MLB unveils greatest living players, Franchise Four
Mays, Aaron, Koufax, Bench earn MLB honors before All-Star Game
By Mark Newman
CINCINNATI -- It was one of those moments in All-Star history that will be talked about for many years to come, and what made Major League Baseball's Franchise Four unveiling even more special Tuesday night was the way it happened in the most traditional baseball town and the way it led right into Mike Trout's home run.
"It's history alive," MLB's official historian John Thorn said as he watched it happen.
The stars of yesterday met the stars of now in a gripping pregame ceremony before the 86th All-Star Game presented by T-Mobile at Great American Ball Park. Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax walked out to the mound arm-in-arm, the four Greatest Living Players according to 25 million votes by fans between April 8 and May 8.
The historic unveiling was capped off by Bench crouching behind home plate in Cincinnati one more time to catch the ceremonial first pitch from Koufax.
The highlight of the Franchise Four unveiling was the final club to be revealed: the hometown Reds. Bench, Barry Larkin, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were all in attendance and introduced by Thom Brennaman, the son of legendary Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman.
Rose, who has been lobbying Commissioner Rob Manfred to be reinstated after being banned from baseball in 1989 for betting on baseball, was the last to come out of the tunnel, and the all-time hits leader received a standing ovation from the Cincinnati faithful.
The Greatest Negro Leagues Players list is comprised of Buck O'Neil, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, and the Greatest Pioneer foursome goes to Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young.
Winners were selected from a list of eight nominees in each category as chosen by Thorn, plus representatives from the Elias Sports Bureau, MLB.com, MLB Network and the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
"That's what we all think about," Thorn said, "that this game is making history every minute, and when we bring our heroes of the past to the present, it just fills us all with a sense of warmth and well-being, that all is right with the world -- that this is baseball, this is America.
"This is the seamless web. This is the unbroken link: that Koufax pitched to Mays, and to Aaron, and -- maybe -- to Bench, because they had a brief intersection. You can draw a straight line from George Wright and Cap Anson all the way up to Todd Frazier."
In the Franchise Four vote, the winners represented a mix of generations and there was something special for baseball fans young and old, for dedicated students of the game's colorful history and for the numbers-driven new-age statisticians.
I'm honored that MLB fans have voted me as one of the four greatest living players. It is humbling to be remembered like this. Thank you.
"The idea behind Franchise Four was to make the All-Star Game not only a celebration of the current All-Stars, but also a celebration of the game and the greatest players in the game," said Tony Petitti, MLB's chief operating officer. "We wanted to give fans a chance to recognize players they care the most about, and fans really responded. We ended up with exactly what we wanted, which was a way to engage fans early in the season but then to celebrate those guys here, and then bring the living players on the field here -- what a great moment."
The Yankees offered one of the hardest choices, given all those retired numbers out in Monument Park, and fans went with the most fabled lore: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Even Yogi Berra couldn't crack that list -- or Derek Jeter.
Hall of Famer and all-time strikeout leader Nolan Ryan was the only legend who made the Franchise Four for three different teams: the Angels, Astros and Rangers. And former slugger and 2004 American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero earned Franchise Four billing for his years of stellar play with the Angels and Expos/Nationals franchises.
"It was like playing in Santa's toybox for free," Thorn said of the process of nominating eight candidates per category. "It was waking the echoes. There were many, many names that came to the fore in this process that had not been on the lips of fans every day. But we brought them back, and people started looking at those records and started thinking, 'Boy, Walter Johnson, not so bad. Grover Alexander, not so bad.'
"Of course, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb and maybe Tris Speaker and Cy Young -- these are names known to most fans. But we have Negro League stars, pioneers, and the culminating moment is the four greatest living players. You can choose any four you wish. I've heard it said that Mays and Aaron were a lock, and the other two were a contest. I don't know. I'm happy with all four."
A large number of current players were honored, and Trout's leadoff home run in the moments that followed only hammered that point home.
The Angels' center fielder and Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers were listed perennial MVP candidates among the all-time luminaries for their current clubs, as were Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins), Adrian Beltre (Rangers) and David Wright (Mets). Starting National League All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was alongside Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson and Luis Gonzalez in the Franchise Four for the D-backs, and the Mariners had two active Franchise Four players: AL All-Star Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki, who's currently playing for the Marlins.
Other Franchise Four staples who are still playing in the big leagues include iconic designated hitter David Ortiz of the Red Sox, Giants catcher Buster Posey, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and all of the Franchise Four honorees for the Rays: Evan Longoria, David Price, James Shields and Ben Zobrist, although only Longoria still plies his trade for Tampa Bay.
Thorn said Cincinnati was the "perfect" venue for the Franchise Four unveiling.
"None of the 30 Major League franchises, not even the Yankees, embraces its distant past the way Cincinnati does," he said. "Cincinnati's raison d'etre is to provide a direct link to the most famous club in the land in 1869, and to try to live up to that heritage.
"To see Aaron and Mays and Koufax and Bench of another generation all together, it was very moving."
Greatest Living Players
Greatest Negro Leagues Players
Cool Papa Bell
Ken Griffey Jr.
Edgar Martinez Ichiro Suzuki