Lots of folks have a dog in this fight. Bonds jacked more homers than anyone else. Ruth was a monster from both the mound and the batter’s box. Williams got on base nearly half the times he stepped to the plate. Rose made more trips to first than anyone else. Cobb had a better batting average than anyone else.
First, let’s define our terms. I want to talk about hitting ability. Williams was probably a better batter than anyone else looking at the rate at which he got there. But he was multi-talented; he didn’t have to hit the ball to beat you. (Though he was darn good at that.) Ruth was maybe the greatest player, but we’re not considering pitching at all, at all. Bonds was a cheater, and home runs might have made him the most valuable player, but not necessarily the greatest hitter.
Rose hung around a long time, he was very durable, but his rate of failure is pretty sizeable. Cobb seems like a good candidate. Batting average is about actually putting the bat on the ball and (luck or no) hitting ’em where they ain’t. He certainly did that at a greater rate than anyone else. Case closed, yes? Well, maybe no.
Cobb did have a great batting average, but he also had a lot of walks. And batting average is figured using at-bats not plate appearances. This is a crucial point which (spoiler alert) makes all the difference. Cobb is number 1 in BA to Rogers Hornsby’s number 2, but only by .008. If you look at walks, Cobb is well down the all-time leaderboard in 54th place. But Hornsby isn’t even in the top 100! He’s 105th overall in career BB.
Maybe, if you take hits and put it over the sheer number of plate appearances, the Rajah (now that’s a nickname!) edges out the Georgia Peach? Nope, not quite. Cobb is .320 lifetime in H/PA. Hornsby is .309. In fact there are a handful of names that do even better than Hornsby if not as well as Cobb. Pete Browning, Nap Lajoie, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Lefty O’Doul, and George Sisler all range from .310-.312.
But, if you take the invaluable Play Index and search for anyone with a H/PA greater than .300 and a minimum of 1000 hits (no fluke seasons skewing the answer), one man is farther ahead of Cobb than Cobb is ahead of Sisler. Dave Orr managed to get a hit in very nearly a third of his plate appearances. Orr came up and hit the ball to get on base at a .330 clip. (His OBP is a mere .366, so he was taking his hacks, but it worked.)
Why haven’t you heard of him before? Well, to begin with, he played in the 19th century, essentially from 1884 to 1890. Then, as you see, he had a short career of only 7 seasons. He went out on top, being the best hitter on his team, but suffered a debilitating stroke while playing an exhibition game and never being able to play again. If he’d played a little longer, he might have been inducted into the Hall of Fame once it was created. As it was, he was widely considered one of the best players of his era. (He was a physical monster too, not an infield hits guy. He played 1B, and stood 5’11” and weighed 250 lbs. That’s a big boy in any era, much less 120 years ago.)
If you’re interested even a little, I can’t recommend enough that you go read his bio on the SABR BioProject. It’s where I got all my info about him other than the raw numbers which are from the invaluable Baseball-Reference.
Finally, if you think that Rose or Cobb or Williams was still the greatest hitter, fine. Hopefully you still found this interesting. And you’re entitled to be wrong if you want to be.