Who is Baseball’s Greatest Living Legend?

Exploring some of the greatest living figures in baseball.

On June 18, the baseball world learned the shocking news that Willie Mays, “the Say Hey Kid”, had died at the age of 93.

There is no way to quantify Mays’ legendary status that would quite do him justice. He averaged 6.5 bWAR per season across his 24-year career, a mark that would be worthy of the MVP honors in many seasons. He was the ultimate five-tool guy, batting over .300 for his career while still being sixth all-time in home runs. And these eye-popping accomplishments with the bat don’t even take into account the fact that he is perhaps the greatest defensive outfielder ever. This all isn’t considering that he lost two years of play due to being drafted into the Korean War.

Baseball lost one of its greatest builders. A man who was able to elevate an entire sport just by playing it at the highest level.

It is times like this when we are reminded of the importance of appreciating our living legends. Many of baseball’s most impactful players walk among us, titans of both the game and the broader sports landscape. With many legends and icons still living today, one may wonder, who is the greatest among all of them?

The truth is, quantifying this is incredibly tricky.

Willie Mays was such a transcendent talent and historic figure that it would’ve been hard not to select him as the choice when he was with us. It is much harder to come to a consensus among currently living legends. Do positions matter? Should you base it solely on records/WAR/championships? Does impact off the field have a say? And then there’s the whole steroid controversy one has to wade through.

It’s a tough call for sure, but here are some of the main candidates.


Barry Bonds – The Anti-Hero


Barry Bonds is without a doubt, one of the most controversial players of all time. It’s pretty much a guarantee that some readers are upset that he is even mentioned in this article. 

However, similar to how steroids are an undeniable part of Bonds’ legacy, Bonds is a piece of baseball history that cannot be denied either.

The godson of Willie Mays and son of Bobby Bonds, Barry was the embodiment of sheer dominance and video game numbers. In essence, he was like a Wayne Gretzky or Wilt Chamberlain figure, except he played some of his games in the time of HD television.

Before the era of the “balanced breakfasts” with the Giants, Bonds was a toolsy outfielder for the Pirates. He hit for power, stole bases and accrued tons of defensive WAR. He was perhaps the most well-rounded player in the game, and his hitting wasn’t too shabby either.

Bonds took off and became the Barry Bonds we know though with the Giants. While yes, he was certainly assisted with certain ‘tools’ readily available for players of the era, Bonds was able to make even the most seasoned fans say “wow” on a nightly basis. He combined thunderous power with a superhuman eye, which forced many teams to take the dreaded route of intentionally walking him, even with the bases loaded. If you look at the leaderboards relating to power and plate discipline stats, there’s a good chance Barry Bonds is near or at the top of the lists. That is of course, if you choose to accept him as such.

So whether you think of Barry Bonds as an icon, a legend, an anti-hero, a villain, or a fraud, there is no doubt that he and his bat left a mark on the game of baseball.


Sandy Koufax – Hollywood’s First Sports Star


Pitchers tend not to be accounted for in the all-time conversations as much, which is a real shame. Sandy Koufax is absolutely one of the great living legends, as he is to this day a name mentioned in the greatest pitcher of all time conversations.

You don’t get a nickname like “The Left Arm of God” without having some incredible stuff. Koufax ushered in Dodger baseball on the West Coast, as he had established himself as a future piece for the team when they made the move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. In LA, he brought a lot of gold to the blue and white faithful, as he put together a trophy case even some of the greatest legends would envy.

The amazing thing about Koufax? He did it in less time than everyone else. He retired by age 30 due to an elbow injury, cutting short what was already an inner-circle Hall of Fame career.

Koufax won four Cy Young awards, four World Series titles, two World Series MVPs, and a National League MVP. His WAR total is 54.5, incredibly impressive for a player who walked away in the middle of his prime.

Perhaps the most legendary thing about Koufax was his curveball. This pitch was a puzzle that even the game’s most talented hitters weren’t able to solve. It was slow and loopy, yet it had batters swinging out of their shoes in a cartoon-like fashion.


Rickey Henderson – Havoc on the Basepaths


In an era of ever-so-slightly bigger bases and new pickoff rules, stolen base totals have been reaching highs that haven’t been seen in a long time.

Yet as impressive as the totals by speedsters like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Corbin Carroll have been, nobody could swipe bags like Rickey Henderson could.

Henderson combined blazing speed, scrappiness and intelligence on the basepaths to become the most valuable baserunner in the game’s history. His twitchiness once on first was disruptive, messing with the headspace of the opposing pitcher. He was appropriately given the nickname “The Man of Steal”

Teams especially had to worry about Henderson because of his impeccable on-base skills. He had an elite eye, evidenced by his higher career walk rate than strikeout rate. In fact, in 24 out of his 25 seasons, he had a double-digit walk rate, which gave him the record of most career unintentional walks.

Henderson bounced around and played for a lot of teams, but his heart was always in Oakland. He won two rings, one as a member of his beloved A’s and the other as part of the Joe Carter walkoff squad for the Blue Jays. Not only did he tour around the leagues, endearing himself to fans, but he also played across four decades. Generations of baseball fans watched in awe as he got on base and swiped bags like clockwork.


Randy Johnson – Heavy Metal Personified


Randy Johnson has made some headlines in his post-playing days for his hobby of photographing Metallica and other metal bands. This is incredibly fitting, as Johnson’s presence on the mound was akin to a thrash metal track.

Johnson isn’t just a titan of the game, he is a titan of a human being. His 6’10 frame got him the nickname “The Big Unit”, and it certainly helped him. If his ridiculous velocity for the era wasn’t enough, he had some of the best extension in the game, leaving batters overpowered and outmatched.

Facing off against Johnson was like facing the Grim Reaper himself. His fastball was electric, but his slider was even better. Many people to this day still consider in the best slider in the game’s history, a feat that is remarkable when you consider all the elite sliders. The numbers certainly show the effectiveness of his arsenal, as he put up the kind of strikeout numbers you expect from a closer in today’s swing and miss heavy league. But no, he was a starter, playing in an offense-driven era of baseball.

Indeed like the Grim Reaper, Johnson on the mound really did spell death, although just for creatures of the avian variety.


Ken Griffey Jr. – The Generational Swing


Also known as “your favorite player’s favorite player”, Ken Griffey Jr. made baseball in the 90s and the Pacific Northwest as a whole fun. His smooth, buttery swing was emulated by an entire generation of kids who idolized “The Kid”.

Baseball has always been a family affair, something that has added to Griffey’s legacy. His father, Ken Griffey, is a legendary figure in the history of the Reds franchise, an organization that would host a homecoming stint for Junior years into his career.

But make no mistake about, Ken Griffey Jr. was a Mariner. He was the Pacific Northwest.

Mariners fans got to watch masterful performances nightly. If he wasn’t hitting massive bombs, Griffey was making four and five star catches in center field. Griffey was like the Willie Mays for a new generation of fans, in a market that hadn’t gotten to see his greatness.


Nolan Ryan – Strikeouts, Strikeouts and More Strikeouts


Nolan Ryan was the ultimate bastion of longevity in baseball and sports history.

He was the baseball version of Gordie Howe, pitching up to the age of 46. He did this as a workhorse, as he routinely had years where he pitched double the amount of innings that many of today’s starters would. But it wasn’t just his long career and durability that made him an icon of the sport.

Ryan was one of baseball’s original strikeout kings, posting double digit strikeout per nine numbers in many years. This was largely due to his ridiculous velocity, with rumors stating he hit 108mph. While this unlikely, he very likely did hit triple digits, an impressive feat especially in an era of softer tossers.

Ryan also had seven no-hitters, something that would be completely unheard of in today’s game. He unfortunately never won a Cy Young award, something that has been held against his claim as one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball. It was likely due to him having a bit of a walk problem, something that is rather ironic when you consider that Blake Snell has rightfully won Cy Young awards, despite having spotty command.

Nolan Ryan rode a flamethrowing right arm into the Hall of Fame, serving as one of the faces of the game across four different decades.


Cal Ripken Jr. – Mr. Indestructible


Comparing baseball legends to superheroes is something that has been done for decades; just look at Rickey Henderson’s nickname. It really only is fitting that one of baseball’s most durable and toolsy players got the nickname “Iron Man”.

Ripken is famous for having set the record for the longest streak of games played without missing time, playing in 2,632 consecutive games. His value wasn’t just derived from playing every game though, he was an excellent player across all of his innings played.

Ripken was as reliable of a hitter at short as it got. He was outstanding at making contact, whiffing at a very rare rate. This wasn’t necessarily at the expense of power either though, as he hit over 20 home runs in 12 different seasons.

In the field, Ripken was no less solid. It was rare for a player of his stature to be entrusted at short, as tall players weren’t viewed as having enough athleticism to captain the infield. Ripken won two gold glove awards to go along with his 2 MVP awards. He was a master in the field, something that made him one of the most valuable players not just of his era, but in the history of the game.

Also worth noting was that he was incredibly loyal, playing every single season for his home state’s team.


Pedro Martinez – The Highest Peak Ever


Imagine putting up one of the best pitching seasons ever, and then doing it again.

Pedro Martinez was perhaps the most well-rounded and untouchable pitcher in baseball’s history. Well, at least when he was at his peak. Martinez famously set the record for lowest FIP among any pitcher in a season, largely due to next-level strikeout rates despite him not giving up any free passes.

Martinez was the Red Sox for many years. He put up historic numbers for the historic franchise, concluding his time in Boston by helping them break their curse-driven drought with the 2004 championship.

Three Cy Young awards, a World Series win, and a retired number define Martinez’s career. He probably should have won the 1999 MVP though, as he put up an 11.6 fWAR, one of the highest marks ever for a pitcher. Still, Martinez left his mark on baseball, as he is in contention for the title of one of the game’s greatest living legends.


Carl Yazstremski – Mr. Triple Crown


The Red Sox have had many legends throughout their storied history. Carl Yazstremski was one of the franchise’s greatest players.

Yazstremski has been somewhat forgotten in time by the casual fan, largely because baseball really has so many legends that are hard to keep track of. But this really shouldn’t be the case, as “Yaz” compiled nearly 95 fWAR to go along with his 18 All-Star nods, seven Gold Gloves, and three batting titles.

The most important year of Yaz’s career was 1967. He won MVP with one of the best seasons to ever be honored with the award, winning the Triple Crown (the last one until Miguel Cabrera’s legendary 2012) and putting up over 11 WAR. His ability to hit for such a high average while still knocking balls out of the yard was certainly impressive, as he was one of the most well-rounded hitters of all time. Yaz did in the field as well, as he nabbed one of his many Gold Gloves that year out in left field.


Mariano Rivera – A Happy Accident


Mariano Rivera claims that the pitch he became famous for was conceived by accident.

His cutter was not something he planned to throw. Once he threw some in practice though, he never went back.

Rivera is the greatest closer of all time. His legacy is defined by his play in clutch situations. One of the commonly cited figures about him is that more people have been on the moon than have reached home against him in the postseason. And while yes, you could say this about several relievers, none of them pitched in 141 innings across 96 appearances.

Rivera’s cutter is one of the greatest pitches of all time. He rode it straight to Cooperstown, a town that hasn’t been the most welcoming of relievers. Yet everyone knew “Mo” was destined for the Hall, as he became one of the very few players to ever unanimously get accepted.


Overall, it’s difficult to say who the greatest living legend in baseball is. There are many other players we could have included that are very worthy of the title, but just didn’t quite make it here. If I had to pick my choice for the title, it would be Sandy Koufax. He ushered in a new era for the Dodgers, turning them into one of the biggest shows in all of sports, something they still are today. He accomplished so much in such little time, as the few seasons that he pitched paved the way for generations of elite left-handed pitchers.

A big thank you to our resident historian Mat Kovach for his suggestions and background about several of these players! Check out his work for some great research into other historical figures of the game. Let us know who you think the greatest living legends are.


Ryan Clark

Ryan is a Fantasy writer for PitcherList. He was born in Tampa but has spent most of his life living in Canada, currently residing in Ottawa. His Tampa roots and his Devil Rays tee-ball team led him down the path of becoming a life-long Rays fan, making him one of the very few in Canada. Outside of baseball, Ryan loves music, writing and amusement parks.

4 responses to “Who is Baseball’s Greatest Living Legend?”

  1. Joe says:

    Mike Schmidt?

  2. AAL GALLANT says:

    Does not get it better…..A GREAT LIST!

  3. Muzz says:

    Albert Pujols

  4. John Beaver says:

    not putting mike schmidt on here is ridiculous! he is the best player ever at his position and stilll alive

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