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Cardinals’ Top 5 first basemen: Rogers' take

@anne__rogers
March 31, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Anne Rogers’ ranking of the top 5 first basemen in Cardinals history. Next week: Second basemen.

Note: For this project, we’re ranking multi-position players at just one position. Stan Musial will be ranked with the outfielders because he played more games there (1,890) than first base (1,016).

1. Albert Pujols, 2001-11
Key fact: Three-time National League MVP award winner, 10-time All-Star, six-time Silver Slugger award winner, two-time Gold Glove winner and 2003 batting title winner

Pujols was drafted in the 13th round of the 1999 Draft and became one of baseball’s all-time great players. After a spring that caught the eye of former manager Tony La Russa, Pujols debuted in 2001. In just his second full professional season, he went to his first All-Star Game, won Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in MVP voting. With MVPs in 2005, ’08 and ’09, Pujols matched Musial’s three MVPs, a franchise high, and Pujols also finished second in voting four times in his first 10 seasons.

In 11 years with St. Louis, Pujols hit .328/.420/.617. He arrived as a slugger but became so much more, turning himself into an above-average fielder and a baserunning threat, too. He accumulated an 86.6 bWAR and won two World Series. To start his career, Pujols had 10 consecutive seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs. He was the fastest ever to 1,000 hits and 200 home runs, and he was the youngest to reach 250 home runs.

Pujols often made the inconceivable happen. In Game 3 of the 2011 World Series, he joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players in history with three homers in a single World Series game. Pablo Sandoval joined the group in 2012, and Pujols bested them all with five hits, six RBIs and a record 14 total bases. In Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series, Pujols’ home run off the Astros’ lockdown closer Brad Lidge sent the series back to Busch Stadium.

“One of the best players of all time,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said last June when Pujols returned to Busch Stadium. “One of the greatest hitters of all time. The numbers speak for themselves. … I would watch him in the dugout, and he would have his towel, be wiping his brow, but he’d just be stalking the opposing pitcher. I’m sitting right beside him and you just feel this radiation come off of him into the competition.

“He’s picking up something. And that never wavered. I never saw Albert take an at-bat or a play off. He’s always hungry. He’s a generational talent.”

2. Jim Bottomley, 1922-35
Key fact: Two-time World Series champion and MVP in 1928

Nicknamed “Sunny Jim” because of his cheerful disposition, Bottomley played for the Cardinals from 1922-32 and was the anchor at first base as the franchise began first championship era. Bottomley played in four World Series and won two, including the Cardinals’ first in 1926.

As one of the first superstars homegrown from a Minor League farm system, Bottomley had his first full season in the Majors in 1923 and hit .371 while driving in 94 runs. He won the 1928 MVP award after hitting .325 and leading the league in triples (20), homers (31) and RBIs (136) -- the second year he led the league in RBIs.

Bottomley still holds a Major League record for RBIs in a game. On Sept. 16, 1924, Bottomley went 6-for-6 and drove in a record 12 RBIs, which he collected on three singles, a double and two home runs -- including a grand slam in the fourth inning for his fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh RBIs of the game. Bottomley finished the '24 season with 111 RBIs, the first of six consecutive 100-RBI years -- an accomplishment listed on his plaque in Cooperstown.

That 12-RBI record, yet to be surpassed, was equaled in 1993 by another Cardinal, Mark Whiten.

3. Johnny Mize, 1936-41
Key fact: His 38.7 bWAR is second all time for Cardinals first basemen

In six seasons with the Cardinals, Mize hit .336 and had a 1.018 OPS, going over 1.000 in four seasons (three of which led the league). From 1938-40, when he led the league in slugging and OPS all three years, Mize hit .333/.423/.625 with a 1.049 OPS and averaged 33 home runs and 116 RBIs per year. He finished second in MVP voting in ’39 and ’40.

Mize was traded to the New York Giants before the 1942 season, so he missed the Cardinals winning four pennants in five years. Still, he was a five-time All-Star while in St. Louis and won the batting title in 1939.

4. Keith Hernandez, 1974-83
Key fact: Won six straight Gold Gloves from 1978-83

Hernandez wasn’t a prolific power hitter, but he produced at a consistent rate during his time in St. Louis. He’s also the best defensive first baseman among this group, winning the first six of his 11 consecutive Gold Gloves with the Cardinals.

In 1979, Hernandez won the batting title and shared the MVP award with Willie Stargell after hitting .344/.417/.513 with a league-leading 116 runs scored. That year was Hernandez’s first of two All-Star years in St. Louis, and he received MVP votes for the next four years.

Hernandez’s 34.4 WAR is third all time among Cardinals first basemen, and he was a key figure on the 1982 World Series team. He drove in eight runs in seven games against Milwaukee, including the tying runs in Game 7. Hernandez is on the Cardinals Hall of Fame ballot this year, which you can vote for here.

5. Mark McGwire, 1997-01
Key fact: Hit a then-record 70 home runs in 1998 and then 65 in the next two seasons

McGwire only had four full seasons with the Cardinals, but he accumulated 19.3 bWAR, hit 220 home runs and drove in 473 runs in that time. After being acquired at the 1997 Trade Deadline, McGwire hit 24 home runs in 51 games with the Cardinals. As spring opened the 1998 season, talk of chasing Roger Maris’ home run record swirled around McGwire. In June, Sammy Sosa joined the race and stayed on McGwire’s heels all summer.

On Sept. 8, 1998, McGwire hit a first-pitch fastball for his 62nd home run of the season, breaking Maris’ record and highlighting a captivating season for baseball and the Cardinals. McGwire went on to hit 70 home runs that season and 65 the next year. He was a three-time All-Star in St. Louis, and his big swings helped breathe life back into baseball and its fans.

While McGwire’s confession to steroid use throughout his career taints that magical season, there’s no doubting his place in Cardinals history. He joined the Cardinals as hitting coach in 2010 and quickly became regarded as one of the best in the game. His reputation as a teacher in the dugout has helped restore his place in baseball.

Honorable mentions
Bill White ranks fourth on the all-time list of Cardinals first basemen with 28.2 bWAR in six years in St. Louis. He won six Gold Gloves in seven years and was one of the most durable players of his time, missing just 15 games in a four-season stretch from 1961-64. … Orlando Cepeda was only in St. Louis for two full seasons, but they resulted in two pennants, one World Series title and an MVP selection in 1967 when he hit .325/.399/.524 and had a league-leading 111 RBIs. … Ripper Collins was a prime power source for the 1934 World Series champions, with 35 homers, 128 RBIs and a 1.008 OPS. In six seasons with the Cardinals, he accumulated a 20.9 bWAR. … Jack Clark spent three impactful years in St. Louis, hitting .274/.413/.522. In 1987, Clark led the league in on-base percentage (.459), slugging (.597) and OPS (1.055). It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened in the 1987 World Series, when the Cardinals lost 4-3 to the Twins, if Clark hadn’t been injured.

Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.