It's pointless, it's trivial, it's impossible to compare across eras; stats can be deceiving, tales can be apocryphal, you're hampered by whom you have and haven't seen.
That said: Major League Baseball wants fans to vote for an all-century team.
I admit it: I filled out a ballot the day it was released. I rushed into it and made some regrettable choices, but, what the heck, it's just meant to fuel arguments. So argue away.
(Names at each position are in order of preference. The first guy is my first-teamer.)
CATCHERS (2): Yogi Berra; Mickey Cochrane.
Of the great catchers, Berra and Cochrane probably sustained their excellence the longest, but I really have no idea if they're the greatest; I'm more flexible here than at any other position. I thought about Josh Gibson, obviously a great slugger, but Negro Leagues stats are incomplete and a bit unreliable, and frankly I just don't know where he fits in.
FIRST BASE (2): Lou Gehrig; Jimmie Foxx.
I tried to avoid choosing too many prewar players, but here I couldn't avoid it. Gehrig's numbers were stupendous, Foxx's marginally less so. Mark McGwire should belong here in a few years, when his power marks overwhelm his injury- and slump-plagued youth.
SECOND BASE (2): Joe Morgan; Eddie Collins.
I wavered between Collins and Rogers Hornsby before settling, probably, on the wrong guy. Collins was a great hitter and a better defensive player, but Hornsby was a devastating hitter (he averaged .400 over one five-year stretch, which even for the 1920s was fairly mind-blowing), and that probably makes his so-so glovework irrelevant. Morgan I have no qualms about. I doubt anyone could design a more perfect player.
THIRD BASE (2): Mike Schmidt; Eddie Mathews.
Of the nominees, only Brooks Robinson can touch Schmidt with the glove, but if Brooks is an A+ defender, Schmidt is an A, and Schmidt is an A+ hitter to Robinson's B or B-. He's the easiest pick on the list. I chose Mathews because I want him to get credit for being a great player, not an underachiever who played in Hank Aaron's shadow.
Not to be too much of a homer, but why wasn't Wade Boggs nominated? His career average and on-base percentage are highest all-time at the position, he'll get to 3,000 hits shortly and his defense has improved from adequate to very good. He's a better player than Pie Traynor, who is on the ballot. Did they feel obligated to nominate a prewar player? Otherwise, I don't get it.
SHORTSTOP (2): Honus Wagner; Ernie Banks.
I goofed on this one. I should have taken Cal Ripken over Banks.
They're similar. Both were the premier slugging shortstops of their day; both had cannon arms and were masters at positioning (Banks, often described as a weak shortstop, won a Gold Glove in 1960); both eventually were forced to shift positions; both won two MVPs (one of Ripken's and both of Banks' with rotten teams). But Banks moved to first in midcareer, Ripken to third late in his, and Banks wound up with more games at his second position. He was a great player as a shortstop but just a fair one as a first baseman, and I should have factored that in.
OUTFIELD (9): Babe Ruth; Willie Mays; Aaron; Ty Cobb; Ted Williams; Barry Bonds; Ken Griffey; Joe DiMaggio; Frank Robinson.
SABR, in its top 100, ranked Bonds 65th. I was scratching my head over that one until a friend told me he'd never pick Bonds among the greatest anything because Bonds was a jerk. I won't go into a rant about how this or that superstar was a jerk, too, or how no ballplayer is obligated to be civil with the media. I'd just like to point out that Bonds has been, for most of his career, not merely above average but at the very top of his league in every facet of the game. You can say that about a handful of players in history _ Mays comes to mind, and Morgan in his prime _ and it's late enough in Bonds' career that his standing among the greatest really can't be denied.
PITCHERS (6): Lefty Grove; Walter Johnson; Tom Seaver; Christy Mathewson; Warren Spahn; Roger Clemens.
How good was Lefty Grove? His peak was every bit as impressive as Sandy Koufax's _ only Grove won 135 more games. (He was 300-141, a .680 winning percentage. Of the 300-game winners, only Mathewson, at .665, is close.) Pitching in the greatest hitter's era ever, Grove led his league in wins, winning percentage, ERA and strikeouts four times each between 1928 and 1933 _ pretty Koufaxian, except whereas Koufax was forced out at age 31, Grove stuck around and won some more ERA crowns. (He had a record nine.) He also was the hardest thrower of his day and won seven straight strikeout titles. He has as good an argument as anyone for being the greatest pitcher ever.
As to the others Prelively ball pitchers are going to dominate many lists, which is gross nostalgia at its most ludicrous. The fact that the era produced most of the career wins and ERA leaders has nothing to do with the quality of today's pitchers. Before 1920, the home run wasn't part of the game; runs were at a premium, and pitchers didn't have to throw their best stuff on every pitch. They could pile up the innings because they put a lot less strain on their arms. If Clemens could pick a dozen moments during a game to fire one at 95 and throw 75-80 the rest of the time, he'd have 400 wins, too.
That said, it's tough to overlook Johnson and Mathewson, and Johnson's career did spill over into the '20s, when he continued to pitch well. Seaver was brilliant and extraordinarily consistent, perhaps the consummate pitcher of his generation, and he finished with 311 wins and a .603 percentage though his teams were not consistently good. Spahn's 363 wins is one of the most remarkable post-war marks, especially as he was 26 when he had his first 20-win season. And in 50 years, Clemens will be the model fogeys use when they assert that pitching just isn't what it used to be.
_ Alan Rittner is a copy editor for the Times sports department.