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Mudville: April 16, 2024 1:46 am PDT

Larger Than Life

What makes a baseball figure larger than life?

If you think back in history, various names of players jump out at you – and though most of these players became Hall of Famers, that’s not the reason they became iconic (and, in fact, symbolic of the very game), or every Hall of Famer would have become a larger than life figure somewhere along the timeline and history of the game.

Quick — who do you think of when I say “this baseball player was/is larger than life?”

Babe Ruth?

Honus Wagner? Lou Gehrig? Ty Cobb?

Jackie Robinson? Joe DiMaggio?

Ted Williams? Mickey Mantle? Roger Maris? Willie Mays?

Nolan Ryan? Tom Seaver?

Tony Gwynn?

Hank Aaron?

George Brett?

Cal Ripken, Jr.?

Barry Bonds?

Mariano Rivera?

Albert Pujols?

Miguel Cabrera?

Mike Trout? Aaron Judge? Shohei Ohtani?

My guess is that in order to achieve the fame and familiarity of becoming a larger than life baseball player, you have to be known for something pretty specific. In some cases, it’ll be your player stats. In some cases, there’ll be a story so attached to your name that baseball fans will never forget it. In some cases, you’ll have been the only player of your generation to achieve a certain milestone. In some cases, you’ll have broken some pretty specific major league baseball record.

And yet, to become a household name among baseball fans, there’s more to it even than that.

If you consider some of the players named above, here are a few reasons for their becoming larger than life figures over baseball’s 100-year-plus history:

Babe Ruth: the first player known for being able to do it all. He could pitch, he could hit, he hit for power, he hit for average. Probably the most iconic baseball player ever, the Great Bambino became larger than life not only due to girth, but because he symbolized the very game.

Lou Gehrig: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Probably the most iconic line ever delivered in Yankee history, it’s become universally recognized as spoken by a man leaving the game due to a disease that has subsequently been named for him. But Gehrig also played for 17 years. The Iron Horse left behind a significant player history; and not just a famous speech.

Ty Cobb: the man who set up to 90 records over his 22 years in the major leagues as a player and player-manager, the Georgia Peach played his entire career with just one team, the Detroit Tigers.

Jackie Robinson: the man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball, Jackie Robinson did not have an easy time of it; and his number 42 has been retired by MLB forever and across all teams to commemorate both his baseball achievements and his guts and fortitude in overcoming the many difficult challenges he had to face.

Lou Gehrig - art by Graig Kreindler

Mickey Mantle: a charismatic person and an idol to millions during his career, the Mick was known for his remarkable power and speed and his everyman personality. While “The Mick” patrolled center field and batted clean-up between 1951 and 1968, the Yankees won 12 American League pennants and seven World Series.

Hank Aaron: Hammerin’ Hank is most well-known for the record number of home runs he hit over the course of his career (755 of them, to be precise). But not only did he break Babe Ruth’s home run record, Hank Aaron still holds a variety of other batting records.

George Brett: one of only five players in baseball history to accumulate 3,000 hits, 300 home runs, and a career.300 batting average, Brett is, for better or worse, probably most well known for “the pine tar incident.” Brett played for 21 years with the Kansas City Royals – but is likely most well recognized for his reaction when called out for using too much pine tar on his bat in a game against the Yankees.

Cal Ripken, Jr.: The Iron Man who broke the original Iron Horse’s (Lou Gehrig’s) consecutive games record, and played exclusively for the Baltimore Orioles over his 21-year career, Cal Ripken, Jr. is barely even known outside of Baltimore for having amassed 3,184 hits and 431 home runs over the course of his legendary career.

Mariano Rivera: The first and only player to be voted in unanimously on a first ballot to the Hall of Fame, and the closer with the most saves in history, Rivera has more awards to his credit than can be listed here. Known for his cut fastball, Rivera also bears the nickname “Sandman” because of the Metallica song “Enter Sandman” that was played in Yankee Stadium as he walked to the mound to finish off an opponent.

For each of the players briefly profiled above, it’s not difficult to discern why they became iconic as baseball players and household names during their playing days and thereafter. But is there some special secret sauce to becoming “the face of the game,” or symbolic of baseball, or a never-forgotten figure over the history of the game?

I would argue that whatever your achievements were as a player, they have to be so noteworthy that they transverse the local market of the team for which you played and capture the interest of the entire national baseball audience — or certainly, close to it.

There have been many players who had Hall of Fame careers — or at least for the team(s) for which they played, they broke records and drew huge stadium crowds and were sought for autographs and were invited as media guests on radio and television shows. But did they become iconic players, larger than life players, “faces of the game?” Possibly not.

The secret sauce doesn‘t seem to be having been bestowed a nickname, having broken a record, having gotten into a benches-clearing brawl with another team, or even having a 20-plus year career. It seems to be having done some or all of these things with the rest of the baseball world knowing about it and caring about it.

The walls of the Hall of Fame are covered with the names and memorabilia of players whose achievements got them voted into the Hall — but who quickly became historical figures to be revered in their own right and yet about whom no one really talks much anymore. That’s not who Babe Ruth was. It’s not who Ty Cobb was. It’s not who Hank Aaron is. Because everybody in the baseball universe sat up, took notice, and cared about what these players did.

Ty Cobb

This helps explain why not every number retired by every team represents a larger than life player; a figure whose autograph is desirable to any fan, anywhere; an icon of baseball. If you’re not from Minnesota and you’ve never heard of Tom Kelly, whose number 10 was retired by the Twins, that’s probably not an accident – as terrific a manager as Tom Kelly was. Tom Kelly was also a player; but his best days were as a manager. If you’re not from New York, and you’ve never heard of Bill Dickey, whose number 8 was retired by the Yankees, that’s probably not an accident – even though he was an 11-time all-star and seven-time World Series champion. And the list goes on.

Unless what the player accomplished was generational and captured the attention of all baseball fans, they probably won’t ever achieve the “larger than life” label.

Who are the larger than life baseball figures of today? There are so many exceptional players, so we listed a few of them at the very beginning of this story. Can we yet surmise who will make the Hall of Fame? Whose baseball card will sell only to the highest bidder? Whose name will be recognized and spoken by every Little Leaguer? Who will become so idolized by baseball fans that his name will be mentioned in the same sentence as that of the Great Bambino or the Iron Horse or Hammerin’ Hank or the Sandman? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear: they’ll need to have had that special secret sauce of making the entire baseball world sit up and take notice.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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