Springtime means opening day of the Major League Baseball season—just thinking about it, you can practically smell the hot dogs and hear the crack of a bat as the crowd erupts in cheers. Baseball has been called America’s favorite pastime, but it’s worth remembering that the greatest baseball players of yesteryear used to be America’s favorite popular heroes, too. In this gallery, we take a fond look at 25 of the most beloved top baseball stars of all time who are no longer with us, from Mickey Mantle to Ernie Banks and more.
Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999)
The New York Yankees slugger known as “Joltin’ Joe” is one of the greatest of all time. The record 56-game hitting streak he set in 1941 still stands today. Though some have come close (Pete Rose is second with 44 games), most baseball stat geeks feel DiMaggio’s record is unbreakable. The center fielder was a 13-time all-star, nine-time World Series champion, three-time AL MVP, and two-time AL batting champ. Though DiMaggio was not flashy off the field, he made headlines when he married starlet Marilyn Monroe in 1954. They divorced nine months later but eventually rekindled their friendship. When Monroe died in 1962, DiMaggio paid for the funeral, barred celebrities including JFK from attending, and sent roses to her crypt three times a week for 20 years. He never remarried.
Lou Gehrig (1903–1941)
Gehrig was one of the best ever. The first baseman for the New York Yankees was an incredible hitter with a career batting average of .340 and 493 home runs. He won six World Series, made seven All-Star teams, and set the record for consecutive games played at 2,130 (Cal Ripken surpassed him 56 years later). After being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gehrig was forced to retire early in the 1939 season. On July 4, 1939, he delivered a speech at Yankee Stadium for “Lou Gehrig Day,” telling fans “he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth” for being able to play baseball. The crowd applauded as an emotional Gehrig stepped away from the microphone and his friend and ex-teammate Babe Ruth came out to give him a hug. Gehrig died from ALS in 1941 at age 37.
Ernie Banks (1931–2015)
Banks, aka “Mr. Cub,” is beloved by Chicago baseball fans. Playing with the Chicago Cubs his entire career from 1953 until 1971, he never won the World Series (he died in 2015, one year before the Cubs finally won), and holds the MLB record for most games played without a postseason appearance. But Banks loved baseball and excelled at the game: he was a two-time NL MVP, hit over 500 home runs, and swatted over 1,600 RBIs during his career. As Banks would say, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, let’s play two!”
Roy Campanella (1921–1993)
Campanella was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, breaking the baseball color line for the Dodgers in 1948, one year after Jackie Robinson. Campanella was of Italian and African-American ancestry and played in the Negro League starting at age 16 for the Washington Elite Giants. Campanella was an all-star eight straight seasons from 1949 until 1956. He hit 242 home runs with 842 RBI’s before a career ending auto accident in the winter of 1958. Campanella hit a patch of ice and his car overturned, paralyzing him from the shoulders down and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Roberto Clemente (1934–1972)
Clemente had a brilliant baseball career which tragically ended when he died at 38 in a plane crash on the way to Nicaragua to deliver aid to victims of an earthquake. A native of Puerto Rico, he dramatically belted out career hit 3,000 in his last ever regular season at bat, hitting a double against the Mets on September 30, 1972. He was the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be voted into the Hall of Fame. The right fielder was elected to 15 all-star games, won two World Series and had a career batting average of .317. The MLB presents the Roberto Clemente trophy each year to the player most involved in charitable work to honor Clemente’s dedication to community service.
Babe Ruth (1895–1948)
Babe Ruth is probably the most recognizable name in baseball. He was a major celebrity, known as much for his wild lifestyle as his ability to blast home runs. Starting as a pitcher for the Red Sox, Ruth won almost 90 games in six seasons before being traded to the Yankees and sparking the infamous “Curse of the Bambino” that Red Sox fans blamed for their historic World Series drought. Ruth’s career stats are ridiculously fantastic: batting average of .342, 714 home runs, almost 2,900 hits, and seven World Series titles as part of the Yankees dynasty.
Yogi Berra (1925–2015)
Another big personality in baseball, the Yankees catcher was one of the best ever behind the plate. Berra won the World Series 10 times, the most by any player, and was an 18-time all-star. Before his big league debut in 1946, Berra served in World War II and was awarded a purple heart. He was known for his pithy often humorous sayings, including “It ain’t over till’ it’s over” and “90 percent of baseball is mental, the other half is physical.”
Satchel Paige (1906–1982)
The charismatic Paige drew big crowds whenever he pitched. He was a superstar of the Negro leagues, a showman who sometimes had the infield sit down behind him while he struck out the side. In 1948 on his 42nd birthday, Paige signed his first Major League contract with the Cleveland Indians. He won the World Series that year with the Indians, becoming the first player out of the Negro leagues to pitch a World Series game. Paige was an all-star in 1952 and 1953.
Jackie Robinson (1919–1972)
On April 15, 1947, Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers at first base and became the first African American to play in a Major League Baseball game. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Robinson’s best sport was football, and he played running back for minor professional teams before joining the military during World War II. After his discharge, Robinson turned to baseball, starring for the Negro league team the Kansas City Monarchs. After being signed by Branch Rickey of the Dodgers, Robinson went on to become a six-time MLB all-star, a World Series champion, a career .311 hitter, the first black player to win the NL MVP, and the first black player elected to the Hall of Fame.
Mickey Mantle (1931–1995)
Mantle was a Yankees legend, playing with the Bronx Bombers from 1951 until 1968 and winning seven World Series. “The Mick” was one of the most feared power hitters around, bashing 536 home runs with over 1,500 RBIs and a batting average of .298. He won the triple crown in 1956, was a three-time AL MVP, and still holds many World Series records including home runs (18) and RBIs (40). Mantle hit some of the longest home runs in baseball history, hitting one in 1960 out of Tiger Stadium that was estimated to travel more than 600 feet.
Frank Robinson (1935–2019)
Robinson played with five teams over 20 years, racking up an outstanding 586 home runs, over 1,800 RBIs, and nearly 3,000 hits (2,943 to be exact). The outfielder won two World Series with the Orioles, World Series MVP, AL MVP, and NL MVP. After his playing career, he became the first black manager in MLB in 1975, heading the Cleveland Indians.
Christy Mathewson (1880–1925)
Mathewson was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history, racking up 373 wins with an ERA of 2.13 for the New York Giants. He was nicknamed “The Gentleman Hurler” for his clean-cut lifestyle (he would not pitch on Sundays for religious reasons). Known for his outstanding control on the mound, he won two World Series and pitched two no-hitters. While serving during World War I, he was exposed to chemical gas from which he developed tuberculosis and died at the age of 45.
Ty Cobb (1886–1961)
Considered by some to be the best player in the history of baseball. Born in Georgia and nicknamed “The Georgia Peach,” Cobb still holds the highest ever career batting average at .367. Playing most of his career for the Detroit Tigers, Cobb had over 4,000 hits and almost 900 stolen bases, but never won a World Series. On and off the field, Cobb was known for his rough and tumble attitude, even going into the stands to fight hecklers (something other players of that era such as Babe Ruth also did). Cobb served in World War I in the same unit as Christy Mathewson. After Cobb’s death, a couple of sensationalist biographies claimed he was racist. Since then research by biographer Charles Leerhsen has shown that Cobb was supportive of integration in baseball, telling the Sporting News in 1952 that “the Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.”
Walter Johnson (1887–1946)
“Big Train” was the original power pitcher. He still holds the record for most shutouts by a pitcher with 110 (20 more than Pete Alexander), and though he scared hitters with his more than 90-miles-an-hour fastball, he was known for his good sportsmanship. Johnson was a tall teenager playing in a league in rural Idaho when he was spotted by a scout for the Washington Senators. Other players teased the rookie for being an unsophisticated country boy, but facing him on the mound was another matter. Ty Cobb said of facing Johnson: “The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him. … every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.” Johnson would play 21 seasons with the Senators.
Honus Wagner (1874–1955)
“The Flying Dutchman” was known for his speed and his great bat. Playing mostly for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the shortstop is considered to be one of the greatest all-around players in MLB history. A World Series winner, Wagner was an eight-time batting champion, five-time RBI leader, and five-time stolen base leader. Ty Cobb acknowledged Wagner was one of the best players he had seen.
Cy Young (1867–1955)
It’s no coincidence that the award given to the MLB’s best pitcher every season is known as the Cy Young Award. Born Denton Young, he was nicknamed “Cyclone” as a player in the minor leagues where his fastball would tear the boards off the grandstand. Reporters eventually shortened his nickname to “Cy.” Young would play on five MLB teams, mostly with the Cleveland Spiders and Boston Americans/Red Sox, winning the first ever World Series with Boston in 1903. He holds the records for most career wins (511) and most career complete games (749). During his career, he threw three no-hitters and one perfect game.
Rogers Hornsby (1896–1963)
Known as “The Rajah,” Hornsby was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history. In 1924, he hit .424, an average that has not been reached since. Playing mostly with the Cardinals and Cubs, he hit .400 three times, had a career batting average of .358 (second only to Ty Cobb), had over 2,900 hits, and is the only player ever to hit .400 with 40 home runs in a season. Hornsby was difficult to get along with and not popular among his teammates.
Josh Gibson (1911–1947)
Gibson was one of the greatest power hitters ever in baseball. Gibson, who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 210 pounds, signed with the Homestead Grays at the age of 18. As was typical of Negro league teams, the Grays played a short league schedule and then barnstormed around the country playing semi-pro teams. Looking at both types of game, Gibson hit an incredible 69 home runs in 1934. The Hall of Fame lists his career statistics at 800 home runs with a batting average of .359. Gibson died of a stroke in early 1947 at the age of 35. Some say he was heartbroken that he was not first black player in the majors. According to Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier with Cleveland in 1947, “Jackie Robinson was not the best player, Gibson was.”
Jimmie Foxx (1907–1967)
“The Beast” was one of the most powerful hitters in baseball history. Playing predominantly with the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox, he hit 30 or more home runs a season for 12 consecutive years and more than 100 RBIs each of 13 consecutive years. At age 32 years and 336 days, he was the youngest player to reach 500 home runs, a record not broken until 2007 when Alex Rodriguez became the youngest. Foxx finished his career with 534 homers and an impressive career .325 batting average. Later Foxx managed the Fort Wayne Daisies in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Hank Greenberg (1911–1986)
One of the great power hitters in MLB history, “Hammerin’ Hank” was the first Jewish superstar in American team sports. Playing first base for the Detroit Tigers, he was a five-time all-star, won two World Series, led the AL in home runs four times, and had a lifetime career batting average of .313. Greenberg served four years in the Army during World War II, the longest of any Major League player. A hero to Jewish Americans who were recent immigrants, Greenberg famously missed an important game for the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur. After facing prejudice and anti-Semitism from players and fans, he was a vocal supporter of Jackie Robinson. One time after colliding with Robinson at first base, Greenberg whispered something to him. Robinson later said, “They were words of encouragment.”
Bob Feller (1918–2010)
“The Bullet” was one of the greatest power pitchers ever, winning 268 games and compiling more than 2,500 strikeouts. Baseball great Ted Williams called Feller, “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.” At the age of 17, Feller was signed out of Van Meter High School in Iowa to the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball. He quickly made his Major League debut July 1936 in a relief appearance and struck out 15 in his first start that August. Two days after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy and served for almost four years. He came back to the Indians after the war and retired in 1956. Feller was an eight-time all-star, led the MLB in strikeouts seven times, and won the World Series with Cleveland in 1948, the last time the franchise won the championship.
James Bell (1903–1991)
“Cool Papa” was one of the fastest players to ever wear spikes. Playing in the Negro leagues from 1922 until 1946, Bell started out as a pitcher and earned his nickname “cool” when he struck out star hitter Oscar Charleston. Bell himself added “papa” to the nickname because he thought it sounded better. He moved to the outfield and became a feared switch hitter, batting .337 during his time in the Negro leagues. He was a lethal base runner, so fast he could easily score from first on a base hit. Bell retired as a player at the age of 43, one year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
Ted Williams (1918–2002)
“The Splendid Splinter” was one of the greatest players ever with a career batting average of .344 and 521 home runs —even with two absences while serving as a Navy aviator during World War II and the Korean War. (An outstanding pilot, Williams flew combat missions in Korea as John Glenn’s wingman.) The beloved left-fielder was such a great hitter that he still holds the record for on-base percentage of .482 and is the last player to hit over .400 in a season (he did it in 1941). During the Red Sox curse, Williams made the World Series once in 1946, losing in seven games to the Cardinals. Fittingly, he hit a home run in his very last at-bat on September 28, 1960.
Stan Musial (1920–2013)
“Stan the Man” still holds the fourth highest hit total with 3,630 and had a career batting average of .331 over 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, winning the NL batting title seven times. He was an all-star 24 times and led the Cardinals to three World Series titles. Musial was known for his sportsmanship, never being ejected from a game for arguing with an umpire. In 2011, President Obama presented Musial with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Willie McCovey (1938–2018)
McCovey was one of the best power hitters in baseball history, beloved for his long run with the San Francisco Giants. For all but three years from 1959 to 1980, McCovey was a Giant. Known for his rocket line drives, he was called “the scariest hitter in baseball” by Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. McCovey hit 521 home runs and led the NL in home runs three times.