In 2002 I wrote a book called Clearing the Bases, a collection of arguments about various baseball players, one of which was that Mike Schmidt was, quite possibly, the greatest baseball player of all time. That is to say that if all players in baseball history lined up to play against the same competition at the same time and under the same circumstances, there was a very good chance that Schmidt would emerge as the best ever.
In 2006, Mike Schmidt got his revenge, coauthoring a book also titled Clearing the Bases without once acknowledging that he stole his title from me. (Actually, as I found out later, someone else had used the title several years before both of us.)
My book was better than Schmidt's, in part because I made the argument that Mike Schmidt might have been the best player ever, and Schmidt, in his own book, did not. Schmidt, however, did make an important point that I missed - I'll get to that in a moment.
First, let me give you a brief synopsis of my case for Schmidt, supplemented with what I've learned in the eight years since I first made it. I weight the argument heavily in favor of players who entered the big leagues after 1950, when the game became fully integrated. I'm not saying that Babe Ruth or Josh Gibson weren't the best players of their or any other time, but I don't feel that we'll ever really know because they didn't play against each other.
The era when competition was keenest, I believe, was about 1970 to around 1990 before millions of black kids became alienated from baseball and millions more white kids discovered video games. I believe that in the future, when someone takes time to make such an analysis, they'll find that the talent level was higher in that period because there were more kids competing for big-league jobs - native Latin as well as American.
Mike Schmidt was the best ballplayer of that era. He played perhaps the toughest position. On what evidence do I make that claim? The Hall of Fame - there are fewer third basemen in Cooperstown than any other position, even catcher, and Mike Schmidt played a great third base while leading the National League eight times in home runs in just 16 full seasons (i.e., more than 100 games).
To be honest, although I followed Schmidt's career very closely, I saw him play more than 100 times in person, but didn't realize that Schmidt had won eight home run titles. I mean that's positively, well, Ruthian. The Babe won 12 home run titles in 17 full seasons, but some of those came before most players began swinging for homers. (I'm counting 1918, when he played just 95 games but led the league in home runs, and 1925, when he played 98 games, as full seasons.) For Schmidt to lead eight times in an era when the competition was so much better, is, I think, the greater achievement.
How good a power hitter was Schmidt? Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, the consensus best players in the two decades before Schmidt, played more than 100 games in a combined 35 seasons. In 16 100-plus game seasons, Schmidt won as many home run titles as Mantle and Mays combined.
But, it would be argued by many (and was, as I recall, argued by a great many people, even Phillies fans, during his career) that Schmidt was only a .267 hitter who topped .300 just once during his career. Yes, but smart sportswriters understand today what many did not 30 years ago - the ability to reach base consistently as measured by on base average is more important than batting average.
Schmidt led the league in OBA three times, which is as many times as Mantle led his. Mays' career batting average was 35 points higher than Schmidt's. Hank Aaron's was 38 points higher. Yet Schmidt, in 16 full seasons, led the National League in OBA more than Aaron and Mays combined.
In the field, Mike Schmidt was outstanding, winning 10 Gold Gloves at third base. I didn't realize exactly how good he was until I examined his stats in detail. In recent years, baseball analysts have come to rely heavily on a statistic Bill James introduced, range factor, the average number of balls a player gets to over nine innings. Schmidt's career range factor is 28 points higher than the league average for players at his position over the same period.
The Baltimore Orioles' Brooks Robinson is generally regarded as the best fielding third baseman ever, but Robinson's RF was just 11 points better than AL third basemen of his time. Robinson led his league in assists eight times and double plays three times in 17 full (i.e., 100 or more games) seasons; Schmidt led his league in assists seven times and double plays six times in 16 full seasons. Schmidt won three Most Valuable Player Awards, as many as Mays and Aaron combined.
So, am I really saying that Mike Schmidt was the greatest player of all time? Not really, but I am saying that there's a better argument to be made for that than most of us who watched him play during his career were ready to make during his playing days. I think many Phillies fans, myself included, underrated him because of his batting average and the fact that he struck out so much (more than 100 a season 12 times). We forgot, or didn't notice, that he hit into double plays with a lower frequency than Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Mays, Aaron, Reggie Jackson, or even Pete Rose.
And he did it all, as he did not hesitate to remind us in his book, before the age of chemical enhancement.
Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.