500 Words on the Four Greatest Living Players

We have this thing about reducing greatness to a foursome. It’s a Mount Rushmore thing. The other day, a couple of us here at St. Andrews were trying to come up with a Mount Rushmore of golf. Unfortunately, there are FIVE obvious choices for the four spots:

— Jack Nicklaus — Tiger Woods — Arnold Palmer — Bobby Jones — Ben Hogan

The only way to reduce those five to a foursome is to eliminate someone (probably Hogan) who belongs on the mountain. And, of course, even at five you are still leaving out Walter Hagen and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson and Gary Player and Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris and Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson and so on …

In the end, if you are going to cut a sport down to four you need those four to represent something larger. They need to collectively tell a story. For instance, you can’t have a Mount Rushmore of baseball without Jackie Robinson even though he was not one of the four greatest players in baseball history.

Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced the four greatest Negro Leagues players (as voted by the fans). Buck O’Neil was one of the four. Now Buck would have been the first to tell you that he absolutely was NOT one of the four greatest players, not even close. The other three were Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell which left Oscar Charleston (perhaps the greatest player ever) and Pop Lloyd and Turkey Stearnes and Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge and Martin Dihigo and many more who were better players than Buck. But Buck’s inclusion tells a story; he was the latter day voice of the Negro Leagues. So much of what we know about the Negro Leagues, we know because Buck O’Neil never stopped remembering.

All of which leads to a frustration with the fans choices with the four Greatest Living Players. The four player were all magnificent — Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays. But collectively, the four do not tell a larger baseball story. They are from generally the same era (all were active big leaguers in the mid-1960s). They all have been retired for more than 30 years. They all represent a different era of baseball, before expansion and free agency and expanded television.

Then again maybe that WAS the story, that fans believe baseball was a much better game in the 1960s and 1970s. I love history, but that isn’t much to celebrate. Buck used to say: “Baseball is STILL baseball.” The game should not be in a museum just yet. A greatest living player list without Cal Ripken or Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or ANYONE from the last three decades tells the story that baseball stopped mattering a long time ago.

Maybe that’s fine for people my age. But if you’re 40 or under and love baseball, that list says one thing only: Sorry kid, you missed it.