In any sporting endeavor, intimidation is an art form that can create a distinct advantage over an opponent, especially when that intimidation is accompanied by an impressive skill set. In baseball, this is particularly true, and over the years there have been many players who have excelled at instilling fear in the players they have faced. Whether it is a pitcher staring down a hitter as he steps into the batter’s box just before throwing high and inside, or a hulking power hitter surveying the field before punishing a pitched ball over the deepest part of the outfield fence, intimidation plays an important and dramatic role in America’s Pastime.
Since the game’s inception, a combination of the ability to play the game well and the ability to intimidate has allowed some of the game’s greatest players to excel while also allowing some with marginal talent to maximize their production while out on the diamond. For some, intimidation only required the possession of exceptional talent. For others, a bit of showmanship had to be employed to strike fear in the heart of opponents.
Each player on this list was known for intimidating opponents in some significant way throughout their career. These 20 players may not necessarily have been the best players of all time (though many of them are), but rather those players who inspired the most fear in their opponents; those who were not just difficult to face, but who were truly dreaded by their opponents. The 20 players on this list represent the most intimidating baseball players of all time, a diverse group that has representatives from nearly every era of the sport.
20 Ryne Duren
According to New York Yankees teammate Yogi Berra, Duren “had several pairs of glasses but it didn't seem like he saw good in any of them.” Those Coke-bottle lenses, coupled with a 100 mph fastball and a “tactical” lack of control, made Duren one of the most intimidating relievers of the late 1950s. His manager, Casey Stengel, once said of him, “Hitters don't like to see that fella. Especially family men."
Duren would often enter a game by squinting through his thick glasses and then throwing the ball well over the catcher’s head to the backstop. There are even stories (possibly embellished) of Duren hitting not only batters in the batter’s box, but also those waiting in the on-deck circle. The most intimidating aspect of Duren’s game was the fact that batters truly believed that Duren could not see, that he was just throwing into “an undifferentiated void.” A three-time All Star, Duren’s best season came in 1958, when the fireballing reliever led the league in saves and struck out 87 in 75.2 innings while posting a 2.02 ERA.
19 Al Hrabosky
Hrabosky was nicknamed “The Mad Hungarian,” owing to both his surname and his entertaining routine on the mound. A closer who pitched for 13 seasons with the Cardinals, Royals and Braves, Hrabosky’s signature Fu Manchu and practice of turning his back to the batter and slamming the ball into his glove before facing and glaring down the batter was quite an intimidating routine. It didn’t always translate to exceptional results on the mound, but batters were not exactly fond of the antics when having to face Hrabosky. During his best season, Hrabosky went 13-3 with 22 saves and a 1.66 ERA on the way to finishing third in the 1975 Cy Young voting.
18 Mark McGwire
Say what you want about the PED issue, but there is no question that McGwire was an intimidating presence in the batter’s box throughout his career. At 6’5”, McGwire’s outsized frame and powerful bat made him a hitter that pitchers feared facing and, as a result, walked frequently. During his record-breaking 1998 season, McGwire led the league in walks with 162, the most of his career and one of five times he topped 100 walks in a single season. A 12-time All-Star, McGwire famously admitted to taking steroids throughout his career, and his bulked-up physique was certainly a part of the reason for the intimidation that McGwire brought with him each time he came up to bat.
17 Goose Gossage
Of Gossage, teammate Rudy May once said, "Hitters always have the fear that one pitch might get away from him and they'll wind up DOA with a tag on their toe." Gossage, a Hall of Famer, had a fearsome mound presence due to both his appearance and the velocity with which he was able to fire his fastball. Bob Watson, who faced Gossage and also played with him as a teammate, detailed why it was his delivery that made “Goose” such an intimidating figure, saying, “He’s all arms and legs and he’s not looking at you. That doesn’t make you feel good when he’s throwing 100 miles an hour. I don’t mind a guy throwing 100 miles an hour if he’s looking at you. I’ll tell you it’s a lot better playing behind him.”
16 Frank Thomas
The 6’5” and 240-pound Thomas was built more like an NFL tight end than an MLB first baseman, but the man known as “The Big Hurt” hammered home run after home run on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Thomas was an incredibly productive player, spending the bulk of his career in Chicago and slashing .301/.419/.555 while hitting 521 home runs over 19 years in the majors. His mere presence at the plate was enough to intimidate even the best pitchers of his era, but the physically imposing Thomas also glared intently at the mound to ratchet up the intimidation factor even more.
15 Don Drysdale
Drysdale, an eight-time All Star and the 1962 Cy Young Award winner, was feared for both his outstanding ability and his penchant for pitching inside any time a batter crowded the plate. Over his 14-year Hall of Fame career, Drysdale hit 154 batters while leading the league in hit batsmen on five separate occasions. Drysdale also famously adhered to the “knock down one of mine, I knock down two of yours” policy of retaliation, and his reputation was well known. Of Drysdale’s beanings, fellow Hall of Famer Frank Robinson once said, "He was mean enough to do it, and he did it continuously. You could count on him doing it. And when he did it, he just stood there on the mound and glared at you to let you know he meant it.”
14 Bob Feller
In a time when radar guns were not yet the norm in MLB stadiums, curiosity over the speed “Rapid Robert” was able to throw a baseball led to the famous test involving Feller, a baseball, and a motorcycle. According to the test, Feller’s fastball was measured at 104 mph, and the Baseball Hall of Fame lists Feller's 107.9 mph pitch (determined using the photo-electric devices at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1946), as the fastest pitch ever thrown. But the speed of his fastball was not the only thing that made “Bullet Bob” one of the most intimidating ever, as Feller also had a tic that made batters nervous. According to Bobby Brown, an infielder with the New York Yankees, Feller would be “out on the mound blinking at you. He had a facial tic, and you're standing at the plate just thinking, 'I hope he sees me.'" Feller's intimidating fastball made him one of the greatest pitchers ever, as the Hall of Famer won 266 games and struck out 2,581 batters during his 18-year career.
13 Reggie Jackson
Jackson was a dominating hitter throughout his 21-year Hall of Fame career, slugging 563 home runs while playing for the Oakland A’s, Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees and California Angels. An intimidating presence in the batter’s box, Jackson was as confident as he was intimidating, and opposing players were often awed by his heroics. After Jackson hit his third home run in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey admitted that he applauded Jackson in his glove, though he first checked to ensure no one was looking. In attempting to describe Jackson, Jim Wojtanik said, "Many words come to mind when describing Reggie Jackson. Powerful. Electrifying. Charismatic. Dramatic. A winner. But there’s one word that does not come to mind. Boring."
12 Mariano Rivera
When a pitcher tips off the pitch he is about to throw, professional hitters are generally able to take advantage. Such was not the case with Rivera, who relied heavily on just one pitch – a cut fastball – but still baffled hitters on his way to becoming the all-time saves leader in MLB. That cutter, along with his entrance music – Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” – made him the most intimidating closer in baseball over a career that spanned 19 years with the New York Yankees. The 13-time All Star also received frequent and serious consideration for both the Cy Young award and the MVP award over the course of his career, a rarity for any reliever.
11 Rickey Henderson
"The Man of Steal" was not the intimidating physical figure that many of the hitters on this list were, but it was Henderson's ability to completely transform a game with his legs that struck fear into the hearts of opponents. Henderson, the all-time leader in stolen bases with 1,406, was always a threat to destroy a team on the basepaths and he knew it. Widely regarded as the best leadoff hitter ever, Henderson famously declared his greatness after breaking the all-time stolen base record, saying, "Lou Brock was a great base stealer but today I am the greatest.” Henderson played for a quarter century, leading the league in stolen bases 12 times, including once at the age of 39.
10 Ted Williams
Bob Feller, who also appears on this list, once recalled that “trying to throw a fastball by him was like trying to sneak a sunbeam past a rooster in the morning…very difficult!” Williams is arguably the greatest hitter ever, slashing .344/.482/.634 over 19 years in the bigs, and his counting stats would have been significantly better had he not missed out on some of his prime years due to military service during both World War II and the Korean War. Despite missing these years, Williams still hit 521 home runs in his career. As a man with superior ability and what many regarded as superhuman eyesight, Williams was a man that pitchers hated to face, and the fact that none other than Bob Feller had difficulty facing the Red Sox legend speaks to just how intimidating a slugger he was.
9 Walter Johnson
Of Walter Johnson’s fastball, Ty Cobb said that it “hissed with danger.” That a hitter of Cobb’s caliber could say such a thing of Johnson shows just how intimidating the Big Train’s fastball was. So good was Johnson’s fastball that he didn’t even bother developing a secondary pitch until 1913, and by then he had already pitched six seasons in the big leagues. In 21 years in the majors, Johnson went 417-279 with an ERA of 2.17. He led the league in strikeouts on 12 different occasions and was twice named the MVP of the league. Part of Johnson’s success could be easily attributed to the fear that his fastball induced in the batters he face, including none other than the great Ty Cobb.
8 Willie McCovey
At 6’4” and 200 pounds, McCovey was one of the great power hitters of his era, and the power he possessed was widely admired by his opposition. Walter Alston, the longtime Dodgers manager, said McCovey “didn't hit any cheap ones. When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority it seems like an act of God,” while Gene Mauch of the Phillies called McCovey “the most awesome hitter I've ever seen." There are few that would argue that he was one of the most feared hitters of his time, and it was his fearsome power that ultimately propelled him into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot in 1977.
7 Bob Gibson
Like Drysdale, Gibson had a tendency to throw the ball high and tight if he believed a batter was crowding the plate, and his intimidating presence on the mound led to one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had, one which led MLB to lower the mound in order to make it easier on batters. During that 1968 season, Gibson was 22-9 with a miniscule 1.12 ERA that helped to earn him the Cy Young and MVP, not to mention the Gold Glove that he received for his defense. Of his mound presence, Gibson’s battery mate Tim McCarver summed it up perfectly: “For my money, the most intimidating, arrogant pitcher ever to kick up dirt on a mound is Bob Gibson. If you ever saw Gibson work, you’d never forget his style: his cap pulled down low over his eyes, the ball gripped – almost mashed – behind his right hip, the eyes smoldering at each batter almost accusingly. [He] didn’t like to lose to anyone in anything. Bob was a man of mulish competitive instinct.”
6 Ty Cobb
The stories of Cobb’s saltiness are the stuff of legend. There are tales of how Cobb sharpened his spikes with a file for when he slid into a defender, and there is, of course, the time that he got into a fight with a groundskeeper and subsequently choked the groundskeeper’s wife when she tried to intervene. Stories such as these led Cobb to say of himself, "In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport," and that portrayal is a fairly accurate description of the way opponents perceived him during his playing days. Cobb was devastatingly talented and he still holds the all-time greatest career batting average (.366), and he retired as the all-time leader in total hits with 4,189. His personality did not affect the perception of his baseball talents, as he was the highest vote-getter in the first Hall of Fame vote, beating out Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.
5 Barry Bonds
Bonds holds the record for home runs in a single season and also holds the record for most career home runs, but allegations relating to PEDs have dogged him so much that he doesn’t seem to stand a chance at making the Hall of Fame. When determining the most intimidating players ever, PEDs and asterisks don’t matter much, as there is simply no doubt that Bonds successfully intimidated his opponents and was easily the most feared hitter in baseball throughout the majority of his career. Along with his home run titles, Bonds is also the all-time leader in walks, and he even led the league in walks in seven of the last eight seasons he played. The seven-time MVP may owe some of his intimidation factor to performance enhancers, but he was a seriously intimidating figure nonetheless.
4 Nolan Ryan
Ryan is the all-time leader in strikeouts with 5,714 and holds the record for most no-hitters of all-time as well, having pitched seven during his illustrious 27-year career. He did his fair share of intimidating during that time, and he often came in on batters to keep them off the outer half of the plate. This led to a fair number of hit batsmen, and one of the more famous baseball altercations occurred as a result. After the 46-year-old Ryan hit Robin Ventura with an inside pitch, Ventura charged the mound. In watching the replay, there is a moment where Ventura can be seen slowing down, hesitating as though he realized he had made a mistake by challenging Ryan. In an instant, Ryan had Ventura in a headlock and was punching him repeatedly. The Hall of Famer is as famous for that incident as he is for his exceptional pitching prowess, both of which contribute to his reputation as one of the most intimidating pitchers to ever take the mound.
3 Pete Rose
Rose, the all-time hit king, was known for playing a hard-charging style of baseball. He dove headfirst into bases and demolished catchers on plays at the plate, all while accumulating a total of 4,256 hits while slashing .303/.375/.409 for his career. The man nicknamed Charlie Hustle intimidated opponents with his style of play, and Phillies’ executive Bill Giles once said of Rose that “there was a sense that [Rose] wanted it more than we did and we didn’t like that. When you see a guy hit a clean single and turn it into a double that can be intimidating to a team. It had an effect on us." Rose was named to 17 All-Star teams during his 24-year career and earned the MVP in 1973, but is famously banned from baseball and cannot be elected to the Hall of Fame unless he is reinstated by the commissioner of baseball.
2 Randy Johnson
The 6’10” Johnson was devastatingly effective over the course of his Hall of Fame career, and standing atop the pitching mound he appeared to be much larger than life. Perhaps the most famous case of Johnson’s intimidation came in the 1993 All-Star game when Johnson threw a pitch over John Kruk’s head, effectively rendering Kruk useless for the remainder of the at-bat. Kruk’s reaction was priceless, and it perfectly encapsulated the fear that Johnson was able to strike in opposing batters over his 22-year career, one that saw Johnson win over 300 games and earn five Cy Young awards while striking out 4,875 batters.
1 Babe Ruth
The Great Bambino was easily the most feared hitter of his time and hit home runs at a rate that had never been seen before in the game of baseball. When he retired, the Yankees slugger held the record for career home runs (714) and home runs in a single season (60). He also led the league in walks 11 different times, and was walked over 100 times 13 times during his 22-year career. His accomplishments are even recognized by the advanced metrics, as he remains the all-time leader in OPS+ at 206 (100 is league-average), OPS (1.164) and slugging percentage (.690), so it is fair to say that Ruth was a terrifying batter to have to face. So despite his reputation as something of a jovial figure, Ruth was by far the most intimidating batter that any pitcher has had to face in the history of baseball.
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