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Barry Bonds v. Babe Ruth

Last night, Alex Rodriguez set the Yankees' single-season club home-run record for right-handed hitters: he hit the 47th home-run of the season, eclipsing Joe DiMaggio's record 46 HRs. (And the Yanks have moved one game up, into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Division of the American League, with four games to play, including three with the Boston Red Sox this weekend. Nail-biting till the last out, I'm sure...)

Home runs are still the sexiest of baseball hits. And other players are still vying to set all-time career home-run tallies. Chief among these is San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds. He's third on the career home run list and is only a few behind Babe Ruth, who is second only to Hank Aaron.

Now, I'm not really wanting to debate the virtues and vices of Bonds and Ruth. These two exemplary players are of a different time and place. The game has changed so much over the years, and comparisons are likely to be of the apple-and-orange variety.

But lots of people are making noise about who has been the greatest HR hitter of all time.

A cursory look at career home-run statistics will show a few interesting tidbits: Ruth hit 714 career home runs in the regular season, with 8,399 career at-bats. Placed in that context, it beats Hank Aaron, who hit 755 career HRs in 12,364 at-bats, and Barry Bonds, who currently has 708 HRs in 9,137 at-bats.

But NY Times sports writer Alan Schwarz compares Bonds and Ruth on another measure: triples. In his September 18, 2005 article, "Statistical Twins Are Separated By Triples," he has a few very interesting observations:

With every beguiling arc he shoots into the San Francisco night, Barry Bonds—who returned to the Giants' lineup Monday after missing the first 142 games of the season with a knee injury—steps closer to Babe Ruth on the career home run list. ... Bonds has dominated his era almost as much as Ruth did his, so comparisons between the two players' home run rates, on-base percentages, walks and what-not are quite the rage. There are few surprises, except for this: The greatest difference between the career batting records of Bonds, a smooth and swift athlete for most of his career, and Ruth, generally remembered as a lumbering oaf, is that Ruth hit vastly more triples.

Think about that. Babe Ruth ... the "lumbering oaf"... hit more triples. I found that remarkable. Schwarz continues:

Numbers are the marionettes of rhetoric, but a surface glance at the record books does paint a rather bizarre picture of these two sluggers. They got other hits at reasonably similar paces: Ruth hit home runs more often (1 per 14.9 plate appearances to Bonds's 16.5), while Bonds had a higher frequency of doubles (every 20.6 times up to Ruth's 21.0). Ruth singled 20 percent more often than Bonds, which is quite a bit.
But that is not nearly as striking as the triples column. Bonds has 77 triples in his career; Ruth legged out 136—more than only a handful of players since his retirement. When you compare how the performances of Ruth and Bonds towered over their respective leagues, a considerable portion of Ruth's edge derives from his nose—and legs—for the triple. As Casey Stengel once said, Huh?

Schwarz offers this explanation: "Bonds plays in a home run era, thanks to cozier ballparks, smaller strike zones and additional fertilizer."

And we all know that "fertilizer" is a euphemism for a word that begins with S. Yeah. Steroids.

In Ruth's era, however, the "fences, often quite tall, stood much farther from home plate, often an extra 20 to 60 feet or more from the power alleys to center field." But this surely had a productive effect on the number of Ruth's triples: "Booming drives would often land over outfielders' heads and roll all the way to the fence, during which time even Ruth, an average runner at his best, could reach third base comfortably."

Schwarz tells us an interesting story about how, in 1918, star Red Sox pitcher, Babe Ruth, wrote an article for Baseball Magazine entitled ''Why a Pitcher Should Hit.'' He quotes Ruth as saying: ''If there is any one thing that appeals to me more than winning a close game from a tough rival, it's knocking out a good clean three bagger with men on bases.''

Interestingly, baseball historian John Thorn says that most of Ruth's triples probably would have been HRs in today's smaller ballparks. Ruth may have ended up with a tally closer to 800.

Schwarz continues:

Ruth's career O.P.S. (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 1.164, or 53 percent higher than his contemporaries. Bonds entered this week at 1.053, 41 percent above his league. Take away the at-bats in which each player tripled, and Bonds winds up just .087 behind Ruth in O.P.S. Ruth's 53-41 edge in percentage over his competition would be cut to 48-37.

Bonds, of course, was once quoted (during the 2003 All-Star break) as saying: ''In the baseball world, Babe Ruth's everything, right? I got his slugging percentage and I'll take his home runs and that's it. Don't talk about him no more.''

Schwarz reminds us, though, that even if "Bonds could have easily caught the Bambino in a footrace, and will most likely catch him in home runs," it is Babe Ruth who "will forever stand alone" on the three-bagger.

I confess that Bonds's hubris has always pissed me off. I think he's one remarkably talented ballplayer. But Mr. Baseball he'll never be. And, in fact, Schwarz's good points on triples don't even begin to do justice to the comparison.

So I wrote to the NY Times. I'm a bit like Don Quixote in this quest: Over many, many years, not a single letter I've sent in, to any section of the paper, has ever been published. Now having heard from Schwarz, my "hitless" streak continues. I know that my letter won't be published. So I publish it here, as I reflect on the Bonds vs. Ruth debate:

Barry Bonds said that "In the baseball world, Babe Ruth's everything, right?" Well, by comparison, Ruth is still "everything." And not only in triples. Ruth set the overwhelming majority of his records in fewer at-bats than Bonds. He was the face of baseball because he was one of the all-time greatest hitters and a fine pitcher too, who held records in that department for the better part of the 20th century. Oh, and as one of the most physically "unfit" baseball players of his era, he also set his records without any hint of steroid use. Bonds may "step closer to Babe Ruth," but he'll forever be in Ruthian shadows.

Comments welcome.

Comments

Definitely a case of misleading stats. If it takes a thousand more at-bats to get 5 more home runs, that's not "better." And that's not to mention the smaller dimensions of modern parks. I don't mean to diss Aaron (or Bonds for that matter), but stats have a context which shouldn't be dropped. (Did Rand like baseball?)

I was so wanting to talk about the art of context-keeping, but I figured somebody would say: "They're you go again with that dialectics stuff."

Boy am I happy you said it first. :)

Not that one needs dialectics to digest this elementary (alimentary?) point: raw numbers don't prove much. One egg-cream per day over 10 years is a lot more than 10 egg-creams a day for a week. It's like that scene in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High":
"I just send out this vibe and I have personally found that women do respond. I mean, something happens."
"Well, naturally something happens. I mean, you put the vibe out to 30 million chicks, something is gonna happen."
In one sense, we want to show props to Aaron for even _having_ 12,000+ at-bats. But you can't compare total number of HRs without considering the context. If some rookie gets up three times in his first game and hits for 3 of his 4 plate appearance, his average is .750 -- does that mean he's a "better hitter" than Ted Williams? Of course not. Stats need a context.

All that having been said, I have always held the triple as the most exciting play in the game. The whole bang of the home run is over by the time the hitter rounds first base, but nothing draws along the razor's edge of performance -- offensive and defensive -- like the triple.

I'm glad that in addition to setting the record straight on Ruth's batting prowess, you mentioned his pitching skills. His 29 2/3 scoreless innings in World Series play stood for 43 years, until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961, and he still holds the record for the longest complete World Series game, 14 innings (count `em!). There has never been a player who was such a great hitter AND pitcher. On the triples issue, isn't it fitting that Ruth's first World Series hit (in 1918) was a triple?!

Thanks for the additional comments, folks. And dged, you're absolutely right about Ruth as pitcher.

In 1978, one of my favorite all-time pitchers, Ron Guidry, tied one of Ruth's pitching records (which was set in 1916): Most shutouts (9) by a left-handed pitcher in the American League. That remains a standing Ruth-Guidry record till today (see here), while Sandy Koufax holds the NL record for southpaws (11).

BTW, a little bit of trivia: Though Ruth's pitching records were set while he was with the Boston Red Sox, he actually posted a 5-0 record in four starts during his 15 years with the Yanks.

Oh, and as one of the most physically "unfit" baseball players of his era, he also set his records without any hint of steroid use. Bonds may "step closer to Babe Ruth," but he'll forever be in Ruthian shadows.

I'm glad you made this point Chris. Many of todays athletes are on steriods, and as we've seen, it's infected baseball also. Ruth was something else. Accomplishing his incredible feats on a virtual diet of liquor, hotdogs and prostitutes. Imagine if he would have actually took care of himself. Amazing player.

Indeed, Shane, though it's hard to tell: His hard-playing may have been, for him, a mere extension of his hard-living.

Either way, baseball was the greater for it.