Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Defense of Babe Ruth: He WAS The Greatest Ballplayer Ever

King George the Babe

A few days ago, I concluded my piece on the Top 10 Yankee Right Fielders – and thus the entire project – by discussing the greatest Yankee of them all, the greatest baseball player of them all, George Herman Ruth Jr., born February 6, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland; Boston Red Sox, 1914-19; New York Yankees, 1920-34; Boston Braves, 1935; Hall of Fame, 1936; died August 16, 1948 in New York, New York.

What can you say about Babe Ruth that hasn't already been rehashed a thousand times? Not much. But his historical reputation does occasionally need defending against certain canards. (If you saw The Natural, you're not only remembering Joe Don Baker as "The Whammer," but you may be asking, as Roy Hobbs did of Judge Banner, "What's a canard?" A fabrication. A lie.)

Let's examine said canards.

"Ted Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Of course, Ted was great. No one's denying that. But the greatest hitter who ever lived was Babe Ruth. Says who? Said Ted, in his 1995 book Ted Williams’ Hit List.

Ted's lifetime batting average was .344; the Babe's was right behind at .342.

Ted's on-base percentage was the highest ever, .482; the Babe is 2nd at .474.

Ted's slugging percentage was .634; 2nd to the Babe's, an all-time record .690.

Ted's OPS+ was 190; the Babe's is an all-time record 206 – in other words, Ted was a 90 percent better hitter than the average hitter of his time (1939-60), the Babe 106 percent better than the average hitter of his time (1914-35).

Notice also that, where Ted leads, the gaps are relatively small; but where the Babe leads, the gaps are noticeably larger.

By the way, have you ever realized that, as great as they were, neither Babe Ruth nor Ted Williams belongs to the 3,000 Hit Club? The Babe finished with 2,873 hits, Ted with 2,654. Though I suspect that, if someone had told the Babe that, one day, 3,000 hits would be considered a big deal, he would have found a way to get those last 127 hits – and it would've been a lot less uncomfortable than the attempt made by the fictional Stan Ross, played by the late Bernie Mac, in the film Mr. 3000.

True, Ted missed the equivalent of 5 years in 2 separate wars, serving as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War, limiting him to "only" 521 homers. The Babe registered for the draft in World War I, but was not drafted, so he didn't miss any time due to military service. But the cutting short of the 1918 season due to a Department of War order meant that he missed a month's worth of plate appearances. (That was the only season in which the World Series was played entirely within the month of September, ending on... September 11.)

And the Babe was mainly a pitcher for his 1st 4 seasons, so that probably cost him a few homers, resulting in "only" 714. Given those years back, Ted might have made it to 714, but the Babe might have made it to 763, which might still have him ahead of everybody, honest (Hank Aaron at 755) or otherwise (Barry Bonds at 762).

So if we're being honest, we should say that Ted was right: "The greatest hitter who ever lived" was George Herman Ruth Jr., and not Theodore Samuel Williams.

Speaking of the aforementioned Barry Lamar Bonds...

"Barry Bonds was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth."

For his career, Bonds' slugging percentage was .607 – far below the Babe and Ted, also behind Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, and even behind the still-active Albert Pujols. His OPS+ is 181, which is enormous, but is also behind both the Babe and Ted. So if we're talking about career achievement, no, Bonds was not better than Ruth, and others were better than Bonds as well.

In the 5 seasons when his steroid use apparently truly manifested itself, 2000 through 2004, Barry had the following OPS+'s: 188, 259, 268, 231 and 263. The Babe's highest was 255 (in 1920). Taking the average of each man's 5 highest OPS+'s, Barry's was 245, the Babe's 236. But take the average of each man's 10 highest: Babe 224, Barry 216.

Babe Ruth was a better power hitter than Barry Bonds, and, unlike Bonds, Ruth did not take steroids – what Bonds took, it wasn't around in the Babe’s time, so the Babe couldn't have taken them.

"Willie Mays was the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived."

People who say this usually cite Willie's defense, which is certainly a fair argument. I don't know of anyone who thinks that Babe Ruth regularly played right field better than Willie Mays regularly played center field. Though it should be pointed out that, as a former pitcher, the Babe had a great arm.

But the purpose of defense in baseball is to prevent runs from scoring. How spectacular you look while doing it (including running, the position of your glove, whether you lose your cap) is completely irrelevant. That's why some people thought Mays was a better center fielder than Joe DiMaggio: How many spectacular catches did Joe D make? Hard to say, since, unlike Willie, people didn't get a chance to watch him on TV every day; but also since he positioned himself better, and so he didn't have to run as far.

So if the purpose of defense in baseball is to prevent runs from scoring, who's going to prevent more runs from scoring: The best-fielding center fielder of his generation (possibly of any generation), or a great pitcher in any era?

In 1915, as a 20-year-old rookie, the Babe was probably the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball. In 1916, with Grover Cleveland Alexander pitching 16 shutouts in the National League, in the bandbox that was Philadelphia's Baker Bowl, the Babe was the best lefty in the game, and the best pitcher of either hand in the American League. In 1917, the Babe was the game's best pitcher, period. In 1918, pitching much less than he had in the preceding 3 seasons, he was still 13-7.

His ERAs in those 4 seasons were 2.44, 1.75 (leading the AL), 2.01 and 2.22. The Dead Ball Era, you say? You'd be correct, so let's look at ERA+ in those 4 seasons, to see him in comparison to the rest of the AL: 114, 158, 128, 122.

His career record was 94-46 – and that's in what amounts to just 5 full seasons on the mound, if you count his 4-game 1914 callup, his 17 trips to the mound in 1919, and the 5 scattered appearances he made for the Yankees from 1920 to 1933 -- in which he was hardly great, but he did win all 5.

Given 20 years of only pitching, even if you factor in an injury-plagued season or two and some weak years by his team (especially if he'd stayed with the Red Sox), and we're almost certainly talking about a 300-game winner -- and even if the Babe had stayed a pitcher, chances are the Lively Ball Era would have begun anyway, at some point during his peak years, so we're not talking about a guy racking up 300 wins against the slap-hitting and bunting game favored by Ty Cobb; he would have had to face Jimmie Foxx, or Lou Gehrig if Ruth hadn't gone to the Yankees, or Rogers Hornsby if he'd gone to the NL.

The Babe's career WHIP was 1.159 – great in any era. For a career, his ERA was 2.28, and his ERA+ was 122. That means he was 22 percent better at preventing runs than the average pitcher of the latter half of the 1910s.

Was Willie Mays a great defensive center fielder? Of course. Was he 22 percent better at preventing runs than the average center fielder of the 1950s and 1960s? With all due respect to the Say Hey Kid, don't make me laugh.

"Babe Ruth never played under today's conditions."

That's certainly true. The Babe never faced most of today's "trick pitches." He never saw a split-fingered fastball, or even its predecessor, the forkball. He never saw a knuckle curve or a slurve, rarely saw a screwball, and saw very few sliders or knuckleballs. But he did see a few sliders and knuckleballs. And, unlike today's hitters, he faced the array of "doctored" pitches that fell under the category of "spitballs" - on a regular basis until they were banned in 1920, and then from a few pitchers who were allowed to continue using them until they retired.

And if such a pitch had gotten away accidentally, the Babe would have been hit in the head with no batting helmet. (I can think of only one incident where the Babe was knocked out by such a pitch, but he apparently didn't miss much time on that occasion.) The Babe didn't have all that padding used by Bonds and David Ortiz, either. (Hmmmm, how come two of the worst steroid offenders seemed to use the most padding?)

The Babe never got on a plane, at least not during his playing days, and flew 6 hours from New York to the West Coast. But can you imagine the modern era's pampered players - Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Rickey Henderson come to mind - riding on a train from New York to St. Louis for 24 hours? Have you ever tried to get a good night's sleep on a train? I have, taking an Amtrak from Trenton, New Jersey to Chicago, and it's not easy - but that's a story for another time.

The Babe never played at night, when the ball is harder to see. But the ball is still easier to see at night, with modern stadium lighting, than it was at dusk when there were no lights to turn on. (In fact, the Babe's last game was on May 30, 1935 -- just 6 days after the Cincinnati Reds' Crosley Field hosted the 1st major league night game.) And, as I said, if he didn't see a pitch that was headed for his body rather than the plate, he took an awful chance.

Also, while the Babe wasn't always the fat man he's usually portrayed as, on those occasions when he was out of shape (much of the 1922 and 1925 seasons, and pretty much continuously from 1932 onward), he still had to play the outfield. He wasn't going to be moved to 1st base, thus forcing first Wally Pipp and then Gehrig out of the lineup. And there was no designated hitter in those days: Regardless of where he was put, he was going to have to think about his fielding as well as his hitting.

In fact, after his disastrous 1925 season -- disastrous both personally and, in comparison to his usual performance, in his hitting -- the Babe became the 1st major athlete, outside of boxers, to hire what we would now call a personal trainer, Artie McGovern, a former flyweight boxer who'd been recommended to him by Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey. He was one of the few who could afford it: In addition to Ruth and Dempsey, McGovern's clients included golfer Gene Sarazen, bandleader John Philip Sousa (who conducted the band at the opening of the original Yankee Stadium in 1923), and bandleader Paul Whiteman. (Ironically, McGovern died before the Babe, in 1942 -- but at age 54, which is slightly older than the Babe lived to be.)

But, in those days, athletes didn't lift weights. "You're gonna get musclebound!" was the cry, especially to football players. Granted, nobody else was in the kind of shape today's players are in, but in the Babe's time, nobody would let them get into that kind of shape if they were already close to it. Ever see how skinny Williams and Joe DiMaggio were early in their careers? Very few were big guys like Hank Greenberg.

The shocking thing is not that Babe Ruth put up Babe Ruth numbers, it's that he put up Babe Ruth numbers in the Roaring Twenties.

And the Babe's longest season, 1921, was 154, games plus 8 in the World Series (it was best-5-out-of-9 from 1919 to '21, best-4-out-of-7 ever since), for a total of 162. Today, if a player goes through the entire regular season, and then takes all 3 postseason rounds to the distance, we're looking at a maximum of 181 games. That's 3 more weeks worth of games than the Babe could possibly have played. Or, to put it another way: A typical season for Ruth would start around April 15, and end (if he reached the Series) around October 7, not quite 6 full months; a typical season today starts as March turns to April and ends as October turns to November, about 7 full months.

But, as I said, today's players have a better chance of getting into and staying in shape than did players in the Babe's time, so, under today's conditions, he probably wouldn't have gotten tired after 170 games.

And let's not forget, most of today's ballparks don't have 450-foot expanses in center field and the power alleys. Today, the longest distances in any big-league park are Fenway Park in Boston, the only surviving AL park from that era, and Comerica Park in Detroit, which both have a 420-foot marker. In the Babe's day, while there were several parks with very short right-field fences, including the then-new original Yankee Stadium, there were also a lot whose fences went way out, including said Yankee Stadium, whose center field was 490 feet when the Babe arrived and 461 feet when he retired. "The House That Ruth Built" wasn't entirely built for Ruth.

This is why baseball historian Bill Jenkinson titled his recent book The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: He took the 8 ballparks the American League teams played in during the Babe's seasons, and compared their dimensions with the parks those same franchises play in today, found records of the Babe's homers (which direction, at what point they seemed to have landed), and decided that the Babe's 59 home runs in 1921 would have, in those same 8 teams' parks of today, including the surviving but much-shortened Fenway, would have been 104 home runs.

If you don't believe me, or Jenkinson, think of the current Yankee Stadium, Comerica Park, Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, Baltimore's Camden Yards, the Oakland Coliseum, and Minnesota's Target Field; and compare those to the old Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds where the Yanks played until The Stadium opened in 1923 (short poles but faraway alleys and center), Tiger Stadium (then known as Navin Field), Cleveland Municipal Stadium (the fence would later be brought in from 470 to center to 410), Chicago's Comiskey Park, the Orioles then playing as the St. Louis Browns in Sportsman's Park (a short right field but 426 to center), the A's then playing in Philadelphia's Shibe Park which was 447 to center, and the Twins, then the Washington Senators, playing at Griffith Stadium were every fence except the right-field corner was ridiculously far away. Even Fenway brought center field in quite a bit, 505 to 420.

Those are the parks in which the Babe hit 708 home runs (with the last 6 coming in the NL in '35). How many would he have hit in today's parks? If we use the same ratio, 104/59 = 1.763, we're talking about 1,253 home runs. Good luck, Alex, Albert, Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder.

"Babe Ruth never played against black players."

This is a half-truth: While the Babe certainly never played in regular-season or postseason Major League Baseball games against non-white players, he played against them in plenty of postseason exhibition games, on what were called "barnstorming tours."

And don't think that Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, Rube Foster and the rest of the great black pitchers of the day, and the fielders behind them, such as Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson, didn't try to kick their game up a notch when they played against him. And you know what? It didn't work: The surviving stats show that the black pitchers were no more able to stop the Babe from hitting than were the white pitchers.

Furthermore, while the post-1947 success of Paige, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron (all of whom played in the Negro Leagues before starring in the white majors) shows that the best of the Negro Leaguers could excel in the white majors, don't think for a moment that the average Negro League player of the 1930s would have been any more able to hit Lefty Gomez, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller than the average white player was; or that the average Negro League pitcher would have been any better than the average white pitcher was at stopping the Babe, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Foxx, Hornsby, Greenberg, Mel Ott and Joe Medwick. As the integrated majors have proven, there are black Americans and black Hispanics who can play just as poorly as white players.

So to say that the Babe did what he did because he didn't face black players on a regular basis is wrong. After all, Mays and Aaron, along with Hornsby and Stan Musial (who, like Williams, straddled the pre- and post-integration eras), were the greatest offensive forces in National League history (not counting the tainted Bonds), and do you really think they would have been any better if they'd faced only white men - or only black men?

After all, Ken Griffey Sr. was a very good player, but he wasn't as good as Ken Griffey Jr. What makes anyone think that Luis Tiant Sr. or Pedro (the Big Bull) Cepeda, both black Hispanics who starred in the Negro and Caribbean leagues, would have been as good in those leagues as their sons, Luis Tiant Jr. and Orlando (the Baby Bull) Cepeda, who starred in the integrated majors?


The arguments used against the Babe are compelling, but so are the counter-arguments. And those counter-arguments do nothing to diminish the greatness of the other contenders for the title of "greatest player (or hitter) who ever lived." Nothing the Babe did makes Ted Williams less of a great hitter. Nothing the Babe did puts Willie Mays or Hank Aaron in a bad light -- or Barry Bonds, for that matter. (He did that to himself.)

This is a man who, for 4 years, was as good a lefthanded pitcher as Randy Johnson; then, for 16 years, was as good a lefthanded contact hitter as Ted Williams and as good a lefthanded power hitter as Barry Bonds, and without steroids or any other post-1935 convenience.

Show me a player who can top that, and I'll call you a liar. Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Barring a serious change in the way the game is played - the kind of change the Babe himself helped to bring about - he will remain so for the rest of my lifetime, and probably also for the rest of yours.

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