Barry's World
April 4, 2006

With the commissioner's office instigating an investigation into steroid use in baseball, much of the focus has fallen on Barry Bonds especially after the book Game of Shadows extensively chronicled Bonds' steroid schedules and use for the last five or six years.  Too bad they didn't read this webpage first; it might have saved them some time.   Given the way it's being handled and the fact that baseball still doesn't have competent testing it seems more like a dog-and-pony show than anything credible.  How about this idea - grant amnesty to all players as long as they come forth and reveal what they are taking and how long they've been taking it.  At least the data gathered would help get a better understanding of how much performance enhancing drugs affect the game.

But anyway, enough about steroids and the whole race card that's being played out in the media.  The debate continues to fester, who was better: Bonds or Ruth.  So let's look at the real factors: what advantages and disadvantages did each player have that the other didn't.

Much has been made about the level of competition that Ruth faced.  Integration had a profound impact on baseball so Ruth's numbers would have definitely suffered some.  However, they probably would not have reduced him to a modern day Steve Balboni, as one researcher opined.  League average OPS in 20's was around .750.  Last year it was .754 but in 2004 it was .771 and for much of the last decade it's been around .770-.780.  In 1996 it was almost .800.  Is the league average hitting that much better now or is the league average pitching that much worse?  And as much as some postulate that integration would have brought an influx of Josh Gibsons and Satchel Paiges into the league, the fact is that those guys were pretty unique.  Just as in the majors, there were a few Negro League superstars who would have been legitimate superstars in the majors, but the large majority of the infusion would have been the Chuck McElroys and Thomas Howards of yesteryear.  The proof in the pudding is that of the 90 Cy Young awards that have ever been handed out, only 11 have gone to pitchers that either would have or might have been blocked by the color barrier and that includes Johan Santana and Willie Hernandez who might have been able to pass.  Compare that to 44 MVP awards over the same time frame and that doesn't include Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Rodriguez or Orlando Cepeda who, like Santana and Hernandez, is questionable as to whether they would have been excluded.  Looking at the Hall of Fame, there have been roughly 225 players inducted, 70 of which were pitchers.  Thirteen percent of those were African-American, compared to the slightly more than 25% of the everyday players.  There really isn't any evidence that the infusion of Negro League pitching would have had the same impact that the hitters had.  The difference in batting average between the two eras is around 20 points in favor of the old timers, so instead of a .344 lifetime average, Ruth would more likely have been around .324.  Bonds would benefit from the shift and come pretty close to that, but by that same reasoning Ruth would increase his lead over Bonds in OPS from the roughly 110 points it is today to closer to 200. 

The player pool is considerably larger than it was in Ruth's time, but given that baseball in Ruth's era got all of the top athletes and today other sports exert so much pressure on the available talent - in just the four major American professional team sports there are more than four times as many teams as there was back then - it's pretty safe to say that the relationship between the player population and the available pool of athletes is fairly similar.  As an example, baseball was generally regarded as Jackie Robinson's fourth best sport.  Baseball was also one of the few sports that attracted significant endorsement dollars, further assuring that it got the best athletes.  So had the color barrier still existed today, it would have to be broken by someone else because Robinson would have likely been an All-Star guard in the NBA or an All-Pro running back in the NFL or even an Olympic track star.  Baseball isn't the only game in town anymore when it comes to making good money in sports as it was in Ruth's era.

Ruth also didn't have to play night games, face specialized relief pitchers and he never faced a pitcher throwing a slider.  Last year, three teams topped .800 OPS in day games while four posted OPS under .700.  In night games, three teams bettered .800 OPS, although not by as significant a margin, but only one fell under the .700 OPS mark.  There is more of a disparity between the best and worst in day games than night games, but at best the day vs night argument is reserved to individual comparisons.  We really don't know how Ruth would do.  Bonds shows little career differentiation: 1.068 OPS during the day, 1.067 OPS at night.  As with integration, the specialized relievers would have probably had some effect on Ruth's production, but neither that or the day/night thing appears to be so significant as to cripple Ruth's candidacy as the game's best player.  For every Mike Myers who consistently perform well, he would have faced several Brian Shouses and Jason Christiansens who aren't nearly as good but are used in similar fashion.  The real irony here is that great players like Bonds and Ruth hit these guys anyway.  Bonds has better than a .300 average againt Myers, Shouse, Christiansen, Mike Stanton and a dozen other lefty specialists.  The lefty-righty thing really doesn't apply to great hitters because they hit everyone; that's why they are great.  Ruth wouldn't be any different. 

One other factor Ruth would have had to contend with is a more adversarial press, but given how well he dealt with them back they probably wouldn't be much of a factor.  He was garrulous and friendly with most of them, just as Kirby Puckett and Pete Rose were, so there's a decent chance the media would have extended him an equally free pass with his extra-curricular activities.

On the plus side, had Ruth been playing today he would have benefited from much better medicine and training, much better traveling conditions, better uniforms - if you've ever worn wool in July and August you know what I'm talking about - and he would have focused on hitting much earlier in his career.  Brad Wilkerson was one of the best two-way players in the history of college baseball but before he saw a single minor league pitch he was converted to full-time position player.  That's four more full seasons as a full time hitter for Ruth.   In his first full season he hit 29 homers (and during the deadball era, too), so it's quite possible he would have tacked on another hundred home runs to his career total.  And given that his home run totals jumped from 29 to 54 the first year baseball started using the "live ball", it's not crazy to think that those first few years would have looked very much like Albert Pujols career so far, further tacking on another 50-70 homers with a full career in the live ball era.  Better medicine would have given him another half season in 1925 when he was out with what doctors publicly called "an intestinal abscess", but was rumored to be a case of gonorrhea.  Tack on another 20 homers.  And given the current 162 game schedule would have added another 8 games per season for 22 seasons, at one homer every 3.5 games for his career the extra 176 games would have probably yielded another 50 homers.  So while his batting average would have probably dropped to the low-mid .320s, Ruth might very well have ended up with more than 900 homers had he played in this era.

Supposing that Bonds would have been allowed to play, he most certainly would have benefited from a restricted player population and seeing the same pitcher more often late in the game.  This certainly would have helped him and probably helped his slugging and on base.  Exactly how much is the question given the earlier league comparisons.

But how would that have played out given all the disadvantages Bonds would face?  Instead of first class, individual accommodations he would have had to endure 10-hour train rides,  primitive and dank locker rooms, wool uniforms, weekly double-headers and probably having to share a hotel room with a team mate.  You think Bonds is surly now, imagine what he would have been like under those conditions. 

But seriously, he would have also had to play in stadiums with no lights with wretched playing fields by modern standards.  Which is tougher to hit: a Pedro Martinez fastball in a well-lit stadium or a Walter Johnson fastball when it's overcast and no lights?  "It sounded like a strike, Barry".  Speaking of pitches, Ruth never faced a slider, but Bonds has never seen a ball loaded up with tobacco juice or had to hit a ball that was as mushy as a week-old orange and scuffed up more than a grade-schooler's sneakers.  So maybe we can call the pitch thing even.

Never mind the absence of steroids, how about the lack of reliable medicine?  Bonds had several arthroscopic operations on his knees last year, but his knee and elbow were operated on in 1999 and has had treatments for numerous hamstring strains in the years since.  Would he have even been playing the last five years without modern treatment, technology and physiological know-how?  Probably not.  In automobile parlance Bonds is a Ferrari, but had he played in Ruth's time he would have been driving mostly on dirt roads.

But the biggest impediment to Bonds success had he played in Ruth's era can be summed up in two words: batting helmet.  Barry uses a fairly short bat by modern standards (even more so by old-time measures) and likes to crowd the plate.  With a smaller bat he can be quicker to the ball, has better control of his swing, while the plate-crowding allows him to cover the entire strikezone.  His batting helmet (and to an additional extent, his body armor) allows him to do this without fear of serious injury from an inside pitch.  But back in Ruth's time, there was no body armor or batting helmets.  Pitchers governed the outside part of the plate by brushing batters back with the threat of some serious hurt.  A longer bat was the only way a hitter could combat that.  Batters simply didn't crowd the plate because if they did, there would be dire consequences to pay.  Ray Chapman did and he was killed by a Carl Mays fastball.  He's the only on-the-field fatality in baseball history but a number of very good and great players caught a pitch on the side of the head and were never the same after.  Barry would have also taken a few more pitches in his ear had he grandstanded as much as he does now when he hits a home run.  Realistically speaking - if there is such a thing when discussing the effects of time travel and/or transplantation - there really isn't any way that Barry could have been Barry back then because he would have had to use a longer, and thus heavier bat, and had to stand back from the plate leaving him more vulnerable to pitches on the outside of the plate.  It's one thing for Ruth to face tougher competition, but in my view it would be far tougher to overcome a complete overhaul of the way Bonds would have had to approach each of his at bats.  I would even take it a step further and say that Albert Pujols would have been a much better hitter in Ruth's era than Bonds because he crowds the inside of the plate much less yet gets similar results.

There's no debate that Bonds is one of the best players ever.  One day Alex Rodriguez and/or Albert Pujols will also enter the debate as greatest all-around player or best hitter ever.  It is almost certain an even greater player will eventually come around.  Perhaps Justin Upton, who knows?  And there are certainly candidates from other eras who deserve inclusion into the discussion: Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner and Pops Lloyd off the top of my head.  But the standard by which they all are compared and the guy who still has to be considered #1 is Ruth.