Ten Best College Baseball Players of All-Time
Number 10: Greg Swindell, University of Texas
When you think of great Texas Longhorn pitchers of the ‘80s, Roger Clemens is going to be the first name that comes to mind. While The Rocket certainly did some dominating during his time in Austin, it was actually the UT ace that followed him — left-hander Greg Swindell — who had the better college career.
Swindell finished his four years of college ball with a 43-8 record and a 1.92 ERA. He completed 32 of the 50 games he started. During his junior year in 1985, Swindell posted a 19-2 record with 1.67 ERA and 204 strikeouts and was named Baseball America’s player of the year. He was selected by the Cleveland Indians with the second pick of the 1986 draft.
Swindell saw early success as a major leaguer — winning 18 games and making the All-Star team as 23-year old in 1988. But that turned out to be the best season of his pro career. While Swindell’s career numbers of 123-122 with 3.87 ERA are pretty decent, they’d have to be considered a bit of a disappointment given his stellar college pedigree.
Number 9: John Olerud, Washington State
You probably remember John Olerud as a Major League batting champion who played a slick first base and wore a helmet in the field. In college, he was known as a two-way player who hit and pitched at an elite level.
During his freshman year at Washington State Olerud batted .414 and finished 8-2 with a 3.00 ERA on the mound. He exploded as a sophomore, hitting .464 with 21 home run and 81 RBIs while compiling a 15-0 record with a 2.49 ERA, easily winning the National Player of the Year.
Olerud suffered a scary brain aneurysm between his sophomore and junior years — which is why he always wore a helmet as a pro. He returned for the second half of his junior year and posted good statistics, but concerns about his health had him slip to Toronto in the third round of the 1989 draft. He rewarded the Blue Jays’ faith in him by leading them to a World Series in 1993.
Since 2010, the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award has been given to the best hitter/pitcher in College Baseball
Number 8: Ben McDonald, LSU
At 6’7 inches, Ben McDonald played baseball and basketball for LSU. But it was on the diamond where Big Ben was a standout, leading the Tigers to two College World Series titles during his three years on campus.
With a mid-90s fastball and devastating curve, McDonald also led the Team USA to the 1988 Olympic Gold Medal in Seoul, South Korea. He followed that up with a junior year in which he set the SEC record for strikeouts in a season with 202 and won the Golden Spikes Award for the top player in college baseball.
There was little doubt who the Baltimore Orioles would select with the number one overall pick in the draft in 1989, and McDonald rewarded them with a stellar rookie year in 1990. However, the strikeouts never came as easy for McDonald in the majors, and arm trouble forced him out of baseball after nine years. He finished with a fairly middling lifetime record of 78-71 record with a career ERA of 3.91.
Number 7: Bob Horner: Arizona State
As a hard-hitting collegiate second baseman, Bob Horner set a then-NCAA-record with 56 home runs during his three-year career at Arizona State. His 25 dingers in 1977 was a then-single-season record and that year he was selected as the College World Series MVP.
Horner’s college reputation was such that the Atlanta Braves jumped him right to the Major Leagues after selecting him with the first pick in the 1978 draft. He rewarded their confidence by slugging 23 home runs in 89 games and winning the National League Rookie of the Year. Horner remained one baseball’s most dominant hitters until fracturing his wrist in 1983. He retired from baseball after the 1988 season at age 30.
Horner is a member of Baseball America’s All-Time College Baseball Team and was inducted to the College Baseball Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 2006.
Number 6: Pete Incaviglia: Oklahoma State
You probably remember Pete Incaviglia as an entertaining but flawed big league player. “Inky” played 12-years, hit 206 home runs and wore out left-handed pitching. But he was an adventure in the field, didn’t hit righties much and struck out an awful lot. However, Incaviglia was an all-around terrific college baseball player — one of the best to ever wield an aluminum bat.
Incaviglia finished his three-year career at Oklahoma State with 100 home runs and a .915 slugging percentage, both all-time records. His 1985 season was one for the ages, with a single season Division 1 record of 48 home runs, 143 RBI’s and a 1.140 slugging percentage. Remember college teams play between 70 and 80 games a year.
Incaviglia, who was lighted recruited coming out of high school, led Oklahoma State to the College World Series in each of his years on campus and after that was drafted with the eighth pick of the 1985 draft by the Montreal Expos.
He is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and was named Collegiate Player of the Century by Baseball America.
Number 5: Lou Gehrig, Columbia University
While Lou Gehrig had been a legendary New York City high school baseball player, he actually went to Columbia University on a football scholarship. It wasn’t long before they had him playing hardball too. Although college stats from the 1920s are hard to come by, we do know Gehrig once struck out 17 batters in a game as a pitcher. We also know that he made a habit of slamming tape measure home runs out of Columbia’s South Field and into the streets of New York — which is what got him his contract with the Yankees and made him an Ivy League dropout.
He was also one of the few players of his era to play organized college baseball. So one has to figure that the Iron Horse — one of the best hitters who ever lived — was also one of the best college baseball players of all-time.
Number 4: Dave Winfield: University of Minnesota
Dave Winfield ended his Major League Baseball career with 3110 hits, 465 home runs, and a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame. But during his college career at the University of Minnesota he was better known as a pitcher — and as a basketball player.
The two-sport star led the Gopher’s baseball team to the semi-finals of the College World Series his senior year with 9-1 record and 2.74 ERA and .385 average with eight homers and 33 RBI as an outfielder.
Winfield was drafted with the fourth pick in the 1973 draft by the San Diego Padres. Winfield was also drafted by the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, the Utah Stars of the ABA and the Minnesota Vikings, who took a flyer on Winfield in the NFL draft even though he never played a down of football in college.
With all those leagues to choose from, Winfield had the leverage to negotiate a contract with the Padres that required he report directly to the major leagues. Despite his lack of seasoning in the minors, Winfield hit .273 during his rookie year and then just kept getting better and better.
Number 3: Reggie Jackson: Arizona State
Before he was Mr. October, Reggie Jackson was Mr. College Baseball. And he was darn near none of those things as he actually went to Arizona State on a football scholarship.
Freshmen were ineligible varsity sports back when Jackson arrived in Phoenix and by the time sophomore year rolled around Jackson had been told he would be playing defensive back on the football team, not his preferred position of halfback. So he quit the football team, walked on to the baseball team, and promptly set the ASU record for home runs in a season. In doing so, he also became the first college player to hit a ball out of Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
In 1966 the Kansas Royals made Jackson the second pick in the MLB draft. “The straw that stirred the drink” went on to become the premier power hitter of his generation and a first ballot Hall of Famer. But, as you will soon see, he isn’t even the greatest college player in Arizona State history.
Number 2: Robin Ventura: Oklahoma State
Many believe Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is the most impressive record in sports. Robin Ventura actually did him two better with a 58-game streak, albeit as a sophomore at Oklahoma State. He went on to hit .428 with 21 homers and 110 RBIs that year. Amazing numbers. But almost a disappointment for a guy who had hit.469 with 21 homers and 96 RBIs as a true freshman!
During his junior year in 1988 he went .391, 26, 96 and won both the Dick Howser Award and Golden Spikes Award for the best player in the nation. That summer he helped lead the United States to a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics.
Ventura was selected by the White Sox with the tenth pick in the 1988 draft and went on to a long productive career with 1885 hits and 294 home runs. He is currently the manager of the White Sox.
In 2006, Ventura was inducted to the College Baseball Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class.
Number 1: Barry Bonds: Arizona State
Before the 762 home runs, before the seven MVPs, before “The Clear,” and before he had a gigantic head, Barry Bonds was one terrific college baseball player for Arizona State.
Over his three-year college career Bonds hit .347 with 45 home runs and 175 RBI. During his sophomore year flirted with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, a much more difficult feat in college since a typical season runs about 75 games. Bonds made the Sporting News All-American team as a junior and in 1996 was named to the All-Time College World Series team.
Bonds was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the sixth pick in the 1985 draft, was a full-time player by 1986, and went on to one of the most impressive and controversial careers in Major League history.