Molly Knight asks a really, really good question:
If you’re a baseball fan, your first instinct is probably one of either Mike Trout/Bryce Harper/Aaron Judge. But fame within baseball is very different from fame without—MLB certainly does not have a true crossover celebrity star on the level of Tom Brady or LeBron James.
We asked some non–baseball fans in our lives to name the first players who come to mind. Among their replies:
- Alex Rodriguez
- Pedro Martinez
- Albert Pujols “because I went to one game in Chicago and they played the Cardinals and they were selling t-shirts outside Wrigley that said ‘the Cardinals take it in their Pujols’”
- Cal Ripken
- Ty Cobb
- “The guy with the long blond hair from the Mets”
- Barry Bonds
- Mark McGwire
- Sammy Sosa
- Bernie Williams
- “That guy who killed someone” [She was thinking of Aaron Hernandez]
- David Ortiz
- “The cute catcher from the Cubs”
- Madison Bumgarner
- “Someone Machado maybe?”
- Tim Tebow
- Odubel Herrera [Say it with me: baseball is a regional sport.]
- Andrew McCutchen
- “I hate that this is my answer but I think objectively it would be Derek Jeter”
- Chan Ho Park
- “Is Johnny Damon still playing?”
The only active players who appeared in more than one answer were Judge, Pujols, and Bryce Harper, and Harper appears to be the objective answer: In 2016 polling, the most recent available, Harper rated the highest Q Score among active MLB players, with 53 percent recognition. (Michael Jordan, by comparison, had 86 percent recognition. Jeter, two years after retiring, had 74 percent recognition.)
Baseball, commensurate with the sport itself’s slide in national popularity, has increasingly struggled for true mainstream stars. Jeter made the list principally because he dated a lot of famous people. (When asked, a couple non-fans conceded they’ve heard of Justin Verlander because he’s married to Kate Upton. This stuff does matter.) Mark McGwire might be the last true crossover star, because 1998 was the last time baseball could be said to have been America’s sport. Barry Bonds counts, but mostly not for reasons MLB would like.
Does anyone currently playing have a chance to crack the national consciousness? Mike Trout may end his career as one of the greatest ever to play, but the most interesting thing about him is that he likes weather. Shohei Ohtani may be a rock star in Japan and a unicorn here, but until he’s doing McDonald’s commercials and dating Grimes he’s not going to penetrate the average American’s radar. Aaron Judge is good and young and physically recognizable and plays in New York; he might have the best odds, but they’re not good odds.
In conclusion: the most famous active baseball player is almost certainly Tim Tebow.