While first base has been somewhat devalued in recent years, the position historically has been home to some of the greatest players in history.
In fact, no position has been responsible for more Most Valuable Player Awards than first base, and second place isn’t close. First base picked up some more hardware in 2020, with José Abreu of the White Sox earning the American League MVP Award and Freddie Freeman of the Braves taking home NL honors.
Here’s a positional breakdown of all the MVP Awards in Major League history (through the 2020 season), based on each player’s primary position the year he won. (Note: The Baseball Writers' Association of America first handed out the modern MVP Award in 1931, but this list also counts earlier versions of the award.)
Total MVP Awards by position
First basemen: 36 MVP seasons
Most: 3 (Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 11.8 (Lou Gehrig, 1927)
Jimmie Foxx was the first player in Major League history to win three MVP Awards, earning two with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1932-33 and another with the Red Sox in ‘38. He won the first after hitting .364 with 58 homers, 169 RBIs and a 1.218 OPS. Albert Pujols matched Foxx with three MVPs, winning in 2005, ‘08 and ‘09.
Lou Gehrig (1927, ‘36) and Frank Thomas (1993, ‘94) are the only other players to win multiple MVPs at first base, and Gehrig’s 1927 campaign represents the highest Wins Above Replacement mark a first baseman has recorded in an MVP season. That year, Gehrig posted a .373/.474/.765 slash line with 47 homers and 173 RBIs for a Yankees team that is considered one of the greatest of all time.
Right fielders: 28
Most: 2 (Frank Robinson, Roger Maris, Juan Gonzalez)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 14.1 (Babe Ruth, 1923)
Frank Robinson is the only player to be named MVP in both leagues, winning in 1961 with the Reds and again after earning the Triple Crown with the Orioles in ‘66. Roger Maris also won MVP honors twice, doing so in 1960 and ‘61. Maris took home his second MVP Award after blasting 61 home runs, which broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record.
Ruth’s lone MVP Award came in 1923, a year in which he hit .393/.545/.764 and posted one of the highest bWAR marks in the modern era (since 1900) at 14.1. Ruth likely would have won more MVPs, but he played the majority of his career before the modern version of the award was handed out. There was no MVP Award in Ruth’s first seven full seasons, and AL players weren’t eligible to win more than once from 1922-28.
Left fielders: 24
Most: 7 (Barry Bonds)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 12.5 (Carl Yastrzemski, 1967)
Barry Bonds, the all-time leader in homers and walks, won seven MVP Awards, the most of any Major Leaguer and nearly a third of the total among all left fielders. After winning in 1990, '92 and '93, the superstar slugger took home four straight from 2001-04. Bonds also had five other top-five finishes, including 1996, when he joined the 40/40 club. He is one of two left fielders to win multiple MVPs, along with Ted Williams.
Surprisingly, neither Bonds nor Williams holds the highest bWAR in an MVP season by a left fielder, as Carl Yastrzemski posted 12.5 bWAR in his 1967 Triple Crown campaign.
Starting pitchers: 21
Most: 2 (Walter Johnson, Carl Hubbell, Hal Newhouser)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 16.5 (Johnson, 1913)
Before 1956, the MVP Award went to a pitcher 14 times, with Walter Johnson, Carl Hubbell and Hal Newhouser winning two times each. Johnson earned his first after going 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP, 243 strikeouts and 38 walks over 346 innings in 1913. His 16.5 bWAR (15.1 WAR as a pitcher, 1.4 as a batter) still stands as the highest single-season mark for any player in the modern era.
Center fielders: 20
Most: 3 (Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Mike Trout)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 11.3 (Mantle, 1957)
The highest WAR by an MVP center fielder belongs to Mickey Mantle, but not in the year he earned the Triple Crown and won his first MVP Award (1956). Mantle had 11.3 bWAR the following season, compared to 11.2 in 1956. When his career is over, Mike Trout will likely be the MVP leader among center fielders, as he has already claimed three in eight full seasons, tied with Mantle and Joe DiMaggio for the most at the position.
Third basemen: 19
Most: 3 (Mike Schmidt)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 10.1 (Al Rosen, 1953)
It wasn’t until Bob Elliott in 1947 that a third baseman won an MVP Award, and in the 16 seasons that followed, the hot corner saw only one other MVP (Al Rosen in ‘53). Things began to pick up after that, however, with Brooks Robinson, Ken Boyer, Harmon Killebrew and Joe Torre all earning an MVP Award at third base from 1964-71.
Most: 3 (Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 8.6 (Johnny Bench, 1972)
Of the 18 MVP Awards earned by catchers, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench and Mickey Cochrane were responsible for 10 of them. Cochrane was the fourth player ever to win multiple MVP Awards, earning AL honors in 1928 and ‘34. Berra and Campanella snagged three each between 1951-55, and Bench followed with one in ‘70 and ‘72.
Bench finished with 8.6 bWAR in 1972, the highest ever for a catcher in an MVP season, as he hit 40 homers, started 124 games behind the plate and threw out 56% of runners trying to steal.
Second basemen: 16
Most: 2 (Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 11.0 (Morgan, 1975)
Second base was well represented among MVPs in the first half of the 20th century, but since Jackie Robinson won in 1949, the keystone has had only seven MVPs in 70 years.
Rogers Hornsby claimed the first of his two NL MVP Awards in 1925 after hitting .403/.489/.756 with 39 homers and 143 RBIs, but he actually had a higher bWAR (12.2) the previous season, when he finished second in the voting behind pitcher Dazzy Vance.
The highest bWAR by a second baseman in an MVP season belongs to Joe Morgan, who produced 11.0 bWAR in 1975 while playing Gold Glove defense and posting a .327/.466/.508 slash line with 17 home runs and 67 stolen bases.
Most: 2 (Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr.)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 11.5 (Ripken, 1991)
Although Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr. switched positions late in their careers -- Banks to first base and Ripken to third -- both won two MVPs at shortstop. Banks earned NL honors in 1958 and ‘59, hitting .308 with 92 home runs and 272 RBIs in that span. Ripken was the AL’s winner in 1983 and ‘91, and his 11.5 bWAR in the latter campaign represents the highest single-season mark by a shortstop.
Relief pitchers: 4
Most: 1 (4 players tied)
Highest bWAR in MVP season: 4.8 (Willie Hernandez, 1984)
This position typically haven’t received much love from MVP voters, with relievers accounting for just four MVP Awards in history.
Jim Konstanty was the first reliever to achieve the feat, winning NL honors in 1950 on the heels of a 2.66 ERA over 152 innings. It would be 31 years before another reliever won an MVP Award, with Rollie Fingers ending the drought in 1981. Willie Hernandez and Eckersley followed in 1984 and ‘92, respectively, and no reliever has been named MVP since.
MVPs at multiple positions
Only four players have earned an MVP Award at one position and then another at a different position. Hank Greenberg was the first to accomplish this, as he won as a first baseman in 1935 before moving to left field and winning again in ‘40. Stan Musial was a three-time NL MVP, winning as a right fielder in 1943 and ‘48 and as a first baseman in ‘46.
Robin Yount and Alex Rodriguez were both shortstops when they were named MVP for the first time -- Yount in 1982 and Rodriguez in 2003. A shoulder problem forced Yount to the outfield, and he was MVP again as a center fielder in 1989. As for A-Rod, he moved to third base after being traded to the Yankees in 2004, as New York had Hall of Famer Derek Jeter at shortstop. Rodriguez went on to win two AL MVP Awards (2005, ‘07) at the hot corner.
With voters placing a greater emphasis on advanced metrics such as Wins Above Replacement, which takes into account defense and baserunning as well as hitting production, we’ve seen a shift away from first basemen in the MVP race lately, at least prior to 2020.
After Joey Votto's NL win in 2010, neither league had a first baseman earn MVP honors from 2011-19. Here's a positional breakdown of the MVPs during that stretch.
MVPs by position, 2011-19
Third base: 4 seasons
Center field: 4
Right field: 4
Left field: 2
Second base: 1
While third base, center field and right field all had four MVP Awards each in that span, right field was the only one of the three to have four different winners, as Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger each won. Meanwhile, just four first basemen -- Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Prince Fielder and Chris Davis -- even had a top-three finish in that time.
First base returned to the forefront in 2020, however, and it will remain MLB's most valuable position for the forseeable future, at least in terms of total MVP Awards won.