Best Defensive Third Basemen
It is important to remember that there are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any other position. The position has traditionally been looked at as a corner power-hitting place in the lineup. Therefore, trying to find a good power hitter who can also play defense is a challenging proposition. Most winning teams tend to have pretty good defensive third basemen.
Following is our list of the best defensive third basemen in the history of the game. The only “hot corner” stars who make both our top offensive and defensive lists are Mike Schmidt and Ray Dandridge–a fairly exclusive group.
Clete Boyer is one of the finest-fielding third basemen in the history of the game. He is a Gold Glover, and anchored the “hot corner” for both the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves in the 1950s and 1960s. Boyer led the league in runs prevented for 6 consecutive years, while setting new standards for the range he covered at third base. He led in assists for 3 seasons and was at or near the top in every defensive category for over a decade.
“[Clete] came up during the Brooks Robinson era and didn’t get as much attention because of Brooksie, but he could play third base.” – Former Yankees Manager, Joe Torre.
Jimmy Collins is in the Hall of Fame for his career performance as a third baseman. When you watch top-echelon defensive performances at third base today, they are following in the footsteps of Collins who wrote the book on how the position should be played. The great John McGraw was not sure that Collins’ defensive equal would ever be found… and some argue that until the incomparable Brooks Robinson arrived, none was. Collins was at the top, or near it, of every defensive category from 1895 until his retirement in 1908. He played with Boston–first with the NL–then with the new American League for most of his career.
“Though small in stature, standing at just 5’7″ and weighing but 160 pounds, his blazing speed and cat-like quickness helped him to revolutionize defense at the third sack.” – Stan Hamlet for SABR.
Lave Cross was one of the best defensive players in the 19th century. He was a competent catcher and outfielder, but particularly shined at third base where he played most of his games. He was born of Czechoslovakian immigrants shortly after they arrived in the U.S., and played for 21 productive years in the Major Leagues, mostly for Philadelphia franchises. He led his peers in fielding percentage and led in most fielding categories every year. He retired in 1907, and his assists record as a third baseman was not broken until 1964!
“A converted catcher, Cross is the only player to set two new records for fielding percentage at 3B, doing so in 1895 (.940, breaking Billy Nash’s .933) and 1899 (.959, 12 points better than Billy Clingman’s record).” – Source: Baseball Reference
There are many who think that Ray Dandridge is the best defensive third baseman ever at the “hot corner”. He was certainly one of the top glovemen to play third. White scouts were so enamored of Dandridge’s skills, one was heard to exclaim, “We don’t have anyone close to his level!” Dandridge had quickness, speed and a cannon of an arm. And, his hands were the softest anyone had ever seen. While he played defense well at other positions, he was mostly a third baseman, and could shut down an opponent’s “small ball” game. Dandridge played mostly in the 1930s and the 1940s.
“There simply never was a smoother functioning master at third base than Dandridge, and he can hit that apple, too.” – Cum Posey
Dave Malarcher was another Negro League defensive third sacker who starred in the 1920s and the 1930s, and was an early version of a “vacuum cleaner” on the ‘hot corner”. He had the speed of a short stop but preferred to play third base. His skill level basically shut down his opponents’ bunting game. He was also one of the best at stealing the other team’s signals, giving his team yet another edge in competition.
“[Rube Foster’s] star student [Malarcher] had the gentle demeanor of a lap dog, but had a Rottweiler appetite to win.” – Source: Larry Lester, Negro Leagues historian.
Bill McKechnie was a superb defensive third baseman in the early part of the 20th century with mostly Pittsburgh and Cincinnati of the National League. He played without a lot of fanfare for approximately 11 years and was a nearly flawless fielder. He is better known as one of the best managers in baseball history, but was not only a fine fielder–he was instrumental as the designer of improved defensive strategy from his third base position.
“He knew baseball – the complete book. He knew the percentages and he applied them to the ability of his players with amazing accuracy. I played for other good men, but McKechnie was in a class by himself.” – Paul Waner
Aurelio Rodríguez had a cannon for an arm, and while he was not known for great range, he was the Detroit Tigers’ anchor at third base for the decade of the 1970s, his most productive time of the 17 years he spent in the Major Leagues. He could complete plays on any ball within his reach, and was considered a Gold Glove-level third sacker. His arm, called a “howitzer” by one broadcaster, was legendary. The best arm ever at third base? Very possibly so.
“He probably had as good a pair of hands on him as anybody, and a great arm — the only two arms I’ve ever seen like that, Travis Fryman and him. This guy was a great third baseman.” – Sparky Anderson
Pinky Whitney was a slick-fielding third baseman who played in the 1930s for the Philadelphia Phillies and the team mostly called the Boston Braves. His steady play at the “hot corner” made him one of the premier glovemen to ever play the position. In many years, Whitney led the National League in putouts, assists and fielding percentage. He was always around the top in all defensive categories.
“Whitney led NL third baseman in fielding three times.”
During the 1920s and 1930s, Willie Kamm was the best fielding third baseman in the American League. He played 13 years for the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. Kamm led the league in third base fielding percentage for 8 years, putouts for 7 years and assists for 4 seasons. He was one of the steadiest third sackers in the history of the game. It was said that his fielding mechanics were “flawless”.
“There is the best third-base prospect since the days of the old Orioles.” – White Sox manager, Kid Gleason. Source
Hall of Famer Ron Santo was the emotional leader of the Chicago Cubs for nearly 15 years, and anchored third base for them during the 1960s and the 1970s. He was an excellent offensive performer, but really showed his value as a defensive stalwart. He was selected for 9 All-Star teams, and led the League in putouts and assists for his position for 7 seasons. He also led many seasons, or was near the top, in every defensive category, for his career as a premier third baseman.
“To me it is clear and unequivocal that Santo is a Hall of Famer.” – Bill James, baseball writer and analyst.
Mike Schmidt was one of the best all-around ballplayers to ever be a third baseman. He was a great offensive performer, but his defense was equally good. He played in the 1970s and 1980s–18 years–for the Philadelphia Phillies. Schmidt won 10 Gold Gloves on his way to winning 3 NL MVPs (1980, 1981 and 1986). He played in 12 All-Star games, and led the NL in assists by third basemen 7 times, and also led in preventing runs by a third baseman 7 times. His offensive stats are amazing, too, and he is a member of the Hall of Fame.
“To have his body, I’d trade him mine and my wife’s, and I’d throw in some cash.” – Pete Rose
Pie Traynor anchored third base for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1920s and the 1930s for 17 years. He was an outstanding offensive producer, but became one of the greatest defensive third sackers in baseball history. Pie is rated as one of the top 6 third basemen in baseball history by UBTG, including offense and defense. He led the National League 7 seasons in putouts, and was always around the top in all defensive categories. He was an All-Star selection in his last 2 full seasons, the first two times that the All-Star Classic was played. He is a member of the Hall of Fame.
“Among those who saw him play, McGraw, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Paul Waner all stated that Traynor was the best third baseman of all time.” – The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia
#1: Brooks RobinsonBrooks Robinson is universally recognized as the greatest defensive third baseman in the history of the game. He was called the “Human Vacuum Cleaner” because of his unquestioned superiority as a defensive third sacker. Brooks won an unbelievable 16 consecutive Gold Gloves, and the 1964 AL MVP. He played for 23 years with the Baltimore Orioles, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and played in 18 All-Star games. Among his many records are 8 assists titles, 8 seasons of leading his position at preventing runs, and 11 remarkable years as the top fielding percentage at third base. He is known to this day for his brilliant fielding exploits in the 1970 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds–for which effort he was voted Series MVP (the Award included a new car). The Reds’ great catcher, Johnny Bench, quipped, “If we’d known he wanted a car that bad, we would have have bought him one!” Robinson is in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s a pretty sure thing that the player’s bat is what speaks loudest when it’s contract time, but there are moments when the glove has the last word.” Source: Third Base is My Home (Brooks Robinson)