Apologies, it is behind a paywall. But for the last few months, Posnanski has been writing up his top 100 players of all-time. Typically, we've always ended up with Ruth as the greatest. But nearly after a century, opinions are changing. The Baseball 100: No. 1, Willie Mays Think for a moment about the first vivid baseball memory you have. Perhaps you have a hollow plastic bat in your hands and a Wiffle Ball floats toward you. How old are you? 3? 5? Older? All you want to do is hit the ball. Where does that hunger come from? Who taught you that? Nobody. It is an instinct. You stand rigidly with your legs spread apart and the bat resting on your shoulder — maybe your parents set you up that way like an action figure. The ball dangles in midair like a disco ball. You swing the bat the way you imagine it should be swung, and you connect, perfect contact. The ball takes off like a leaf caught in the wind, and you begin to run and stumble toward invisible bases that hide in the grass. You run a tight circle around the pitcher — is it your dad? Your mom? Your grandpa? Your best friend? — until you make it all the way around. And when you get back where you started, you tumble over in the best version of a slide that you can muster. Who taught you how to slide? No one. You just knew. That memory is Willie Mays. Or maybe it is this: You and a friend throw a rubber ball (a tennis ball?) against the stairs that climb up to your front door. The sun is so big and warm that it seems to color the cloudless sky yellow. If you throw a ball against those stairs just right — so that the ball hits the upper corner flush — it will take off like a toy rocket. And that’s what your friend does. The ball erupts off the stair and goes soaring toward the street, and you turn your back and sprint after it. You can’t catch it, but you run just the same because … well, just because. And then to your surprise, you find that you start gaining on the ball. You can see it coming down, and you can see that if you reach out, stretch out, thrust out your arm as far as it can possibly go … And maybe you catch it. How did you catch it? You don’t know but you feel electricity buzzing throughout your body and you shout out to your friend, “DID YOU SEE THAT?” And your friend jumps up and down excitedly — or, wait, maybe you are the friend — and the two of you spend the rest of the afternoon reliving the catch. That memory is Willie Mays. Maybe your memory is of buying a new pack of baseball cards. This might be in the days when baseball cards come with a rectangle of rock-hard chewing gum that tastes like cardboard and rubs your tongue raw like sandpapers … or maybe this is years later, when there was no gum, when instead there would be specialty cards inside, maybe an autographed card or one that has a little piece of fabric worn by a major leaguer. Either way, you pull off the plastic wrapper slowly because you want to savor it all, make the experience last for as long you can. And you slide down the top card just a little so that it reveals only a tiny portion of what card is next. Hmm. Look here. The next player is on your favorite team. Could it be? You don’t dare to hope yet. You slide the card down a little more. Yes, it might be. A little more. Yes! The next card is your favorite player, you already know that this next card is now the most valuable thing you own, and you might sleep with it under your pillow or you might put it in one of those baseball card cases for protection. Whatever you do, your life is just a little bit different and better than it was before. That memory is Willie Mays. Perhaps you are at a ballpark. Everything looks so green. You’d seen games on television. You’ve looked at boxscores and imagined. But you never believed it could be so green. The smells overwhelm you — what is that? Beer? Hot dogs? Funnel cakes? Sweat? Yes. All of it. Baseball smells like an amusement park and a backyard barbecue and an afternoon at a movie theater and recess at the playground all at once. Then you hear the sounds, cheers and chatter, boos and a vendor selling peanuts, claps and stomps and groans and hopeful screams that either rise into happy symphonies or trail off into disheartened sighs, all while an organist plays “Hava Nagila” and a Mexican Hat Dance and a cavalry charge and that nameless song that plays a duet with your rapid heartbeat. Here we go (YOUR TEAM), here we go (CLAP CLAP). Maybe you even keep score. You’d have to be a certain age for that to ring true, probably. To keep score, you mark (with your blunt pencil that barely leaves a mark) a 6-3 for a grounder to short or a 9 for a fly ball to right field or you trace that pencil all around the bases and draw a diamond for a home run. And then a ball is hit deep and the center fielder chases after it, but there is no chance the ball can be caught, the geometry teacher in your head tells you so. Then you see the ball and the man converge, and at the last possible instant the center fielder takes flight and pulls it in, and all at once, all together, people lose their bleeping minds. “Put a star next to that one,” someone tells you, and you do, you put a little star next to the “8.” That memory, most of all, is Willie Mays. I don’t know who the greatest baseball player is. Maybe for our purposes that admission comes 280,000 or so words too late, sure, but I did always believe that admission was present between the words. Can anyone really say if Ichiro Suzuki was better than Tony Gwynn was better than Rod Carew was better than Wade Boggs? If Sadaharu Oh or Buck Leonard could have hit big-league pitching? How Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax really match up? Can anyone tell you with any real certainty if Cool Papa Bell could have stolen more bases than Eddie Collins or what Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or Bob Feller might have done if not for wars? Can anyone truly know how Mel Ott would have hit for the 1998 Mariners, Carl Yastrzemski for the 1933 Giants, Ken Griffey Jr. for the 1967 Red Sox? Babe Ruth in modern times? Josh Gibson in the major leagues? Ty Cobb or Cy Young with a live ball? Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens clean? Willie McCovey with the juicy baseball of 2019? Bob Gibson in this time of many relievers? Mike Trout against the spitball? Can anyone know? But wait! Of course we can know. More than that: We do know. We know the answers to all these questions and more because … well, because we know. See, all along, this journey has not just been about the greatest players in baseball history. It has been about us, too: fans. It’s about the things we believe in, the myths we hold dear, the statistics we embrace, the memories we carry. When a magician performs magic, it doesn’t mean anything unless there is someone on the other end feeling wonder. So, yes, we know who was the greatest ever. We know because baseball goes back more than 150 years to that time when America didn’t have a sport or a fully realized identity of its own. Americans boxed and played cricket but who didn’t? Football was still rugby. Horses raced. Boats raced. Basketball and hockey had not yet been invented. Golf and tennis had not quite made it over the ocean. And baseball spread from town to town like gossip. “Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic!” America’s poet Walt Whitman said in 1889, and by then he had been writing on and off about the game for 40 years. It didn’t look like our baseball at first — it was called “base ball” or “base-ball” — but it got there pretty quickly. And baseball tied communities together. Baseball gave people something to share. Baseball created a new language. And, sure, it launched a few million dreams along the way. And then it was always there. It didn’t fade away, even when so many other things did. And when America grappled with the meaning of “All men are created equal,” baseball asked that same question. When America searched for its soul, baseball searched for its soul. And the greatest players … From Cy Young and Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner To the Georgia Peach and the Big Train and Oscar Charleston To the Babe and Lou Gehrig and Satchel To Joltin’ Joe and Ted Williams and Stan the Man To Hammerin’ Hank and Roberto Clemente and the Mick To Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson and Yaz To Reggie and Tom Terrific and Pete Rose To Mike Schmidt and George Brett and Nolan Ryan To the Rocket and Barry Bonds and Rickey To Greg Maddux and Junior and the Big Unit To Pedro and Ichiro and Mariano To Albert Pujols and Justin Verlander and Mike Trout … made people feel something more than baseball, something deeper than ground-rule doubles and infield flies and called strikes and an outfielder hitting the cutoff. Who is the greatest player of all time? You know. Maybe your father told you. Maybe you read about him when you were young. Maybe you sat in the stands and saw him play. Maybe you bask in his statistics. The greatest baseball player is the one who lifts you higher and makes you feel exactly like you did when you fell in love with this crazy game in the first place. And now, let’s talk about Willie Mays.