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'Baseball's Greatest' leaves no stone unturned

MLB.com

There was a time, and not that long ago, when any decent saloon kept a copy of "The Baseball Encyclopedia" prominently displayed behind the bar. It came in handy to help settle arguments, or at least provide ammunition to one side or the other. These days, of course, a few taps on a smartphone can achieve the same result.

One thing that hasn't changed is that baseball fans have strong opinions, and they are happy to share them -- especially when a view isn't shared by a person too thick to absorb the wisdom that's being so freely dispensed.

There was a time, and not that long ago, when any decent saloon kept a copy of "The Baseball Encyclopedia" prominently displayed behind the bar. It came in handy to help settle arguments, or at least provide ammunition to one side or the other. These days, of course, a few taps on a smartphone can achieve the same result.

One thing that hasn't changed is that baseball fans have strong opinions, and they are happy to share them -- especially when a view isn't shared by a person too thick to absorb the wisdom that's being so freely dispensed.

The starting point for many debates starts with lists that authoritatively claim to identify the best of anything and place them in their proper order. Sports Illustrated was brave enough to take on this task with "Baseball's Greatest," a coffee table volume that attempts to not only rate the Top 10 players at each position but goes on to make a case for the best games, managers, ballparks, franchises, sluggers, runners, defenders and more.

If Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships, this is the book that will launch at least a thousand passionate discussions.

It's notoriously difficult to compare players of different eras; although the writers and editors who undertook this task did an impressive job representing the broad spectrum of the game, from the black-and-white days at the dawn of the 20th century to the high-def present. They didn't ignore the Negro Leagues, either. Factoring in the use of steroids, real or suspected, only adds another degree of difficulty to the process. This, plus the fact that all opinions are necessarily subjective, is all frankly acknowledged more than once in the text.

"Many of these topics are inherently subjective. Credibly choosing the Top 10 first basemen, for example, demands some recognition of home run totals, Hall of Fame status and so forth," the copy admits.

Example: What makes a ballpark stand out above the rest? Is it the history that played out on the grounds below, its boundaries the steel and concrete structure? Is it sight lines and amenities? Is it the entire experience of attending the game, taking into account the setting of the building in its surroundings? I won't spoil the fun by revealing which baseball chapels were chosen, except to note that Pittsburgh's dazzling PNC Park didn't make the cut. Pull up a chair and we can start one thread right there.

It almost goes without saying that this tome includes hundreds of lavish photographs. From its inception, Sports Illustrated has taken the second half of its title seriously. The pictures alone are a treasure trove.

Each major chapter also has an essay on one of the picks -- not necessarily the No. 1 choice -- from the magazine's archives, plus shorter explanations justifying why each entrant appears. Thoughtful and well written, they reinforce the point that this is far more than a handful of people picking out names off the tip of their heads.

Which doesn't make these lists the final word, of course. There are no right and wrong answers. Every fan brings his own world view to ranking the best in any category, and that, ultimately, is the attraction here.

Along the way, we discover fascinating nuggets. Hit king Pete Rose, for example, received votes at four positions and made the Top 10 in two of them: Third base and right field. Ichiro Suzuki was mentioned not only in right field, but as a baserunner and defensive player.

It's probably not surprising that Willie Mays was deemed to be the best center fielder of all time, but how many people even know who Oscar Charleston was?

Phillies phanatics will find another reason to curse the trade that sent a prospect named Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs after the 1981 season. Sandberg, of course, went on to be inducted in the Hall of Fame and is presented here as the eighth-best second baseman ever. How many more World Series might the Phillies have won if he had stayed and teamed up with Mike Schmidt, No. 1 at third base?

Toward the end are chapters dealing with less weighty issues: Best uniforms, characters, rivalries, movies and quotes, to name a few. These are frankly based on personal prejudices.

"Our writers knew their whims could rule the day, because each list here comes from one writer, and the choices represent his idiosyncratic views," the introduction explains.

Finally, it's all wrapped up with a complete list of players, games and managers who received a vote. So if a reader's choice doesn't appear in the Top 10, he or she can see where it appears on the SI list.

This is a book that, if kept behind a bar today, wouldn't resolve baseball-related disputes. It would start them.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.