Shortstop is a fielder's position, the most important part of the defense except for pitching. Third base has become more glamorous, with its spectacular diving stops, but the best third baseman isn't as good a fielder as the man playing next to him. If he were, he'd be the shortstop: There's more ground to cover over there, more balls to get to, more plays to execute. That's why third basemen have to be productive hitters; a team can't afford what Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver calls "the luxury of defense" at third base unless it gets hitting to go with the D. Shortstop is a different matter. Defensive skill is so important there that clubs have gone long periods with non-hitters at the position. Mark Belanger, a .227 batter who was the Oriole shortstop for 14 seasons, is a case in point. So was Detroit's Ray Oyler; in 1968 he batted only .135, but his fielding helped win the American League pennant.
But while baseball will accept a non-hitter at short, it prefers the competent fielder who can hit, or at least get on base and score runs. Given the choice, Weaver would have played a Vern Stephens at short instead of a Belanger, even though Belanger could field rings around Stephens. Stephens wasn't all that bad in the field; he just wasn't all that good. But what a hitter!
On that basis, taking into consideration both fielding and hitting and imagining which player would be preferred in an even-up trade, here are the 10 best shortstops of all time. (No current stars are included. Consideration of Yount, Dave Concepcion, Rick Burleson, Larry Bowa, Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton must wait until their careers are over.)
1. Honus Wagner (played 1,950 games at shortstop, 1901-1917). He was a marvel. He was in his fifth big league season before he played a game at short and in his seventh before he settled there permanently, yet for a decade, playing for the Pirates, he was one of the best fielding shortstops. And he was far and away the best hitter in the league.
2. Luis Aparicio (2,581, 1956-73). He played more games at short, with the White Sox, Orioles and Red Sox, than anyone else and led his league more times in more fielding categories than anyone. For three straight seasons (1959-61) he had both the most total chances and the highest fielding average, a pretty fair measure of fielding superiority. He got his hits, too—2,677 of them—and was an electrifying base runner.
3. Jack Glasscock (1,628, 1880-95). He was the first truly outstanding shortstop, and he dominated the position for a decade. He and Aparicio are the only shortstops to lead in total chances and fielding average in a season three different times. Known as Pebbly Jack, he played for seven National League clubs and led the league in batting (.336) in 1890.
4. Ernie Banks (1,125, 1953-61). After Wagner, he was the best hitter ever to play shortstop, and he was a much better fielder than he's given credit for. He was switched to first base two years after he led all National League shortstops in total chances and fielding average.
5. Lou Boudreau (1,539, 1939-52). Another fine hitter whose fielding skill tends to be forgotten. A broken ankle slowed him down, but his remarkable sense of position play made up for it. While spending almost his entire career with the Indians, he led the American League fielding average eight times.
6. Arky Vaughan (1,485, 1932-43). In a decade of great shortstops, during which he played mostly for the Pirates, he was the best, a high-average (.385 one year) line-drive hitter and a steady, dependable fielder who was also much better than his reputation would seem to indicate. (There's a definite syndrome in baseball thinking that goes: If a shortstop is a good hitter, then he mustn't be able to field.)
7. Joe Cronin (1,843, 1926-42). One more big hitter who was also a fine fielder, especially in his earlier seasons. He was a consistently good player for a long time for the Senators and Red Sox.
8. Pee Wee Reese (2,014, 1940-58). He and Phil Rizzuto (No. 10) were the shortstops on the two best teams in baseball for a decade and a half. Both were excellent fielders, superb base runners, deft hunters, valuable offensive players. Reese was more of a team leader than Rizzuto and was better offensively. He wangled more than 1,200 walks and scored 1,338 runs, all for the Dodgers.
9. Dave Bancroft (1,873, 1915-30). He was an extravagant fielder for four National League teams whose brilliant plays more than made up for his frequent errors. He was a prolific run scorer and a team spark plug, a pennant-winning ballplayer.
10. Phil Rizzuto (1,647, 1941-56). The Scooter played shortstop in nine World Series for the Yankees, a record for the position. He was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1950.
As for fielding alone, the 10 best glove men were 1) Aparicio; 2) Glasscock; 3) Roy McMillan; 4) Mickey Doolan. a better fielder than Wagner, his contemporary, but who couldn't hit as well as Wagner's cat; 5) George McBride, who couldn't hit as well as Doolan; 6) Everett Scott; 7) Belanger; 8) Bancroft; 9) Eddie Miller; 10) Marty Marion.
Honest, Honus is still the best.