The 10 Most Influential People in Baseball History
Few if any people in the history of baseball have had as great an impact on shaping the game as we know it today; see if you agree with our choices.
Who are the people most responsible for shaping Major League Baseball as we know it today? We thought long and hard about it, extending our focus outside the lines; in fact, when we pared it all down, only two players made the final cut. The list includes a little bit of everything: Commissioners, front office types, a stat man and even an architect. Whether there are others more deserving for this list can be argued—that’s what lists are often for—but one thing that can’t be argued is that the influence of these 10 people on the sport has been groundbreaking, unmistakable and frequently historic.
The stuffy, conservative baseball establishment scoffed at and then was shaken up by the colorful, promotionally energetic Veeck, who was decades ahead of his time in selling the game—and the sideshows that he often dreamt up to go along with it. Veeck clearly knew that the “Game Today” sign alone was hardly going to bring in the general public; he tried it all, from car giveaways to exploding scoreboards to in-stadium nurseries to showerheads to cool off fans on a hot day. His bag of tricks wasn’t confined to the stands; on the field, he put ivy on the Wrigley Field walls, had his players once wear shorts, had his fans tell the manager what to do by holding up signs and, most infamously, employed a 3’7” midget (Eddie Gaedel, in 1951) to make a plate appearance; legend has it that he nearly beat Branch Rickey to the punch by a few years and attempted to desegregate the game while trying to buy the Philadelphia Phillies—but obstinate owners got wind of his plan and ignored his bid. Some of Veeck’s gimmicks failed the test, but most passed with flying colors—reflected in the fact that wherever Veeck went, the fans followed through the turnstiles, most memorably in 1948 when his pennant-winning Cleveland Indians smashed then-attendance records with nearly 2.7 million tickets sold.
Nobody crunched the numbers and changed the way fans, management, coaches and even player agents used statistics to better determine (or argue) a player’s value than James, who meticulously pored through the obscure figures beyond the traditional set of stats (batting average, home runs, RBIs, etc.) to reveal true worth among players and teams. When Billy Beane applied his Moneyball philosophy to gain a much sought-after advantage for his financially challenged Oakland A’s in the early 2000s, he had James’ complex network of metrics to thank. Other teams followed suit, and even James found major league employment 25 years after writing his first of many books on the subject when the Boston Red Sox hired him as an advisor in 2003; a year later, they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. James’ tireless pursuit of extensive box score data beyond what was commonly made public in the newspapers led to the encouragement of others to dig up such information on games from all eras, leading to the creation of web sites such as Retrosheet and Baseball Reference.
Even hardcore baseball fans probably would ask: Who the hell is Joe Spear? When you look at the B&O Warehouse behind Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, or the bayfront right-field brick wall at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, or the breathtaking view of downtown Pittsburgh from PNC Park, you are experiencing the legacy of Spear, the lead architect and conceptual prime mover at Kansas City’s HOK Sport (now called Populus) responsible for igniting the retro movement amid the modern ballpark boom. His signature ideals thankfully rescued baseball fans from the enclosed, sterile era of multi-purpose stadia and brought them, in a sense, closer to home—into intimate venues full of color, character and personality akin to wistful times gone by. Architects at other firms followed Spear’s lead and designed ballparks displaying an upbeat, nostalgic aura that greatly aided baseball’s attendance surge of the time; no other man has had as great an impact on the way we experience the game.
It’s true that the majors’ first black ballplayer of the 20th Century would not have been so without the crafty encouragement of Branch Rickey—but no other man could have better accepted the challenge and fulfilled the goal of winning over the masses, both pro and con, as Robinson wore his “armor of humility” and overcame the intense obstacles of breaking baseball’s color barrier. Robinson not only proved that he belonged on a ballfield per simple principle, he proved he belonged as a star—hitting .311 with seven All-Star Game trips and an MVP award over a 10-year career for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In retirement, Robinson hardly rested on his laurels, becoming outspoken on many causes; he testified on behalf of Curt Flood in his battle to overturn the game’s repressive reserve clause and lobbied baseball, just days before his death in 1972, to be more aggressive in hiring its first black manager. He became so revered that his number 42 was retired from all of baseball (a first) in 1997.
Love him or hate him—many prefer the latter option—Selig Shanghaied the commissioner’s office, changing the job description and prioritizing the best interests of the owners over the best interests of the game when he led a coup d’état on Fay Vincent in 1992 and assumed the position himself. The move threatened to set back the clock to pre-commissioner times when selfish infighting among greedy owners nearly self-destructed the sport, but Selig’s guidance—a calm yet unmistakably iron-fisted rule largely embraced by his fellow owners, despite a flippant, sometimes clueless façade—helped nurture an explosion of financial growth that is easily second to none in the sport’s history.
Selig has clearly shown his flaws; his mission to shove a salary cap down the players’ throats proved disastrous and led to the unforgivable 1994-95 work stoppage, and his blindness to the steroid epidemic will forever tarnish his legacy. But under his watch, Selig has seen untold billions in revenue not just from a ballpark boom he helped forge to reality but, also, in the creation of MLB’s vastly profitable Advanced Media arm. Finally, Selig learned his lessons from the earlier labor wars and has presided over the game’s longest period of player-management peace since the rise of the union in the 1970s.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis
The crusty Chicago judge had the opportunity of a lifetime thrown on his lap when major league owners came to him in 1920 and offered him the first commissioner’s job, because they had to—in the wake of the crippling Black Sox Scandal, baseball’s scale of trust with the American public had plunged to less than zero. Landis, the outsider, demanded full autocratic powers—and he wasn’t afraid to use them, expelling players and owners (usually for bribing or gambling) sometimes on mere suspicion while crusading against farm system abuse as teams began to affiliate with minor league franchises. This practice of scaring the baseball establishment straight restored the trust with the fans and rescued the sport from its darkest hour. The owners came to appreciate Landis in spite of their lack of leverage against him and repeatedly renewed his contract, and here’s one reason as to possibly why: Landis remained fatally stubborn to integration, despite his insistence that there was nothing etched in stone barring black ballplayers from performing in the majors.
There may have been more talented players in the game of baseball, but no one revolutionized the sport on the field more than Ruth; in fact, no one else has come close. When Ruth began his big league career as a pitcher in 1914, the deadball era was in full swing, with the goal of every major leaguer to put the ball in play and aggressively move from base to base in an exhaustive pursuit of home; because of the deadened ball and macro-distant fences of the time, the home run was considered little more than a hopeless afterthought. But Ruth began to exhibit unprecedented strength with a bat and transformed from A-list pitcher to immortal slugger, and the game transformed with him; players began to mimic his swing-from-the-heels approach and home runs followed everywhere. The owners, hearing ka-ching with every tape-measure blast that swooned the fans, egged on the newfound homer binge by putting life into the deadball and bringing in the fences; imitators were aplenty, but Ruth remained the king. Ruth merely wasn’t bigger than life on the field, but off it—making constant headlines with exploits both good and bad, commanding attention as no player before or since. A century after his debut, Ruth remains a household word in the American psyche—and his influence upon the game has never waned.
Until the 1966 arrival of Miller—a real union man with a real union background—the Major League Baseball Players Association had been a lap-dog entity which used kid gloves to keep the peace while a tyrannical owners bloc, firmly behind the wheel of player-management relations, threw the occasional bone. But Miller wasn’t interested in maintaining pacified obedience for the Lords; he set out to fight what was right for his players, and the owners instinctively fought back—desperately trying to keep an elephantine advantage with the stifling reserve clause that chained players to the same team, year after year.
Nobody’s fool, Miller started slow and built up support of his initially weary constituents, then went for the jugular when he saw a weakness in the reserve clause’s armor and destroyed it with the backing of arbitrator Peter Seitz in 1975—giving birth to modern free agency. Doomsday never came to owners who decried the verdict and predicted the end of baseball, as they eventually adapted through a higher cost of business; if anyone suffered, if was the fans who paid more for tickets, hotdogs and beer while suffering through the occasional work stoppages. But without Miller’s cautious boldness and focused vision, major leaguers might be earning a fraction of today’s wages—and the current state of corporate baseball would be drastically different.
At the turn of the century in 1900, the monopolistic, undisciplined and corrupt National League was the lone alternative for fans who dared to pass through the turnstiles and tolerate a hooligan element in the stands to match that of the players on the field. To the rescue came Johnson, a big, loud, burly Cincinnati sportswriter who decried the NL’s sloth-like existence and set out to counter with a better product. His creation was the American League, forged together with the help of baseball men like Charles Comiskey and Connie Mack who too had tired of the NL.
Johnson promised a clean game, backbone support for beleaguered umpires and long overdue civility in the stands. He also successfully raided the NL for star players who jumped at the chance to make more money in a circuit with its head on straight. An intense war between the two leagues ensued and lasted three years as a panicked NL was forced to get its house in order and ultimately surrender to Johnson. The end result was the advent of the National Commission (co-led by Johnson), the birth of the World Series and the onset of baseball’s modern era, with basic rules that have essentially remained the same into the 21st Century.
Johnson set baseball’s modern age in motion, but from there it was Rickey who, more than any one single person, crucially evolved the game on numerous fronts over a wide expanse of time.
A deeply religious man who barely hung on as a deadball era catcher—he once allowed 13 stolen bases in one game—Rickey quickly realized that his true calling would come off the field in the front office. In the 1920s, Rickey was both manager and general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, and under his guidance he instituted and perfected the farm system, in which the team bought numerous minor league franchises to grant itself exclusive access to numerous prospects being nurtured for the majors. This put the Cardinals years ahead of other teams and made them a powerhouse for the next 20 years.
During World War II, Rickey left the Cardinals and became GM in Brooklyn, where he made his most memorable mark of bringing in Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s longstanding, stubborn color barrier against the wishes of every other owner in the game—and in the process helped solidified the Dodgers for decades to come. Moving onto Pittsburgh in 1950, Rickey at first seemed to run out of magic as the Pirates faltered badly under his watch—but the seeds he planted proved positive as the bulk of the roster he put together won a World Series in 1960 and remained solid through the 1970s. Rickey’s last major contribution came in 1959 when he was part of a group attempting a third circuit, the Continental League; though it never took off, it basically forced the AL and NL to institute expansion for the first time in the century. Even in his 80s, Rickey continued to make an impact, returning to the Cardinals as a special advisor and overseeing the team’s first world title in 18 years.