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The 10 most important people in baseball history

10. Henry Chadwick

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The Bill James of the 19th century, Chadwick created a number of early baseball statistics that, somehow, remain benchmarks in the game today. Aside from inventing batting average and earned run average, he also created the box score, “K” for strikeouts, and the system of assigning numbers based on defensive positions. In a sense, Chadwick might have done as much as any 19th century figure to spread the popularity of the game, helping make it transmittable through newspapers.

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9. Rube Foster

Black baseball existed before Foster, with greats such as John Donaldson starring in semi-pro and barnstorming circuits around the Midwest in the 1910s. Some African-Americans such as Bud Fowler even played in the majors during Reconstruction before the “gentleman’s agreement” of the 1880s drove blacks from the game. Foster gave black players their own league when he spearheaded the formation of the Negro National League in 1920. The father of organized black baseball lived just 10 more years before dying young, but it was long enough to see a wave of black superstars such as Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell enter the game.

8. William Hulbert

For every egregiously bad Hall of Fame selection by committee, there’s been one like Hulbert which can justify having a veteran voting structure in place to rediscover lost legends. The Veterans Committee inducted Hulbert in 1995, more than a century after his 1882 death at 49. Hulbert worked in baseball for barely a decade, but it came during a pivotal stretch. He started by purchasing three shares of the Chicago White Stocking Ball Club of the old National Association before the 1871 season, according to his SABR bio. Drunkeness plagued the NA, and it soon found itself on the verge of collapse. With help from player (and later sporting good magnate) Al Spalding, player/manager Harry Wright, and Chicago Tribune sports editor Lewis Meacham, Hulbert founded the National League in 1876.

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7. Albert Spalding

First, Spalding was one of baseball’s greatest players, going 204-53 with a 2.21 ERA for the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association from 1871 through 1875, according to Then, Spalding assisted William Hulbert in founding the National League in 1876. Later, he became a sporting goods magnate, organized an 1888 world tour for baseball, and, most notoriously, helped organize the 1905 Mills Commission, which named Abner Doubleday baseball’s founder.

6. Marvin Miller

The highest non-Hall of Famer on this list, Miller helped reshape the national pastime’s landscape in two decades as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. His push for collective bargaining, which began in MLB two years into his tenure, led to the players winning neutral arbitration in the 1970 collective bargaining agreement. This led to arbitrator Peter Seitz abrogating the Reserve Clause in 1975 and creating free agency. Baseball is more equitable and fairer to players thanks to Miller’s efforts. Whether spurned managers and executives ever let him into Cooperstown is another story.

5. Branch Rickey

After Rickey became president of the St. Louis Cardinals, he learned a hard baseball truth: There was no way his team could compete financially with larger clubs to buy the most expensive players. So he created baseball’s modern farm system to develop his own stars, such as Stan Musial, who began in the minors as a pitcher. Later, as president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey accessed an even greater source of untapped talent, signing Jackie Robinson as baseball’s first black player in the modern era. Not finished, Rickey also helped bring sabermetrics into front offices and helped spur baseball’s westward expansion with his involvement with the Continental League in the late 1950s.

4. Ban Johnson

Because the National League has enjoyed an exemption to anti-trust laws for much of its existence, nearly every league to ever challenge its monopoly has met a quick demise. Just look at the sad fate of the Players League of 1890, the Federal League of 1915-16 or the ill-fated Continental League. Only one challenger has achieved success: Johnson, who transformed the minor Western League into the American League in 1901 and then led it through two years of open war with baseball’s senior circuit. When the dust settled, baseball had its present two-league structure.

3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis

After the American League solidified itself, a three-man commission ruled the game, weakly enforcing judgment and letting gambling run rampant through baseball. In the wake of the 1919 World Series, baseball needed a strong man to rid the game of gambling. The owners got their man in federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who quickly banned the Black Sox and a number of other players who’d sold games or even written of wanting to do so. Landis ruled with an iron fist, perhaps too strong of one, and also did much to keep the game segregated through his death in 1944. But his impact on baseball can’t be denied.

2. Jackie Robinson

Integration probably wasn’t far off in baseball in 1947, with the Civil Rights Movement kicking into high gear in the following two decades and integrating most every facet of American life from buses to schools to the real estate market. Still, baseball might have lacked black players another 10-15 years, if not longer, had Robinson not broken modern baseball’s color barrier with triumphant stoicism. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and so many other black stars in those years owe their MLB careers to Robinson. And every year, the anniversary of April 15, 1947, reminds MLB to reassess its diversity efforts.

1. Babe Ruth

Baseball’s greatest hero rose to prominence right when it needed him most. Ruth, who’d debuted as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox in 1914 before becoming a full-time position player midway through the 1918 season, helped baseball recover after the tainted 1919 World Series. Ruth rewrote the record books for home runs, became baseball’s first marketing icon, and to this day arguably remains its top player. As I wrote when I had readers vote on the 25 most important people in baseball history in 2014, it’s difficult to overstate Ruth’s significance to the sport. This remains true.

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Jim Bouton, Ford Frick, Juan Marichal, John McGraw, Jack Norworth, Franklin Roosevelt, Cory Schwartz, Vin Scully, J.G. Taylor Spink, Bill Veeck.

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