Arkansas’ Best Baseball Players

The search for the best Arkansas baseball players weaves its way, ironically enough, through one Cooperstown, New York. Yes, indeed, Arkansas boasts not one, not two, but six Hall of Famers. All of them make appearances here, along with four that, some might argue, deserve spots in the hallowed Hall of Fame all their own. But, that is neither here nor there. Today, we are here to determine just which of those ten players truly is the best that The Natural State has to offer. Some of the players here are definite household names. However, their state of origin might come as something of a surprise to many.

This list holds particular interest to Yours Truly, who graduated from high school in Arkansas. So firsthand experience leads this writer to believe that sports play an integral part of everyday life, just as they do in many a Southern state. Mason-Dixon line relationships aside, the commonality of sports in Arkansas culture cannot be denied. Baseball is no exception, and the ten stories listed here are products of that entwinement. So, please, sit back, relax, and enjoy as we search for Arkansas’s best baseball player according to Baseball Reference WAR.

Arkansas Baseball Players

George Kell
Born: Swifton
37.56 WAR

 Speaking of the Hall of Fame, we kick off our search for Arkansas’ best baseball player with a Cooperstown honoree. Yes, George Kell had a splendid 15-year big league career. He’s a 10-time All-Star and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times. His 2,054 hits are sixth most in state history. However, his greatest stretch came with the Detroit Tigers from 1947-1952. Over the six seasons, he never missed an All-Star game. He hit .325 with over 1,000 hits in that span. In 1949, he won the AL batting title with a blistering .343 average.

Cliff Lee
Born: Benton
43.17 WAR

 Our search for Arkansas’s best baseball player makes its inaugural visit to the pitcher’s mound. For 13 years, Cliff Lee experienced something of a raucous career. He’s possibly more well-known for who he was traded for than his accomplishments. However, that didn’t stop him from posting the second-most strikeouts in state history (1,824). He also has four All-Star appearances and the 2008 AL Cy Young to boot. In fact, he managed to finish in the top five in Cy Young voting four times during his career. He finished with 143 wins, a 3.52 ERA, and a 118 ERA+.

Travis Jackson
Born: Waldo
43.96 WAR

 Travis Jackson was something of a walking hospital case. Not only was he injury prone, but he also had a five-year spat with tuberculosis. Nevertheless, Jackson managed to have a 15-year, Hall of Fame career. From 1922 to 1936, he anchored the shortstop position for the New York Giants. He finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times and was a member of the 1933 World Championship team. In 1934, he played in the second annual All-Star Game. His best season by WAR came in 1929. That year, he clubbed a career-high 21 homers, hit .294, and posted a 5.8 WAR. That tied him with fellow Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes for sixth-best in the National League.

Lou Brock
Born: El Dorado
45.27 WAR

Lou Brock was the ultimate manifestation of a dual threat. Brilliant with the bat and his legs, Brock posted over 3,000 hits and 900 stolen bases. He easily ranks in the top of any hitter from Arkansas in those categories. From 1966 to 1974, he only missed the NL’s stolen base crown once. That was topped off by a staggering 118-steal performance in ’74. Though never an MVP, he did place in the top 10 in voting five times. He’s a two-time World Champion, a six-time All-Star, and one of the definitive St. Louis Cardinals of all time. He’s a true credit to this list and our search for Arkansas’ best baseball player.

Lon Warneke
Born: Mount Ida
45.82 WAR

 Lon Warneke had a career that shot off like a rocket after appearing to be dead on arrival. In 1931, ostensibly his “rookie season” for the Chicago Cubs, he went 2-4 splitting time between the ‘pen and the rotation. The next season, he led the league in wins (22) and ERA (2.37). He also finished second in MVP voting. From there, he went on to have an extremely consistent career. He retired after 1945 with 192 wins (best in Arkansas history), a 3.18 ERA, 192 complete games, and 30 shutouts. He’s fourth on the all-time Arkansas list in strikeouts (1,140).

Dizzy Dean
Born: Lucas
46.15 WAR

 We’re back in Cooperstown for yet another Cardinals mainstay. Yes, from 1932-1937, Dizzy Dean was one of the best arms in the game. During the span, he won 133 games. He also led the league in strikeouts each season from 1932-1935, posting 775 in total. His 1934 campaign was legendary as he won 30 games with a 2.66 ERA and a 159 ERA+. He did this while only walking 75 batters in 311.2 innings. That led him to the NL MVP Award for that season. Unfortunately, his career fell off after a trade to the Cubs in April 1938. Nevertheless, his great work in St. Louis more than earns him a spot on this list.

Torii Hunter
Born: Pine Bluff
50.65 WAR

 We crack the 50-WAR mark for the first time with Torii Hunter. This is no small wonder, as Hunter leads all Arkansas-born players in homers (353) and RBI (1,391). He was also one of the game’s premier defensive outfielders, winning nine consecutive Gold Gloves from 2001-2009. Though best known for his time with the Minnesota Twins, Hunter’s best year by WAR was actually in 2012 with the Los Angeles Angels. In a contract year, he put up career highs in batting average (.313) and OPS+ (129). This earned him a new deal with the Detroit Tigers, with whom he would experience his fifth and final All-Star Game in 2013.

Willie Davis
Born: Mineral Springs
60.71 WAR

 Willie Davis draws a lot of comparisons to another on this list, the aforementioned Brock. The reason Davis ranks so high is that, compared to Brock, he was a defensive wizard. That’s not to say that his bat remained quiet. A career .279 average and over 2,500 hits attest to that. He also led the league in triples twice, finishing with 138 for his career. However, it’s his sparkling glove that helps thrust him to the podium here. He finished with three Gold Gloves and a career dWAR of 11.1. His prime years were his definite best. From 1969 to 1973, he hit .300 with 50 triples, 119 stolen bases, and a 24.8 WAR.

Arky Vaughan
Born: Clifty
78.03 WAR

 Arky Vaughan was to shortstops of the 1930s what players like Francisco Lindor, Dansby Swanson, and Xander Bogaerts are now. A true superstar who knew how to master the position. Not only that, but he was one of the best hitters of the time. He retired with nine straight All-Star appearances, 118 stolen bases, and 2,103 hits. In 1935, he hit a league-leading .385 while also leading the league in walks, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, and OPS+.  He was also a dynamically patient batter, retiring with 937 walks to only 276 strikeouts. A career dWAR of 12.0 is simply the icing on this particular cake.

Brooks Robinson
Born: Little Rock
78.47 WAR

 Brooks Robinson is a very fitting end for this search for Arkansas’ best baseball player. His 18 All-Star appearances blow all other players out of the proverbial water. He ranks in the top five in hits, home runs, RBI, doubles, and runs scored. Not only that, but his absolutely sparkling defense earned him a staggering 16 Gold Gloves and a career dWAR of 39.1. In 1964, this Baltimore Orioles mainstay won the AL MVP Award with a .317 average and a WAR of 8.4. To top it all off, 16 of his 23 seasons wound up with a WAR of 2.0 or higher.

Main photo:
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Players mentioned:

George Kell, Cliff Lee, Travis Jackson, Burleigh Grimes, Lou Brock, Lon Warneke, Dizzy Dean, Torii Hunter, Willie Davis, Arky Vaughan, Francisco Lindor, Dansby Swanson, Xander Bogaerts, Brooks Robinson