Greatest living player? It's Musial, by a big margin

Greatest living player? It's Musial, by a big margin

Greatest living player? It's Musial, by a big margin
To coincide with professional baseball's centennial in 1969, sportswriters named Joe DiMaggio baseball's "Greatest Living Player." It was a title DiMaggio cherished -- he often insisted it be included in his public introductions.

DiMaggio's passing in 1999 reopened the debate: Who is currently the greatest living position player?

Which living legend has the majestic career numbers, iconic aura and peer reverence to hold this title? Which ballplayer could silence a room full of Hall of Famers at a Cooperstown luncheon if he walked through the door?

Terry Dennelly

Many would pick Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. Supporting arguments can be made for both of these great ballplayers. But for me, there is only one choice: Stan Musial.

When comparing Musial directly to Aaron and Mays, Musial's case advances. Despite the fact that Musial had 280 fewer lifetime home runs than Aaron -- and 185 fewer than Mays -- Musial achieved a higher career slugging percentage (.559) than either player. This would seem a statistical impossibility but it serves as a testament to Musial's ability to drive the ball with authority to all fields while he was not hitting home runs.

Moreover, Musial's lifetime batting average, .331, was more than 25 points higher than Aaron's and close to 30 points higher than that of Mays. This perfect fusion of slugging competency and hitting for average embodied in one hitter exposes the terror Musial was at the plate. Baseball's winningest left-hander, Warren Spahn, knew this well: "Once Musial timed your fastball," he said, "your infielders were in jeopardy."

When continuing the comparison of Musial to Aaron and Mays, while adding all other possible candidates into the greatest living player discussion, we can standardize players from different eras by evaluating two what degree they outperformed their contemporaries. During his career, Mays led his league in a major hitting category 16 times. Hank Aaron was a league leader 23 times. Musial led the National League in major hitting categories an incredible 39 times -- the combined total of Aaron and Mays.

Greatest living ballplayer comparison
The number of times each player led his league in a major offensive category:
Player Runs Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BA SLG Total
Stan Musial 5 6 8 5 0 2 7 6 39
Hank Aaron 3 2 4 0 4 4 2 4 23
Willie Mays 2 1 0 3 4 0 1 5 16
Alex Rodriguez* 5 1 1 0 5 2 1 4 19
Mike Schmidt 1 0 0 0 8 4 0 5 18
Carl Yastrzemski 3 2 3 0 1 1 3 3 16
Tony Gwynn 1 7 0 0 0 0 8 0 16
Albert Pujols* 5 1 1 0 2 1 1 3 14
George Brett 0 3 2 3 0 0 3 3 14
Barry Bonds 1 0 0 0 2 1 2 7 13
Frank Robinson 3 0 1 0 1 1 1 4 11
Wade Boggs 2 1 2 0 0 0 5 0 10
Reggie Jackson 2 0 0 0 4 1 0 3 10
Ken Griffey Jr. 1 0 0 0 4 1 0 1 7
Rickey Henderson 5 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 6
Johnny Bench 0 0 0 0 2 3 0 0 5
Ernie Banks 0 0 0 0 2 2 0 1 5
Al Kaline 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 1 4
Cal Ripken 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 3
Derek Jeter* 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Eddie Murray 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 2
Yogi Berra 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
* Through 2011 season
How good was Musial? Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully summed it up in 1989 when he said, "He was good enough to take your breath away."

Musial began his career in 1941 and in his each of his first 16 full seasons did not hit below .300. Only three players in Major League history have more batting championships than Musial's seven. He has the highest career slugging percentage of any member of the 3,000-hit club, which includes Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, George Brett and Roberto Clemente. He won three MVP Awards and finished second in the voting four times.

To call Musial a model of consistency would be an understatement. Amazingly, he had the same amount of career hits (1,815) on the road as he did at home. Only 10 points separated his lifetime home and road batting averages.

Musial will never be able to compete with Mays defensively, but arguably few, if any, can. But many do not realize how fast Musial was. He earned the nickname "The Donora Greyhound," a reference to both his hometown in Pennsylvania and his ability to run.

"Musial was deceptively fast," says Rudie Braithwaite of Levittown, N.Y., a lifelong Musial admirer and firsthand witness to his entire career. "No one was better going from first to third."

History supports Braithwaite's belief. No Major Leaguer who came after Musial has been able to pass his career mark in triples. Lou Brock with his speed could not. Pete Rose with his hustle could not. Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine underscored Musial's speed and ability to hit triples when discussing his pitching strategy to Musial: "I've had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third."

Admirers of Musial span generations of baseball greats. In 1952, Cobb singled out Musial as being the closest to a perfect player. In 2003, members of the Hall of Fame voted Musial the greatest living hitter.

Last but not least, Musial has been one of the greatest ambassadors baseball has ever known. He has a reputation for never turning down an autograph request and instilling in each fan he meets an enhanced love for the game.

Sadly, in April 2011, Musial's daughter confirmed that her father, now 91, was suffering from Alzheimer's. Earlier that year, Musial was invited to the White House to receive our nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. As the White House has realized the necessity to honor Musial at this time, we should also realize and recognize this great American, athlete and human being currently in our midst: Stan Musial, Greatest Living Ballplayer.

Terry Dennelly, an MLB Rewards Guest Columnist, is a product manager who resides with his wife and four children in Oakdale, N.Y. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.