10 Best Major League Baseball Players of the 1980s
When it comes to Major League Baseball, the 1980s was a decade that is often forgotten when considering the history of America’s Pastime. There were a number of events that Major League Baseball would be happy for people to forget, however, including the 1981 labor stoppage and the problems with cocaine throughout the league. On the other hand, however, the decade did have its bright spots, including one of the greatest postseasons in the history of the league in 1986.
The 1980s was also a time of transition for Major League Baseball. Unlike the 1990s and 2000s where power was king, in the 1980s, the power behind the players was noticeably missing. Throughout the decade, there were only 13 players to meet 40 home runs in the entire season, which was the lowest since the days before Babe Ruth hit the scene.
Though the 1980s were often shadowed over when looking at the history of baseball, there were a number of outstanding players who came out onto the scene. The days of Albert Belle and Alex Rodriquez were well in the future, and the players of the 1980s simply were not part of the daily press cycle as players are today. These superstars stayed away from the limelight, and instead, kept their heads in the game.
Though there were hundreds of ball players in the 1980s across the whole of the major leagues, here were the 10 best major league baseball players of the 1980s:
10. Keith Hernandez
Though most people today recognize Keith Hernandez as a commentator for Mets baseball, he was an excellent player back in the 1980s. Hernandez was a first baseman who spent most of his career playing for the Cardinals and the Mets. He was chosen as an All-Star five time, and was chosen as the National League MVP in 1979. As he came into the 1980s, he was part of two World Series, one in 1982 with the Cardinals and one in 1986 with the Mets. In addition to these awards, Hernandez also received the Gold Glove award for 11 consecutive seasons, which is the most in baseball history by any first baseman.
Hernandez entered professional baseball in 1971, when he was chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals in the draft. He played in the minors for a couple of years, and then worked his way up to play in the majors in 1974. Throughout the early 1980s, Hernandez was one of the top National League stars and was a .300 hitter. However, Hernandez did not always get along with the management of the Cardinals, and was traded to the Mets in 1983. Though the Mets were a losing team when Hernandez joined, the 1984 season proved much better, in part to his skill as a player, and by 1986, the team was a World Series winner.
Hernandez spent the rest of the 1980s with the Mets, and when his contract was not renewed in 1989 due to a fall in stats, Hernandez signed to the Cleveland Indians for one year in 1990. He retired when the contract was up.
9. Will Clark
“Will the Thrill” Clark was another notable figure of 1980s Major League Baseball, and is best known for his career with the San Francisco Giants.
Clark started his career as part of the U.S. baseball scene thanks to him being a part of the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team. He played for Mississippi State in 1985, and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants later that year. In his major league debut on April 8, 1986, Clark hit a home run off of hall of fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, and got his second MLB home run a few days later. However, this glory would be short lived, as Clark received an elbow injury, which caused him to miss almost 50 games in his first season.
Fortunately, things improved, and over the next six seasons with the Giants, Clark became known as the top first baseman of the National League. From 1988 to 1992, Clark served as the first baseman for the All-Star team, and he became the first player on the Giants to have more than 90 runs in consecutive seasons. It is said that 1989 was the best season of Clark’s career, and he batted .333 and had 111 RBIs. Later that year, the Giants defeated the Cubs in the National Championship Series, and when on to the World Series where they were swept by the Oakland A’s.
Clark left the Giants in 1993, and also played for the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring in 2000.
8. Rod Carew
Rod Carew played both first and second base throughout his Major League Baseball career, and also was a coach. By the 1980s, Carew was already a well-known player, as he had already had an illustrious career through the 1970s. Though he was not known for his ability to hit homers, he was an extremely efficient contact hitter, and is part of both the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Throughout the 1970s, Carew played with the Twins, but in 1979, Carew was traded to the Angels. Throughout the early 1980s, Carew was able to keep up a batting average of .339, but in 1982, broke his hand, but played through it and still achieved a .319 average. In 1982, he went to the playoffs with the Angels, and though the team lost, Carew played in all five games. In 1985, Carew had his 3,000th base hit, which was fitting, as that was his last year playing for the pros. However, this was not his choice, as it was later found that several owners got together to keep Carew and other players from signing with teams. When it was discovered, Carew was awarded almost $800,000.
After his playing career, Carew went on to coach for both the Angels and the Milwaukee Brewers. He has two retired numbers from the Twins and Angels, and Carew was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
7. Dennis Eckersley
Dennis Eckersley, known as “Eck,” is the first pitcher on this top 10 list. Throughout his career, which began in the 1970s, he played for a number of teams including the Indians, Red Sox, Cubs, Athletics and Cardinals. Though he found success as a starter, he gained much more fame as a closer, and became the first pitcher in the history of the MLB to have both a season with 20 wins, and a season with 50 saves.
Eck played for the Indians throughout the 1970s, and then was traded to the Red Sox in 1978 where he spent the first years of the 1980s. Though he played well for the first two years with the team, the rest of his time with the Red Sox was littered with poor performance, and he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1984.
Eck’s poor playing streak continued in the first year with the Cubs, but in 1985, everything turned around for him, and he posted a winning record with two shutouts. Eck was traded again in 1987 to Oakland, and this is where his closing skills became well known. In 1987, he was able to save 16 games, and in 1988, he made 45 saves and helped the team sweep the Red Sox in the 1988 American League playoffs. Though they lost the World Series in 1988, Eck was instrumental in the team’s win against the Giants in the 1989 World Series.
Eckersley was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, and he currently works as a broadcast studio analyst for the Red Sox on the New England Sports Network.
6. Gary Carter
Gary Carter, known as “Kid,” was a catcher in the MLB for 21 years. Primarily he played for the Expos and the Mets, and was an 11-time All-Star. Carter was known for his outstanding hitting and defense skills, and he was a major contributor to the World Series win the Mets achieved in 1986.
As the 1980s hit, Carter was playing for the Expos, and he started in his first All Star Game. He hit two home runs, and was declared the MVP of the game. He remained with the Expos throughout the early 1980s, and he was a fan favorite. By 1984, Carter was leading the league in RBIs, and he had a .294 batting average. That wasn’t enough to keep him on the team, however, and he was traded to the Mets at the end of the season.
In his first game with the Mets in 1985, he hit a home run in the 10th inning, giving the Mets a win over the Cardinals on Opening Day, and he and Keith Hernandez led the Mets to a winning season, but they missed the playoffs by three games. The next year, 1986, would be very different, however, and the Mets won the World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
By 1987, Carter had 291 home runs in his career, and 299 home runs by May of 1988. He hit his 300th homer at Wrigley Field.
Carter retired from baseball in 1992, after returning to the Expos, and in 2003, he became part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Carter passed away from brain cancer in 2012 at the age of 57.
5. Fernando Valenzuela
Fernando Valenzuela played for the Major Leagues for 17 years, and is best known for his tenure with the Dodgers who he pitched for from 1980 to 1990. He also pitched for five other teams throughout his career.
Though Valenzuela came onto the team in 1980, his 1981 season was the first where he saw great success. He was successful, in fact, that he was an integral part of getting the Dodgers to the World Series that year. He was also the only player in the history of Major League Baseball to win both the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year in the same year. Also in 1981, he was the recipient of the Silver Slugger Award.
Valenzuela was known for his screwball, his charm and the connection he had with the Latino community of Los Angeles. He was a fan favorite throughout the 1980s, and had another excellent year in 1986, when he won 21 games. Unfortunately, Valenzuela was injured during the 1988 season, and though he healed, it had a negative effect on his career, and throughout the 1990s, he was traded from team to team until 1997, when he officially retired.
Valenzuela is a member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He won many awards during his time in the league including being a member of six All-Star teams. Since 2003, Valenzuela has worked as a Spanish commentator for Dodgers baseball.
4. Orel Hershiser
Orel Hershiser is a former pitcher who played professional baseball for 18 seasons. He was drafted in 1979 by the LA Dodgers, and he played for several years in the minors before making his major league debut in 1983.
While Hershiser was with the Dodgers, he was an All-Star three times. His best season was in 1988 when Hershiser set a record by pitching 59 innings in a row without allowing any runs. He also helps to lead the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series, and he was named the MVP of the National League and the MVP of the World Series. Additionally, he also won the Gold Glove Award and Cy Young Award in 1988. Later in his career, Hershiser pitched in two additional World Series and he earned the MVP Award for the America League.
Hershiser remained with the Dodgers for 12 seasons, and then played for the Indians, Giants and Mets before once again playing for the Dodgers in his last season. After retiring as a player, he worked as a team executive and coach for the Texas Rangers, and then was an analyst for ESPN and then the Dodgers. Hershiser is also known for playing poker, and he has been playing competitively since 2006. He has played for PokerStars and in the World Series of Poker. He has a tradition of giving a baseball with his autograph to any poker player that eliminates him in a tournament.
3. Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens played as a pitcher in Major League Baseball for 24 seasons. Over that time, he played for four teams, and he was one of the most well-known and dominant pitchers in the league. Throughout his career, he had 354 wins, an ERA of 3.12 and more than 4,672 strikeouts, which puts him in third place in strikeouts in the history of baseball.
Clemens was chosen as an All-Star 11 times, and won the World Series two times. He also won the Cy Young Award seven times, which is the most of any pitcher in the history of the league. He was known for his hard-throwing pitching style, competitive nature and his fierceness, which he often used to intimidate those players who were at bat.
Clemens entered the majors in 1984, and he played for the Boston Red Sox for 12 years. One of this best years of the 1980s was 1986 when he was chosen as the All-Star Game MVP, the Most Valuable Player in the American League and was given the Cy Young Award. He also broke an MLB record in 1986 when he struck out 20 batters in only one game.
Clemens stayed with the Red Sox until 1996 when he went up to Toronto to play with the Blue Jays, and then was traded to the Yankees for a few years before moving to the Astros. His final year was spent with the Yankees, and he retired in 2008.
Though Clemens was an outstanding pitcher, his later career was marred with his involvement in the MLB steroid controversy, and he was accused of lying in front of Congress about his involvement with steroids. After a mistrial and retrial, he was found not guilty in 2012.
2. Jack Morris
Jack Morris was also a major league baseball pitcher, and he played baseball from 1977 to 1994, mostly for the Detroit Tigers. Throughout his career, Morris won 254 games, and was known for pitches including his slider, fastball and forkball. He was a five-time All-Star, four of which were given in the 1980s, and played on four World Series teams. Morris also started the most games, had the most wins and pitched the most innings of all pitchers throughout the decade.
The best years for Morris in the 1980s were 1983, 1984 and 1986. He started 37 games in 1983, and he completed 20 of them. He also led the league for the year in the number of innings pitched, strikeouts and batters faced. Morris started the 1984 season with a no-hitter against the White Sox, which was the first for the Tigers since 1958. By the end of the year, he had a 3.60 ERA and helped to take the Tigers to the World Series. He was awarded the Babe Ruth Award in 1984, as well.
In 1986, Morris had 21 wins, and threw three complete game shutouts in a row, and he helped to bring the team to the playoffs again in 1987, but the Tigers lost in the first round of postseason play. After 1987, Morris’ performance started to wane, and by 1990, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins. He also played for the Blue Jays, Indians and Reds before retiring in 1994.
1. Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan was already a well-known player by the 1980s, and had already played for the Mets and Angels before coming to the Houston Astros in 1980. Ryan become a free agent in 1979, and signed a very lucrative contract with the Astro. He hit his 3,000th strikeout in his career in 1980, and Ryan went to the playoffs with the Astros in that first year. Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter in 1981, and his first with the Astros, and that no-hitter allowed his to become only the third pitcher to have a no-hitter on his record in both leagues. He also won the National League ERA title in that year with a 1.69 ERA.
By 1987, Ryan led the league in both strikeouts and ERA by the age of 40, but he finished the season with a dismal 8-16 record. In 1988, there was a contract dispute between the Astros and Ryan, and he joined the Texas Rangers. He retired from playing in 1993, and became part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
After retiring, Ryan owned two minor league teams, the Round Rock Express and the Corpus Christi Hooks, both affiliates of the Astros. Ryan became the President of the Texas Rangers in 2008, served as a spokesperson for Advil, and he wrote six books during his retirement years. Ryan also served as the CEO of the Texas Rangers until he stepped down in 2013.
Though the 1980s was not necessarily seen as a golden decade of baseball, it is certainly one that should not be overlooked. Many of the outstanding players of the 1990s got their start in the 1980s, such as Will Clark and Orel Hershiser, it was also the decade where some of the greatest names in baseball, such as Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan found their stride.
The 1980s rushed in the concept of free-agency for baseball, and unknown to most, the 1980s had a dark underbelly in the world of baseball, that included the use of steroids and betting. There were a number of scandals in the world of baseball during the 1980s, including rampant cocaine use and owners coming together and pushing players out of contracts. Many of the players on this list found themselves caught up in these scandals, whether they wanted to or not.
All in all, the legacy of 1980s baseball is that the favorite sport of Americans really underwent a makeover, and set the stage for the resurgence of its popularity in the 1990s.