Barry and the Babe

Forget the nostalgia freaks droning on and on about the Mythical White Ballplayer era. Barry Bonds is the greatest player in baseball history.


Allen Barra
October 25, 2002 11:57PM (UTC)

It took the Chinese nearly two millennia to discover perspective. Baseball, as we know it, is only about 100 years old, so perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on baseball writers who have yet to acquire it.

It positively amazes me that everyone now watching Barry Bonds can't understand that they're watching the greatest player in the history of baseball. Now that I've said that, I'm going to backtrack a bit. I think there's something, I don't know what, but something behind Bonds' incredible post-age 36 performance that is not -- well, how should I put this? Never mind, I don't know how to put it. No player in baseball history, no athlete in baseball history, has approached the level of performance of Bonds after the age of 36.

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I may have given the wrong impression earlier this year when I mentioned this fact in connection with steroid use in baseball. I wasn't implying that Bonds was using steroids. I was suggesting very strongly that if steroids are not studied and, if the study warrants, banned, the fans would soon begin to suspect the integrity of all baseball statistics -- and then, inevitably, that of the game itself. If Barry Bonds' incredible three-season binge is due to steroids, then it would stand to reason that some other player would have similar numbers or at least have increased his earlier numbers along the same percentages that Bonds has. Nobody has, so I'll leave off the steroid discussion for now.

What I am suggesting is that something -- Laser eye surgery? Mastery of whip-handled maple wood bats? Body armor that takes away the fear of being hit and/or energizes his muscles (as it is said to do with some power lifters)? Any combination of the previous? Something I haven't thought of? Something I haven't thought of plus some combination of the previous? Just that he's a genetic freak? -- has given Barry Bonds an enormous boost over his fellow players, something by no means illegal but something other players haven't caught up with yet. If that's the case, Bonds has a great deal in common with at least one other great player in baseball history, Babe Ruth, a point which I'll get back to in a moment.

Meanwhile, we have this to work with: Until somebody comes up with evidence to the contrary, Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player in history. That's what the evidence says. I really don't believe that under the same conditions and against the same opposition, at the same time, that Bonds is a greater player than Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, or Joe Morgan at their peaks, but that's just my gut feeling. The evidence says Barry Bonds is the greatest.

The undeniability of Bonds' greatness has sent the old boy network into a frenzy of spin control. Baseball is plagued by many things, most of them typified by interviews with Doris Kearns Goodwin whimpering about how much better the game was when she was a little girl in Brooklyn. It's this kind of mentality that never really lets baseball grow up for new generations. Whenever a new candidate for greatness comes along, he's always pushed into the background and told that he doesn't quite measure up to the heroes of the Golden Age of White Guys. Can you imagine this happening in basketball or football? Can you imagine someone telling Michael Jordan that he isn't quite as great as the great stars of the 1920s and '30s?

Yet, this attitude is so pervasive in baseball that even many younger writers who ought to know better can't be budged from it. For instance, a couple of weeks ago we had the Washington Post's Tom Boswell telling us that (as the headline to his Oct. 9 column put it) "Bonds' Feats Are Ruthian, But He's No Babe." Boswell has often demonstrated an uncommon mastery of baseball statistics, but in this argument something jumped the track. Bonds, he says, is merely trying "to be the best baseball player since Babe Ruth." According to Boswell, "Bonds needs to reach a World Series, and probably win one, to separate him from the likes of Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Aaron. Don't clutter the debate beyond that." I dunno, the debate already seems pretty cluttered to me.

First of all, Boswell lumps together Willie Mays, who has two World Series rings, Hank Aaron, who has one, Ted Williams, who has one, and Joe DiMaggio, who has nine. What's the point? Is Boswell actually suggesting that before this season Barry Bonds did not deserve to be ranked with Williams, Mays, Aaron, or, for that matter, DiMaggio because he had never been in a World Series?

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Having started on a bad premise, Boswell goes further askew in arguing that only in the past two seasons does Bonds' career deserve comparison with Ruth. "In the past two years combined," he writes, "Bonds has hit 119 home runs, driven in 247 runs, scored 246, batted .347, slugged .822, walked 375 times, and got on base 55 percent of the time." This, he argues, is the extent of the Ruthian comparison. Boswell couldn't be more wrong. In point of fact, Bonds' statistics for the past three seasons, from 2000 through 2002, are worthy of comparison with Ruth at any time in his career. (In 2000 Bonds hit .306 with 49 home runs, 106 RBIs, and 129 runs.) I'm going to exclude RBI and run total comparisons because they're not fair -- back then, a batting lineup was composed of one or perhaps two big hitters trying to drive in six or seven little guys.

In an era when almost everyone in the lineup posts double figures in home runs, no one is ever going to equal Ruthian (or really, Lou Gehrigian) totals again -- though now that I think of it, I wouldn't mind seeing how many RBIs Alex Rodriguez would have batting in back of Barry Bonds, but let that pass. The point is that for the past three seasons Bonds has averaged 56 home runs, a .334 batting average, 164 walks, a .512 on base average, and a .783 slugging percentage, numbers which would certainly compare with those of Ruth at his peak.

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And that's just batting. Boswell slyly tries to make another case for Ruth as an all-around player by bringing his speed into it. "Believe it or not," writes Boswell, "the young Ruth was probably faster than the old Bonds. The last two years Bonds had 22 steals and four triples. From 1920 to '21, Ruth had 31 steals, 25 triples, and 80 doubles." This is a gross manipulation of statistics, and Boswell must know it. First of all, I'm left wondering why the comparative speed of the "young" and the "old" Bonds is meaningful. Second, it isn't clear whether doubles and triples in Ruth's era were more the result of speed or power or a reflection of the quality of outfield play. As far as stolen bases go, Boswell's comparison is silly: the "young" Babe in 1920 and '21 did indeed steal 31 bases, but he was also thrown out an appalling 27 times, whereas the "old" Bonds stole 22 bases in 27 attempts. From that, who would you conclude was the fastest?

But really, the entire argument is silly because it leaves out both Bonds' all-around skills and the differences of their playing conditions. I don't deny that it was an amazing thing for Babe Ruth to have been a great pitcher and a great hitter. But except for a few games, he didn't pitch and hit at the same time, so the argument comes down to: Was Babe Ruth a greater hitter and outfielder than Barry Bonds?

Let's dispense with the non-hitting stuff right away. Barry Bonds has won a Gold Glove eight times in left field. He's indisputably one of the greatest defensive players ever at his position. He's also one of the great base stealers in baseball history, with 493. There isn't the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that Babe Ruth was anything more than normal at either skill. In fact, by all objective standards he does not even qualify as mediocre in the field or on the bases, averaging, according to Stats Inc., fewer put-outs in right field than the league average in his time -- and that's the "young" Babe Ruth, by the way -- and as for his career base running, he was successful in barely half of his 240 career attempts.

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The argument, I suppose, is that Bonds' career before the year 2000 doesn't look like Ruth's on paper. From 1986 through 1999, Bonds led the league in home runs only once, slugging three times and on base average four times -- we all have our cross to bear. Boswell can only win by falling back on the old argument that Ruth's accomplishments came at a time "when nobody else could even hit 20 home runs and many ballparks were vast." Well, there were also an awful lot of bandboxes that passed as ballparks back then. As for no one else being able to hit as many as 20 home runs, I think it's far more likely that there were no Mike Piazzas, Mark McGwires, and Jeff Bagwells back in Ruth's day or they surely would have found a way to hit at least 20 home runs.

What there certainly weren't in Ruth's time were such players as Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, because their kind weren't allowed in the big leagues. That's really the point of my argument. Yes, Babe Ruth was a giant in his and probably any era, but in the 1920s, he was, for the most part, a giant among pygmies. Either because of his raw skill, the kind of bat he used, or a don't-give-a-damn-style which ignored strikeouts, or any combination of the above, Babe Ruth was able to pull far ahead of the pack in a way that would be impossible for players who would come along later, when the whole herd had been upgraded.

There are giants (and Giants) in these days, too. And when looked at with some perspective, we can see them for what they are: giants among giants.

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Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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