Ovechkin was on pace to eclipse Gretzky by the 50th game of the 2024 regular season. When we add in the 39 deleted 2020 games, the post-Covid projection date moves to the 7th game of the 2025 season.
The impact of those 39 games can’t be understated. They are the difference between Ovechkin needing to play 19 and 20 seasons for glory. We are being a little generous with our projection since it assumes Ovechkin continues to score at his career .61 career goals per game rate. That’s probably too optimistic as he approaches 40. As it turns out, we have two pretty good careers to model what we can reasonably expect from Ovi moving forward. Gordie Howe and Brett Hull—#2 and #4 on the all-time goals list—both saw a 20% reduction in their goals per game rates after age 35. If we apply this to our projections, the clock starts ticking even faster.
With the more reasonable goals per game rate, our pre-COVID-19 projection would’ve given us the 45th game of the 2025 regular season. That jumps to the 2nd game of the 2026 regular season after factoring in the missed 39 games. Ovechkin has already missed four games in 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols, pushing our projection date to the 6th game of the 2026 regular season.
Regardless of the goals per game rate we use, we see the pandemic moving the projection date to the next regular season. With a 20% reduction in scoring rate, Ovi would need to play until he’s 41. Whether he chooses to play until he’s 41 is one thing; whether he’s capable of playing that long is another story. Hull was cruising at a respectable .39 goals per game at age 39 and seemed poised to make a run at Howe for 2nd all-time. When he returned after the 2004 lockout, he lasted five scoreless games before abruptly retiring. No matter how much we’re convinced that this party is different than all the others, it always ends, and it always ends the same: quickly and unforgivingly.
Fortunately, modern advancements in technology and training may save us yet. Tom Brady just won his 7th Super Bowl and 5th Super Bowl MVP at the infantile age of 43, with no sign of slowing down. It also doesn’t hurt that Ovi’s size and skill set should help stem the effects of aging—at least for a little while. Ultimately, this could end up becoming a case of motivation. When a player reaches the point of diminishing returns, one more season might as well be 10. We only need to listen to the words of Dirk Nowitzki and David Ortiz to understand this. Both willingly retired despite productive final seasons. If Ovi is content with waging a battle of attrition against time, we can start making DC hotel reservations for the second week of October 2026. Otherwise, Gretzky’s mark will end up being the rare thing actually preserved by COVID.
Professional wrestling might eschew sophistication with a bloody, toothless grin on its face, but it is hard to argue that it’s not the most unforgiving performance art we have. Fickle audiences wait at the ready to show disapproval with jeers, chants of “boring!” or, worst of all, silence. Approval rarely comes immediately, even for the characters that do end up resonating. No amount of preparation guarantees success. Getting over with the crowd requires constant refinement through trial-and-error, night after night. It is the cruelest game of survival of the fittest with the audience, like nature to Darwin’s theory of evolution, capriciously deciding what works and what doesn’t. The only thing that’s true about the recipe for success in professional wrestling is that there is no recipe. The crowd only knows what it likes when it sees it.
While there have been a few “can’t miss” concepts over the years—The Undertaker, for one—most are initially met with skepticism. This is true even for wrestling’s biggest stars. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the Rock were unceremoniously rejected when they debuted as the Ringmaster and Rocky Maivia, respectively. Neither abandoned their character completely, instead opting to cater to the audience’s growing preference for characters with an edge. The results speak for themselves as their respective evolutions gave way to the Attitude Era—the most successful in the history of the business.
Although some gimmicks are better than others—clucking and strutting like a rooster are not the hallmarks of creative gold—the pathway to stardom starts and ends with giving the audience what it wants. Those who succeed reap the rewards of a cult-like following that explodes to the sound of broken glass and blissfully recites favorite catchphrases in unison. Like the most revered ballet dancers, professional wrestlers who tame this treacherous landscape deserve to be celebrated and recognized as accomplished performance artists.
While putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest performers in any sport has its challenges, pro wrestling presents a unique one: how do we measure success in a scripted environment? Hulk Hogan is arguably the most popular and accomplished pro wrestler in history. Yet, “the Babe Ruth of professional wrestling” wasn’t particularly skilled at the actual wrestling part. Bret Hart, on the other hand, is arguably the most technically-gifted pro wrestler in history. Yet, the “Excellence of Execution” spent most of his career delivering underwhelming promos. Both achieved massive audience acceptance, but they did it in two very different ways, underscoring that beauty in pro wrestling is in the eye of the beholder. Although who we gravitate towards comes down to personal preference, the most accomplished performers share defining characteristics. We can lean on these characteristics to color a representative picture of the 100 greatest performers/characters in wrestling history. They include:
Merchandise sales/ratings impact
Versatility (ability to make multiple characters work or evolve an existing character)
Professional wrestling’s Mt. Rushmore features a quartet of icons who can all stake a claim as the greatest of all-time. Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the Undertaker have resumes that stand out even among the all-time greats. Hogan is the linchpin who forever changed the wrestling industry by making it a pop culture phenomenon while fueling Vince McMahon’s takeover of the territories. Flair is the greatest heel in history, driven by his boastful, industry-changing promos. Austin saved the WWF in its darkest hour when he led the company to victory over WCW in the Monday Night Wars. The Undertaker persona is the greatest gimmick sports entertainment has ever seen, and nobody was more relevant for longer. These four industry giants separate themselves from the rest of the pack by having very few weaknesses. While there is a worthy list of contenders who also made their marks, each has just enough of a flaw to sink their candidacy.
The most notable omission is, without question, the Rock. If only we had decided on Fab Five as our preferred grouping of greatness instead of Mt. Rushmore, we could have serenity, and we could have it now! The Rock is much closer to our Rushmore quartet than he is the rest of the contenders. His combination of Flair’s flamboyance and Austin’s abrasiveness mesmerized WWE audiences as he blurred the lines of what it means to be a heel or a face. The only missing ingredient is longevity. He blasted off to superstardom in the summer of 1997, and by 2001 he was already looking to parachute into Hollywood. While he never abandoned his wrestling roots, making sporadic appearances over the years and headlining Wrestlemania 28 and 29, his brief run as a full-time wrestler is what inevitably gives The Undertaker claim to the 4th spot.
Speaking of Wrestlemania 28 and 29, it’s not a coincidence that John Cena was handpicked as the Rock’s opponent for a two-year program that produced the only immediate main event rematch in Wrestlemania history. Cena was the only performer at the time capable of matching the Rock’s star power. Given the love/hate relationship we have with Cena (“Let’s go Cena!/Cena sucks!”), he will likely never get the full recognition he deserves. Some of that ambivalence can be attributed to the sterile environment he was forced to perform in as McMahon transitioned to a PG product. Cena might not rate the highest in any one category, but he rates consistently high in all of them. He was the face of the WWE for 13 years, which is longer than Austin and the Rock’s reigns at the top combined. Time will likely be kinder to his legacy.
Shawn Michaels might very well be in the 4th spot on Rushmore if not for the back injury he suffered in his casket match with The Undertaker at the Royal Rumble in 1998. Michaels was forced to retire after dropping the belt to Austin at Wrestlemania 14. Two weeks later, Monday Night Raw beat Monday Nitro in the ratings for the first time in 84 weeks. In one of the cruelest examples of misfortune the industry has ever seen, Austin’s reign ushered in the most lucrative era in history, producing some of the greatest angles and matches of all-time. Michaels would miss all of it. After a four-year hiatus, the Heartbreak Kid would return for a successful second act that would last another eight years. It says a lot about Shawn’s career that despite missing four pivotal years in the middle of his prime, he’s still universally considered one of the all-time greats.
Nobody delivered a better promo than “Macho Man” Randy Savage. He is quite possibly the most imitated pro wrestler of all-time. Everyone has a “Macho Man” impersonation (some even have a matching shirt and socks they like to wear while doing it 😎). In an era when Hulk Hogan’s larger-than-life persona overshadowed every other performer in the industry, Savage became a pop culture icon in his own right, carving out one of the most unique characters sports entertainment has ever seen. He falls just short of Rushmore status for two reasons: he was never the face of the company—the closest he ever got was when Hogan left to film No Holds Barred—and the twilight of his career was interrupted both by inactivity and misuse by WWF and WCW.
Like Shawn, Bret Hart’s candidacy for Rushmore is plagued by misfortune. His departure from the WWF to the WCW was the epitome of sell low, buy high. It immediately preceded the WWF’s stratospheric rise under Austin and coincided with WCW’s death spiral. Even worse, WCW creative proved to be too incompetent to incorporate Bret into its dysfunctional organization, instead opting to waste him as a bit player. To add insult to injury, any chance he had of adding to his Hall-of-Fame legacy was lost after receiving a career-ending kick to the head from Goldberg. Whereas Shawn was able to add a second chapter to his career, Bret had no such luxury.
Lou Thesz and Bruno Sammartino are old-school legends who were no doubt etched on wrestling’s Rushmore at one time. They were kings of a bygone era when the pace was slower than molasses, promo skills were optional, and the territorial set-up regularly produced new sets of eyeballs. Most importantly, spectators thought what they were seeing was a legitimate competition. While both hold a lofty place in wrestling history, it would be a disservice to those who have had to perform in a much less forgiving arena to place either on wrestling’s Rushmore.
The Total Package > The Partial Package
We could create a separate top-100 list for each of the 16 factors listed above, which would be a pretty fun exercise. Some performers rate inordinately high in one or two categories, but not necessarily overall. “The Total Package” Lex Luger had the body of Adonis and would rank very highly on a list that only factored physique. It turns it would have been more appropriate for Luger to be named “The Partial Package” as he was weak on the mic, didn’t move merchandise, had little-to-no character versatility, and was far from a technician in the ring. His physical stature, peak longevity, and participation in memorable angles certainly get him on the list, but nowhere near the top-25.
Dynamite Kid was an exceptional in-ring performer—maybe-top five in the history of wrestling. However, his cultural significance (in North America), promo work, longevity, and merchandise sales rate much lower than his in-ring work, leaving him outside of the top-50 overall. While Luger and Dynamite’s resumes are strong enough to overcome their limitations, others come up short.
The Honky Tonk Man was white-hot as a heel in 1987 and 1988. His 454-day reign as the Intercontinental Champion is still the longest in history. His feud with Macho Man sparked some of the highest-rated wrestling shows to ever air on network television. If we’re talking peak crowd reaction, Honky rates near the top-5 heels of all-time. In terms of his historical significance, there are just too many great performers for his two-year run at the top to be enough to crack the top-100.
U.S. and Canada
When it comes to pro wrestling, comparing success in Japan to the U.S. and Canada is a losing proposition not because one is better than the other but because we have little overlap to form a basis for comparison. The audiences and cultures are very different from each other. In Japan, in-ring technical work has historically been the most emphasized element, which is supported by the fact that 125 of the 160 5-star matches awarded by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter have taken place within Japanese promotions. In the U.S. and Canada, physique, the ability to deliver memorable promos, moving merchandise, and driving ratings have all played more important roles in defining legacies.
These two distinct wrestling cultures have had very few lasting collaborations and crossover stars, although Japan has been much kinder to its visitors. The list of U.S. wrestlers who have been embraced by Japanese audiences is long and varied. It includes Big Van Vader, Stan Hansen, Scott Norton, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, and Prince Albert, all of whom were more popular in Japan than in the U.S. The list of Japanese stars who have been embraced by American audiences stands at Shinsuke Nakamura. In all seriousness, while the Great Muta, the Great Kabuki, Ultimo Dragon, and Jushin “Thunder” Liger did achieve modest success in the States, they weren’t exactly featured in their respective promotions.
To fairly compare North American wrestlers to Japanese wrestlers, we would need to see them in the same universe with the same opportunities, and that just hasn’t happened. Instead of randomly splicing Japanese legends throughout the list, we’re better off settling on a U.S. and Canada-centric list and deferring the Japanese list to those immersed in the Japanese culture. Although Rikidozan, Antonio Inoki, and Giant Baba might be household names even among American wrestling fans, there’s a difference between being aware they existed and understanding their impact.
We certainly wouldn’t expect a Japanese wrestling fan to accurately rank, say, The Ultimate Warrior without a deep understanding of American wrestling culture. The Ultimate Warrior was a pop culture icon. At Wrestlemania 7, he became the first person to cleanly pin Hulk Hogan in nine years. He would send Macho Man into retirement the following year in the first and only career vs. career match in Wrestlemania history. He starred in Slim Jim commercials, appeared on Regis & Kathy Lee and the Arsenio Hall Show, and was adorned to Wrestling Buddies and Hasbro figures alike. His popularity would eclipse even that of the Immortal Hulk Hogan. So, it would make sense if his legacy was mistaken for more than what it was.
The reality is that Warrior had a reputation for working stiff (unintentionally hurting his opponent). His skill-set was limited to a few basic moves. He gassed himself out sprinting to the ring, leading to short matches. He delivered rambling promos that did nothing to further storylines. Worse yet, he was notoriously unreliable. Without this additional context, it would be easy to overrate his legacy. Without having intimate knowledge of Japanese wrestling culture to avoid making similar miscalculations, we’re better off outsourcing to experts. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a top-100 Japanese list. Hopefully, that changes at some point. In the meantime, here is an informative rundown of 50 of the greatest Japanese wrestlers of all-time.
Latino wrestlers have had more success in the U.S. than their Japanese counterparts, although even that door has only been open for 25 years. Lucha libre in the states didn’t take off in earnest until WCW began to promote its cruiserweight division in 1996. Wrestling fans would immediately marvel at the pace and athleticism of Rey Mysterio Jr., Eddie Guerrero, Juventud Guerrera, Chavo Guerrero Jr., Psicosis, La Parka, and Super Calo. Since Latino stars who predated this lucha explosion rarely got the opportunity to apply their craft in the U.S., it also makes sense to recognize them separately rather than force them onto a list without having proper cultural context. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a top-100 Latino list, either. Hopefully, that changes, too. In the meantime, here is an informative rundown of 15 of the greatest luchadores of all-time.
Full Body of Work
Despite Japan and Mexico’s rich history of professional wrestling, their stars have historically not found success in U.S. wrestling promotions. For this reason, we lack the proper cultural context to make comparative evaluations. Although we should leave these evaluations to those immersed in each respective culture, pro wrestlers who have thrived in multiple cultures have shown a unique ability to assimilate their skills and will have their entire body-of-work considered.
Dynamite Kid achieved success in North America, first in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, and then later in the WWF as a member of the British Bulldogs. He also achieved massive acclaim in Japan, most notably in his matches against Japanese legend Tiger Mask, proving his ability to excel in any environment. Other wrestlers whose legacies are enhanced by overseas work include Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Terry Gordy, Road Warrior Hawk, Road Warrior Animal, Vader, Owen Hart, Sabu, Eddie Guerrero, Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, and Kenny Omega.
Additionally, because character development has no expiration date, we should acknowledge all contributions made by performers, including influential roles after in-ring careers have slowed or stopped entirely. Jesse “the Body” Ventura, Gorilla Monsoon, and Mr. Fuji are examples of accomplished pro wrestlers who evolved their characters to stay relevant on-camera even after their in-ring careers ended. It’s important to note that this is very different than factoring in Charles Barkley’s work as an NBA analyst for TNT when evaluating his professional basketball career. Professional wrestling is performance art; every character on the screen—regardless of whether an in-ring career has ended—is part of the performance.
Moving Merch Matters
No serious person would factor in Tom Brady’s jersey sales when contemplating his place in football history. His legacy is tied solely to on-field performance. He could have zero dollars in career jersey sales, and his seven Super Bowls and five Super Bowl MVPs would still leave him as the greatest professional football player of all-time. In football, “winning the game” means scoring more points than the other team. In professional wrestling, it means winning the audience’s approval, no more, no less. For proof, consider that “Mr. Wrestlemania” himself Shawn Michaels has a career record of 6-11 at… Wrestlemania. Shawn’s job was not to win but entertain, and he did it as well as any performer in wrestling history.
We can measure a performer’s ability to entertain intangibly by listening to live-crowd reactions. We can measure it tangibly by merchandise sales and individual segment ratings. Although WWE doesn’t publish historical merchandise sales, it’s not a stretch to suggest that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, and John Cena are the three greatest merchandise-movers of all-time. It’s also not a stretch to suggest the Rock and The Undertaker round out the top-five. It’s not a coincidence that all five are well within the top-10 on our list. While there are many other factors we can use to evaluate a pro wrestler’s legacy, we can’t forget that selling merchandise and driving ratings is tantamount to winning.
It’s also important to note that merchandising as we know it today didn’t exist until Hulkamania started putting an end to the territories in 1984. Performers who debuted well before this boon—like Ric Flair, Harley Race, and Dusty Rhodes—didn’t have the benefit of WWF’s national promotional machine driving merchandise sales. We need to evaluate these performers based on the conditions that existed at the time, and not what the landscape looks like today.
The Last Superstar
The wrestler known as Ryback stated on his eponymous podcast that HHH had once told him that John Cena would be the last marquee superstar the WWE ever has. HHH’s comments weren’t as much a slam on the current crop of talent as they were an acknowledgment that the WWE might be looking to do business differently moving forward.
Without WWE strapping a rocket to its next chosen star, even the top performers will find it challenging to make their mark in the industry. Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena were all given plenty of airtime and creative liberties to make their characters work because the WWE had already decided they wanted them to work. We’ve already seen the WWE repeatedly pump the brakes on elevating Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman, which could simply be poor creative or another indication that they are being mindful of not letting talent get too over.
Looking at the WWE today, it’s not hard to find truth in HHH’s reported comments. Cena has transitioned to part-time status, and there does not seem to be an implied heir apparent. In the absence of WWE’s penchant for creating a “face of the company,” previously useful metrics for ranking a wrestler’s place in history like merchandise sales, ratings impact, and cultural impact might dry-up even for top-level performers. If that ends up being the case, then technical-ability will likely become more important than ever, which would be a welcome development for the purists.
It’s hard to believe that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as we know it today didn’t exist until 1993. The legendary fighters—and fights—who have materialized in such a short timeframe reflect a history that feels a century old, which is a testament to MMA’s all-action, all-the-time format. There’s no regular season, no playoffs; it’s just a never-ending parade of fight cards, week after week, month after month. Ratings don’t lie, and in this case, they confirm our love affair with MMA. According to Nielsen Sports DNA, it is the 3rd most popular sport in the world. While MMA is thriving in the here and now, its relative youth means we don’t have decades of history providing a template for what an elite career looks like. Fighter-resumes come in all shapes and sizes. Some pile up over 100 career fights, while others don’t make it to 20. Relying on total career fights to reveal anything differentiating is troublesome in its own right since opponents can range from a newcomer without a Wikipedia page to a world-class champion and anyone in between. Sure, Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anderson Silva, and Georges St. Pierre have resumes that would stand the test of time even if MMA dated back a thousand years. They are the exceptions rather than the rule. Much more common is a resume like that of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Cowboy piled up an impressive collection of victories and losses, leaving us to wonder whether he was a great fighter or merely an average one.
If we asked 100 MMA fans to rank the 100 greatest MMA fighters of all-time, we’d get 100 very different lists because—in a sport with little schedule uniformity and few peak vs peak confrontations—no consensus has emerged over what “greatest” actually means. Some choose to emphasize entertainment value, fight style, and perseverance. While these characteristics are articles one, two, and three on developing a strong fanbase, they don’t identify the fighters who have accomplished the most. Otherwise, Nate Diaz would be front and center in the GOAT discussion. Others choose to highlight career-peak and championships, but too much of an emphasis there gets us BJ Penn as a viable contender for GOAT.
If we want to separate the average from the good and the good from the great, we need a more nuanced approach that emphasizes results and the conditions under which those results occur. Resume evaluation needs to go deeper than simply concluding that Fighter A is superior to Fighter C because Fighter A beat Fighter B and Fighter B beat Fighter C. The transitive property can be an intoxicating mistress in the world of subjectivity. However, when it yields Roy Nelson and Dennis Hallman as all-time greats, its limitations become evident in a hurry. MMA resumes are littered with red herrings and logic traps that give us a license to conclude almost anything we want. We need to avoid these gambits and decode the data into a single, logically-supported narrative. To do this, we can lean on the following questions:
Who did the fighter beat?
We have to start here because winning percentage and career victories are meaningless measures without context. A win over an elite opponent is the currency of the MMA GOAT conversation. It is how fighters stand out from each other… or don’t. Takanori Gomi amassed an impressive 35-9 record before dropping six of his last seven fights. Of those 35 wins, none were against anyone in the top-100 or anyone even close to the top-100. Similarly, Yushin Okami amassed a 35-11 record before losing three of his last four fights. Of those 35 wins, one was against a fighter in the top-100 (DQ win over A. Silva not included) without any other wins being over anyone close to the top-100. Mark Coleman, on the other hand, posted a 16-10 career record but compiled four wins against the top-100. Despite having a worse winning percentage and fewer overall fights, Coleman’s elite victories make for a more impressive resume.
How did the fighter win?
All wins are good wins, but some are more revealing than others. Routinely winning fights via stoppage is the sign of a dominant fighter, and it should be a deciding factor when scrutinizing two elite resumes. Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre (GSP) are, without question, two of the greatest of all-time. Separating their resumes on merit is no easy task. However, when comparing Silva’s 76% finish-rate in victories to GSP’s 54% rate, it is clear that Silva won his fights much more convincingly. Cain Velasquez totaled an astounding 12 finishes in just 17 career fights. Frankie Edgar, on the other hand, won via stoppage in only 11 of 34 career fights. When comparing Edgar and Velasquez, who both have equally impressive resumes from very different weight classes, it is clear that Velasquez was the more dominant fighter. Just like winning via stoppage is superior to winning by decision, winning by unanimous decision is far more impressive than winning by a split decision unless, of course, Chris Lee is scoring the fight in which case they are the same.
When did the fight take place?
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was a devastating fighter who knocked out Chuck Liddell twice, slammed Ricardo Arona through the floor, and turned Wanderlei Silva into a Slinky. When Wanderlei finished a 25-year-old Rampage who was entering his prime in 2003, it was an elite win. In 2008, when Forrest Griffin shocked Rampage, who had just unified the UFC/Pride 205-lb belts for the first time in history, it was an elite win. The same cannot be said for Chael Sonnen’s win over a bloated 39-year old Rampage in 2018 in a sad heavyweight affair. The same rule applies in the opposite direction. Conor McGregor’s victory over a green 21-year-old Max Holloway is not as meaningful as Alexander Volkanovski’s two victories (or 1.5?) over a 28-year-old Holloway firmly entrenched in his prime.
What weight class did the fight take place in?
Max “Blessed” Holloway stepped out of his natural weight class to unsuccessfully challenge Dustin Poirier for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship in 2019. Any win over Blessed is impressive, but weight classes exist for a reason. Poirier’s best weight class is lightweight, while Blessed’s is featherweight. Similarly, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Shogun Rua both defeated Alistair Overeem twice at light heavyweight. Overeem was a decent fighter at light heavyweight but became an elite fighter when he transitioned to PEDs heavyweight. Nogueira and Shogun’s victories can’t be confused with wins over Overeem at his best weight-class. Additionally, Royce Gracie—a natural welterweight/middleweight—spent his career fighting much larger fighters. It’s not a stretch to say he would’ve feasted on a schedule that exclusively featured welterweight fighters.
Who did the fighter lose to?
It’s easy to view all losses the same, but there is a distinct difference between losing to an elite fighter and losing to a mediocre one. To revisit the Gomi/Coleman comparison above, of Gomi’s 16 career defeats, only three came against fighters inside the top-100, including zero against the top-50. Conversely, Coleman had ten career losses, including seven against the top-100 and six against the top-50. Coleman regularly challenged elite opponents, Gomi did not. Additionally, while Vitor Belfort had 14 career losses, all 14 came against the top-100. That not only speaks to Belfort’s ability to win the fights he was supposed to win but also his incredible strength-of-schedule.
What was the fighter’s strength of schedule?
Vitor Belfort fought 41 times in his professional career on his way to a 26-15 record. A staggering 22 of those contests came against fighters in the top-100. Belfort’s 8-14 record in those 22 fights might not look impressive on paper, but it turns out that it puts him in some pretty good company.
Although we only have one generation of fighters to analyze, it appears that just a ~40% winning percentage in elite fights is enough to keep getting elite fights, which is the key to putting together a top-100 resume.
On the other end of the spectrum is a fighter like Ben Askren, who fought just three top-100 opponents with zero coming against the top-75. Even giving credit to Askren for those fights is generous considering the average age of his three opponents was 37. Although Askren’s 19-2-1 record appears impressive at first glance, his schedule strength is at the extreme of the spectrum, and not in a good way. Fighters with a weak strength of schedule need to take advantage of their limited opportunities. Matt Hughes did not have the most stellar collection of opponents over his career. However, he won the fights he was supposed to win while picking up huge wins over GSP, BJ Penn, and Royce Gracie. He made the most of the schedule he was dealt securing his place in history.
More from the Cage
The Wall is inevitable but irrelevant.
Even the most dominant fighters can only handle so much wear-and-tear before losses start piling up at an increasing rate. We can call this The Wall. Some recognize it and retire in time to avoid tanking their winning percentage. Unfortunately, that’s the exception rather than the rule. GSP is an example of a fighter whose timely exit rewarded him with a well-preserved resume. His performance in a controversial win over Johny Hendricks was enough for him to walk away from the sport relatively unscathed. For every GSP, numerous fighters hang around searching for skills and reflexes that have long since eroded. This list includes Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Shogun Rua, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Chris Weidman, BJ Penn, Rashad Evans, Frank Mir, Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks, Renan Barao, Nate Marquardt, Big Nog, and Lil Nog.
The Wall sucks. The abruptness in which it arrives is cruel for both fighters and fans. Finding The Wall on a resume is as easy as scrolling to the section where the losses start piling up and then initiating sad-face. The Wall marks the definitive end to anything resembling peak ability. We have the power to ignore this section of a fighter’s career, and we should. We don’t penalize Jerry Rice for the final eight seasons of his career that he spent as a shell of his former self because they are useless data points. Performance after hitting The Wall is no different; it is a useless data point.
Ken Shamrock fought a remarkable 11 fights after hitting The Wall. Hanging on too long tanked both his winning percentage and his legacy. We can’t do much about the former, but we have control over the latter. Had he retired after finishing Kimo Leopoldo in 2004, his career record would’ve been an impressive 26-8-2. Instead, he pushed forward in the face of diminishing skills and paid for it with a 2-9 stretch to close out his career. Since Shamrock was well past his prime and the cake was already baked on his Hall-of-Fame career, those final 11 fights should be irrelevant when evaluating his resume. The same goes for late-career money grabs like Liddell-Ortiz III. There was nothing that could’ve happened in that fight to change the narrative for either fighter. Legacies should be defined by what happens before The Wall.
There are three distinct phases to an MMA career: green, prime, and twilight. While virtually all fighters go through these phases, the amount of time they spend in each varies significantly. Some take years to marinate before becoming elite (Stipe Miocic), while others are ready to compete right out of the gate (Vitor Belfort). Some fighters remain competitive against elite opponents into their 40s (Dan Henderson, Randy Couture), while others hit The Wall in their early 30s (Shogun Rua, Jose Aldo). The timeframe in which a fighter compiles elite wins is inconsequential as long as the body-of-work is there. It doesn’t matter if it all takes place over a dominant 3-year stretch or it’s sprinkled unevenly over a decade; the name of the game is winning and competing impressively against as many elite opponents as possible.
Champ-Champs and the Like
There is no doubt that a fighter who can compete at the highest level in multiple weight-classes is a rare breed. When putting together the list of top-100 fighters of all-time, we need to credit fighters who manage to accomplish this feat. Fighters who get a boost for posting big wins and/or title reigns in multiple weight classes include; Daniel Cormier, Dan Henderson, BJ Penn, Randy Couture, Conor McGregor, Henry Cejudo, Royce Gracie, Frank Shamrock, and Ryan Bader.
Winning the belt is the goal for any MMA fighter, but even more impressive than winning it is keeping it. MMA has had its share of fluky champs who connected with the right strike at the right time. Matt Serra scored the biggest upset in UFC history by shocking Georges St. Pierre but didn’t log even one successful defense before losing it back to GSP. Junior Dos Santos connected with a first-round shot that ended Cain Velasquez’s title reign but subsequently lost ten consecutive rounds to Velasquez in two brutally one-sided rematches. Michael Bisping was a massive +525 underdog at UFC 199 when he scored a first-round upset over Luke Rockhold. Bisping was disposed of two fights later by a temporarily unretired GSP, who was fighting in a weight class he’d never fought in before. While Serra, JDS, and Bisping deserve kudos for pulling the upsets, a resume does not solidify in one night. MMA has also had its share of vacated belts resulting in fighters winning a title without defeating the previous champion.
Belts can be won in all sorts of ways—some impressive, some not so much. Defending the belt, on the other hand, has no such variance. Champions are routinely fed the top contender making every successful title defense increasingly more impressive. In terms of fighter legacy, think of each title defense as having an accelerated multiplier attached to it. Jon Jones is the greatest MMA fighter of all-time because he defended the belt 11 times in the treacherous light heavyweight division. For comparison, Khabib Nurmagomedov—as dominant as he was—owns just three successful title defenses. For the same reason Jones is the GOAT, Anderson Silva is the GOAT runner-up. Silva’s 10-consecutive title defenses are second all-time to Demetrius Johnson (11) and seven more than any other middleweight in UFC history, which is why…
Anderson Silva did not ruin his legacy by hanging on too long.
It wasn’t too long ago that Anderson Silva was universally considered the greatest MMA fighter of all-time. Jon Jones has since eclipsed him, which should’ve dropped him to the second position, but something interesting has happened. It has become cliché to espouse the idea that Silva tarnished his legacy by sticking around too long. Gegard Mousasi said those words verbatim, and a quick Google search of “Anderson Silva tarnished legacy” reveals a cavalcade of similar sentiments. There is an argument to be made that Silva did tarnish his legacy, but that would be related to failed drug tests, not his performance in the octagon.
The idea that an MMA fighter can tarnish or ruin a legacy by hanging on too long is a misguided notion. Michael Jordan won six NBA Finals MVPs and was universally regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time when he retired for the second time in 1998. Three years later, he returned to play two seasons for the Washington Wizards in which he was, unsurprisingly, a shell of his younger self. His points-per-game, field-goal percentage, and player efficiency rating (PER) all plummeted from his previous output, and the Wizards failed to make the playoffs both seasons. Despite his lackluster performance, when Jordan retired for the final time, his status as the GOAT was as strong as it had ever been. Superstar athletes are typically afforded the luxury of growing old, but there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to MMA fighters. This double-standard is a disservice to both the sport and its athletes. Despite the diminishing returns, Anderson Silva continued to fight after his prime because he liked the challenge. Jordan came back at 38 for the same reason.
Silva knew better than anyone that his skills had diminished, but he was under no obligation to anyone—not fans, critics, or historians—to retire for the sake of posterity. By continuing to fight, there wasn’t anything he could’ve done to undo what he had already done—and what he had already done was an unprecedented assault on the history books. His 16-fight winning streak is, by far, the longest in UFC history. He held the middleweight belt for 2,457 consecutive days, which is, by far, the most for any weight-class in UFC history. He had a 14-fight winning streak as champion, which is the most in UFC history. He had a 13-fight winning streak at middleweight, which is the most for any division in UFC history. He had nine finishes and seven knockouts in title bouts, both being the most in UFC history. He has the highest significant strike percentage in UFC history (min. 1,000 attempts). He’s second all-time in career UFC knockouts, third all-time in career UFC finishes, and has headlined the second most PPV main events in UFC history. That he still enjoyed competing after his prime doesn’t undo any of that.
Media coverage in the MMA industry has historically favored lighter fighters. In March 2015, ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings featured three welterweights, two bantamweights, a flyweight, and a featherweight in its top-10. In June 2018, five of the six lightest weight classes were represented in the top-10. The lightweight division alone had three representatives. Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic—two of the greatest fighters in MMA history—didn’t show up until #7 and #8, respectively. In October of 2020, nine of the 15 fighters who received votes in ESPN’s rankings weighed 155lbs or less. This trend has been pretty consistent ever since lighter divisions started to materialize in the early 2000s.
The problem with favoring these divisions is that it is progressively more difficult to succeed—and dominate—the heavier the weight class. According to fightmatrix.com, 46.3% of all MMA heavyweight fights have ended in (T)KO. That number drops with each weight class, bottoming out at just 27.9% in the flyweight division. In contrast, only 16.8% of all heavyweight fights have ended in a decision. That number rises with each weight class, topping out at 36.7% in the flyweight division. The one-punch knockout threat of MMA’s heaviest and most dangerous divisions prevents long winning streaks and successful title defenses, making what Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, and Stipe Miocic have accomplished all the more impressive.
Surviving at heavyweight—and doing so fight-after-fight—is the most arduous task in the sport. Like the first 90 seconds vs. Iron Mike in Mike Tyson’s Punch-out!!!, the threat of a knockout is palpable in every big-boy fight. Routinely avoiding the KO requires elite conditioning, outstanding work in the clinch, effective top control, and elite takedown defense. Those skills are transferable to all weight classes, but they take on a whole new level of importance in the heavyweight division. Francis Ngannou—as explosive and impressive as he has been—was exposed by Stipe for not having these skills. Cormier amassed a 22-3 career-record in MMA’s two most dangerous weight classes by excelling in them.
Additionally, light heavyweight is the equivalent of two weight classes (205 and 195) and heavyweight is the equivalent of six weight classes (265, 255, 245, 235, 225, and 215), making the talent pool much deeper than what exists in the lighter weight classes. Jon Jones has defeated 11 probable future Hall-of-Famers, while Stipe is at eight and counting. In stark contrast, Demetrius Johnson and Henry Cejudo are stuck at three. Given there is a larger talent pool in the heavier divisions and it’s harder to consistently win, we need to buck the trend of giving favor to the lightest divisions and start giving the heaviest weight classes a degree-of-difficulty bump.
“Who would win?” is not the question.
“Who would win in a fight?” has been the intro to many animated conversations since cavemen were eating forbidden fruit and running from the dinosaurs. While that question is always a gateway to compelling banter, this list does not directly address that query. Instead, it is a ranking of the greatest fighters in MMA history judged by strength-of-resume. The distinction might seem nuanced, but one is hypothetical about a future event, and the other is about what has already happened.
Let’s use Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir to highlight the distinction between what this list is and isn’t. If MMA fans were asked to predict the winner of a Lesnar/Mir fight to take place next week, Lesnar would win in a landslide. The oddsmakers in Vegas would undoubtedly agree. As we know, Lesnar and Mir did fight, twice actually. The first fight was Lesnar’s first action against an experienced UFC heavyweight—and it was against a former champion, no less. Lesnar dominated the opening 90 seconds until he got caught with a savvy kneebar by a reeling Mir. The rematch would see Lesnar cruise to victory. Mir was fortunate to come away with a win in the first fight and, after the second fight, it was clear that Lesnar was the superior fighter.
So, who would win between Lesnar and Mir? Well, that’s an easy one; the answer is Lesnar. Who has the better MMA resume and should be ranked higher on the all-time list? That’s an easy one, too; it’s Mir. Mir’s 16 wins in the UFC heavyweight division are second-most all-time. Lesnar recorded just four wins in the UFC, including one with a 45-lb weight advantage against a 43-year old Randy Couture. In Lesnar’s brief eight-fight career, he was finished in the first round against his two most difficult opponents (Velasquez and Overeem) and should’ve been finished in the first round against Shane Carwin in what is arguably the most lopsided round in MMA history.
The absolute best thing that we can say about Lesnar’s resume is that he has a victory over Mir. On the other hand, Mir has better things on his resume than his victory over Lesnar. While Lesnar might be the better fighter, Mir had a better career.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is likely the most dominant fighter in MMA history. Not only did he win all 29 of his professional fights, he never came close to losing. In 60-career rounds, he lost just two—one to Justin Gaethje which was dubious at best, and one to Conor McGregory. Jon Jones, on the other hand, lost two rounds in three fights. Of Khabib’s 60 career rounds inside the cage, 19 resulted in a finish for an astounding 32% round-finish rate. By comparison, Jon Jones finished an opponent in 17 of 82 career rounds for a 21% round-finish rate. Khabib-fights were different than those of other elite fighters in the sense that we knew Khabib’s opponent had no chance. Even in a sport where everyone has expertise in self-defense, his assaults bordered on bullying.
So, it is a bit disappointing that he doesn’t lay claim to the title of GOAT. As dominant as Khabib was, his fight-frequency was frustratingly low and that, unfortunately, precludes him from GOAT status. In nine years in the UFC, Khabib fought just 13 times. In Jones’s first 12 years in the UFC, he managed to fight 22 times despite repeated interruptions from suspensions and legal trouble.
The unfortunate byproduct of not fighting often is a correspondingly low number of fights against marquee opponents. In 29 career fights, Khabib fought just three fighters in the top-100. Jones is at 12 and counting; Anderson Silva and GSP are at 16 and 9, respectively. In a comparison between dominant fighters, the nod has to go to those who fought more often and did so against a considerably more impressive collection of opponents. To the chagrin of MMA aficionados everywhere, Khabib simply didn’t fight enough.
Like a sudoku puzzle, there are some clues locked in place before we even begin to compare resumes. Here are some examples:
Wanderlei Silva > Sakuraba (3 fights, 3 wins for Wanderlei)
Cain Velasquez > JDS (11 total rounds, Cain dominated for 10)
Rampage > Liddell (2 fights, 2 finishes for Rampage)
Liddell > Tito (2 fights in prime, 2 finishes for Liddell)
Frankie Edgar > BJ Penn (3 fights, 3 wins for Edgar)
Jose Aldo > Frankie Edgar (2 fights, 2 similarly decisive wins for Aldo)
Tito > Ken Shamrock (3 fights, 3 finishes for Tito)
Jeremy Horn > Chael Sonnen (3 fights, 3 finishes for Horn)
Renan Barao > Faber (2 fights, 2 wins for Barao including finish and 50-45)
MMA has been plagued by controversial judging decisions since its inception. The all-too-familiar 30-27, 30-27, 27-30 split-decision is real, and it’s not spectacular. Even Paul Felder—who stood to gain from judging malfeasance—rolled his eyes when the result of his lopsided split-decision loss to Rafael dos Anjos was announced. Fortunately for dos Anjos, the other two judges saw the fight for what it was, and he was able to walk away with a well-earned victory. Other fighters haven’t been as lucky. Much more common than total judging malpractice is a razor-close split-decision that leaves the MMA community divided. As much as we want it to be—and try to make it be—MMA is not a zero-sum sport. Some fights have clear winners and losers; others don’t. Fortunately, all fights give us information. Going the distance with an elite opponent without definitively losing enhances a resume regardless of the scorecards. In controversial or razor-close decisions, the loser on the scorecards should receive more credit than simply a loss, while the winner on the scorecards should receive less credit than a win. This isn’t practical in actual MMA judging, but we can make these adjustments when evaluating careers. Fights that make more sense scored closer to a draw than the initial result include:
I’m Jake. I’m Married… with Children. I have a dog. His name is Eddie but he has many alter egos, including Drunk Monkey’s Uncle. We debate whether that means he’s drunk or the monkey’s drunk. After six years, there is no consensus. I enjoy the occasional food. Hydration is also important to me. My hobby is compiling lists and watching them grow outdated and useless. I don’t like my hobby, so I don’t think I’m gonna do it anymore. My new hobby is compiling lists and preventing them from growing outdated and useless. Call it a mid-life crisis if you want, but I have to start living. Things are going to be changing big-time for me, baby! I can just feel it!
I don’t want to make this all about me. I think there could be some mutualism in play here. Perhaps you’ve grown skeptical waiting for Sporting News to update its 100 Greatest Baseball Players list from 1998. Maybe you’re starting to think that Joe Montana might not be the greatest quarterback of all-time anymore, but would rather not have to wait an indeterminant amount of time for a random publication to confirm it in writing. Or, you might be looking for a resource to help settle a LeBron/MJ dispute that’s at step one of Hamilton’s duel commandments. If my major life event can add a semblance of intrigue to your life or help the workday move by a little faster, then I’m thrilled to help. Happy scrolling!
In The Recalibration, we established that degree-of-difficulty is a vital element to inter-era player comparisons. If we ignore this component, our ability to thread an accurate narrative of the greatest players throughout history is DOA. That might sound a bit dramatic, but we don’t have to use hypotheticals to imagine the ramifications of forging ahead without accounting for competition level. We only need to look to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team (49 of top-100 debuted before 1970) or the Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players (entire top-25 debuted before 1968) to see that ignoring degree-of-difficulty results in a list dominated by players who played during the weakest eras in history. Although adjusting for league strength is imperative, we need to clarify what we mean—and don’t mean—by league strength.
If Babe Ruth were teleported from 1921 to the present, he would probably be drunk. After sobering up, he would quickly find that he became a crummy baseball player overnight. Player development has advanced far beyond anything anyone from Ruth’s era ever could’ve imagined. Pitchers throw harder and have better control than a century ago. They master more offerings, sequence better, and rarely tip pitches. Due to the significant increase in average pitcher height, they throw on a more exaggerated downhill plane and release the ball closer to the plate than ever before. They also don’t stick around for a 3rd, 4th, and 5th time through the lineup to offer up the tasty meatballs Ruth undoubtedly feasted on.
Modern hitters have evolved in several ways to combat these pitching advances. They are bigger, stronger, and have better hand-eye coordination leading to steeper launch angles and higher exit velocities. While Ruth had prodigious power, there is little chance he had the quick-twitch reflexes necessary to make use of it in today’s highly-specialized game. It would be hard to imagine Ruth outhitting even the worst hitter in MLB today. His base-running and defense would be so poor that there’s a decent chance he would be escorted off the field before even getting a chance to swing a bat. Unfortunately for The Bambino, since teleporting doesn’t include evolution by osmosis, he’ll need to try his hand at competitive eating if he’s planning on sticking around. While this is a fun thought-experiment, this is not our definition of degree-of-difficulty.
Now that we’ve defined what degree-of-difficulty isn’t, let’s define what it is. For the purposes of inter-era player comparisons, it will reflect the following:
The overall number of opponents that a player competes against to lead the league in statistical categories and win awards.
The number of games required to win a championship.
The percentage of the best available talent present in the league.
The size of the global pool populating the league.
The first part of our definition is the easiest to quantify. MLB today is close to twice the size as it was when Ruth played, meaning he only had to outperform half the players to lead the league in statistical categories compared to modern players. In other words, it’s easier to hit more home runs than 225 people than it is to hit more home runs than 450. Similarly, Ruth’s Yankees only needed to win four games to win the World Series, while the Dodgers had to win 13 games in 2020 to take home the championship. It’s not a coincidence that dynasties—in all sports—simply don’t exist the way they used to when there were fewer teams to beat and fewer games to win.
The third part of our definition is, thankfully, an artifact of the past. While current major leaguers compete against all the best baseball players in the sport, the same cannot be said for Ruth. MLB’s ban on black and Latino players watered down the overall quality of play during his career. To get an idea of what was missing, consider that in the 33 years following Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, black players won 30 league MVPs. There is no question that Ruth benefited from not having to compete against Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, and Oscar Charleston, all prolific home run hitters active during his career.
Lastly, we need to account for MLB’s shift from a national organization to a global one. There were more international players on MLB rosters in 2020 than total players in the American League in 1921. Baseball’s popularity has exploded around the globe, making it harder than ever to reach the majors. This is the classic big fish in a little pond vs. big fish in a big pond scenario. There’s a reason why the smart money is almost always on the latter.
As we conduct inter-era player comparisons in baseball going back to the 1890s, we will notice that degree-of-difficulty becomes less of a factor with each passing generation, and it stopped being a factor altogether by the mid-1990s. The number of teams in MLB has held steady since 1998. Despite constant tinkering, the number of games required to win a championship has remained mostly consistent since the wild card was first used in 1995; and most importantly, MLB has been a global enterprise welcome to all players for decades. Unless MLB chooses to undergo a significant expansion in the future, we should be able to rely on performance relative to peers as our sole method for comparing any two players who played after 1994. For all other comparisons, we’ll need to account for degree-of-difficulty according to our stated definition. Happy scrolling!
There are as many ways to quantify the parameters of a top 100-list as there are stars in the sky. One of the fun things about putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest hockey players of all-time is that the list-maker gets to choose the most important characteristics to emphasize. One of the frustrating things about putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest hockey players of all-time is that the list-maker has to choose the most important characteristics to emphasize. Pretzel logic is always peering around the corner, and a convoluted mess is never far away. Sound logic and consistency are the two pillars I lean on the most when sifting through elite resumes to form a fair representation of the greatest to ever lace-up skates. However, it’s not always easy to apply logic and consistency when the NHL has seen the league evolve from 3.5 teams in 1917 (RIP Montreal Wanderers who wandered right on out of the league mid-season after the Montreal Arena burned down) to 31 teams today. For instance, how does Howie Morenz winning three Hart Trophies in a small, territorial league in the 1920s stack up against Evgeni Malkin winning one Hart Trophy and finishing 2rd twice in a 30-team, global league? Morenz is typically rated ahead of Malkin on all-time lists but the only way that can be rationalized is via a straight raw comparison of honors with no consideration for league size or strength. There’s no question the league is more difficult to succeed in today than it was for Morenz. The pool of international talent feeding the NHL is larger than ever and the number of players in the NHL is at an all-time high. The Morenz-Malkin comparison is just one example of hundreds of complicated inter-era comparisons—the results of which sometimes fly in the face of conventional wisdom. However, applying logic and doing so consistently across the board can help make some sense of things.
No Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve
Part of becoming a top-100 player of all-time in any sport is luck. It helps to be drafted by the right team and have skilled teammates. It’s also crucial to remain healthy. There are hundreds of players in NHL history who likely would have been considered consensus top-100 players of all-time had they played on a different team, had better teammates, or avoided devastating injuries. While it would be great to run a simulation placing every player in every possible position that has ever existed in the NHL to see who would consistently perform at an elite level regardless of the situation, we do not have that luxury. “What ifs?” are for another time and place. A player’s career begins and ends; in between is the only legacy we have to go on.
Hardware and Honors
Hart and Conn Smythe trophies are the gold standards of the NHL. While the Hart is more difficult to win, the Smythe holds its own prestige as it signifies the best in the sport against the highest level of competition over the most important two months of the year. Although the degree-of-difficulty on the Smythe is slightly less than that of the Hart (it’s more difficult to be the best player over six months among 31 teams than it is to be the best player over two months among 16 teams), winning multiple Smythes appears to be more difficult than winning multiple Harts. This is likely a result of the fact that most players don’t even get the opportunity to play in multiple Stanley Cup Finals, let alone win when they get there while also being the best player. Whereas 18 players in NHL history have taken home multiple Harts, just six have managed to win multiple Smythes. While both accomplishments are destined to result in a top-100 resume—all 20 players who won multiple Harts and/or Smythes are in the top-100—players who scored multiple Smythes are, on average, rated higher in the top-100. Of the six players who won multiple Smythes, only Bernie Parent is not rated among the top-7 players of all-time. Norris, Vezina, Art Ross, and Richard trophies, and 1st team All-Star selections are next in the hardware toolbox. Selke trophies are noteworthy—but especially so for adept offensive performers, signifying the rare two-way dynamo. While no official points and goals awards exist for the playoffs, I view leading the playoff in points and goals as postseason versions of the Art Ross and Richard trophies. Finishing in the top-5 in seasonal award voting, while obviously not as impressive as winning, is an indication of elite-level performance. 2nd team All-Star selections also help tell the story, but it’s important to note the distinction between being named a 2nd team-All-Star in a large league versus being named one in the Original Six-era.
Hockey historians occasionally neglect to account for the massive variance in league size when comparing players from different eras. Winning a Stanley Cup or a Hart trophy in a 6-team league is significantly easier than doing so in a 30-team league. All-Star selections are not created equal. Consider that a 2nd team all-star selection in a 6-team league is equivalent to a 10th team All-Star selection in a 30-team league (math, FTW). One is noteworthy, one not-so-much. Likewise, winning the Hart Trophy in 2020 among 883 players is a vastly more impressive feat than winning it in 1924 among 47 players. Standing out has gotten exponentially more difficult as the NHL has expanded. As a result, players who achieved their accomplishments in statistically more disadvantageous eras are given a significant edge in degree-of-difficulty over their more fortunate counterparts.
The Second Season
It’s easy to get into the habit of looking at regular-season statistics as the be-all, end-all of a player’s resume. Since everyone is given the opportunity to play the same number of games, regular-season statistics offer a convenient apples-to-apples comparison between players. Playoffs, on the other hand, are only accessible to those fortunate enough to play on quality teams. While regular-season performance is pivotal to a player’s resume, playoff performance is equally important when it comes to legacy. Let’s compare Marcell Dionne to Jari Kurri to see the relative importance of the regular season compared to the playoffs when evaluating a player’s place in history. A quick look at their regular-season careers reveals Dionne ahead of Kurri. All-Star team selections slightly favor Dionne while Dionne has a decided advantage in Hart Trophy voting. Dionne was the player’s vote for league MVP (Pearson Award) twice which is certainly a plus in his column. Playing in the same era, Dionne has a 1.31 to 1.12 lead in career points per game which makes him the more consistent regular-season offensive performer. Kurri has a decided advantage defensively finishing in the top-5 of the Selke voting four times and receiving votes in three other seasons. Dionne never received a single Selke vote and was not known for his defense. While Kurri’s defensive prowess brings the comparison a little closer, Dionne gets the edge, which is why he typically gets the nod over Kurri on top-100 lists. If lists were confined to the regular season, I would agree with that sentiment.
However, there is an entirely different universe of information in the playoff world that paints a completely different picture. First, it’s important to establish that the average level of competition in a playoff game compared to a regular-season game is like night and day. Every game in the NHL playoffs is against high-level competition, with each round delivering a progressively superior opponent. High-level performance against the high-caliber competition of the playoffs is significantly more impressive than a similar performance against regular-season competition. Kurri played in 200 career playoff games. That’s the equivalent of 2.5 additional regular-seasons against the highest caliber of competition in the sport. In those 200 playoff games, Kurri performed at a level few in the history of hockey have duplicated. Since the Original Six expanded in 1967, Kurri is the only player in the NHL to lead the playoffs in goals four times. Only two players—Phil Esposito and Mike Bossy—have even done it three times. Kurri had five seasons of 25+ points in the playoffs which are third-most in history (Gretzky and Messier both had six). He is 3rd all-time in both playoff goals and playoff points. He is 8th all-time in playoff points-per-game and actually increased his per-game point production in the playoffs. He played in seven Stanley Cup Finals (won five of them) which means he didn’t accumulate his massive point production against first and second-round pushovers. His production came against the elite of the elite. Dionne, on the other hand, averaged less than a point-per-game in 49 career playoff games, which represented a significant drop from his regular-season output. In nine trips to the playoffs, Dionne never sniffed the conference finals. In this comparison, Dionne has an edge in the regular-season while Kurri has a Continental Divide-sized advantage in the playoffs. Against higher caliber competition on the biggest of stages, Kurri was an all-world performer. Kurri’s total body of work—regular season and playoffs—puts him ahead of Dionne on the all-time list.
Accomplishments are Intellectual Property
Sticking with Kurri… Kurri’s accomplishments have been devalued by some due to the fact that he played with Wayne Gretzky. The implication is Kurri leeched his way to 600 goals and a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s important to keep in mind that using this logic would mean no player in NHL history could’ve played with Gretzky and gotten proper due since The Great One is the greatest of all-time. If playing with Gretzky requires an automatic discounting of accomplishments and Kurri truly was a top-50 player of all-time, how would we ever know? “Production by association” is an argument that gets thrown out there quite often but offers little substance or value beyond speculation. All we know is what Kurri did with the time he had in the league. It wasn’t Gretzky who led the playoffs in goals four times. It wasn’t Gretzky who led the Stanley Cup Finals in points when Edmonton won the Cup two years after Gretzky was traded to LA. With the venerable Mark Lamb as his centerman, Kurri’s regular-season point total actually went up the year after Gretzky left the Oilers, which resulted in Kurri’s selection as a 2nd Team All-Star. Gretzky undoubtedly made Kurri a more productive player, but it’s important to note that it goes both ways. While Gretzky made Kurri better, it’s hard to argue that Kurri didn’t make life easier for Gretzky as well. This same argument routinely pops-up when discussing Phil Esposito. Esposito’s success is often discounted heavily due to playing with Bobby Orr despite plenty of evidence—the ‘72 Summit Series for example—suggesting Esposito’s own greatness. There is no argument that Gretzky and Orr weren’t better players, but hockey is a team sport where talent complements talent. Kurri was an elite, two-way, goal-scoring wing who complemented Gretzky’s playmaking ability. Both players benefited from that relationship—mutualism at its finest.
Stanley Cups matter, to a point.
Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups over 20 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. You will find him on virtually every top-100 list, but you won’t find him here. The younger Richard was a very good player. However, in a six-team league, Henri played 20 years and never finished in the top-3 of the Hart voting. Richard only led his own team in points once and finished in the top-five in league-scoring just three times. He may have been the best player on his team once, and he spent the vast majority of his career in the 3-6 range. Richard’s 11 Stanley Cup-wins presented him 11 opportunities to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (or the retro Smythe), yet he never won it. Nothing on Richard’s resume hints at a top-100 player other than the fact that he played for 11 Stanley Cup Champions. Claude Provost—an outstanding defensive forward in his own right—similarly has little on his resume hinting at a top-100 player. He won nine Stanley Cups and finished with the same number of 1st team All-Star selections as Richard, and nobody seems to confuse Provost with being a top-100 player. There’s little doubt that Richard was a great player, but his resume has more in common with Provost’s than it does with that of a top-100 player. Despite the Cups, Henri’s placement is more appropriate in the 101-200 range. A lot of players who have played important roles on a lot of Stanley Cup-winning teams don’t show up on top-100 lists. Using Stanley Cups as a ranking tool can be helpful, but it requires a figurative hazmat suit because it can get radioactive in a hurry. Context matters.
Reputation Among Peers
Typically, resumes speak for themselves. However, hockey in the early days of the NHL was a different sport than the product that exists today, making it hard to put statistical data from that era into proper context. There also weren’t a whole lot of people watching at the time, which made it difficult to establish a hierarchy of the greatest players of the 1920s and 30s even then, let alone trying to do so 100 years later. Unlike baseball where the greats from the early days were immortalized, hockey saw its early stars go somewhat overlooked. This makes it harder to rate players from that era, so unearthing player opinions on the abilities of their peers from the early days of the NHL is like discovering a lost treasure trove of information. For later generations, peer evaluations are less useful. For example, Wayne Gretzky’s opinion of Grant Fuhr is uncompelling for two reasons: 1) Gretzky has a penchant for effusively praising former teammates, and 2) Fuhr’s era was well-documented. While Gretzky’s gushy opinions of his former teammates might not be all that helpful, the opinions of players who played in the earliest days of the NHL are of significance given how little information exists from that era. Fortunately for us, many of those opinions are documented online. This resource catalogs the opinions of dozens of players who played not only in the early days of the NHL but also from the years prior to its formation. A fairly consistent theme emerged from these accounts which, combined with what we know about league honors and scoring, helped identify the truly elite players of the era.
NHL or Bust
The best players in the history of hockey—with few exceptions—have played in the NHL. This provides a linear consistency that makes comparing players across eras possible. While not necessarily matching-up in their primes, Howie Morenz played against Syl Apps who played against Gordie Howe who played against Wayne Gretzky who played against Zdeno Chara. That’s 100 years of hockey! That they all played in the NHL provides a common thread throughout history allowing for a meaningful comparison of their individual accomplishments. The top-100 list starts to take shape by ranking players who played in the same era against each other. The list further takes shape by comparing players who played the same position against each other, regardless of era. The fact that almost every elite hockey player has played in the NHL streamlines this process.
There are certainly international players who may have made the top-100 list had they been given the opportunity to play in the NHL. I use may because we will never know for sure. Vladislav Tretiak—the great Russian goaltender—is often included on top-100 lists, as are other Russian legends like Valeri Kharlamov and Boris Mikhailov. All three were selected to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Centennial All-Star Team as the Soviet Union comprised four of the six overall selections. There is no doubt that Russian hockey has a rich history on the world stage, and it is by no accident. The Soviet Union national hockey program was specifically fine-tuned to dominate international competition not only by creating a well-oiled machine on the ice but by circumventing international rules to establish an uneven playing surface off it. While the United States and Canada strictly adhered to the rules of international competition by sending bonafide amateurs, Russia literally sent professionals and called them amateurs. The “Miracle on Ice” was a miracle as much for the age difference as it was for the talent difference. It should come as no surprise that a team full of professionals with an average age of 26 was expected to skate circles around a team of college kids with an average age of 22. The Soviet program was successful, in part, because it established a rogue system that worked outside the rules of international competition and gladly played the role of bully when it went unchecked by international governing bodies.
Additionally, unlike hockey in North America where the task has always been for hockey franchises to find talented players and funnel them into the NHL, Russia’s government-sponsored hockey program aimed to identify the most talented youth in the country and develop it to not only represent the Soviet Union in international competition but as a Cold War political tool ostensibly representing Russian superiority. Soviet players spent years perfecting specific roles and developing skill-sets that would lead them to thrive in those roles. Imagine if the NHL disbanded and the United States and Canada combined the best players from their respective countries into one super team. Now imagine if that team practiced 1,200 hours per year year-after-year. I think that team would do pretty well against Russia’s best 22-year olds. While there is no doubt the Red Army teams were talented, there success is perhaps the embodiment of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Who is to say how each individual player would have performed outside of the Red Army system, in the physically grueling environment of the NHL? Fortunately, we have, at the very least, a partial answer to that question.
Translating international results to an NHL equivalent is fraught with peril due to the massive variance in competition level. Alexander Radulov was a can’t-miss NHL prospect when he was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NHL Draft. He spent his professional career toggling back and forth between the NHL and the KHL (Russia’s premier hockey league). In 391 games in the KHL, he tallied 492 points for an impressive 1.26 points-per-game. In stark contrast to his KHL success, Radulov (as of 2020) mustered just 334 points in 442 NHL games for a pedestrian .76 points-per-game. Had Radulov spent his entire career playing in Russia, there is little doubt that he would be considered one of the greatest hockey players of all-time. In just seven seasons in the KHL, Radulov won four MVPs. It’s only logical to think that number would be even higher had he exclusively played in Russia. Fortunately for us, Radulov did make it to the NHL, providing a rare apples-to-apples comparison on how an elite KHL performer would fare in the NHL. Despite being a superstar in Russia, NHL success was never guaranteed for Radulov, nor is guaranteed for anyone.
Similarly, Viacheslav Fetisov often finds his way onto top-100 lists. He was a defensive stalwart for the Red Army teams of the late 70s through the early 90s. He played the majority of his professional career in Russia before making his NHL debut at the age of 31. There has been a laundry list of elite defensemen in the NHL who continued to play at an All-Star level well into their late 30s and early 40s. Yet, while Fetisov was a contributor for nine seasons, he never garnered any serious All-Star consideration, never received a single Norris vote, and spent his career as a role player. Igor Larionov was a celebrated centerman for the same Red Army teams that Fetisov skated for and had a similar reputation as one of the best players in the world. Larionov arrived in the NHL at 29 and—like Fetisov—spent his 14-year career as a solid, yet unspectacular, role player. Had Fetisov or Larionov never played a single game in the NHL, it is highly likely both would be universally considered top-100 players. Even still, Fetisov occasionally gets love on top-100 lists.
So, we have three very prominent cases of elite Russian players who seemed destined for top-100 lists ending up role players when faced with the rigors of the NHL. Who is to say Tretiak, Kharlamov, and Mikhailov would not have faced the same fate? Without the linear backbone that the NHL provides for player comparison, we’re left with two choices: randomly scatter these players throughout the top-100 without rhyme or reason, or acknowledge their contributions to the sport while also admitting to having no clue how, for instance, Tretiak compares to Jacques Plante, or how Kharlamov compares to Bobby Hull. Option number one doesn’t square with the way the rest of the list was constructed. So, instead of sprinkling these guys randomly over the top-100, let’s simply recognize them as great international players who may, or may not, have been elite players in the NHL.
Dynasties Went the Way of the Dodo
Dynasties might be nauseating for 95% of hockey fans (pretty much anyone whose team isn’t the dynasty) but they yield many legacy-building riches including Conn Smythe, Hart, Norris, and Vezina trophies, and, most importantly, Stanley Cups. All of these are the hallmarks of elite resumes. Unbeknownst at the time, the days of dynasties ruling the NHL were slowly trickling away by the mid-90s, and everything we thought we knew about an elite hockey resume was set to undergo a massive overhaul. There are, at least, three major reasons for the death of the dynasty. First, advances in defensive playing style—i.e., the neutral zone trap—and more resistant goaltending caused scoring to tank. This made it more challenging for “better” teams to separate themselves from “lesser” teams in the playoffs. Then, in 2005, the NHL moved to a salary cap. The initiation of the cap accelerated the demise of the dynasty by making it harder for teams to stockpile talent. Faster than Sergei Fedorov in the open ice, star-studded rosters like the 2002 Detroit Red Wings—featuring 10 future Hall-of-Famers—became a relic of the past. While some franchises managed to put together quasi-dynasties in the aftermath—this time fueled by two or three superstars rather than 5-10—the impact of the cap was immediate. In the 15 seasons following the dawn of the “Cap Era,” nine different franchises won the Stanley Cup, including five that had never won the Cup before. By comparison, in the previous 70 years, only 14 different franchises won the Cup. The third major reason for the eradication of NHL dynasties is simply mathematics. The rising number of teams in the NHL literally decreased the odds of winning the Stanley Cup. From 1942-1967, there were just six teams. That number would methodically increase to 21 by 1990 and 31 by 2016. As dynasties have dried-up, separation between elite player resumes has shrunk. Let’s take a look at some of the impacts:
Conn Smythe Trophy
In 26 seasons from 1994-2020, Sydney Crosby was the only player to win multiple Conn Smythe trophies. In the prior nine seasons alone (1985-1993), three players won multiple Smythes. There have been six players to win two or more Smythes in NHL history. Only Crosby from that group started his career after 1984. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Patrick Roy won multiple Smythes in part because the strength of their franchises allowed them to play in multiple Stanley Cup Finals. In today’s NHL, even winning the Cup once is a hard-ask, let alone multiple times. Dwindling are the days of the multi-Smythe resume.
In 26 seasons from 1994-2020, there were 22 different Hart Trophy winners, including a 10-year stretch from 2010-2020 that produced 10 different winners. In the previous 42 seasons (1952-1993), there were just 18 different Hart winners. There have been 18 players in NHL history who won two or more Hart Trophies. Only two players from that group—Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby—began their careers after 1990. Without a handful of players carrying around multiple Harts, finding meaningful separation between the league’s best players has become difficult. Figuring out how they all fit in the all-time scene requires logistical gymnastics.
At first glance, the impact on the Norris Trophy looks different than the impact on the Smythe and Hart. Upon closer inspection, it’s nearly identical sans one dominant stretch from Nicklas Lidstrom. In the seven seasons from 1994-2000, there were seven different Norris winners. Lidstrom did his thing winning seven Norris Trophies in 10 years and then it was back to an eight-year stretch from 2013-2020 that produced eight different winners. In the previous 40 years (1954-1993), there were only 16 different Norris winners. There have been eight players to win 3+ Norris Trophies and zero have started their career after 1991. Of the 13 players in NHL history who won 2+ Norris Trophies, Duncan Keith and Erik Karlsson are the only players who debuted after 1991. The days of the best defensemen in the NHL carrying around multiple Norris Trophies have all but evaporated, leaving one less useful metric for comparing resumes.
The Vezina pre-1982 was essentially a dynasty recognition award since, by definition, it was awarded to the goaltender(s) of the team that allowed the fewest regular-season goals—and that team was almost always the Montreal Canadiens. In 38 seasons from 1944-1981, the award went to a Canadiens goaltender 26 times. Post-1982, the Vezina has been awarded based on voting, falling in line with the rest of the NHL’s seasonal awards—albeit with one caveat. Unlike the Hart, Norris, and Conn Smythe Trophies, which are voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, Vezina voting is done by the league’s general managers. Given the NHL’s concerted effort in 1982 to distance the Vezina from its previous incarnation as a team-oriented award, it is safe to assume that general managers sought to reward high-performing goaltenders from middling teams. That appears to have borne out as the winner of the Vezina has come from the team that allowed the fewest regular-season goals just seven times in the 38 seasons since the rule change. So, the current version of the Vezina isn’t quite as associated with dynasties as the NHL’s other major annual awards. However, it is fair to assume that the salary cap era made it more difficult for goaltenders to backstop consistently successful teams, and that seems to have played a role in all but eliminating elite goaltender resumes. Sergei Bobrovsky is the only current player in the NHL with more than one Vezina Trophy which is pretty striking considering the rich history of his Vezina-winning brethren. There have been 12 goaltenders to win three or more Vezina Trophies in NHL history, yet the last goaltender to accomplish that feat—Martin Brodeur—started his career way back in 1991. Equally revealing is the fact that there have been seven different Vezina winners in the last seven seasons. In contrast, the 24 seasons prior produced just 12 different winners. Just like the Hart, Norris, and Conn Smythe trophies, the NHL’s parity has made it much more difficult to win multiple Vezinas, in turn making it more difficult for goaltenders to stand out among their contemporaries.
When Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby retire, the massive trophy case that has historically accompanied the elite players of the NHL will be retired with them. As the remnants of the pre-cap era continue to fade away, it will become more and more difficult to identify top-100 resumes. Duncan Keith—a player whose trophy case pales in comparison to those of Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios, and Paul Coffey—might be the last defenseman to claim a resume with multiple Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe, and three Stanley Cups for decades. As parity continues to envelop the sport, his career will likely be viewed more favorably with each passing year. Perhaps no position has been more adversely affected by the “Cap Era” than goalie. It is entirely possible—maybe even likely—that with the benefit of hindsight, contemporary players will be viewed more favorably as what constitutes a top-100 resume gets recalibrated to reflect the state of a league no longer ruled by dynasties. Until then, sledding is going to be tough for those hoping to make a run at the top-100, let alone climb into the top-50.
In hockey—just like in any team sport—offense is only half the equation. Sure, it’s a lot more fun to talk about Gretzky’s 215-point season or Ovi’s march to 895 than it is to talk about the goal that never happened because someone forechecked like mad or pestered the opposing top-line for 20 minutes. Applying consistent defensive pressure is exhausting, making it rare for elite defenders to also be consistent offensive producers. Those who manage to excel at both are extremely valuable, even if their offensive numbers aren’t as gaudy as some of their counterparts. Sergei Fedorov, Doug Gilmour, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, and Anze Kopitar are examples of players who were much more menacing than their point totals otherwise indicate, and they have the hardware and post-season success to prove it. These oft-overlooked two-way forces are top-100 players hiding in plain sight, but they are celebrated here and fare extremely well in the top-100.
Let’s start this off with a radical statement: being one of the top-100 football players of all-time is not an easy accomplishment. Shocking, I know. That declaration, however, is not meant to be limited to the literal sense. Considering just .08% of high school football players make it to the NFL, it’s pretty evident how hard it is just to get to the NFL, let alone excel. What might not be as evident is how hard it is to perform at a top-100 level in the relative sense. The NBA/ABA has had just under 5,000 players in its history. Putting together the top-100 players in professional basketball history requires selecting the top 2% of all the players who ever played. The NFL, on the other hand, has had just under 27,000 players in its history. The top 2% of players in NFL history would result in 540 players. In other words, being one of the top-540 players in NFL history is equivalent to being one of the top-100 players in NBA history. Think about how unlikely it is that a player entering the NBA will end up being one of the top-100 basketball players of all-time. Well, it’s 5.4 times more difficult than that for an NFL player to achieve the same status in football. Since nobody (including me) sets out to identify the top-540 players in any sport, it just means that a massive list of deserving players needs to be whittled down to 100. Given the relative unfairness of the football top-100 list compared to other sports, it is imperative that it is put together as judiciously as possible while fully acknowledging the many superlative football players among the omissions. Below are some of the factors and parameters that I leaned on to get to the fairest list possible.
It would be pretty easy to toss 40 QBs into the top-100, pull 60 from other positions, and call it a wrap. QBs get the most accolades and deservedly so. They have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of games and should have a disproportionate presence in the top-100. However, there are at least 13 different positions in non-special teams play. It’s important to the integrity of the list that it not be skewed too heavily towards offense or defense, and that the distribution of positions is commensurate to the relative value of each position. Specific quotas were not used, but I did make it a point to start with a similarly-sized pool of players from each position group to guarantee certain position groups weren’t handicapped before the process even started. I also made it a point to specifically scrutinize the quarterback and skill positions to avoid too heavy and too light an emphasis due to the tendency for those positions to receive the most publicity. Although I won’t be adhering to a positional quota as the list evolves, here is the very first iteration of the top 100 (released in January, 2021) just to give an example of what a positional breakdown might look like:
Offense (51) Defense (49)
QB 14 DE 10
RB 10 OLB 9
WR 8 CB 9
OT 8 MLB 8
G 7 DT 8
TE 3 S 5
In order to qualify for the top-100, a player needs five years of service. There have been too many great players in NFL history for a player to reach the top-100 in just four years. The five-year mark is pushing it too, but I think there are rare exceptions who have accomplished enough by the five-year mark. This is especially true at running back given the average shelf life of the position. Earl Campbell was awarded the AP Offensive Player of the Year his first three years in the league (tied with Marshall Faulk for most all-time) and the 1979 MVP while leading the league in rushing three times and touchdowns twice. By his fourth season, Campbell had amassed 6,457 career yards and 55 touchdowns. Considering his hardware and the number of times leading the league in yards and touchdowns, it doesn’t take much of an effort to justify Campbell’s inclusion in the top-100 after just five seasons. The five-year requirement will also act as an artificial check on overreacting to the next big thing.
Kickers, punters, and returners are pivotal to team success and they have provided some of the most exciting moments in NFL history. However, while the units themselves are important, special teams players participate in a disproportionately small number of plays in a given game. For example, Ray Guy—one of the great punters in NFL history—played roughly 1,049 snaps over his 14-year career. Randall McDaniel—one of the great guards in NFL history—played approximately 14,300 snaps over his 14-year career. Over the same career length, McDaniel played roughly 15 times the number of snaps as Guy. There’s simply too much of a discrepancy in playing time for any special teams player to break the top-100 over an every-down player. If I had 540 spots to fill (see intro paragraph above), then Devin Hester, Adam Vinatieri, and Ray Guy would undoubtedly have a home.
Regular Season vs. Playoffs
As we established above, the top-100 players in the NBA are equivalent to the top-540 players in the NFL when adjusted for player population. Trying to squeeze 540 players into 100 spots creates a traffic jam every bit as gridlocked as the Dan Ryan Expressway with a horse galloping in the right lane. Differentiating between nearly identical resumes quickly devolves into a game of picking the most dapper Oompa-Loompa. So, it is important to identify distinguishing characteristics to help establish a hierarchy among equally deserving players. To fairly compare two elite players to each other, we first need to consider the entire resume. While regular-season success gives the best apples-to-apples comparison, it’s often necessary to lean on playoff success to provide the differentiator. The two most prominent examples of this are comparisons of Tom Brady to Peyton Manning and Emmitt Smith to Barry Sanders. The four engaged in epic regular-season duels, Brady and Manning battling back and forth for league MVP for 15 years, and Emmitt and Barry engaging in a 9-year war for the regular season rushing crown. All four are safely among the top-25 players in NFL history on regular-season accolades alone. In both instances, however, one player has a massive advantage over the other in playoff performance. There is no doubt that access to the playoffs is largely dependent on what franchise a player has had the (mis)fortune of playing for which is why “playoff success” needs to be narrowly defined. For the purposes of player comparisons, “playoff success” references individual performance, not simply just playing on a good team. Tom Brady has been to nine Super Bowls and won six of them. He wasn’t just along for the ride; he was the ride. His four Super Bowl MVPs are the most in NFL history—only four others have won it more than once—and he’s the all-time playoff and Super Bowl leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. It’s true that he played for a great organization, but Brady played the quarterback position in the playoffs against the most difficult competition in the league better than any quarterback in history. It’s a similar story for Emmitt Smith. He was the workhorse who powered the Dallas Cowboys dynasty to three Super Bowl championships. He is the all-time playoff leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. E. Smith didn’t just get the opportunity to play in the playoffs, he performed better at his position than any player in playoff history. It’s true that Brady and E. Smith played for better teams but it’s not the opportunities that get them rated so highly; rather, it’s what they did with those opportunities on the biggest stage against the most difficult competition.
Jim Brown and Don Hutson are universally considered two of the greatest players in NFL history. Brown led the NFL in rushing yards eight times and rushing touchdowns five times. Hutson led the NFL in receiving yards seven times and receiving touchdowns nine times. Those are eye-popping accomplishments to be sure, but there’s a reason we’ve never seen anything like that since and probably won’t see anything like that ever again. Hutson and Brown entered the NFL when there were just 10 and 12 teams, respectively. There are currently 32 teams in the NFL. Using “number of times leading the league” as a metric to rate Brown and Hutson against modern players is not helpful unless it is put into the proper context. For instance, Emmitt Smith led the NFL in rushing yards four times and rushing touchdowns three times in a league that had anywhere from 28-30 teams depending on the year. Since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, no player has led the league in rushing yards or rushing touchdowns more often than E. Smith. Is that more impressive than what Jim Brown did in a 12-team league? Statistically speaking, it might be. E. Smith’s league-leading marks actually outpace Brown’s when adjusted for league size. Randy Moss led the NFL in receiving touchdowns five times. Since the NFL/AFL merger, Jerry Rice is the only other player to lead the league more than three times. Are Moss’s accomplishments more impressive than what Hutson did in a 10-team league? The math certainly seems to indicate that it is. Moss played in a league that had three times the number of players making it three times harder to lead the league in touchdowns. Adjusted for league size, Moss’s league-leading touchdown count far exceeds Hutson’s.
A similar dance plays out when comparing Johnny Unitas to Brett Favre. Unitas won the NFL MVP three times. The number of teams in the league when he won each MVP, respectively, was 12, 14, and 16. Favre also won the NFL MVP three times. There were 30 teams in the NFL when Favre won his MVPs. Being voted the best in a league with 1,380 active players is a much more impressive feat than being voted the best in a league with 640 active players. Similarly, both players led the NFL in passing touchdowns four times. Favre had to throw more touchdown passes than 29 other starting quarterbacks each season to accomplish this feat. Unitas had to beat out anywhere from 11-15 depending on the year. In a comparison between Favre and Unitas where both have similar career accomplishments, it would be a disservice to Favre not to factor in the heightened degree-of-difficulty under which he carved out his resume.
Composition of the League
Let’s stick with the Unitas/Favre comparison. In 1964, when Unitas won his first NFL MVP, there were two major professional football leagues: the NFL and the AFL. The NFL had 560 active players in 1964. The AFL—a league that would prove its mettle by winning four of the first eight Super Bowls—had 272 active players. Of the 832 active-roster professional football players in 1964, Unitas played in a league with 67% of them. Additionally, NFL teams had quotas on the number of black players that could be on their rosters, significantly reducing the talent level leaguewide. Brett Favre had no such luxury. By the time Favre won his first MVP in 1995, the NFL and AFL had long since consolidated, and the shameful quotas on black players had been lifted, resulting in 100% of the best professional football players making their home in the NFL. While both Unitas and Favre each won three MVPs, a deeper look reveals that Favre’s were considerably more difficult to achieve. Unitas isn’t the only Hall-of-Fame player who benefited from a watered-down league prior to the merger. Other great players from the 60s who played in the NFL when it had only 67% of the available talent pool and restrictive quotas on black players include Jim Brown, Gino Marchetti, Bob Lilly, Deacon Jones, Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, and Merlin Olsen.
Mastering one position in the NFL is hard enough; doing it at 3+ positions is indicative of a truly special football player. The rare player who excels at multiple positions is incredibly valuable and that value is reflected in the top-100. Rod Woodson was selected as a 1st-team All-Pro at an NFL record three different positions (CB, S, KR). He was also an above-average punt-returner making him a four-position contributor. Deion Sanders was selected as a 1st-team All-Pro at two different positions (CB, KR) while also being one of the best punt-returners in the game. Sanders was so versatile that he scored 22 career touchdowns in six different ways (rushing, receiving, punt return, kick return, fumble return, and interception return) which is unheard of for a defensive player. Bruce Matthews played at least 16 games at all five positions on the offensive line making him the most versatile—and perhaps greatest—offensive lineman of all-time. Like R. Woodson, he was selected as a 1st-team All-Pro at three different positions (LG, RG, C). R. Woodson, D. Sanders, and B. Matthews are universally considered all-time greats at their primary positions but it’s their versatility that gets them into the top-25. Other players whose versatility bolstered their resumes include Ronnie Lott, Charles Woodson, Antonio Brown, Sammy Baugh, and Chuck Bednarik.
In the NFL, hardware isn’t just bling; it’s your ticket to the Hall of Fame and status as one of the greatest players to ever play. There are certain achievements that pretty much guarantee a player’s place among the top-100. Since the AP MVP Award was first given out in 1958, there have been nine players who have won multiple AP NFL MVP Awards; eight are in the top-100. Of that group, only Kurt Warner misses out. The AP Defensive Player of the Year Award has been given out 49 times since its inception in 1971; 33 of the 49 recipients are in the top-100. There have been eight players who have won multiple AP Defensive Player of the Year Awards; not only are all eight in the top 100 but they’re all in the top-30. Ten players have won an AP NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP; eight are in the top-100 and a ninth—Patrick Mahomes—is all but assured a spot in the future. Again, only Kurt Warner misses out on the top-100 which brings us to…
Kurt Warner is the most difficult omission for me which is counterintuitive considering there are other players who didn’t make the list who would be added before Warner. What makes Warner’s omission uneasy is the elite company he keeps. As I mentioned above, there have been nine players who have won multiple AP MVP Awards and Warner is the only one who didn’t make the top-100. Similarly, there have been ten players who won an AP NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP and Warner is the only player of that group who won’t end up on the list. Perhaps most difficult to overlook is the fact that Warner is one of only seven players in history to have multiple AP NFL MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP. The other six to accomplish that feat aren’t just in the top-100, they’re in the top 50. So, why isn’t Warner in the top 100? First, there’s no doubt that Warner would make a list of, say, the top-200, which is no small feat in a league that has played home to 27,000 players. The factor that keeps Warner out of the top-100 is simply longevity. Warner only started 116 games in his career while winning just 58% of them (no modern quarterback in the top-100 has a winning percentage below 60%). Warner not becoming a starter until he was 28 played a role in limiting his career but he was also plagued by injuries as evidenced by the fact that he started 12+ games in a season just four times. In fact, he only put together four seasons that can even be considered above-average. There are simply too many great players who performed at an elite level over a much longer period of time to include Warner in the top-100. Steve Young only started 143 games and—like Warner—doesn’t have the career counting stats to measure up against the other great quarterbacks on the list. However, what gets Young on the list is what he did with his relatively short time in the league. Young led the league in QB rating six times, completion percentage five times, yards per attempt five times and touchdown passes four times. He is 2nd all-time in rushing touchdowns by a QB and won 66% of his games as a starter while also duplicating Warner’s two MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP.
It might be becoming cliché to keep Bradshaw off top-100 lists—so cliché, in fact, that I considered the possibility before ultimately deciding at the 2-minute warning that his hardware collection is still top-100 worthy. Although there were contemporary quarterbacks who statistically outperformed Bradshaw in the regular season who aren’t in the top-100, including Dave Anderson, Bradshaw was pretty successful in the regular season in his own right, winning an AP MVP and leading the league in touchdown passes twice. While that certainly doesn’t hurt Bradshaw’s profile, it’s what he did in the post-season that still stands the test of time. Bradshaw won four Super Bowls (behind only Tom Brady in NFL history) and is one of only five players to win multiple Super Bowl MVPs. Only Bradshaw, Brady, and Joe Montana won at least four Super Bowls, at least two Super Bowl MVPs, and at least one AP NFL MVP. Additionally, Bradshaw has the highest winning percentage in postseason history among quarterbacks who have played at least 10 playoff games. Although Bradshaw’s residency in the top-100 will come to an end sooner than later, he still has a few years before his lease is up.
Steve Van Buren vs. Terrell Davis
Walking through this player comparison will help illuminate how using sound logic and reasoning help avoid making the same mistakes that led to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team being so overrepresented by players who debuted prior to NFL/AFL merger in 1970. To reiterate, only 33% of all the players in NFL history played before the merger. This era featured small leagues, rival leagues, and a ban/quota on black players, making this the easiest era to succeed in that the NFL has seen. We need to make sure to factor this in. Now, let’s get started with the comp…
First, it’s important to establish that Terrell Davis is not a top-100 player. He was an absolute beast of a running back who may have had the highest three-year peak of all-time, but he simply did not stay healthy for long enough to sneak into the top-100. Although T. Davis is not a top-100 player, he can be very useful as a gatekeeper of sorts for running backs looking to break into the top-100. In the simplest terms, if a running back can’t beat T. Davis, then the top-100 is out of reach. Steve Van Buren has universally been included on top-100 lists for the last 60 years. He was undoubtedly one of the NFL’s biggest stars before the merger. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1940s All-Decade Team and enshrined in Canton in 1965. However, when we adjust his career for league size and demographic factors, it becomes obvious that his resume falls short of T. Davis’s, let alone the top-100.
Van Buren led the NFL in rushing yards four times, touchdowns four times, and total yards from scrimmage twice. He did this in a 10-team league. T. Davis led the league in touchdowns twice, yards from scrimmage twice, and rushing yards once. He also finished second in rushing yards twice. He did this in a 30-team league. In a league with three times the players, it is three times as difficult to lead the league in statistical categories making each of Davis’s second-place finishes in rushing yardage more impressive than Van Buren’s 1st place finishes. Adjusted for league size, Davis was statistically more impressive in the regular season including what is arguably the greatest season by a running back in NFL history when he became the first and only running back to rush for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in the same season. He was named the NFL MVP in 1998 and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1996 and 1998. Van Buren did not win an MVP award and would’ve needed to win three MVPs and six Offensive Player of the Year awards just to keep pace. Davis even played more regular-season games than Van Buren which is ironic considering Van Buren’s longevity doesn’t seem to be questioned while everyone agrees that Davis’s candidacy for the top-100 is torpedoed by career length. Then there’s the postseason…
T. Davis has arguably the most impressive per-game postseason statistics of any player in NFL history. In eight career playoff games, Davis ran for 12 touchdowns and averaged 142.5 yards-per-game at a 5.59 yards-per-carry clip. The Broncos rode Davis to seven consecutive playoff wins, resulting in back-to-back Super Bowl victories. He took home one Super Bowl MVP and would’ve won a second behind a 162-yard effort in Super Bowl XXXIII had Howard Griffith not “vultured” two 1-yard touchdowns. Van Buren, for his part, rushed for two touchdowns and averaged 91.3 yards-per-game at a 3.92 yards-per-carry clip in four playoff games including back-to-back NFL Championship Game victories.
While Van Buren is almost universally considered a top-100 player in NFL history, Terrell Davis is not. Although there isn’t a justification for those opinions to exist in tandem, it is conventional wisdom nonetheless. This is just one example that reveals how badly the methods we have historically used to compile the all-time greats are in need of recalibration.
If we were to put together a list of the top-100 offensive linemen in NFL history, the 100th player on that list would be a really good player. Frustratingly, there’s only room for a fraction of that number. Making matters more difficult is that a metric to judge the historical significance of offensive linemen has been the “white rabbit” of NFL statistics for as long as the league has existed. While the technical ability that is required to excel on the offensive line in the NFL is arguably the most difficult to master in football, it is also the least statistically quantifiable making the three spots on the line the most difficult to rank of all NFL positions. With the addition of Pro Football Focus to the landscape, there is hope that differentiating between two great offensive linemen will be easier in the future. In the meantime, ranking offensive linemen pretty much boils down to the inexact science of finding the players who have the greatest combination of honors and longevity, while also accounting for playoff success, sacks allowed, and historic production in the running game. The average profile of the offensive linemen in the top-100 who debuted after the merger in 1970 is 202 games started, 10 Pro Bowls, and seven 1st team All-Pro selections. Future players who manage to achieve a similar profile will likely find a path into the top-100.
Prior to Super Bowl I in 1967, winning the NFL Championship required winning one playoff game. Otto Graham won seven championships and it took him just seven games to do it (not counting tiebreakers). Tom Brady won six Super Bowls and it took him 18 games to do it. Quarterbacks pre-1970 had a considerably easier route to winning a championship than the quarterbacks who followed. As a result, you will find quarterbacks pre-merger rated lower than might be expected based on their championships—or in some cases—not rated at all.
No sport evokes the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) discussion as frequently as basketball. Perhaps it’s because we’ve spent so many years watching LeBron’s biopic—one that has consistently foreshadowed a challenge to the throne—play out in slow motion. Maybe it’s because the athleticism in the NBA is so superior to any other sport in the world that we instinctively expect—and root— for every basketball savant that comes along to climb to the top of the mountain. Or, it could be something as simple as the idea that every player who steps on an NBA court has a shot at greatness. Unlike football, baseball, and hockey where the odds of becoming the GOAT are significantly impacted by what position a player plays, basketball has no such limitation. We can plop ten random players on any floor in the world and it won’t take long for the best player on the floor to stand out. There is something tangibly definitive about the apex predator in basketball, which has historically made identifying the GOAT a fairly straightforward task.
Until 2020, it had been generally accepted that the lineal trail of basketball GOAT had been George Mikan<Bill Russell<Wilt Chamberlain<Kareem Abdul-Jabbar<Michael Jordan. Jordan reached GOAT status in 1993 after three-peating both as NBA Champion and Finals MVP. His undisputed reign would last 27 years without facing a real challenge, which is an eternity in the sports world, and more than twice the reign of any other aforementioned basketball GOAT. While there is little doubt that LeBron had been the dominant force in basketball since the day he put on a Cavs jersey, his trophy case had always been a little light for a real challenge to Jordan’s rule—that is until 2020. After picking up his 4th Championship and 4th Finals MVP by conquering “the bubble,” the long-awaited Jordan vs. LeBron debate could rage in earnest. Although this matter is sure to be debated for years and decades to come, what cannot be debated is that the basketball GOAT is no longer unanimous. Whether this is merely an admirable—but fruitless—challenge to the throne, or a conclusive coronation of King James may not ever be settled, but the key is not to miss the forest for the trees. Sure, there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, but the fact that we even have uncertainty at the top at all is pretty exciting.
The GOAT discussion no doubt bleeds into the larger conversation about the greatest players of all-time. For a sport as cutthroat as basketball, breaking the consensus top-10, top-25, or even top-100 is a badge of honor that only the truly accomplished are privy. Parsing through elite resumes to reach a representative ordering of greatness is fraught with logic traps, and often feels like staring at a Rorschach test. However, with a little TLC (no scrubs on this list) and a concerted willingness to regularly admit to being wrong, a hierarchy begins to emerge. Below I’ve included a comprehensive rundown of the concepts and logic that I used to form the list of the 100 greatest basketball players of all-time.
The 6th NBA Position, or “the point”
For 56 years, the NBA lived a copasetic existence. Starting lineups featured five unique positions: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. Players who entered the league were quickly ushered into one of these positional boxes, wrapped neatly with a bow. Cross-training was not part of the NBA job description. Then, in 2003, one man ruined everything. In an instant, the NBA’s harmonious and homogenous paradise quickly turned into amorphous and amalgamative chaos that would fit right in on the Island of Dr. Moreau. This evolutionary leap laid the groundwork for the positional versatility that dominates today’s NBA. Yes, thanks to LeBron James, the NBA is absolute madness… and it’s fantastic!
LeBron entered the league loosely defined as a shooting guard. That designation met an early demise, as his size, athleticism, and versatility eschewed the abilities of the prototypical shooting guard. By his second season, LeBron started garnering the small forward distinction. While small forward may have been a more appropriate classification, that label quickly became outdated, too, after he led the Cavs in assists for the second consecutive season. LeBron’s ball-dominant game and assist totals resembled a point guard more than the shoehorned-fits of shooting guard and small forward, although his 6’8, 250lb frame suggested otherwise. To confuse matters even more, his size, strength, quickness, athleticism, mid-range game, and back-to-the-basket ability would have been Dr. Frankenstein’s capstone had he endeavored to create the greatest power forward of all-time. The second LeBron is assigned a position, the suitability of that assignment begins to erode, and he apparently agrees. As LeBron has evolved the NBA, more and more ball-dominant players from atypical positions have emerged, often creating confusion for fans and analysts trying to match a player with a position, and it’s easy to see why. While also occasionally filling in at center, LeBron has been officially designated a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, and power forward, often without rhyme or reason for the change. Though James Harden doesn’t quite have LeBron’s versatility, he has also been intermittently listed as a point guard and shooting guard while essentially remaining the same player. And, of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo can be seen playing all five positions in the same game. While the original five positional designations still work for much of the league, there really should be a sixth, one that refers to a ball-dominant scorer who initiates the offense. Instead of trying to get creative with a flashy new term, it makes the most sense to slightly repurpose the meaning of a phrase already rooted in basketball vernacular: the point. In fact, we kind of already made this change without necessarily fully embracing its reach with the advent of the term “point forward.” Though, given how the NBA has evolved over the last decade, that term appears to have been too limited in its scope. As Nikola Jokic demonstrates on a nightly basis, literally any position on the court–including center–has the ability to play the point in today’s game. It only makes sense to drop the position component of the phrase and adopt “the point” as a universal term for a player who initiates the offense regardless of position. This is not to be confused with a replacement term for point-guard since there are still plenty of traditional point-guards in the NBA, and not every team is fortunate enough to even have a player who plays “the point.”
Pre-LeBron, the point guard was universally the primary ball-handler while the other four positions accounted for the brunt of the scoring. Post-LeBron, the best players in the league do both and do them efficiently. The defining traits of a player who plays “the point” are a high usage rate (>28%), assist percentage (>20%), and true shooting percentage (>58%). Pre-Lebron, that player simply did not exist. Uncoincidentally, contemporary players who play “the point” and routinely reach those rates in all three categories—LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis—also rate the highest on the all-time list. While Kareem, Shaq, Wilt, Bill Russell, and Karl Malone were clearly all-time greats, they relied on a teammate to deliver them the ball at the “right” spot on the court. As the NBA transitions to position-less basketball, players who don’t initiate offense (both as a primary scorer and facilitator) are having less and less impact on winning and, subsequently, have a lower ceiling when it comes to discussing the all-time greats.
Professional basketball hasn’t always been the global phenomenon that it is today. Until the latter part of the 20th century, college basketball was far more popular, player contracts were hardly lucrative, and job security was virtually non-existent as teams routinely disbanded. As a result, the talent pool supplying the NBA in the early days looked more like Daniel LaRusso’s pool at the South Seas apartment complex in Reseda than the vast ocean that exists today. These volatile early days of the NBA gave way to George Mikan’s dominant reign. Mikan—the league’s first superstar—was a three-time scoring champion who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships. At 6’10, Mikan was also tall. In fact, of the 170 players who played in the NBA in 1949 during Mikan’s rookie season, he was the tallest. Not only was Mikan the only 6’10 player in the league, but 83% of the league was also shorter than 6’7. Ten years later, the NBA welcomed Wilt Chamberlain—the league’s first true megastar. Wilt rewrote the record books on his way to seven scoring titles and four MVP awards. Wilt was also tall. In fact, of the 99 players in the NBA in Wilt’s rookie season of 1959, he was the tallest. Not only was Wilt the only 7’1 player in the league, but 92% of the league was also shorter than 6’10. Notice a theme here? When Mikan and Wilt were the league’s best players, being the tallest player—not the most skilled—was essentially a prerequisite to being the best player. This is supported by Mikan’s underwhelming efficiency. His .404 shooting percentage suggests rudimentary footwork and low-post skill that would be untenable in any era after 1960. Even Wilt—although far more efficient than Mikan—only shot .510 as a high-volume shooter over his first seven seasons, which would be mediocre in today’s game for a player exclusively shooting within ten feet of the basket. Given both were routinely defended by players no bigger than the average small forward in today’s NBA, the role that height played in who ruled the NBA in its formative years is pretty clear. This trend would continue for close to three decades, as 25 of the first 28 NBA MVPs played center. By 1980, the Magic/Bird rivalry had made the league wildly popular. Ratings soared, as did interest in the sport, resulting in a rapidly expanding talent pool. Bird’s MVP in 1984 started a run that continues today that has seen 32 of 35 MVP winners not come from the center position. In the early days of the NBA, the talent pool was so small that being tall—a trait, not a skill—was the most accurate predictor of success. As the league became more popular and the talent pool expanded, quality of play naturally increased, making skill the most important trait for anyone looking to make a career out of professional basketball. Mikan and Wilt were, undoubtedly, the kings of their respective eras. It’s just important to acknowledge the small talent pool that contributed to those reigns.
NBA/ABA Era (or Competition Level II)
The NBA has been the predominant professional basketball league in the world since 1946. However, from 1967-1976, it faced major competition from the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA). In its endeavor to steal eyeballs from the establishment, the ABA aimed to be everything the NBA wasn’t. It started with a sweet tri-colored ball and continued with up-tempo offenses, larger-than-life personas, and pioneering the slam-dunk competition. The ABA’s challenge was so legitimate that the NBA agreed to put an end to the threat with a merger in 1976. The ABA’s lasting legacy isn’t just one of innovation, it also had some of the baddest ballers on the planet. While the NBA was a much bigger league and, therefore, had more overall talent, the ABA’s top-end talent featured some of the best players in the world, including Julius Erving, Rick Barry, and George Gervin. Despite spending significant portions of their primes in the ABA, the trio combined for 15 1st-team All-NBA selections after the merger. The ABA’s impact on the NBA wasn’t just as a competitor, its very existence deprived the NBA of top-end talent, making it far easier for NBA stars to pile-up gaudy statistics and grab post-season hardware.
No NBA star benefited from the ABA more than the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem won six MVPs over his 21-year hall-of-fame career, four coming while the ABA was earnestly siphoning players from the NBA. Without having to compete against Erving, Barry, and Gervin for MVP honors, and Artis Gilmore—arguably the 2nd best overall and defensive center in the world—in the post, Kareem’s path to league MVP was missing critical roadblocks. When the merger finally put Gilmore in the NBA with Kareem, his presence was felt immediately. In four games against Gilmore in 1976-77, Kareem averaged 17.5 points, 10.25 rebounds, and shot 55% from the field while getting to the free-throw line just 3.25 times per game. In 78 games against the rest of the NBA, Kareem averaged 26.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 58% from the field, and 6.8 free throw attempts per game. Gilmore would continue to play Kareem to a statistical stalemate over 12 seasons and 50 regular season and playoff games, reinforcing the notion that the ABA’s existence benefited Kareem.
Even if we didn’t have evidence that top-end ABA talent rivaled top-end NBA talent—for which there is ample—we have pretty compelling evidence that the overall competition level in the ABA rivaled that of the NBA. From 1971-1975, the leagues played 155 inter-league exhibition games. While the NBA shrewdly did its best to avoid giving publicity to the ABA off the court, it couldn’t avoid the ABA’s talent on the court, as the upstarts posted a 79-76 record over the establishment, ending all speculation of the quality missing from the NBA. With plenty of evidence suggesting the leagues had similar talent, we can quantify the impact the ABA’s existence had on life in the NBA. The ABA rostered roughly 132 players per year during its run. The NBA and the ABA combined to employ roughly 354 professional basketball players in a given year. The NBA claimed 63% of those players, while the ABA claimed 37%. The takeaway here is that the competition in the NBA for awards and honors consisted of just 63% of the overall talent in professional basketball, suggesting the need to adjust the value of awards and honors during this time.
This is not to suggest Kareem wasn’t a great player. In fact, it’s not hard to make the case that he is the 3rd greatest basketball player of all-time. What it does suggest is a need to avoid taking raw achievements at face value when making inter-era comparisons. For a number of reasons related to degree-of-difficulty, Kareem’s six MVPs are not as impressive as LeBron’s four MVPs. His 15 1st and 2nd team All-NBA selections are not as impressive as Michael Jordan’s 11. “League composition” (or, the percentage of the overall professional-level talent playing in the league) is a pivotal consideration when putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest players of all-time. If we don’t consistently account for it in inter-era comparisons, then we’re destined to end up with a top-100 dominated by players who played prior to the NBA/ABA merger, when the league was at its smallest and weakest.
League Size (or Competition Level III)
Just like we need to emphasize league composition for inter-era comparisons, we need to pay close attention to league size. If we don’t, it doesn’t take long to reach a skewed representation of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Let’s run a partial comparison of three all-time greats from three very different eras: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James. Russell won 11 NBA Championships, reached 12 NBA Finals, and won five MVPs. Magic won five NBA Championships, reached nine NBA Finals, and won three MVPs. LeBron has won four NBA Championships, reached 11 NBA Finals, and has four MVPs. At first glance, it would seem that Russell has the most impressive resume of the group, with Magic and LeBron battling it out in a close race for second. What we’re seeing is an optical illusion made possible by not taking league size into consideration.
The average number of teams in the NBA during Russell’s 13-year career was nine. The average number of teams during Magic and Lebron’s careers were 24 and 30, respectively. With fewer teams and players to compete against, Russell’s path to a championship and an MVP was statistically easier than it was for Magic and LeBron. Russell’s Celtics had to win 87 playoff games to win 11 championships, or 7.9 games per championship. Magic’s Lakers had to win 54 playoff games to win five championships, or 10.8 games per championship, and LeBron’s teams had to win 64 playoff games to win four championships, or 16 games per championship. It was more difficult for LeBron to even reach the conference finals than it was for Russell to win an NBA Championship. On average, Russell’s Celtics had to be better than just eight other teams to win a championship, while LeBron’s teams needed to beat out 29 other teams. When adjusted for league size, LeBron’s four championships are on-par with Russell’s 11, and his 10 Finals appearances are significantly more impressive than Russell’s 12.
Similarly, LeBron had to beat out an average of 359 players to win each of his four MVPs. Russell had to beat out an average of just 102 players to win each of his five MVPs. While Russell’s raw totals look more impressive in these comparisons, it’s actually LeBron with the more impressive accomplishments when adjusted for league size. If we want to avoid a top-100 list dominated by players who played when the league was at its smallest and weakest, this statistical analysis is imperative when comparing players from different eras with different league sizes. Fortunately for us, the NBA is unlikely to deviate too far from the 30-teams it has now, meaning league size should not be a factor when comparing players who debuted in the 21st century.
Globalization (or Competition Level IV)
Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the only basketball players in the world who were barred from international competition were those who played in the NBA. Due, in part, to America’s waning presence on the international basketball scene despite having the best players in the world, Borislav Stankovic, the Secretary-General of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), had an epiphany of fairness. Even with USA Basketball—the governing body of basketball in the United States—voting against the inclusion of NBA players, Stankovic rallied enough votes to get the rule changed, paving the way for the Dream Team’s historic formation and subsequent dominance in Barcelona.
Although the Dream Team quickly restored order on the international scene, perhaps its biggest legacy is that it sparked a global frenzy for the sport. Instead of continuing to draw exclusively from a national pool of talent, the NBA would be handed the keys to a global pool that would eventually produce the wizardry of such stars as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic. The global infusion of talent has been a dream come true for both NBA executives and basketball connoisseurs. There were more international players on 2019-20 NBA rosters (108) than there were total players in the NBA in 1961 (93). International-born players made up an astounding 25% of the total players in the NBA in 2020, after accounting for just 1.7% in 1980. International players aren’t just making NBA rosters, they’re keeping them afloat. Measured by Player Efficiency Rating (PER), international players accounted for 26 of the top 100 players in the NBA in 2019-20. That number will undoubtedly grow as NBA franchises continue to show a willingness to invest in international talent. Over the NBA’s first 51-years, eight international basketball players were drafted in the top 10 with just two coming at #1 overall. In the following 22 years, there were 51 international players drafted in the top 10 with 9 coming at #1 overall.
With the NBA earnestly scouting players from the entire globe, the league has never been more talented, making it more difficult than ever before to stand-out. As LeBron’s career is scrutinized and his resume is inevitably compared to Michael Jordan’s, it is important to acknowledge how much more competitive the NBA has been for LeBron and his contemporaries than it was for Jordan and his.
Scalabrine (Competition Level V)
The way we’ve been taught to identify historical greatness and handle inter-era player comparisons is to rely exclusively on “performance relative to peers” as the standard-bearer metric. In a vacuum, that would make for a sound approach. However, we don’t live in a vacuum. While it can be a useful tool in certain instances, some leagues are so compromised competitively that we simply cannot take player achievements at face value. To take this concept to the extreme, let’s walk through a thought-experiment that results in Brian Scalabrine being crowned the greatest basketball player of all-time. If in 2001, Scalabrine opted to start a two-team basketball league in the greater Boston area with local YMCA members filling out the rosters instead of embarking on his NBA career, then his basketball legacy could’ve been very different. He’d be working on a two-decade streak of consecutive regular season and finals MVPs, 1st-team all-league selections, and defensive player of the year awards. If we’re simply using “performance relative to peers” to evaluate greatness, then YMCA Scalabrine would find himself listed among the greatest basketball players of all-time. That idea is silly, of course. Scalabrine averaged 3.1 points per game over an 11-year NBA career. We know where he stands in the all-time pecking order of professional basketball players and it’s not especially high. The obvious counter to this thought-experiment is to point out that Scalabrine’s hypothetical YMCA league would not include the best players in the world and the skill level and size of the players it did include would be lacking, therefore muting the meaning of his dominance. This is true, and very relevant to how we need to evaluate the different eras in NBA history.
George Mikan (and, to slightly lesser extents, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell)—like hypothetical YMCA Scalabrine—dominated a competitively compromised league. NBA basketball in the late 40s and 50s resembled more a YMCA league than the product we see on the court today. For starters, the average height in the NBA during Mikan’s rookie season of 1948 was 6’3. At 6’10, Mikan was taller than every player in the league. The rules at the time did not account for players of Mikan’s height. The three-second lane was only six-feet wide and there was no shot-clock. This meant Mikan could take as long as he wanted to establish his position directly in front of the basket before receiving an entry pass over the heads of much shorter players. To suggest Shaq would’ve benefited from Mikan’s NBA would be a massive understatement. Mikan’s skill is often credited for forcing NBA rule changes. A more accurate statement would be to say that Mikan’s height was responsible for NBA rule changes. Height is not a skill, nor is a .404 career shooting percentage. In an era that lacked the modern focus on skill development, being tall was the greatest predictor of success. In today’s NBA, being tall is merely a prerequisite for even being in the league.
Moreover, the NBA’s ban—and subsequent quotas—on black players watered-down the quality of the league not only during Mikan’s entire career but also well into the 70s. Basketball was popular in the black community in the 40s and 50s, and it produced several talented players who were every bit as talented as the NBA’s best players. The all-black Harlem Globetrotters defeated Mikan’s NBA Champion Minneapolis Lakers teams in exhibition games two years in a row in 1948 and 1949. By exclusively playing against white players, Mikan was able to dominate a league missing a significant portion of the best talent in America. Not only did Mikan’s NBA not include black players, but the player pool was further limited by the fact that interest in the sport was regional and basketball wasn’t lucrative enough to attract heavy interest as a profession. This was all a far cry from the player pool we see today fueled by global interest and lucrative salaries.
None of this was Mikan’s fault, of course. He played the cards he was dealt and he did it better than his peers. He was the best player in the NBA for five consecutive seasons. However, using Mikan’s performance relative to his peers is insufficient in determining his place in NBA history. He was 7 inches taller than his average competitor. The league rules had not been made to account for tall people. Black players were not allowed to play in the NBA. Low pay and regional interest contributed to a tiny pool of talent to draw from. One of the most important tasks when creating a top-100 list is to establish a way to rate players from different eras against each other. The easiest way to do this is to use “performance relative to peers.” However, there are limitations to such an approach. Without acknowledging these limitations, George Mikan would have to be considered one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time, and Brian Scalabrine would be at the YMCA of Greater Boston right now posting up a 5’4, 57-year old MIT professor with heel spurs and a pacemaker.
After we adjust for competition level, the first place we need to look to identify greatness is offensive efficiency. With enough shot attempts, anyone can average 20+ points per game. We’re interested in the players who do it with the fewest attempts. Fortunately, we have two useful tools to find these players: eFG% and True Shooting Percentage. Let’s start with eFG%. There have been 62 players (min. 400 games) in NBA history who have averaged at least 20 points per game over their careers. High-volume scorers have been plentiful throughout NBA history. Efficient high-volume scorers, on the other hand, is another story. Of the 62 players who averaged over 20 points per game, just seven have an eFG% greater than 54%. Those seven players are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Steph Curry, Charles Barkley, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Unsurprisingly, all six players have at least one MVP award, and the total MVP count between them is 17. By narrowing the parameters even further, we really start to see the cream rise to the top. Shaq and Steph Curry are the only players in NBA history to average 20 points per game with an eFG% above 56%. In the last 30 years, only one player has led the league in eFG% while also averaging at least 20 points. That player is Shaq, and he did it five times. LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players to have a career average of at least 27 points per game and an eFG% above 54%.
Switching to True Shooting Percentage, we see many of the same names with the notable addition of perhaps the most underrated player of all-time: Adrian Dantley. Dantley is rarely in the discussion of all-time greats. He was nowhere to be found on the list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History released by the league in 1996, and he’s even more of an afterthought today. Despite the snubs, Dantley’s True Shooting Percentage tells a different story, revealing a brilliance that has been hiding in plain sight for four decades. Dantley is the only player in NBA history to post consecutive seasons of at least 30 points per game and a True Shooting Percentage of at least .620, and he did it four years in a row. Dantley is the only player in NBA history with a career average of at least 24 points per game and a True Shooting Percentage of at least .616. There have been three seasons in NBA history that have produced 30 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage greater than .651, Dantley has two of them (Steph Curry is the other). Dantley is clearly one of the most, if not the most, efficient high-volume scorers in NBA history, even if it takes relying on tools like eFG% and True Shooting Percentage to let us know.
Although there are several ways to identify great basketball players, identifying those who combine high-volume scoring with efficiency is at the top of the list. If a player is rated higher than expected in the top-100, it’s probably because of how efficient that player was as a high-volume scorer. If a player is rated lower than expected in the top-100, it’s probably because of how inefficient that player was as a high-volume scorer. Scoring efficiency is also one of the primary reasons that LeBron edges past Michael Jordan as the GOAT. LeBron has many advantages in a head-to-head comparison with Jordan, including size, vision, positional flexibility, three-point shooting, rebounding, and strength of the league, but the biggest advantage he has is his efficiency as a scorer.
There have been over 20,000 players in Major League Baseball history. Even if just 10% can be considered above-average, we’re looking at a list longer than the ending credits of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. To get that list down to 100 requires identifying the right combination of performance and longevity, with the caveat that the more elite seasons a player has, the less longevity is a requirement. For the few who “hit it out of the park” in both categories, it’s a Disney FastPass to the front of the line. For those who stray too far to one side or the other, it’s a lifetime membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.
Dave Winfield amassed impressive raw totals over 22 seasons but falls just short of inclusion. Despite 3,110 career hits, Winfield produced only one season with a WAR greater than 5.4 and finished in the top-10 in the league in WAR just once. While the balance is not quite there for Winfield, it is just barely there for Eddie Murray. Murray matches Winfield’s longevity while outperforming him in Baseball Reference’s Black Ink and Gray Ink tests.
The Murray/Winfield comparison is an important one because it shows just how razor-thin the difference can be between being on the right side of the top-100 and the wrong side. According to Bill James’ similarity score, of all the players in MLB history, the player whose career closest resembles Winfield’s is Murray. Fortunately, the closer we hold the magnifying glass to the numbers, the more we find tangible separation. The answer is always there, even it’s not always the first thing we see. This head-to-head comparison is just one of the thousands that went into creating the top-100. Although it would be nice to be able to simply state a minimum requirement for both peak and longevity, there have been too many great baseball careers with too many differing looks to be able to do that. Instead, answering the following set of questions helps us narrow in on the elusive sweet spot…
1). What era did the player play in?
This question establishes a “degree of difficulty” factor, bringing context to player achievements. Succeeding in a small, racially segregated league is much easier than succeeding in a large, racially diverse league. Eddie Collins is a Hall of Fame second baseman who amassed 3,315 career hits over 25 years from 1906-1930. He is 11th all-time in hits, 8th all-time in stolen bases, and 13th all-time in WAR. There is no doubt that Collins was one of the top-100 players of all-time, even as recently as the end of the 20th century. While Collins’ resume was strong enough to buoy him for 70+ years, it was the relative competition level of his era that eventually did him in. Given the small number of teams (8) in the American League at the time, and the fact that black and Latino players were banned from playing in MLB, Collins would’ve needed a resume with substantially more league-leading accomplishments than the best players from the more competitive eras. According to Baseball Reference’s Black Ink Test, that didn’t happen. Collins scores just 19, which is good for only 122nd all-time among position players. A 19 isn’t necessarily a poor score taken at face value—it’s actually better than the scores of a number of players who made the top-100—it’s the fact that it was achieved during the least competitive era in MLB history that is the issue. Given the significant increase in degree-of-difficulty that players post-segregation have faced, Collin’s Black Ink score and overall resume simply don’t hold up against the likes of Dick Allen (27), Larry Walker (24), and Kirby Puckett (22), none of whom break the top-100.
Further alienating Collins’ case is the fact that the best players from his era all score astronomically high on the Black Ink Test, which would be the expectation given how much easier it was to lead the league than in any other era. In fact, six of the top ten Black Ink totals of all-time among position-players come from players who played with Collins, including Babe Ruth (157), Ty Cobb (154), Rogers Hornsby (125), Honus Wagner (105), Nap Lajoie (76), and Lou Gehrig (75). Collins was a good player to be sure, but there is a clear delineation between the elite players of the early 1900s and the good players.
On the other hand, modern players who score high on the Black Ink test do so in the most difficult era in MLB history. Unlike the players from the first half of the 20th century, contemporary players play in a league almost twice the size and do so against the largest talent pool MLB has ever seen. Leading the league is more difficult now than it has ever been, which makes recent players who have routinely led the league in important categories more impressive than their predecessors with equal accomplishments. Roger Clemens (100), Randy Johnson (99), Greg Maddux (87), Mike Schmidt (74), Barry Bonds (69), and Alex Rodriguez (68), might not have the Black Ink totals to rival the best players of the segregation era, but their totals are actually more impressive given the environment in which they were achieved.
2). How many elite seasons did the player have?
It is crucial that we reward elite performance, first and foremost, before we consider career marks since the latter can merely be a function of longevity. 300 wins, 500 home runs, and 3,000 hits are milestones that have been burned into the brain of every kid who has ever obsessively scanned the back of a baseball card. While those marks are revered—and largely for good reason—many of the greatest players in baseball history have not come close to reaching them. Either due to injury, military service, or late-development, most players don’t have the luxury of playing long enough to reach those numbers. So, we need a different way to measure greatness, or we run the risk of confusing longevity for greatness.
Albert Pujols didn’t achieve a 4 WAR-season after 2012, and he was worse than a bench player from 2016-2020. Yet, over that time, he passed the 500 and 600 home run milestones, reached 3,000 hits, 2,000 RBIs, and inched past 100 career WAR. Had Pujols retired when he stopped being a productive player, his counting stats wouldn’t look as impressive as they do today, yet the Angels almost certainly would have been more successful without him. The point here isn’t that Pujols wasn’t a great player (he was), rather it’s that we need to acknowledge that he was an elite player for 12 seasons and a mediocre-to-poor player for nine seasons. Sticking around for nine seasons to hit aesthetically pleasing counting stats didn’t make him a better player.
Unlike Pujols, there are a number of players who retired either right at, or just before, the point at which they stopped being productive. Pedro Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, Vlad Guerrero, and Roy Halladay are just a few examples. If Bagwell or Vlad had chosen to play an extra five seasons as below average players, they likely would’ve reached 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. When deliberating a player’s place in history, it’s important that we avoid rewarding players for seasons after becoming unproductive and, conversely, punishing players for not sticking around long enough to become a drain on their teams.
Unfortunately, our love affair with career milestones has resulted in really good players being overlooked, none more than Johan Santana. Over 12 seasons, Santana posted a lofty .641 winning percentage, which is the 10th best mark of all pitchers debuting since 1960 (min. 10 seasons). His 136 ERA+ is the 5th highest in the last 100 years (min. 10 seasons). Santana is the only player in MLB history to lead the league in ERA+, WHIP, H/9, strikeouts, and SO/9 in three consecutive seasons. He is one of only four pitchers to lead the league in WHIP for four consecutive seasons (Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax, and Clayton Kershaw). Since 1920, he is the only pitcher to lead the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts, innings, games started, ERA+, WHIP, H/9, and SO/9 in the same season. He is one of only seven players to lead the league in ERA+ for three consecutive seasons (Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Clayton Kershaw). Since 1920, he is one of only four pitchers to lead the league in H/9 for three consecutive seasons (Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan).
Yet, not only is Santana rarely, if ever, considered among the top 100 players of all-time, he was resoundingly rejected by Hall of Fame voters to the tune of a paltry 2.4% approval. Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg—who, like Santana, didn’t quite nail the longevity component—are celebrated Hall of Famers and routinely included on top-100 lists, despite playing in significantly less competitive eras. If we’re not going to hold it against Koufax and Greenberg, then we probably shouldn’t hold it against Santana.
3). How often did the player lead the league in important categories?
Irrespective of the wide variance in competition levels throughout MLB history, one constant threads all eras: the best players lead the league in the most important categories the most often. The Black Ink Test is a good place to start due to its relative simplicity, but it’s also somewhat limited for the same reason. While the Black Ink Test assigns anywhere from 1-4 points for leading the league in each of 12 different categories, it assigns zero points for leading the league in on-base percentage, OPS+, totals bases, and WAR, which are four of the most valuable tools we have for player comparisons. Adding these four categories to the Black Ink Test gives us a pretty comprehensive snapshot of a player’s contributions or lack thereof.
Some of the early 20th century players who have been seemingly rubber-stamped on every top-100 list since the beginning of time probably shouldn’t be. Players like Eddie Collins, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Al Simmons, Paul Waner, Eddie Plank, Harry Heilman, and George Sisler perform poorly on the Black Ink Test compared to their contemporaries. Given that it was considerably easier to lead the league in that era than in any other due to league size and the homogenous makeup of the player pool, the fact that these players perform so poorly on the Black Ink Test makes it hard to justify including them in the top-100.
4). How often did the player finish among the league leaders in important categories?
While leading the league in statistical categories is the gold standard for finding the best players, identifying players who routinely finished among the leaders is also a revealing exercise. For those players whose Black Ink Test looks more like a Blank Ink test, we have Baseball Reference’s Gray Ink Test. The Gray Ink Test measures how often a player finished in the top-10 in important statistical categories. Like the Black Ink Test, we benefit from making a few minor adjustments. In addition to adding on-base percentage, OPS+, total bases, and WAR, we can also get a higher-caliber player by limiting the test to top-5 finishes rather than top-10.
It’s also important to recognize that these tests are only useful when comparing players who played in similarly-sized leagues since it becomes more difficult to finish among the league leaders the larger the league grows. It’s no coincidence that the majority of the top-100 Gray Ink scores of all-time come from players who played when the league was roughly half the size it is today. Since it is more difficult to finish among the league leaders than it ever has been before, contemporary players are producing lower Black Ink and Gray Ink scores than ever before. If we rely solely on these tests without context, players like Chipper Jones and Jim Thome appear underwhelming. Both look significantly more impressive after accounting for league-size and factoring on-base percentage, OPS+, total bases, and WAR into the Black Ink and Gray Ink tests.
5). Does the player have uniquely impressive career numbers?
While our primary focus is on finding players with the most elite seasons, we also have to account for those with elite careers. Sometimes there is overlap there, and sometimes there isn’t. For example, we’d be hard-pressed to find a truly elite season on Rafael Palmeiro’s ledger. He never led the league in Adjusted OPS+, slugging %, on-base percentage, home runs, or RBIs, and never finished better than 5th in MVP voting. Yet, Palmeiro is a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball history. There have been 32 players to reach 3,000 career hits and 27 to reach 500 career home runs. Only Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray, and Palmeiro have done both. Although Palmeiro never won an MVP award and rarely led the league in statistical categories, only five players in the history of the game have equaled his combined career production in two of the most important statistics in the sport. Combing for elite seasons using the Black Ink Test (+ on-base percentage, WAR, OPS+, and total bases) unearths the majority of the greatest players of all-time, but some players shine most when looking at career production.
6). How did the player perform in the playoffs?
Few things in the sports world are as intense as playoff baseball. Every strike thrown feels like a statement of dominance, while every ball feels like the precursor to a meltdown. A single base-runner simultaneously represents anxious dread for the defense and the hope of a rally for the offense. Those moments can be as fleeting as Rickey Henderson, but hundreds of those moments, back-to-back, over nine innings, results in a tension-filled viewing experience like few others in sports. What makes those moments so exhilarating is the fact that the premier pitching rotations face the most explosive lineups and vice versa. Even when those matchups do occur over the 162-game grind of the regular season, the intensity of the win-or-go-home stakes of the postseason simply cannot be replicated. We can view postseason performance as a bonus data point akin to a partial or full super-competitive regular season.
Derek Jeter played in 158 career playoff games which are roughly equivalent to a full regular season. We can imagine his post-season experience as a single regular season with a degree of difficulty off the charts. Despite exclusively facing the best rotations in baseball in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the postseason, Jeter’s postseason performance stayed true to his regular-season form:
With the uptick in power, Jeter’s playoff stat-line would represent one of the better regular seasons of his career. Merely equaling regular season output in the postseason is a sign of elevated performance.
7). Did the player excel in multiple facets?
There’s no doubt that the biggest contribution a position-player can make is with bat-in-hand, but defense and baserunning clearly play a big role in deciding the outcome of a baseball game. Great offensive players get the most recognition—and for good reason—but great offensive players who also excel defensively, or on the basepaths, are a rare commodity.
Although David Ortiz is proof that it’s possible to mash your way to greatness, his ceiling isn’t nearly as high as it is for a versatile stalwart like Mike Schmidt. Though Schmidt was a celebrated hitter who led the National League in home runs a record eight times, he was also one of the greatest defensive players in MLB history, ranking 8th all-time in dWAR among third basemen. It’s Schmidt’s excellence both with the bat and with the glove that has him ranked among the top-10 players of all-time.
While Schmidt’s elite production with the bat would’ve been enough on its own to merit inclusion in the top-100, there are a number of examples of merely good, or even average, hitters who are included in the top-100 as a result of outstanding defense and/or baserunning. These players include Rickey Henderson, Brooks Robinson, Adrian Beltre, Pudge Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr., and Gary Carter. Of course, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez also rate among the top-10 players of all-time due, in part, to their versatile skillsets.
8). Was the player uniquely impressive at a critical skill?
By this point of the Q&A, we’ve identified the vast majority of the elite profiles in MLB history. However, there are players hiding in plain sight who were so elite at a critical skill that—despite not having the typical resume of a top-100 player—have earned the right to be listed among the top-100 players of all-time.
Mark McGwire only amassed 1,626 career hits, which isn’t even among the top 500 totals in MLB history. However, McGwire is literally the greatest home run hitter of all-time. His AB/HR rate of 10.61 is the best ever, and it isn’t particularly close. Given that hitting a home run is the pinnacle result of any plate appearance and the fact that McGwire played long enough to clobber 583 home runs, he is undoubtedly one of the top 100 baseball players of all-time, despite being a one-trick pony Cardinal.
Although hitting home runs is the most important skill in baseball, getting on base isn’t far behind, and few have been better at that than Joey Votto. Votto has led the league in on-base percentage seven times. Only Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, and Rogers Hornsby have led the league more often, and they just happen to be four of the top-20 players of all-time. Votto will not end up reaching the celebrated statistical milestones that have become synonymous with Hall-of-Fame resumes, but it is hard to imagine a player leading the league in on-base percentage seven times and not being one of the 100 greatest players of all-time.
Mariano Rivera is another example of a player who mastered a critical skill. Nobody was better than Rivera at protecting a lead. He is the all-time leader in regular season saves and playoff saves. In fact, he was so dominant at this particular skill that he is the only player in MLB history to be the all-time leader in the same category in both the regular season and the postseason. Typically, a reliever who amassed fewer than 1,200 career regular season innings wouldn’t have anywhere close to the impact a starter would have. However, Rivera didn’t just impact the game, he is arguably the most impactful player in postseason history. Rivera’s career postseason Win Probability Added (WPA) of 11.69 isn’t just the most by any player in history, it is more than the next three players combined.
9). How did the player fare in MVP and Cy Young Voting?
MVP and Cy Young Awards represent the most prestigious annual honors in baseball, so it only makes sense to use them when evaluating player legacies. However, like pretty much every other metric we have at our disposal, MVP and Cy Young voting need to be viewed in context. From 1911-1928, no player was permitted to win the MVP more than once. Also, the MVP was not given out from 1915-1921 and in 1930. So, using MVP voting for players who played prior to 1930 is pretty much worthless, unless Babe Ruth winning just one MVP award sounds like a reasonable thing.
Additionally, voters inexplicably fell in love with catchers in the 1950s, awarding Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella six combined MVPs between 1951-1955. For comparison, only 11 MVPs have been awarded to catchers in the other 105 years the award has been given out. As a result of this brief infatuation with catchers, sportswriters of the 50s put us in a tough spot. Only one player in MLB history has won more MVPs than Campanella. Taking MVP voting at face value would mean Campanella would join every other 3-time MVP winner in the top-100. The problem is that the evidence doesn’t support Campanella being the best player in the league even once, let alone three times. Without the MVPs to buoy his resume, Campanella is hardly worthy of top-100 consideration. He only had 4,816 plate appearances, yielding an underwhelming 35.6 career WAR. He never finished in the top-6 in single-season WAR and his Black Ink and Gray Ink scores are nowhere near that of a typical Hall-of-Fame player.
We can either take MVP voting at face value and put Campanella in the top-100, or adjust for voting malpractice when necessary. The latter seems to be the more appropriate course of action. Counting some MVP and Cy Young results as legitimate and others as not brings into question the value of using these awards as a metric in the first place. However, more often than not, voters put forth a worthy winner. Even if the occasional voting misfires weren’t palatable, there is also value—maybe even just as much—in simply identifying players who routinely finished among the top-5.
Bonds vs. Ruth
As much as an opinion can be a fact, it has always been a fact that Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all-time. It’s an easy case to make with numbers. Nobody led the league in more categories more often than Ruth. His entire statistical archive is seemingly bolded or italicized, denoting the league leader. He is the all-time leader in OPS+ and slugging percentage. He is the only player in baseball history to hit more than 600 home runs and hit .305—and he did it with 756 home runs and a .342 average! His dominance of the 20s and 30s essentially forced baseball out of the dead-ball era. It would take thousands of words to list out all of the things Ruth did that nobody else did.
The Sultan of Swat is deserving of every alliterative appellation allocated to him and every hyperbolic half-truth that accompanies his name. Without Ruth, baseball would not be what it is today. He is a two-syllable history lesson of America’s pastime. DJ, kindly bring that record to a screeching halt. This is the “but” you were waiting for. Pee-Wee Herman said it first and said it best, “everyone I know has a big but” and this might be the biggest “but” of them all. Babe Ruth was the greatest player of his era, but he is not the greatest player of all-time. To evoke the moody train conductor from The Polar Express, baseball eras are not transferable. While Ruth’s astronomical statistical marks make him the king of his era, they cannot be taken at face value when comparing him to players from other eras. Ruth’s dominance of an 8-team league entirely devoid of black and Asian players, and largely devoid of Latino, Canadian, and Jewish players, requires loads of context. Additionally, Ruth played in a league that was hesitant to embrace the value of the home run, which made him stand out like a skyscraper in DC. It wasn’t that players couldn’t hit home runs, it’s that they literally didn’t realize they should be trying to. This, of course, wasn’t Ruth’s fault, but it sure made it easier to lead the league in home runs and slugging %. Every subsequent era after Ruth saw a league full of home-run chasing sluggers, meaning nobody after Ruth would have it quite as easy.
The only hitter in MLB history who rivals Ruth in dominance with respect to his era is Barry Bonds. DJ, queue the Death Star theme. Bonds won seven MVP Awards (and should have won two more in 1991 and 2000). That number is significant because, in the history of baseball, no two players have combined to win 7 MVPs. That alone suggests that Bonds is, by far, the greatest hitter since 1931, when the MVP that we recognize today was first handed out. Due to the fact that the MVP didn’t exist from 1915-1921, 1929 (AL), and 1930, and baseball rules prevented players from winning the award more than once from 1922-1928, Ruth’s official MVP count stands at a very unsatisfying one. With a little voodoo magic and some retro-prognostication, it is highly probable that Ruth would’ve come close to equaling Bonds’ seven MVPs. MVP voters have historically shown a penchant for spreading the award around to prevent one player from monopolizing it. So, it is unlikely that Ruth would’ve won the MVP every year that he was statistically the best player. In fact, we have evidence of how (un)likely voters at the time were to vote for him. In 1931, Ruth was clearly the best hitter in the American League, but finished 5th in the voting. Although the number of potential MVP awards Ruth could have won likely falls somewhere between 6-11, the outcome probably would’ve ended up on the lower end of that range.
Let’s just say for argument’s sake that Ruth would have won nine MVPs. During Ruth’s career, there were eight teams in the American League accounting for roughly 200 players. Over the course of Bonds’ career, there was an average of 15 teams in the National League accounting for roughly 375 players. That means that it was close to twice as difficult for Bonds to win an MVP than it was for Ruth. That makes Bonds’ seven MVPs more impressive than the nine MVPs we’ve graciously assumed for Ruth, and that doesn’t account for the fact that Ruth only had to compete against white players.
To continue the Ruth-Bonds comparison in earnest, we need to head to the “league leaders” pages at Baseball Reference, while continuing to account for league size and composition. A similar outcome to the MVP comparison unfolds when comparing Bonds and Ruth in two of the gold-standard measures of inter-era comparisons: WAR for Position Players and OPS+. Both Bonds and Ruth led the league in WAR for Position Players 11 times. Ruth led the league in OPS+ 12 times and Bonds did it nine times. Given that it was almost twice as difficult for Bonds to lead the league in any category due to league size, it’s clear that his accomplishments in these two categories are more impressive than Ruth’s. Again, that only accounts for league size and not the significantly less competitive, very homogenized league that Ruth played in.
Both players led their respective leagues in OBP 10 times. Bonds led the league in walks 12 times, while Ruth did it 10 times. As lauded as Ruth is for his batting average, Bonds led the league in batting average twice, while Ruth did it once. Remember, Bonds simply being close to Ruth in these comparisons is a win given it was nearly twice as difficult for him to lead the league, but Bonds is actually beating Ruth in some of these comparisons. Ruth’s biggest advantage over Bonds comes in slugging percentage where he led the league 13 times compared to Bonds’ seven. Even when it appears Ruth has a significant feather in his cap, the comparison results in a virtual stalemate. It was roughly 1.88 times as difficult for Bonds to lead the league in a category than it was for Ruth, and Ruth led the league in slugging percentage 1.86 times more often than Bonds. That’s about as close to a dead-heat as we’re going to find. Again, that only accounts for the size of the player pool and not the exponential increase in talent that flooded MLB after integration. It also doesn’t account for the fact that leading the league in slugging % was much easier for Ruth given the league was largely ignorant of the value of a home run. Bonds, on the other hand, played in the most competitive home run era in MLB history.
In order for Ruth to stake a claim as the greatest baseball player of all-time, he’d need to come close to doubling-up Bonds in these comparisons, and it hasn’t even come close to playing out that way. Adjusting for league size and composition, Bonds’ achievements are more impressive than Ruth’s, and it’s hard to argue that it’s not by a significant margin. Ruth was an accomplished starting pitcher for the first five years of his career which is certainly notable, but Bonds was an outstanding defensive player and an exceptional base-stealer, while Ruth was not. Let’s call that a wash.
There is no debating Ruth’s dominance or his impact on the sport. He ushered in an entirely new era of baseball by redefining what it meant to be a productive hitter. Bonds’ abrasiveness and PED use make it virtually impossible that he will ever be universally—or even lightly—embraced as the greatest player of all-time. Heck, he can’t even get into the Hall of Fame. Most lists place Ruth as the greatest player of all-time, and most lists will continue to place Ruth as the greatest player of all-time. People aren’t necessarily interested in changing their minds on this, especially when the beneficiary would be Barry Bonds. The goal of this list is not to rank the most likable good players (here’s looking at you, Griffey), rather it is to rank the greatest players of all-time using two overarching themes: dominance within their era and the competitiveness of their era. To go all Married… with Children, “you can’t have one without the other.”
The natural rebuttal to the suggestion that Barry Bonds had a more impressive career than Babe Ruth would be to bring up PEDs. I’m going to break character and rock singular first person here because this is all about personal preference. I made the decision before putting this list together that I would not factor in PED use when ranking players. My reasoning centers around six basic ideas:
1) Players have been cheating in baseball for years in some form or another. Punishing PED usage and not, say, ball-doctoring, bat-corking, electronic surveillance, or greenie-popping seems inconsistent and arbitrary.
2) It is unlikely that we know even half of the players who took PEDs, which means those who don’t get caught get to hide in plain sight. It’s like playing Clue with missing game pieces. There are almost certainly PED users currently in the Hall of Fame who skipped the disgraced player queue simply due to dumb luck. Punishing known users would undoubtedly result in elevating what is sure to be an even bigger group of unknown PED-users. It would also elevate those who cheated in other capacities.
3) Outrage over PED use in professional sports seems to be limited to baseball. PED-use is a wildfire in the NFL, and nobody cares. It’s even worse in MMA when adjusting for the size of the athlete pool. I don’t see the point in treating PED use differently depending on the sport.
4) Even if I chose to “punish” known PED users, there is no formula for how much to devalue statistical performance. Sure, I could randomly penalize Bonds 15 spots, but what would be the rationale behind choosing that number? What if by doing so, Bonds lands behind a suspected-but-not-proven PED user? The integrity of the list starts to break down in a hurry by attempting to police what is impossible to police.
5) Most of the prolific hitters of the steroid-era allegedly took PEDs, putting the vast majority of players on an even playing field. Bonds led the league in WAR for Position Players 11 times. He did it in a league that was full of players using PEDs. Had Bonds been the only player juicing, then we might feel emboldened to question the validity of his dominance. Instead, he achieved the 3rd highest career Adjusted OPS+ of all-time competing against a league full of supercharged players. That’s pretty impressive. As long as we focus our inter-era player comparisons on performance relative to the league average, we can somewhat mute the impact of PEDs.
6) Regardless of my personal view on the matter, opinions on PED use in baseball range from indifference to outrage, and everywhere in between. By removing PED use as a factor in these rankings, I’m giving the responsibility to account for PED use to you—my eminently awesome reader—to adjust as you see fit, or not at all. If you want to draw a red line through every suspected cheater, then in my best Bobby Brown voice, that’s your prerogative. If you simply want to take the list for what it is—which is strictly a performance-based representation of the greatest players in history—then have at it. I would much rather outsource this responsibility than attempt to be the only voice on such a divisive issue.
Escaping the Gravitational Pull of Conventional Wisdom
If there’s one constant in baseball, it’s that player legacies age like Salma Hayek. This isn’t surprising, of course, since the first thing we’re taught from the jump is to revere baseball’s sacred past. It’s no coincidence that we literally call it “America’s Pastime.” Honoring history is cool and all, but when it comes at the expense of the present, we need to take a step back and find some context. In 1998, Sporting News released its list of the top-100 players in baseball history. Of the players in the top-25, a whopping 18 had made their professional baseball debut by 1940. There wasn’t a single player in the top-25 who debuted after 1967 and only two players who debuted after 1956. If we’re to believe the Sporting News in 1998, the 66 years from 1890-1956 produced 23 of the 25 greatest players all-time, while the following 42 years produced two. If this was a problem on the AP Statistics exam, I think the Sporting News would’ve gotten this one wrong. Sporting News isn’t the only outlet to disproportionately favor players from the past. Publication-after-publication continues to follow suit, saturating lists with players who played 100 years ago, when the sport was at its weakest competitively. If all we’re interested in is a quick fix of nostalgia, then we can continue stamping every list with the same players. However, if we’re legitimately interested in a statistically sound distribution of the greatest players to ever play, we need to start fighting back against the pull of history.
For 60 years, MLB baseball was as homogenized as a cold, very delicious, very white glass of milk. During this time, black players were banned, anti-Semitism was rampant, and the player pool was hardly the global behemoth that it is today. This limited player pool made it much easier for top players to stand out statistically than in any other era of baseball, leading to ludicrously high OPS+ and batting averages that are exclusive to the early days of baseball. As the player pool grew over time, and the makeup of the pool became more diverse, standing out became increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, some of our best baseball historians have done a poor job explaining this, instead choosing to revel in the astronomical statistical outputs from a century ago. This is how we arrive at a place where much of the baseball world believes that upwards of half of the greatest players of all-time played prior to desegregation.
Once an idea has latched on, it is very difficult for us to let go, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is especially true if the idea is sown in adolescence. Ask any adult who discovered America to test this out. For many baseball fans, it is simply a fact that Babe Ruth is—and always will be—the greatest baseball player of all-time, and to suggest otherwise is blasphemous. We have to be willing to challenge conventional wisdom when the evidence supports such a conclusion. If we continue to ignore statistical performance within the context of competition level, then we can expect Sporting News to dust off its 1998 list and present it as new in 2098.
Player Pool Thought Experiment
Let’s imagine we’re spontaneously transported back to our 5th grade classroom. We’re greeted with all the old standbys; cement walls weirdly painted white, sweet laminated posters with inspirational quotes, and the clock above the chalkboard taunting us with its impossibly slow pace. We also might find that our teacher has scheduled a spelling bee in honor of our interdimensional visit. Motivation aside, what might our odds be of winning this adolescent rite of passage? Well, that all depends on whether we’re shooting for classroom superiority, world domination, or somewhere in between. If we’re limiting the competition to just the 5th grade—and just our classroom—we’re looking at a 1 in 30 shot to win the belt, maybe a little higher since we’ve already taken high school lit. That jumps to 1 in 90 for school supremacy, and 1 in 540 for district supremacy, respectively. Things start getting bananas after that. The county and state bees come in at roughly 1 in 20,000 and 1 in 100,000, while the national bee jumps to 1 in 4 million. If we want world domination, we’ve got our work cut out for us at 1 in 100 million. As the pool of spellers grows, the odds of conquering the competition decrease rapidly. Even though the winner at each level has dispatched all challengers, surely, we wouldn’t expect the winner of a classroom bee to have the vocabulary capacity of a state winner. As Daniel Cormier would say, “there are levels to this game.”
So, how does this fit within the context of baseball? Fantastic question! As late as 1920, dedicated youth baseball leagues didn’t even exist in the U.S., let alone in other countries. Without youth leagues to drive competition, standing out was a relatively easy proposition for those who were fortunate enough to be exposed to the game. For a modern comparison, think niche/geographic sports like lacrosse. The player pool was further limited by the fact that MLB was reserved for white players only, despite baseball being popular in the black community. Fast-forward a century and the whole world has been hit by a tidal wave of baseball mania. Our global infatuation has prompted ESPN to broadcast every game of the Little League World Series—baseball games played by 10-12-year-olds—to its massive viewing audience. The impact this movement has had on the pool of talent feeding MLB has been profound. In 2020, over 28% of MLB players on Opening Day rosters were born outside the U.S., and in 2018, people of color made up 42.5% of all MLB players, up slightly from the 0% in 1910. Not to be outdone by the increasing popularity abroad, baseball participation in the U.S. has also undergone a vast expansion. In 2017, over 15 million people played organized baseball in the U.S. alone. For comparison, there were only 16 million white males age 5-24 in the entire country in 1910.
The talent pool supplying players to MLB in 1910 was a pond compared to the ocean that we see today. Any comparison between two players from these respective eras needs to be made with degree-of-difficulty front and center. For instance, we might look at Walter Johnson being the best pitcher in 1910 as, say, a national spelling bee champion (1 in 4 million), while Randy Johnson being the best pitcher in 2000 might be closer to a world spelling bee champion (1 in 100 million). Both can stake the claim of being the best of their pool, but to suggest their accomplishments should be viewed equally would be a disservice to statistical analysis. So, now that we’re on the subject…
Let’s Talk About Randy
“Who is the greatest pitcher of all-time?” The names that get thrown around when that question comes up typically include some combination of Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, and perhaps Roger Clemens, depending on how we’re all feeling about PED use on that given day. Cy Young will occasionally get an honorary O.G. mention, but the candidates usually don’t extend beyond that group. A name we don’t often hear in the mix as the pitching GOAT is Randy Johnson. This isn’t to suggest The Big Unit has been disregarded; it is commonplace to find him among the top-10 on pitching lists. However, there is a pretty significant disconnect between “the top 10” and what is on Randy’s resume. We can blame that disconnect squarely on our obsession with baseball’s past. The Big Unit’s only sin is that he wasn’t born 70 years earlier. There is no other explanation for why he isn’t a perennial contender for not only the greatest pitcher of all-time but also the greatest player of all-time.
Before we take a deep dive into the numbers, let’s first establish the competition level Randy faced compared to the other GOAT candidates. Aside from Clemens, all the pitchers listed above played during segregation. Not only were there no black players, but there were also no Asian players and very few Latinos (most were forced to play in the Negro Leagues), Canadians (43 of the 45 Canadian MLB All-Star selections have come since 1940), and Jewish players (all 71 Jewish All-Star selections came after 1936). Imagine how much easier it would be to succeed as a pitcher in today’s game if black, Latino, Canadian, Asian and Jewish players were either largely, or completely, excluded. Randy’s already stellar ERA would shine even brighter like a diamond without the damage inflicted by the likes of Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, and Carlos Beltran.
We also have to recognize that while W. Johnson, Mathewson, Alexander, and Young pitched in the dead-ball era, Randy’s career landed him right smack dab in the middle of the steroid era, home to the greatest single-season home run totals in MLB history. Then comes the adjustment for league size. In 1910 a pitcher would need to be better than only 39 other starting pitchers to be considered the best in the league (assuming five-man rotations intact for the season). Today, a pitcher needs to be better than 74 other starting pitchers to achieve the same distinction. Any fair comparison between Randy Johnson and the aforementioned Hall of Fame pitchers needs to place “degree of difficulty” front and center. Anything less would be uncivilized.
Now that we’ve unintentionally made the case for every pitcher who pitched in the 90s, let’s delve into the numbers so we’re not anointing someone simply for pitching in one of the most turbulent eras in baseball history. Let’s see if we can do this in one breath… Randy won five Cy Young Awards, and finished second three times. Only Roger Clemens equals Randy’s combined total of eight first and second-place finishes. Randy won four consecutive Cy Young Awards. Greg Maddux, also with four consecutive Cy Youngs, is the only other player to win at least three in a row. Randy is the only player in MLB history to win a Cy Young Award in each league and finish 2nd in each league. Randy led the league in adjusted ERA+ six times. Only Lefty Grove and Clemens led the league more often. He led the league in H/9 six times. Only Nolan Ryan led the league more often. He led the league in winning % four times. Only Grove led the league more often. He led the league in strikeouts nine times. Only Walter Johnson and Nolan Ryan led the league more often. He is the only player since 1920 to lead the league in ERA+ and strikeouts six times. He’s the only pitcher since the dead-ball era to lead the league in complete games four times and ERA+ six times. He is the only player since 1920 to lead the league in WHIP three times and strikeouts nine times. Randy and N. Ryan are the only pitchers to lead the league in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons on two different ocassions. Randy and N. Ryan are the only two pitchers to record 300+ strikeouts in four consecutive seasons. Of pitchers who pitched a minimum of 2,500 career innings, Randy has the highest K/9 in history. He holds the record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning start and most strikeouts in a relief appearance. He led the league in WAR for pitchers six times. Only Grove, Clemens, and W. Johnson led the league more often. He led the league in Win Probability Added (WPA) four times. Only Clemens and Grove led the league more often. He’s 2nd on the all-time strikeout list. He’s one of only four pitchers to reach 300 wins among players who debuted after 1967. Among players to debut since 1967, only Clemens has more shutouts. He is one of only seven players in MLB history to pitch a perfect game and a no-hitter. He’s the only pitcher in MLB history to lead the league in winning % four times and throw two no-hitters. He’s the only pitcher in MLB history to lead the league in ERA+ six times, strikeouts six times (again, he did it nine), and throw two no-hitters. I’m starting to think trying to do this in one breath was a bad idea.
Before some of us start passing out, let’s quickly hit the playoffs with the shared understanding that we could continue this exercise for another 2,000 words. Deal? Deal. Randy had one of the greatest postseason performances in the history of baseball when he—and Curt Schilling—led Arizona to a World Series victory over the Yankees in 2001. In 41.3 postseason innings that year, he went 5-1 with two shutouts, a 1.53 ERA, and a .77 WHIP. Having pitched Arizona to victory in game six, he entered game seven on zero days rest to get the final four outs. He holds the record for most wins in a single postseason. He is the only pitcher since 1968 to win three games in a single World Series. He is the only pitcher in MLB history with four Cy Young Awards (he has five) and a World Series MVP.
Based on performance relative to the league, the pitchers who pop up the most alongside Randy Johnson are Lefty Grove and Roger Clemens. Grove played before integration. He also played in a league roughly half the size, making Randy’s league-leading accomplishments far more impressive. Clemens is a different monster altogether largely due to peak longevity. Randy didn’t start pounding out elite seasons until he was 29. Although that underscores just how dominant he was after the age of 30, it is also the reason for Clemens’ massive 22-12 edge in career peak length. If we’re taking resumes at face value, then it’s hard to choose anyone other than Clemens as the pitching GOAT. If we start to discount accomplishments due to PED use, then Randy inches closer to the throne. Regardless of whether we choose to weigh PED use or not, there is no reasonable explanation for Randy Johnson to rank any lower than the second on the all-time pitching list.
MLB only, regrettably.
Racial segregation will forever be a stain on the history of our species. The very idea of it is insulting to our big and brilliant brains and the evolutionary process that led to them. Despite being virtually indistinguishable at the cellular, skeletal, and muscular levels, too many of us have used those big brains to conclude that variations in skin pigmentation based on how far our ancestors lived from the equator 100,000 years ago are simply too much adversity to overcome. While racism has far more important consequences than its impact on baseball, it’s hard not to be bitter that this own-goal is the reason Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson never played in the same league.
Baseball history prior to integration is like an unopened milk carton that has been sitting on the counter for a week. It looks every bit like the cold and creamy drink fit to be paired with a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie. We can hold on to that narrative as long as we’d like if we don’t have any intention of opening the milk. The moment we twist the cap the rotten odor of reality spoils our illusions, and we’re left wondering why someone couldn’t have just put the milk in the fridge. Despite looking like baseball’s most fascinating era, the golden age of baseball was spoiled by segregation, leaving us the cruel fate of pondering what might have been. With all due respect to Ray Kinsella, my Field of Dreams features Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige playing a career’s worth of games with and against Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, and Walter Johnson. Only then could we take the accomplishments of the latter group at face value. The stars of MLBs bygone era got off easier than they ever had a right to.
Given that Hank Aaron and Willie Mays went from the Negro Leagues to MLB MVP to the Hall of Fame—and the fact that Satchell Paige made the MLB All-Star Game at 46 some twenty years removed from his prime—there is little doubt that the best Negro League players were every bit as skilled as their MLB counterparts. The same can likely be said of the top stars in Latin America, who were also banned due to the GPS coordinates of their ancestors 100,000 years ago. While it is obvious that Negro League players as a whole were more than capable of thriving in MLB, what isn’t obvious is how each individual player would’ve performed. It’s hard enough to compare players with two wildly different MLB profiles, let alone players who didn’t compete against each other and had zero common opponents. Given the limited number of games on the Negro League schedule and the lack of dedicated reporting from that era, it would be difficult to rank Negro League players against each other let alone against players from a different league.
So, that leaves me with two choices: confine the list to MLB competition, or randomly sprinkle Negro League players into the top-100 to ostensibly achieve harmony. As tempting as the second option sounds, there’s only one choice that makes sense. Josh Gibson might have been the greatest baseball player of all-time. He might have been the 101st greatest player of all-time. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that. I’ll forego the random placement option, and instead promote the frickin’ sweet Seamheads website as well as leave you with the all-time WAR leaders in Negro Leagues history.
We rely on lore to form our earliest conceptions of history. Those conceptions root deeply into our self-identify, often growing unchecked for years before ever facing a real challenge from logic—and by that time, many of us are hardly interested in a perspective change. Even though these early conceptions manifest into powerfully held beliefs, the seeds are often planted innocuously. In 6th grade, I had a gym teacher who wore a cowboy hat and boots whether he was on the basketball court or pool deck. His name was Bob Eller. My dad called him Carl. He said it was a reference to the Purple People Eaters and their Hall-of-Fame defensive end, named Carl Eller, who terrorized NFL quarterbacks in the 1970s. It didn’t take long before Bob became Carl to me, too. That conversation—a two-minute conversation hardly filled with hard-hitting analysis—anchored into my psyche, growing unimpeded, year-after-year, until Eller’s greatness became a matter of fact to me. Just a few words from one encounter created a narrative that would orbit my brain for a lifetime. Of course, that encounter was with my dad, who, naturally, wielded the power of a thousand impressions. Over time, he would share similar praise of Pistol Pete, Yaz, and The Sheik—all of whom would become larger than life to me.
This embedding happens to all of us. Parents bonding with their children over sports is a ritual as American as Clark W. Griswold Jr. Much like Clark, it also comes with endearing flaws—approximately 25,000 incandescent bulbs worth to be exact. There is no more impressionable creature on Earth than a human child. We are drawn to anecdotal hyperbole because it allows us the limitless reach of our imagination. Since we have a vested interest in championing our childhood narratives as adults, this dynamic leads to some pretty strong opinions that never face the rigor of scrutiny. In the real world, blindly following narratives has been the root of pretty much every human conflict that has ever existed. Impassioned disagreements fueled by ignorance is how we get racism and war. The stakes aren’t as high when the subject is sports, but the resolve to defend an opinion is every bit as strong. We can shed these bad habits by looking for reasons to embrace new perspectives instead of looking for excuses to hold on to old ones. The key is to remove personal biases from the equation by allowing critical thinking to be our guide.
Dick Butkus was a brutal tackler who was named 1st team All-Pro six times during his Hall-of-Fame career. Some consider him the most prolific middle linebacker of all-time, even ahead of Ray Lewis. While both were undoubtedly great players, the difference between their resumes is roughly the difference between Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too. Lewis is a two-time Super Bowl winner who was the linchpin to perhaps the greatest defense of all-time. He is the only player in NFL history with two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and a Super Bowl MVP. He has the most All-Pro (9) and Pro Bowl (13) selections of any middle linebacker in NFL history. He holds the NFL career record for most solo and combined tackles and is the only player in NFL history with at least 40 interceptions and 30 sacks. He also played 109 more games than Butkus and did so in a league double the size, making it twice as difficult to be named All-Pro. The fact that Butkus still gets play as potentially the greatest of all-time (GOAT) at middle linebacker shows just how influential the power of suggestion can be. Whether it was from watching him firsthand or hearing stories recounting his legendary toughness, people who grew up idolizing Butkus don’t just think he is the GOAT, they need to think he’s the GOAT. Not doing so would be akin to a personal betrayal, and a betrayal to Butkus himself.
While exaggerating the greatness of historical athletes is a harmless exercise that leads to verbal insults at worst, and forges familial bonds at best, it has wreaked havoc on our ability to identify the greatest players of all-time. Take the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team featuring its selection of the 100 greatest players of all-time, for instance. With a little help from Pro-Football Reference and some sample-size witchcraft using surnames beginning with S, we can surmise that approximately 34% of all NFL players debuted before the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. Yet, the NFL included a whopping 49 players from this era on its 100th Anniversary Team. While the NFL has a clear interest in overpromoting its history to its fans, this is unquestionably a poor representation of player distribution. The NFL didn’t just choose nearly half of its selections from an era in which the vast majority of players didn’t play, it chose them from an era in which black players—even those who starred in college at major universities—were banned outright or subjected to minuscule quotas. The NFL also chose nearly half of its selections from an era that had anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 of the teams it has today, making it 2-3 times easier to win a championship or an MVP, lead the league in statistical categories, and be selected an All-Pro. As if that doesn’t massively tilt the scale against the modern player enough, the NFL chose nearly half of its selections from an era when the AFL was siphoning talent from the NFL, decreasing the average level of competition that NFL players had to face. All of these factors should work in tandem to deflate the accomplishments of players before 1970. Instead, those accomplishments have been inflated, resulting in an extraordinarily inaccurate depiction of the NFL’s greatest players. If this statistical tomfoolery was limited to the NFL, then we could maybe let it slide with a quick side-eye—and if the source of these oversights was limited to the NFL, I wouldn’t be this deep into an essay titled The Recalibration. Unfortunately, this a pervasive practice in the sports industry not limited to an organization or a news outlet.
If we’re interested in a more accurate representation of the greatest players of all-time, we need to recalibrate how we approach inter-era player comparisons. We can do this by focusing on competitive inequities. Let’s stick with football and take a look at how a logic-based approach works in practice by comparing two players with very similar profiles—one debuting in 1961 before the merger and the other in 1975 after the merger. The Dallas Cowboys have had the luxury of suiting-up two of the greatest defensive tackles of all-time: Bob Lilly and Randy White. It should come as no surprise that Lilly is almost universally rated higher by fans and historians since he was Dallas’ first superstar player. It would be nearly impossible for any player to exceed the impression he made on the Cowboys faithful, let alone one playing the same position just a few years later. However, to reestablish order and consistency to our representations of the top-100 players, we need to remove immaterial factors like popularity from the equation. Once we do that, it doesn’t take long for a clear picture to come into focus.
White had a longer career, was better at getting to the QB, and won a Super Bowl MVP. Even Pro-Football-Reference’s Career Average Value stat—a measure that should favor Lilly since it doesn’t take into account competition level—results in a deadlock. Every statistical measure we have either favors Randy White or ends in a stalemate, and that’s taking everything at face value. When we adjust for relative competition level and league size, the gap only widens. Although it’s not Lilly’s fault that the AFL existed and the NFL limited access to black players, he benefited nonetheless. Both factors significantly reduced the offensive line talent tasked to block Lilly and the defensive tackle talent he had to beat for individual honors. White, on the other hand, competed against all the best football players in the sport. The league was also double the size, making it twice as difficult for White to be named All-Pro. Despite the conventional wisdom that has suggested otherwise for decades, there is no way we can reasonably move forward with the narrative that Lilly had the superior career.
Even though rating players is a subjective exercise, we have plenty of precedent in the sports world using degree-of-difficulty to inform our opinions. Diving and gymnastics are decided subjectively by judges, and those sports have had the wisdom to slap a degree-of-difficulty multiplier on athletic performance. Not doing so would result in a contest that would essentially come down to who could complete the most novice dive—or routine—the most flawlessly. That would hardly yield an accurate representation of the best in the world. Yet, that has historically been our approach to comparing great players to each other.
Every major North American sports league has undergone the same evolution from small and exclusive to large and global. Since list-makers have historically not accounted for this change, the chronicling of the 100 greatest players of all-time—in all sports—is badly in need of a recalibration. We can take this on in earnest by focusing on league size and player composition when comparing player legacies. This exercise might be uncomfortable at first, but the payoff will be a more accurate representation of performance while also having a better appreciation for the talents of modern players who, with little exception, are competing in the most competitive era in history. Happy scrolling!