On April 15th 1997 Jackie Robinson had his uniform number 42 permanently retired by Major League Baseball on the 50th anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the perfect way to honor the most important player in the long history of the game.
July 11th 2014 will be the 100th anniversary of the day Babe Ruth made his Major League debut for the Boston Red Sox. There will never be a more appropriate time for the only other deserving player to be granted this highest of honors. Ruth’s number 3 should be retired and displayed right alongside Robinson’s number in every Major League stadium. Ruth was, as his Hall of Fame plaque says, the greatest drawing card in the history of baseball, and he was the greatest player of all time.
Now before any of you Barry Bonds supporters chime in with your objections, let’s compare, shall we?
Bonds out-homered Ruth 763-714. However, Bonds played 483 more games, mostly because Ruth was a full-time pitcher his first 4+ years (not to mention one of the best in the game at the time). Ruth became a full-time outfielder after Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold him to the New York Yankees following the 1919 season, thus ushering in the so-called Curse Of the Bambino. It stands to reason that if Babe Ruth started out as an everyday player he would have rendered the home run record unreachable.
Bonds hit over 50 homers in a season once. Ruth did it four times.
Bonds’ career batting average was .298. Ruth’s was .342, just two points behind Ted Williams, who many regard as the best fundamental hitter in baseball history.
Bonds career on-base percentage was .444. Ruth’s was .474.
Bonds’ career slugging percentage was .607. Ruth’s was .690, by far the highest of any player (Bonds is 6th on the list.).
Bonds OPS (on-base + slugging) was 1.0512. Ruth’s was 1.1638 (Bonds was 4th all time, behind Ruth, Williams and Lou Gehrig).
Bonds had 1996 RBIs in 2986 games. Ruth had 2217 in 2503 games.
Bonds’ top RBI season was 137. Ruth had 137 or more nine times, including his career-high of 171.
Bonds is the only player to hit at least 500 home runs and steal at least 500 bases (514). He also was a five-time 30-30 player, with a 40-40 season to his credit. Ruth can’t match those numbers. But the reverse is that Ruth was 93-44 as a pitcher, was a two-time 20-game winner and had another year of 18 wins. He threw 17 shutouts (nine in one season) and his career ERA was 2.28. Ruth also had a streak of 29.2 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play.
In 1920 Ruth belted 54 home runs. No other team in the league hit more than 50. That would be the equivalent of a player today hitting over 200 homers in a season. Ruth did it again in 1927, the year he hit 60, and in that celebrated season he hit six more homers than the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox combined. This is domination on an unimaginable scale.
Barry Bonds appeared in 48 postseason games and hit .245 with nine homers and 24 RBIs.
Babe Ruth appeared in 41 postseason games (all in the World Series) and hit .326 with 15 homers and 33 RBIs. He was also 3-0 as a pitcher with a 0.87 ERA.
Babe Ruth played in ten World Series’ with the Red Sox and Yankees, winning seven. Barry Bonds only World Series appearance was in 2002 and his Giants didn’t win it, although he had an excellent series.
Babe Ruth was the first player to hit 30 homers, as well as the first to hit 40, 50, and 60. Setting records is one thing, but ultimate greatness is achieved when a player dominates so much that he establishes the standards that all others are measured against for generations. Only Wilt Chamberlain and Wayne Gretzky accompany Babe Ruth on that exclusive plateau.
You see, there really isn’t much of a comparison at all, especially when you consider that Barry Bonds had the advantage of having modern technology at his disposal. Over the years professional athletes have utilized an ever growing variety of specialized workout regiments, high-tech equipment, private trainers, weight-lifting, special diets, nutritional supplements, advanced medical and surgical techniques among other expensive top-shelf perks that science has made available. During Babe Ruth’s era it was not much more than routine calisthenics and a lot of the “weight-lifting” took place at the local saloons.
Most importantly, Babe Ruth did not use performance enhancing drugs and even without modern science he was putting up numbers that are still unreachable 90 years later.
Babe Ruth’s impact off the field is equally undeniable. His accomplishments and his boisterous personality served to help baseball fans regain their faith in the game after the Black Sox scandal of 1919 when several Chicago White Sox players conspired with professional gamblers to throw the World Series. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were doing the same positive thing for baseball after the 1994-95 strike until their involvement in the steroids scandal derailed their credibilty and then Bonds proceeded to rub salt in the wounds with his sour attitude and all the PED speculations and denials.
To be fair, Babe Ruth was no angel, either. In 1922 he was suspended for a month by commissioner Kenesaw Landis for barnstorming after the 1921 season. Ruth also had a notorious reputation for living it up, so much so that during spring training in 1925 he collapsed and was hospitalized. Ruth underwent surgery to remove an intestinal abscess, but many attributed “The Bellyache Heard ‘Round the World” – as sportswriter W.O. McGeehan dubbed it – to any number of not-so-natural causes.
Nevertheless, Ruth made his return in June but played poorly and in September, with the Yankees languishing in the standings, he was fined $5,000 and suspended by manager Miller Huggins for constantly breaking team rules. The press called for the Yankees to get rid of him but they wisely ignored that demand. In the following years all was forgiven as Ruth returned to his dominant ways and led the Yankees to four pennants and three world championships.
The National Hockey League retired Wayne Gretzky’s number 99 and the same reasons prevail on why MLB needs to retire Babe Ruth’s number 3. Not just because of his unparalleled dominance and popularity, but because if it wasn’t for Babe Ruth, Major League Baseball would not have existed as we’ve known it all this time. And if that were the case, Jackie Robinson may never have gotten the chance to change the game for the better as only he could.
- The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball [David S. Neft, Richard M. Cohen, Michael L. Neft]