Welcome to another edition of Top Ten. Thus far, we’ve revealed the top ten pitchers and catchers of all time, and this week we’ll shift to the infield as we go around the horn. First up on the infield is, well, first base. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to start at third. First base is replete with star sluggers from every generation, so before we dig into the list, let’s review how we compiled it.
Many great players have shifted to first base at some point in their career – usually the latter half. Our aim with this list was to keep it to players known as being first basemen first and foremost. So great players like Stan Musial and Pete Rose, who played a lot of first but are better known for another position, were excluded from consideration (though they may reappear in the Top Ten Outfielders!).
As usual, we relied on a variety of value-based metrics in the evaluation process, including several different WAR ratings from both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. As is always the case, we tried to balance the rankings between longevity and dominance to get a good cross-section. We gave more weight to MVP awards for this reason – to help identify how dominant the player was versus his peers in his best seasons.
In addition to the value metrics, we incorporated more offensive statistics into the criteria as first base has traditionally been more about offense than defense. Thus, stats like batting average, HRs, OPS+, and wRC+ were a part of the equation.
Enough with the blathering; let’s get to the fun stuff. Below are our Top Ten Greatest First Basemen of All-Time, starting with:
Honorable Mention: Johnny Mize (1936 – 1953)
Mize finished just outside the Top Ten despite missing three years during his prime to defend his country in World War II. He would most assuredly have cracked the list if he played those years.
10. Jim Thome
Jim Thome seems underappreciated for a guy who ranks eighth in career home runs and seventh in career walks. Only six other players in history can boast as many walks and HRs as Thome, and none of them played first base. Perhaps it’s because he played in the era of the power hitter, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Thome has never been suspected of using performance-enhancing substances.
Thome broke in with the Indians in September 1991 but really didn’t establish himself as a full-time major leaguer until 1994, and even then, he platooned for much of the season. His career took off in 1995, and in 1996 he won his one and only Silver Slugger. From 1997 to 2006, he would attend five All-Star games and be in the top ten in MVP voting four times.
Thome played third base for about half his tenure in Cleveland, shifting to first in 1997. In 2003, Thome left the tribe as a free agent and signed with the Phillies. Philadelphia traded him to the White Sox in November 2005, and he bounced around the last seven years of his career, primarily playing DH. Thome’s Indians made it to two World Series but lost both. In 2018, Thome joined the Hall of Fame after being voted in on his first attempt with 90% of the vote.
Miguel Cabrera is the first of two active players on our list; thus, his career statistical line is still in progress. Though he hasn’t retired yet, Cabrera still belongs among the greatest first baseman of all time due to his myriad accomplishments. Cabrera has already eclipsed 3,000 hits and 500 HRs and is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of his generation.
Cabrera got his first taste of the big leagues on the 2003 Marlins team that won the World Series. Miggy was a big part of that run, playing some 3B and some LF over the second half of the season. In the playoffs that year, Cabrera hit four HRs, drove in 12, and announced his coming-out party.
Miggy was a perennial All-Star over the next decade-plus, making eleven appearances. He also has won seven Silver Sluggers, four batting titles, and two MVP awards. His second MVP came in 2013 when he completed the triple crown – a feat that hadn’t occurred since 1967. Cabrera was with the Tigers at that point as he was traded there in December 2007. Five years after he eventually retires, expect to see Miggy giving a speech in Cooperstown.
8. Roger Connor
Likely, many people reading this have never heard of Roger Connor. After all, the man retired 125 years ago! His accomplishments speak for themselves, however, as he has the fifth-highest all-time WAR among first basemen on Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Connor started his career in 1880 with the Troy Trojans and played until nearly the turn of the century, retiring in 1897. His primary team, though, was the New York Giants, with whom he played for eleven seasons. Connor’s 138 HRs aren’t much by modern standards, but it was a massive accomplishment for the time. He was the career home run leader for a few decades until some guy called “Babe” passed him. He was fast, too, with 244 career steals and 233 triples.
Connor won two World Series championships with the Giants in 1888 and 1889. In those 19 games (they played best of ten back then), he hit .328/.400/.517 and knocked in 15 runs. Connor was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1976.
7. Jeff Bagwell
Jeff Bagwell is one of only two players on this list to spend his entire major league career with one franchise. He wasn’t drafted by the Astros, however. Rather, in an ill-advised move, he was traded there by the Red Sox in August 1990 for Larry Andersen. The Red Sox considered him a light-hitting third baseman, and they already had Wade Boggs. Boy, were they wrong. Bagwell made it to the bigs out of spring training the following spring and went on to win NL Rookie-of-the-Year in 1991 as a first baseman.
Bagwell was a model of consistency and reliability for Houston, playing in all 162 games four times. His best season came in the strike-shortened 1994 when he led the league in runs, RBI, SLG%, and OPS en route to his only MVP. Other accolades for Bagwell included four All-Star games, three Silver Sluggers, and a Gold Glove.
Bagwell’s Astros only made it to one World Series – in 2005, his last season. He had missed most of the year with a shoulder injury but made it back for the playoffs – mainly as a pinch-hitter. He retired after the series but would have to wait a while to travel to Cooperstown. Coming off the steroid era, many suspected Bagwell of using performance-enhancing drugs, though there was never any proof other than him improving his physique. Eventually, the writers came around, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017.
6. Cap Anson
Adrian Constantine Anson, better known as “Cap,” was baseball’s first superstar in the 19th century. Anson played for an amazing 27 seasons and leads all first basemen in hits with 3,418. Most of his career was spent in Chicago with the White Stockings – who would eventually become the Cubs. During his long career, Anson won four batting titles and led the league in RBI eight times. He held many records later broken by legends like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Anson’s White Stockings made it to two World Series, where he hit .340 over 47 at-bats.
In addition to playing, Anson managed Chicago for 19 seasons as a player/manager. He won almost 1,300 games and five pennants during this period and was considered an early innovator. Credited to Anson are the hit-and-run and pitching rotations. Anson was an early addition to the Hall of Fame in 1939 when the Old Timers Committee selected him posthumously.
5. Dan Brouthers
The last of our 19th-century heroes to make the Top Ten is Dan Brouthers. “Big Dan” held a lot of similarities to Roger Connor as one of the game’s first great power hitters. His lifetime batting average, OBP, and OPS rank near the top among all first basemen in history, and his WAR/162 is third of all time.
Brouthers was a great hitter no matter where he was playing. He played for several clubs in his career, but that didn’t stop him from leading the league in batting average and OBP five times, HRs and RBI twice, slugging seven times, and OPS an incredible eight times. Brouthers’ name has not become legendary, but he was undoubtedly one of the greats of his era. In 1945 the Old Timers Committee added Brouthers to the Hall of Fame, where he will always be remembered.
4. Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas was one of the most feared hitters of his generation. “The Big Hurt” made his debut in August 1990, and from 1991 to 1997, he became a superstar. This seven-year period was one of the greatest by a hitter in MLB history, as Thomas slugged 20+ HRs, had 100+ RBI, drew 100+ walks, and hit over .300 each year. He also went to five All-Star games, won three Silver Sluggers, two MVPs, and a batting title.
Thomas remained with the White Sox through the 2005 season, after which he joined the Oakland A’s as a free agent. After a great season with the A’s in which he finished fourth in MVP voting as a DH, he moved again – this time to the Blue Jays. Thomas retired after the 2008 season at the age of 40. In 2014 he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first attempt by 84% of the voters.
Albert Pujols, the second active player in the Top Ten, leads all first basemen in HRs and RBI and is second in hits to Cap Anson. Pujols probably won’t catch Anson in the hit department as he has said he plans to retire after the season, but that doesn’t diminish his greatness. Pujols started his career in 2001 with a bang. En route to winning Rookie-of-the-Year, he hit 37 HRs, drove in 130 runs, and hit .329. He won his first of six Silver Sluggers that season and attended his first of ten All-Star games.
Pujols terrorized the NL for the next decade, leading the league in runs five times, SLG and OPS three times, HRs twice, and RBI once. In addition, he took home the batting title in 2003, hitting a cool .359. Prince Albert won three MVPs that decade as well – in 2005, 2008, and 2009 – and established himself as the best hitter in the game.
Pujols also found team success with the Cardinals, making it to three World Series with the club. St. Louis won two of the three as Pujols contributed four HRs and eight RBI in 16 series games. After the 2011 season, Pujols left the Cardinals as a free agent and joined the Los Angeles Angels on a massive ten-year contract. Though his best seasons were behind him, he continued to produce strong power numbers for the Angels until he started to slow down around his 40th birthday.
Pujols was released by the Angels during the 2021 season and joined the crosstown Dodgers as a righty specialist. He returned to the Cardinals for 2022, which will likely be his last season. “The Machine” is a slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it first-ballot Hall of Famer once eligible.
2. Jimmie Foxx
Jimmie Foxx began his career as a catcher in the Athletics organization but was blocked by the great Mickey Cochrane. He first broke into the show as a 17-year-old in 1925. However, he didn’t play regularly until the A’s moved him to first base in 1929.
Foxx was a fantastic hitter. Over his 20-year career, he won two batting titles and led the league in HRs four times and SLG and OPS five times. “The Beast” hit 30 or more HRs for 12 consecutive seasons and drove in 100+ for thirteen in a row. Foxx won back-to-back MVPs in 1932 and 1933 and was the triple crown winner for the second one. He added a third MVP in 1938 as a member of the Red Sox, to whom he was traded to in December 1935. You can add to his accolades nine consecutive All-Star appearances from 1933 to 1941.
Foxx played in three straight World Series with Philadelphia from 1929-1931. The Athletics won the first two, and Foxx boasts a lifetime .344 average, four HRs, and 11 RBI in the Fall Classic. Foxx was elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 1951.
1. Lou Gehrig
It’s not a huge surprise to even the most casual baseball fan to see Lou Gehrig atop our list. “The Iron Horse” was one of baseball’s greatest players, regardless of position. In terms of first baseman, it isn’t really close. Gehrig has the highest WAR on both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, along with the highest WAR7, WAR/162, oWAR, WAA, Fangraphs Offensive rating, etc.
Gehrig broke in with the Yankees in 1923, but it wasn’t until 1925 that his incredible consecutive game streak started. Incumbent first baseman Wally Pipp had to sit out a game due to a headache, and Gehrig took over. Gehrig would not miss another start until he retired in 1939. His 2,130 consecutive game streak lasted until 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. finally beat it.
Lou Gehrig was so much more than an iron man, though. He was a seven-time All-Star, two-time MVP, batting title champion, and triple crown winner. The Yankees won six out of the seven World Series they played with Gehrig as their first baseman. His overall World Series stats include a .361 average with ten HRs and 35 RBI. Gehrig led the league in RBI and OBP five times, runs four times, HRs and OPS three times, doubles twice, and triples once. The man could flat-out rake.
As most know, Gehrig’s streak, and life, were cut short by ALS – better known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” He accomplished so much that it is easy to forget he still had plenty in the tank when he retired in 1939, six weeks before his 36th birthday. The Hall of Fame held a special election in 1939 to ensure he was enshrined during his lifetime.
Up next, two weeks from now, we’ll address the Top Ten Second Basemen. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both and tons of other great content in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)