This annotated week in baseball history: Aug. 22-Aug. 28, 1960

On August 24, 1960 Cal Ripken Jr. was born. After a 21-year career, justly rewarded with a plaque in Cooperstown, Ripken continues to be involved in the game at both the youth and professional levels. Few in baseball can compare with Ripken’s fame; Richard looks at them this week.

Fame is only good for one thing—they will cash your check in a small town.
—Truman Capote

I don’t actually know about that, but then, Truman Capote had a lot more experience with fame than I. But what I do know is that by any definition of the term the ball players below—one for each position—are hugely famous. In fact, I would go so far as to define them as the most famous at each position.

Of course, such a list is inherently subjective, although I suppose one could try and create an objective list using Google results or the like. Obviously, such a list is also prone to the vagaries of time: while some players on this list are no longer active, most have played within the last five years. This is perhaps better described as the famous list for 2010, which will likely be different than the famous list of 2015, and will definitely be different from the list of 2050.

This is a bit of an unusual column in that regard, but for now we will remember that the link between fame and memory (and therefore, history) is probably stronger than we sometimes like to imagine.

Catcher: Yogi Berra

Maybe the greatest catcher of all time, and certainly the most successful team player, sporting 10 World Series rings. Nonetheless, even if you don’t know the records—18-time All-Star, three-time AL MVP, first-ballot Hall of Famer—Yogi Berra is famous.

He has appeared in ads for AFLAC (with that stupid duck), Yoo-hoo and others. His name was used in ads for Sex and the City. His “Yogiisms” are well known and while Hanna-Barbera have denied it, it seems probable that Yogi Bear is named at least in part for the former backstop.

First Base: Lou Gehrig

In some ways, Gehrig is the tragic version of Yogi Berra. Berra is now in his mid-80s and still active, while Gehrig died before he reached 40. Both were tremendous players for the Yankees, but their fame comes from things outside of their playing days. For Yogi, it is the persona he has created for himself, while for Gehrig it is the disease that bears his name.

Second Base: Jackie Robinson

I won’t waste time describing what Robinson accomplished, but instead will reflect on some of the ways his fame has endured. Robinson has thrice appeared on a U.S. stamp, and Time magazine named him one of the most influential people of the 20th century. He has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Robinson has had two separate commemorative coins issued by the US Mint.

And if all that doesn’t convince you that Robinson is the most famous second baseman of all time, consider this: somewhere in space, right now, the asteroid 4319 Jackierobinson is floating. It is one thing to have medals and coins; an asteroid is serious business.

Baseball’s most famous left side of the infield (Icon/SMI)

Shortstop: Derek Jeter

I know it seems odd to put Jeter here, in light of choosing Ripken’s birthday as the launching point of the day. But as I was typing the argument for Ripken, and by extension, the reasons his fame exceeded Jeter’s, I realized it was simply untrue. Ripken may be credited for “saving” baseball after the 1994 strike, and the Cal Ripken League may someday pass Little League for fame in youth baseball. But this is all sports.

Meanwhile, Jeter is not only surely the most widely recognized baseball player active (there are probably more people who own Jeter shirts than live in some mid-sized cities) but his penchant for dating starlets—including his rumored engagement to Friday Night Lights actress Minka Kelly—gives Jeter a level of fame beyond the ball field. He comes in at shortstop.

Third Base: Alex Rodriguez

And speaking of dating starlets giving fame beyond the ball field, here’s Alex Rodriguez, linked romantically with Madonna, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz. Of course, even before he began to date A-list names A-Rod was widely known for his outstanding play on the field, his mixed record in the postseason, and his flip-flop answer on PED use.

If all that wasn’t enough, Rodriguez has not once but twice signed the richest contract in sports history.

Left Field: Barry Bonds

Anyone who holds the all-time record for home runs in a career will be well known. Anyone who holds the single-season record for home runs will also be well known. Anyone who holds both—a list which for the 20th century means Bonds and Babe Ruth—is famous.

And anyone who holds both records, like Bonds, will be playing under a cloud of suspicion for PED use, eventually manifesting itself in a federal indictment for lying to a grand jury. That person is the most famous at the position, even overshadowing names like Ted Williams and Rickey Henderson.

Center Field: Ken Griffey, Jr.

My other candidate for this spot was Joe DiMaggio. Like Jeter, DiMaggio’s fame went beyond mere baseball. He married Marilyn Monroe, and he advertised Mr. Coffee. Just in the course of this week, I have seen him referenced on both Seinfeld and in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. And this week is not over; I may yet hear Mrs. Robinson played.

But Ken Griffey Jr. is an icon in his own right. From his days in Seattle as “The Kid,” Griffey was the superstar around whom Nike and others built their brands. He appeared on The Simpsons and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His Upper Deck Rookie Card, No. 1 in that set, is famous in its own right, and carrying the legend of the man on it.

Right Field: Babe Ruth

There are a lot of ways to explain how famous Ruth is but this might be my favorite: during the Second World War, Japanese troops were said to yell “To hell with Babe Ruth!” at Americans within shouting distance. When foreign soldiers are disparaging you, hoping to enrage the enemy into a foolish move, you have exceeded the fame of a mere athlete.

Fame is a curious thing, and while some of the names on this list—Robinson, Ruth—are likely to be forever, others may yet fade into relatively obscurity. I don’t know that I will still be writing this column in five or 10 years, but if that time comes we will revisit the fame list and see who has made it.

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  1. Bob Rittner said...

    As you say, there is quite a bit of subjectivity to this list. My first thought about CF was Willie Mays who seemed the perfect athlete there.

    But after a moment’s thought, I realized you are considering fame beyond the ball field, and while Mays was certainly well known outside baseball, he could not match the fame of DiMaggio in that regard. And I don’t think Griffey comes close. Just marrying Marilyn Monroe, that by itself would place DiMaggio on the top of the list, a phenomenon made more melodramatic by the stories of his post-marriage fidelity to her. Mays himself said part of his problem getting SF fans to warm up to him was that they already had Joe DiMaggio, although Joe never played there as a major leaguer.

    I am not sure I would put Griffey even third on that kind of list.

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    DiMaggio might deserve that spot, it just seemed so heavy on Yankees, I was trying to spread the wealth a bit. Also, I do think it is worth noting that there are a lot of people—my age and younger—for whom Ken Griffey appearing on The Simpsons means a lot more than DiMaggio marrying Marilyn Monroe.

    As for the issue of Schmidt vs. A-Rod, I wasn’t going for the most famous third baseman, but rather the most famous person who plays third base.

  3. Jim G. said...

    EVERYONE has been on The Simpsons. I’m surprised you haven’t.

    ss: Ozzie Smith over Derek Jeter – your explanation for Jeter requires you to have read People magazine or watched TMZ.

    3b – George Brett – still remembered for his pine tar blow-up, flirting with .400 and his pain in his ***

    c – Bob Uecker – while his playing career fell “just a bit” short of Yogi’s, his appearances on The Tonight Show, Miller Lite commercials, Mr. Belvedere and the Major League movie franchise puts him ahead of Yogi.

    of – Reggie Jackson – good or bad, he was always visible; Battle of the Network Stars, kid shows and candy bars

    For some reason, you didn’t include pitchers:
    P – Jim Palmer – Mr. Underwear

  4. BG said...

    If you asked 100 people on the street who is Ozzie Smith or who is Derek Jeter or who is A-Rod or who is Mike Schmidt or who is Bob Uecker or who is Yogi Berra? Who do you think will be the most well known?

  5. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    Barry Bonds held no home run records in the 20th century.

    Frank Zappa also has an asteroid named after him, but nobody under the age of 35 has ever heard of him.

  6. the Flint Bomber said...

    Alex as ‘most famous’ at essentially his 2nd position?  No way.  I love Alex (after all, I’ve owned him in my dynasty fantasy league since 1999) but he’s not the most famous third sacker.

    When people think of 3B, they think of Mike Schmidt.

  7. InnocentBystander said...

    Pretty good list and the only one I will actively disagree with is CF. I’m your age(-ish) and wouldn’t have even considered Griffey over Mickey, Willie or the DiMag (excuse my poetic license). I’ll cast my $.02 for DiMaggio…the 56-game streak, the Joltin’ Joe song, the marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Coffee, and, of course, Simon & Garfunkel’s line “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio…” That’s a lot. And don’t worry about the too much Yankees thing. It makes sense for the most successful, most popular team to have the most famous players.

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