Toughest Baseball Players in MLB History
Baseball players aren’t known for toughness, but they might be the toughest pro athletes. Ballplayers must play 162 games in 180 days, with sprains, nicks, dings and lingering injuries. No other pro sport features a more grueling regular-season slate of games.
Throw in the oppressive summer heat and insane travel schedule, and ballplayers must battle physical, mental and external elements. The players who battle the best can conquer everything baseball throws at them and earn a special place in the game.
These are the toughest Major League Baseball players of all time.
25. Ken Griffey Jr.
Position: Center fielder
Career: 22 seasons (1989-2010)
Teams: Seattle Mariners (1989-99, 2009-10), Cincinnati Reds (2000-08), Chicago White Sox (2008)
Bottom line: Ken Griffey Jr. played until he was 40, but because he was such a gifted natural athlete, taking preventive measures to protect his long-term health was not a big priority when he was young. "Why should I stretch?" he once said. "Does a cheetah stretch before it chases its prey?"
Of course, no one can outrun Father Time, and Griffey became injury plagued in the Cincinnati portion of his career. Still, he was a fearless patroller of center field, especially in his early playing days.
Let’s never forget the time he held on for a highlight-reel catch while breaking his wrist in the process at Seattle's Kingdome.
24. Derek Jeter
Career: 20 seasons (1995-2014)
Teams: New York Yankees
Bottom line: Derek Jeter's toughness may have been his most underrated quality. The longtime Yankees captain played through a lot of pain and injuries, and displayed incredible mental fortitude throughout his career.
Remember his famous leap into the Yankee Stadium stands against the Red Sox that bloodied his face?
But what really put Jeter on another level was his ability to rise to the occasion — batting .308 with 20 home runs and 61 RBI in 158 career playoff games, including the 2000 World Series, where he was named MVP after batting .409 with two home runs and six runs scored in five games against the rival Mets.
"You can't get the (bleeping) guy out of the lineup with a gun," Reggie Jackson told The New York Daily News. "I admire the hell out of that because that's what the great ones do. They will themselves onto the field if they have to."
23. Aaron Rowand
Position: Center fielder
Career: 11 seasons (2001-11)
Teams: Chicago White Sox (2001-05), Philadelphia Phillies (2006-07), San Francisco Giants (2008-11)
Bottom line: Aaron Rowand roamed outfields with reckless abandon and had no fear on a baseball diamond. While playing for the Phillies, he ran face-first into a wall at Citizens Bank Park to rob Xavier Nady of a big hit during a regular-season game against the Mets in 2006.
It was his most famous catch but far from the only instance that Rowand sacrificed his body for the good of the team. When he was on the White Sox, owner Jerry Reinsdorf put extra padding in the outfield wall because Rowand crashed into it so much.
22. Orel Hershiser
Career: 18 seasons (1983-2000)
Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers (1983-94, 2000), Cleveland Indians (1995-97), San Francisco Giants (1998), New York Mets (1999)
Bottom line: Orel Hershiser wasn't the hardest-throwing pitcher in big league history, but the 6-foot-3, 190-pound ace was one of the toughest pitchers. And he did his best work when the lights got brightest.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda nicknamed Hershiser "Bulldog" for his determination on the mound, and now that moniker describes any tough-minded pitcher who refuses to give in.
A three-time All-Star, Hershiser won the NL Cy Young Award in 1988 and is best known for throwing an MLB-record 59 consecutive scoreless innings in that season to lead the Dodgers to World Series glory.
21. Babe Ruth
Position: Outfielder and pitcher
Career: 22 seasons (1914-35)
Teams: Boston Red Sox (1914-19), New York Yankees (1920-34), Boston Braves (1935)
Bottom line: Babe Ruth was one of the most feared hitters of all time, but remember, he started as a dominant two-way player. Before he switched to full-time slugger with the Yankees in 1920, he dominated on the hill with the Red Sox and won 89 games in 143 starts.
Ruth also was subjected to taunts and racial epithets during his heyday. His mythical called shot in the 1932 World Series came after the Chicago Cubs jeered him mercilessly during his at-bats.
Ruth was an orphan in Baltimore who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become one of the wealthiest Americans of his era, and arguably the greatest pro athlete of all time.
If that’s not tough, we don’t know what is.
20. Craig Biggio
Position: Second baseman, catcher and outfielder
Career: 20 seasons (1988-2007)
Teams: Houston Astros
Bottom line: Craig Biggio came up as a 5-foot-11 catcher, which required significant toughness. Then, he changed positions to second base early in his career and became one of the toughest outs in the majors.
As ballplayers like to say, Biggio also knew how to "wear one." The Hall of Famer was hit by a pitch 285 times in his major league career, two fewer than Hughie Jennings, who finished with the most hit by pitches in baseball history.
Biggio achieve this feat on top of his 3,000-plus hits, 291 home runs and seven All-Star Game appearances.
19. David Eckstein
Position: Shortstop and second baseman
Career: 10 seasons (2001-10)
Teams: Anaheim Angels (2001-04), St. Louis Cardinals (2005-07), Toronto Blue Jays (2008), Arizona Diamondbacks (2008), San Diego Padres (2009-10)
Bottom line: David Eckstein was not the prototypical big leaguer. He probably was shorter than 5-foot-7. He probably should’ve never even played college baseball, let alone have a successful major league career. And he certainly never should’ve won a World Series MVP.
But the former infielder went to two All-Star Games and won two World Series championships, including his MVP performance with the Cardinals in 2006 that earned him a callout from then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
Eckstein's tenacity, effort and toughness carried him where talent fell short.
18. Thurman Munson
Career: 11 seasons (1969-79)
Teams: New York Yankees
Bottom line: Thurman Munson was as tenacious a competitor as you will ever find.
A fan favorite of New York Yankees loyalists — who preferred the hard-nosed catcher over Reggie Jackson’s diva mentality — Munson simply came to play every day, gave everything he had to the Yankees organization, then went home.
His life ended too short, as a plane crash stole Munson at age 32. But make no mistake about it: He was tough.
17. Kyle Farnsworth
Career: 16 seasons (1999-2014)
Teams: Chicago Cubs (1999-2004), Detroit Tigers (2005, 2008), Atlanta Braves (2005), New York Yankees (2006-08), Kansas City Royals (2009-10), Atlanta Braves (2010), Tampa Bay Rays (2011-13), Pittsburgh Pirates (2013), New York Mets (2014), Houston Astros (2014).
Bottom line: Kyle Farnsworth was a bad dude. How bad? He once was named the toughest player in a confidential major league survey.
At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he looked like an NFL player, but the relief pitcher could bring 100-mph heat and put fear in opposing batters.
He also had a black belt in karate, and wasn’t afraid to use his martial arts skills in fights. Farnsworth famously took care of Paul Wilson with a form tackle when the Reds pitcher charged him during a bench-clearing brawl.
What makes Farnsworth even tougher? He became a football player after he retired from the majors, playing defensive end for the Orlando Phantoms of the Florida Football Alliance. And he dominated.
16. Bo Jackson
Position: Left fielder
Career: 8 seasons (1986-94)
Teams: Kansas City Royals (1986-90), Chicago White Sox (1991, 1993), California Angels (1994)
Bottom line: Bo Jackson didn’t have to play baseball but chose to to prove a point to then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse — who cost him eligibility in his last season at Auburn University.
Instead of playing for the Bucs in the NFL, Jackson went to play baseball for the Kansas City Royals and became an All-Star, with fearless, amazing athletic feats becoming the norm every time he took the field.
Of course, Jackson also went to play in the NFL with the Raiders and is the only athlete to qualify as an MLB and NFL All-Star, which takes incredible mental and physical toughness.
15. Bob Gibson
Career: 17 seasons (1959-75)
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals
Bottom line: Bob Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history, willing to attack hitters — literally and metaphorically.
The longtime St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was an ornery type on the mound, never afraid to hit a batter who crowded the plate, and that style worked.
He won two NL Cy Young Awards, was a member of nine All-Star teams and took home the 1968 NL MVP when he finished with a major league-record 1.12 earned-run average in 304 2/3 innings.
14. Lenny Dykstra
Position: Center fielder
Career: 12 seasons
Teams: New York Mets (1985-89), Philadelphia Phillies (1989-96)
Bottom line: You don’t earn the nickname "Nails" by being soft, and Lenny Dykstra was the embodiment of grit, toughness and fortitude during his playing days.
He was a 13th-round draft pick from Anaheim, Calif., and turned a tough, middle-class upbringing into a 1,278-game major league career with the Mets and Phillies, including two World Series appearances and a win with the 1986 Mets.
13. Billy Martin
Position: Second baseman, shortstop, third baseman
Career: 11 seasons (1950-61)
Teams: New York Yankees (1950-53, 1955-57), Kansas City Athletics (1957), Detroit Tigers (1958), Cleveland Indians (1959), Cincinnati Reds (1960), Milwaukee Braves (1961), Minnesota Twins (1961)
Bottom line: Billy Martin used his brain and resilience to overcome his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame and carve out an 11-season big league career, winning four World Series rings with the New York Yankees.
Martin also showcased his toughness by navigating the impossible task of managing the Yankees in peak King George Steinbrenner days.
Martin survived five firings at the hands of the tyrannical New York owner to guide the Yankees to two American League pennants and the 1977 World Series championship.
12. Bob Feller
Career: 18 seasons (1936-41, 1945-56)
Teams: Cleveland Indians
Bottom line: Bob Feller had the prime of his career interrupted by service in World War II after breaking into the majors out of high school as a 17-year-old flamethrower.
Besides being a war hero and unflappable competitor on the mound — wing 266 major league games, despite not playing from 1942 to 1944 — he was a fighter off the field. He sought to upend the long-standing reserve-clause standard with major league contracts and also helped break down the color barrier by playing against Negro League talent during offseason showcases.
In almost every way possible, Feller was on the right side of history. That take toughness.
11. Curt Schilling
Career: 20 seasons (1988-2007)
Teams: Baltimore Orioles (1988-90), Houston Astros (1991), Philadelphia Phillies (1992-2000), Arizona Diamondbacks (2001-03), Boston Red Sox (2004-07)
Bottom line: How could we not recognize the star of "The Bloody Sock Game"?
Curt Schilling did more than overcome a potential season-ending injury by pitching with a loose ankle tendon in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees. He delivered seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball to pitch the "cursed" Boston Red Sox to within one game of the World Series. Of course, they advanced after taking Game 7 and won everything.
Even before Schilling's epic performance, he commanded respect as the ultimate warrior. Look at his 11-2 career playoff record for proof.
But that one game will forever put him in a select group.
10. Ted Williams
Position: Left fielder
Career: 19 seasons (1939-42, 1946-60)
Teams: Boston Red Sox
Bottom line: The "greatest hitter who ever lived" also was a member of the greatest generation. Like Bob Feller, Ted Williams lost three years of his baseball career (1942 to 1944) to active duty in the United States military.
He still managed to post more than 2,600 hits and an eye-popping .344 career batting average.
Williams' greatest bit of toughness is often referenced. He had a .3996 average on the last day of 1941 season, with the Red Sox playing a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s. Williams went 6-for-8 in the twin bill, finishing with a .406 season average — the last .400 season in major league history.
9. Carlton Fisk
Career: 24 seasons (1969, 1971-93)
Teams: Boston Red Sox (1969, 1971-80), Chicago White Sox (1981-93)
Bottom line: Carlton Fisk played arguably the most physically demanding position in pro sports, and did so for 24 seasons with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.
He was an intimidating presence, who played in the second-most games of any catcher in major league history.
His "Tough Guy" likeness now lives in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
8. Pete Rose
Position: Outfielder, first baseman, third baseman
Career: 24 seasons (1963-86)
Teams: Cincinnati Reds (1963-78, 1984-86), Philadelphia Phillies (1979-83), Montreal Expos (1984)
Bottom line: "Charlie Hustle," as Pete Rose was known, only knew one speed: 100 percent. He once ran over catcher Ray Fosse in an All-Star Game — separating Fosse's shoulder and leaving him permanently in pain — and showed no remorse, even decades later.
Rose was the epitome of a dirt dog and wanted to grind out every plate appearance, every inning, every game until he wore his opposition out.
He achieved his goal, finishing with an MLB-record 3,562 games, 14,053 at-bats and 4,256 hits. But gambling on the game has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
7. Jim Abbott
Career: 10 seasons (1989-99)
Teams: California Angels (1989-92, 1995-96), New York Yankees (1993-94), Chicago White Sox (1995, 1998). Milwaukee Brewers (1999)
Bottom line: Reaching the majors is hard. Reaching the majors when you’re born without a hand is supposed to be impossible. But Jim Abbott proved us all wrong.
Watching Abbott pitch was a marvel in creativity, but he was no sideshow on the hill. Abbott won a gold medal for the United States at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, then had 87 major league victories with the Angels, Yankees, White Sox and Brewers, including a no-hitter in 1993 with New York.
He was tough and inspirational, and pro sports is better for having him.
6. Cal Ripken
Position: Shortstop and third baseman
Career: 21 seasons (1981-2001)
Teams: Baltimore Orioles
Bottom line: Showing up for work every day doesn’t confirm toughness. But playing 162 baseball games in 180 days, every year for 17 straight seasons — reaching the All-Star Game each year and winning two American League MVPs in the process — does.
Forget the mental toughness it takes, but overcoming aches, dings and general soreness to play every day is amazing.
That was Cal Ripken, who played in, 2,632 straight games, surpassing Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130, a major league record for 56 years.
5. Lou Gehrig
Position: First baseman
Career: 17 seasons (1923-39)
Teams: New York Yankees
Bottom line: Lou Gehrig was the original Ironman. Dubbed the "Iron Horse" during his incredible 16-season playing career with the New York Yankees, Gehrig won six World Series championships, two AL MVPs and the 1934 Triple Crown — all while playing in 2,130 straight games.
Gehrig remains the gold standard of toughness in baseball, particularly as he battled ALS, a neuromuscular disease that colloquially bears his name and took his life at just 37 years of age.
With grace and class, Gehrig showed that toughness comes in many forms.
4. Hank Aaron
Position: Right fielder and first baseman
Career: 23 seasons (1954-76)
Teams: Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1954-74), Milwaukee Brewers (1975-76)
Bottom line: Hank Aaron was a model of consistency, hitting 40-plus homers in eight of his 23 major league seasons. But he was tough for more than just baseball reasons.
As Aaron pursued Babe Ruth's all-time major league home run record of 714, he faced death threats, racial taunts and other horrific behavior from both road fans and Braves supporters in Atlanta.
Aaron endured every awful thing and finished his career as baseball's home run king with 755, a mark that stood (without an asterisk) until Barry Bonds hit 762.
3. Curt Flood
Position: Center fielder
Career: 15 seasons (1956-69, 1971)
Teams: Cincinnati Reds (1956-57), St. Louis Cardinals (1958-69), Washington Senators (1971)
Bottom line: Curt Flood put his livelihood on the line to better serve his future coworkers, and lost playing baseball as a job option. Fortunately, he has since been vindicated.
Flood challenged the reserve clause of his contract after he was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, seeking to become a free agent. He sat out a full season in his prime while suing Major League Baseball and losing a Supreme Court case.
In the process, his major league career died. He played only 13 games after his challenge, but paved the way for increased salaries and better benefits for everyone.
2. Nolan Ryan
Career: 27 seasons (1966, 1968-93)
Teams: New York Mets (1966, 1968-71), California Angels (1972-79), Houston Astros (1980-88), Texas Rangers (1989-93)
Bottom line: Nolan Ryan was one of the most intimidating presences on the mound, to the point where he scared former manager Bobby Valentine out of removing his own pitchers forever.
Ryan's fastball — the "Ryan Express" — was legendary, but the Texan also was capable of handing out punishment, as Robin Ventura discovered.
The Chicago White Sox infielder did not appreciate being hit by Ryan during a game in 1993 and charged the mound. Ryan, who was 46 at the time, put the 26-year-old Ventura in a headlock and pummeled him with punches.
Winning a fight against someone two decades your junior? Doesn't get much tougher than that.
1. Jackie Robinson
Position: Second baseman, third baseman and first baseman
Career: 10 seasons (1947-56)
Teams: Brooklyn Dodgers
Bottom line: If you think baseball is tough, imagine playing the game when fans, opponents and even some of your own teammates don’t want you there. And some people would rather see you dead.
Robinson was deemed the perfect player to break the major league color barrier, and he did so with incredible dignity and aplomb.
He also could flat-out play, making six All-Star teams and winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 1947 and MVP in 1949.
He is one of the greatest players in major league history, and his perseverance in a near-impossible situation represents the pinnacle of toughness.