I wrote this in 2006 – lots of interesting numbers. And I don’t take back a thing… I’m doubling down.
(2006) So, Mr. Barry Bonds is going to wipe out Babe Ruth, huh? He’s going to make us stop talking about the Bambino, is he? Now, Bonds is a great player – a phenomenon. He has a legitimate chance to pass Mays and Ruth in lifetime home runs. He could even challenge Aaron. But is he better than these guys?
One of the problems, of course, is that these players performed in different eras. Sometimes hitting is favored, sometimes pitching. How can we compare them, then? It’s difficult to be fair. What we can do, though, is compare players to their contemporaries: the league they played in during the time they accomplished their prodigious feats. This will give us some handle to compare their greatness.
Babe Ruth hit an amazing 29 homers for the Boston Red Sox in 1919. He was sold to the Yankees over the winter and spent his first year in New York in 1920. Look with me, if you will, at the Top Ten Leaders in Home Runs in the American League of 1920:
The numbers speak for themselves – staggering! The Babe was a one man wrecking crew, to say the least. Let’s look at some numbers.
Home run percentage (HR%) is the number of home runs per 100 at-bats. In 1920, Babe Ruth set a record that Big Mac would finally break in 1998, then Bonds in 2001. Ruth’s HR% was 11.79 that year. Now, compare that to the rest of the league, with a HR% of 0.76. Even with a somewhat livelier ball and an outlawed spitball, the AL players other than Ruth averaged about ¾ of a home run per 100 AB’s. It works out that the Bambino hit 15.5 times the average number of HR’s as the rest of his league that year! For those of you into statistics, let’s talk standard deviation, or SD. SD is a measure of how much better or worse a value is compared to a set of numbers. An SD of +3.00 is considered outstanding. Ruth’s SD for 1920 is +12.8!
OK, one year is not enough to assign overall greatness. Well, let’s look at some other years. The next year, in 1921, Ruth hit an amazing 59 HR’s. The AL, in response to the popularity of the Babe, had a HR% of 0.96 – a little bit higher, anyway. The Babe had a HR% of 10.93, which was “only” 11.4 times better than the league. What about 1927, when he hit 60? Now Gehrig’s hitting 54 and the rest of the league is catching up at – or is it? The AL HR% for 1927 is 0.91, less than 1921. The Sultan of Swat had a HR% of 11.11, which was 12.2 times better than everybody else.
Now it gets interesting: how did the Babe do in the 1930’s, when offense really took over in MLB and he was getting older, to finally quit in 1935? In 1930, when Lou Gehrig had 180 RBI’s, the AL HR% was 1.47. Ruth still hit 49 round-trippers, at a rate of 9.46 – still 6.4 times the league. In the Championship Season of 1932, when Jimmy Foxx blasted 58 dingers for Philadelphia, the AL HR% (other than Ruth) was up to 1.55. The Babe had 41 HR’s. for a HR% of 8.97, still 5.8 times the league. The Beast – Jimmy Foxx – had a HR% of 9.91 that year, 6.5 times the league.
Now, in chronological order, here are some selected sluggers and their numbers. Remember, these are selected seasons; this list is not all inclusive:
Player Year HR HR% League HR% Times better
Ruth 1920 54 11.79 0.76 15.5
Ruth 1921 59 10.93 0.96 11.4
Ruth 1927 60 11.11 0.91 12.2
Ruth 1930 49 9.46 1.47 6.4
Ruth 1932 41 8.97 1.55 5.8
Foxx 1932 58 9.91 1.52 6.5
Greenberg 1938 58 10.43 1.92 5.4
Kiner 1949 54 9.84 2.09 4.7
Mays 1955 51 9.14 2.94 3.1
Aaron 1967 39 6.50 1.95 3.3
Aaron 1971 47 9.49 2.04 4.7
Schmidt 1976 38 6.51 1.65 3.9
Schmidt 1980 48 8.76 1.82 4.8
Schmidt 1981 31 8.76 1.59 5.5
McGwire 1987 49 8.80 3.35 2.6
McGwire 1998 70 13.75 2.86 4.9
McGwire 1999 65 12.48 3.20 3.9
Bonds 2000 49 10.21 3.35 3.1
Bonds 2001 73 15.34 3.29 4.7
Bonds 2002 46 11.41 2.92 3.9
Now, in order of times better:
Ruth 1920 15.5 Kiner 1949 4.7
Ruth 1927 12.2 Bonds 2001 4.7
Ruth 1921 11.4 Aaron 1967 4.7
Foxx 1932 6.5 Bonds 2002 3.9
Ruth 1930 6.4 McGwire 1999 3.9
Ruth 1932 5.8 Schmidt 1980 3.9
Schmidt 1981 5.5 Aaron 1967 3.3
Greenberg 1938 5.4 Bonds 2000 3.1
McGwire 1998 4.9 Mays 1955 3.1
Schmidt 1980 4.8 McGwire 1987 2.6
I believe the numbers speak for themselves. And if I did other years, I’m sure Ruth would occupy several other spots at the top of the list.
Some other reasons why Bonds will never be better than Ruth:
1) Ruth had a lifetime BA of .342, pretty impressive for a man who was heavy and slow for a significant number of seasons. Bonds isn’t bad at .295, but that’s still 47 points less. (2015: Bonds retired with a .298 BA. Bonds’ final numbers: .298/.444/.607. The Babe’s numbers were .342/.474/.690)
2) When Barry Bonds gets on the mound to pitch, it will be, as far as I know, the first time. The Babe came up as a left-handed pitcher. He was probably the best lefty in the American league in the late teens, compiling a lifetime record of 94 – 46 and a career ERA of a tidy 2.28, a number bested only by the great Walter Johnson at that time. Ruth started 148 games in his career and only left pitching when his phenomenal hitting became too much to ignore. Also, think of all the at-bats he missed before he started playing the outfield between starts. 1919 was the first year he played more outfield than he pitched.
3) Babe Ruth played right field; Bonds played some center and right, but he usually plays left. He is probably the best fielding left fielder of all time, but, as we all know, left field is the least important defensive position on the field. At least a right fielder needs a good arm. Now, Babe Ruth became a significant defensive liability late in his career, especially in 1935, his last year. Bonds has never been that, but he has said he would like to go to the AL, where he can DH and extend his career. If the DH had been around in the 1930’s, Babe certainly could have played longer.
4) Babe Ruth flat out, basically all by himself, changed the way baseball is played in a significant, profound way. You can’t say that about Bonds.
5) The Babe certainly put a lot of chemicals into his body during his career, but I don’t think you would call them “physically-enhancing”. What can we say about Barry Bonds?
6) Babe Ruth saved baseball in America, without a doubt. While the Black Sox scandal could have destroyed the game as we know it – and all of professional sports – Babe Ruth and his heroics in 1920 and 1921 sparked excitement as never before and blunted the effect of that tragedy. Yes, Judge Landis was important, but the people wanted to see the Babe play, not the Judge.
7) Babe Ruth was loved by millions of people, Yankee fans or not, baseball fans or not. His deeds were larger than life and so was his persona. Barry Bonds? We better not even go there!
Barry, you may hit more HR’s than the Babe, and you deserve credit when you do, but you’ll never make anybody forget the Babe.