Who's better, Barry or the Babe?
Are the 708 career home runs Barry Bonds brings into the 2006 season more impressive than the 714 slugged by Babe Ruth from 1915-35? Who will stand taller once Bonds passes Ruth, possibly as soon as next month when he hits his seventh homer of the new season?
Was Secretariat a stronger horse than Citation? Could Jeff Gordon have kept up with Richard Petty in a race car? Was Marilyn Monroe more beautiful than Christie Brinkley? Who would have won a fight between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali? Best pure point guard ever: Bob Cousy or John Stockton?
There are no easy answers when comparisons are made of athletes from different eras, only spirited debate. Numbers can reveal only so much; the rest is left to interpretation and individual preference.
But Barry and the Babe both provide plenty of ammunition, despite the recent allegations that Bonds used a variety of performance-enhancing drugs.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has maintained he'll take his time regarding any action he'll take concerning Bonds. Selig said earlier this month he's considering a wide range of responses, including possible suspension.
Bonds could also face a perjury charge if federal authorities in San Francisco accuse him of lying to a grand jury in December 2003. At that time he reportedly testified that he had not knowingly use steroids.
The Babe, too, was certainly no saint. He lied to his managers about missing curfews, lied to women about affairs with other women, and boy could he brag. Many maintain he fostered a lifelong lie about his "Called Shot" to center field off the Chicago Cubs' Charlie Root in Game Three of the 1932 World Series.
Time will tell whether all of Bonds' accomplishments will require an asterisk. Not so with the Babe.
Bonds, a seven-time Most Valuable Player Award winner, has become the standard against which other modern day power hitters are measured.
People forget that his 73-homer season of 2001 was interrupted more than a week after the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Before missing most of last year because of a knee injury, he averaged nearly 52 homers a year over the past five seasons, a total of 258 blasts. The most Ruth hit over any five-year period was 256, from 1926-30.
Bonds' pursuit of the previous single-season home run mark, 70 by Mark McGwire in 1998, didn't seem to generate the same level of interest which the McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase for Roger Maris' mark (61 in 1961) had just three years earlier.
Often surly with the press, Bonds prefers to post his remarks on his own Web site rather than deal with reporters. Long assumed a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer, Bonds may find his legacy in the game radically altered by the recent allegations.
Ruth was the game's first true power hitter. He significantly expanded the fan base of baseball and triggered the major expansion of nearly all ballparks in the big leagues, including Yankee Stadium, "The House That Ruth Built."
He is credited with saving the game after the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and is one of the reasons his era became known as "The Roaring Twenties." His appetites for food, drink and life were as large as his waist line.
He was a paradox. His reputation for mischief was balanced by his desire to help children. Ruth was one of five original Hall of Fame inductees in 1936. In 1969, he was named baseball's greatest player in balloting commemorating the 100th anniversary of professional baseball.
In 1998, The Sporting News named Ruth No. 1 on its list of baseball's 100 greatest players and in 1999, he was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in fan balloting. (Bonds was not among the 10 outfielders picked.) Ruth is credited with putting the "Curse of the Bambino" on the Boston Red Sox -- finally broken in 2004 -- after being sold to the New York Yankees before the 1920 season.
The Babe's reputation as a big, cuddly man child has survived for more than a half century. Barry's credibility seems to be heading south by the hour. Perhaps it's not fair to Barry, but the Babe's legacy clearly outweighs that of Bonds.
>Big boys with big swings
Oh, how these guys grew up.
Babe broke into the big leagues as a 198-pound, 19-year-old pitcher in 1914. He grew larger each year to the point of possessing a 49 3/4 -inch waistline one offseason, the logical result of little training and plenty of eating and drinking. He's listed officially as a 215-pounder in the record books but his weight routinely soared past 250 while he was an active player, to more than 275 after he'd retired. Owner Jacob Ruppert ordered pinstripes to the Yankees uniform permanently in 1927 to make the Babe look thinner.
It didn't work.
According to the recent Sports Illustrated article that chronicled Bonds' alleged doping routine, Barry is a gym rat, spending hours each day pumping iron. He has gained 43 pounds since his rookie year of 1986, when he was a 22-year-old leadoff hitter with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
SI contends he gained 15 pounds of muscle over a 100-day period between the 1998 and '99 seasons -- ironically right after McGwire had established the single-season record with 70 homers -- all while keeping his body fat well under 10 percent.
By hook or crook, Bonds has managed to improve over time and is a far better athletic specimen than Ruth was. Advantage Barry.
Ruth "invented" the home run and Bonds has taken it to heights unseen. Ruth broke the single-season record with 29 in 1919, his final year with the Boston Red Sox. He passed Edward Nagle "Ned" Williamson, who hit 27 for the National League's Chicago White Stockings in 1884. That year, the fence distances at Lake Front Park -- home of the White Stockings -- were 180 feet to left field and 196 to right. All but two of Williamson's homers came in that park.
At Yankee Stadium it was 295 feet to dead right field but a hefty 429 to the power alley in right center. At San Francisco's AT&T Park, it's 307 to right and 421 to the accompanying power alley.
Ruth nearly doubled his production with 54 homers in 1920, which were 35 more than George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns, the AL runner-up. Ruth slugged 59 in 1921 and topped out at 60 in 1927. That mark lasted until Maris, another Yankees right fielder, hit 61 in 1961.
In 1920, Ruth outhomered 14 of the other 15 major league teams. In 1927, his 60 homers were more than every other American League team's totals and represented 14 percent of the league's total of 439. Maris' 61 homers were less than 4 percent of the AL's total of 1,534 in 1961. Bonds' 73 homers were almost 2.5 percent of the NL's 2,952 homers in 2001.
Bonds' record total in 2001 represented just nine more than the 64 homers NL runner-up Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs slugged. Four players hit 52 or more homers in 2001.
There were 1.12 homers hit per NL game during the 2001 season, about three times as many as during AL play in 1927.
"My God, if he was playing today," said Sam Jones, Ruth's teammate with the Red Sox from 1916-19 and the Yankees from 1922-26, as quoted in Lawrence S. Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times" in 1984. "If Babe was as good relative to everybody else like he used to be, he'd hit over 200 home runs a season."
Counters Jack McKeon, former manager of the Florida Marlins: "You can't tell me the Babe was any better than this guy [Bonds]. You can't tell me this guy isn't the best player in the history of the game."
In his time, the Babe was a god among men. Bonds, on the other hand, is the best in an era ripe with hard hitters. Advantage Babe.
Bonds has always had a target to pursue, not so for the Babe.
In terms of money, Bonds made about $22 million last season. In 1931, the Babe made $80,000 for his top salary. At the time, President Herbert Hoover made $75,000. When Ruth was asked how he felt about making more than Hoover, he said: "Why not? I had a better year than he did."
In terms of targets, Bonds' ultimate zenith remains Hank Aaron's 755 career homers. Two seasons ago, he passed his godfather, Willie Mays, with his 661st homer to take possession of third place.
Ruth broke Roger Connor's career record of 136 homers in 1921, his third season as a full-time hitter. All of his final 577 homers simply extended his own mark.
When Ruth hit his 700th homer in 1934, only two others at the time had as many as 300. When he retired with 714 homers, with 56 major league records and 192 AL marks, he had more than twice as many career dingers as anyone else.
Self-motivation is a trait to be admired. Advantage Babe.
No slugger in the history of the sport was better protected in a lineup than the Babe.
Pitch around him and you paid for it with the Iron Horse coming up next. It was pick your poison for pitchers of that era and some considered Ruth less lethal.
Lou Gehrig, his Yankees teammate from 1925-34, had a .340 career batting average, 493 homers, 1,990 runs batted in, a record 23 grand slams and an AL-record 184 RBIs in 1931. Gehrig amassed 400 or more total bases on five occasions; Ruth did it just twice.
In 10 seasons together, Ruth and Gehrig homered in the same game 72 times, and in the same inning 19 times. The two combined as teammates for 783 homers (434 for Babe, 349 for Lou), the highest total ever, until Aaron and Eddie Mathews combined for 863.
Before Gehrig arrived, Ruth often batted before Bob Meusel, a career .309 hitter.
Bonds' career theme song could be "Walk This Way." For the past decade plus, he's been by far the most dangerous man in his teams' losses and the game plans of most opposing managers is "don't give Bonds the chance to beat us."
Bonds' prime protectors have included Hall of Fame lock second baseman Jeff Kent, who won the 2000 NL MVP Award batting behind Bonds, third baseman Matt Williams, who banged 378 career homers, and Bobby Bonilla, who once was at bat for the Pirates when the winning run scored on a wild pitch, then grumbled, "Why does it always happen to me?"
Iron horses these guys weren't, as evidence by Bonds' 607 lifetime intentional walks. Stats were not officially kept for intentional walks until 1955 -- 20 years after Babe's retirement.
>The hazards and pitfalls
Seldom did the Babe have to face a left-hander who was on another team's roster strictly to get him out. In his day, relievers weren't specialists, they were guys who simply weren't good enough to crack the rotation. Ruth also played before integration, meaning his competition wasn't nearly as stiff.
In addition, Babe never had to fly coast-to-coast, play under the lights, on artificial turf or have a network television contract dictate that one of his postseason games end about the time a milkman begins his shift.
On the other hand, Barry has never had to sleep on a train as a major leaguer, bake under the summer sunshine day after day or try to hit a baseball covered in tobacco juice.
But Babe never had to face the intense media scrutiny Barry lives with on a daily basis. "Every reporter that covered Ruth had the illusion that he was a good friend of Ruth, a personal friend," said radio legend Jean Shepherd, in the HBO documentary "Babe Ruth," in 1998. "The minute he started to write about Ruth he was writing about what he considered to be his friend."
Babe didn't have to deal with the temptation of steroids, but tobacco may have led to his death from throat cancer at the age of 53 in 1948. He began chewing tobacco at the age of 7, and in his teens began smoking cigarettes and cigars, then a pipe later on, sometimes smoking up to a dozen cigars a day. He also used so much snuff that the dust would clog his nasal passages. Is it any wonder Ruth had lifelong respiratory problems, including frequent colds?
"If Ruth had lived sensibly and trained as we know how to train," wrote George F. Will in "Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball," in 1990, "he would loom even larger over his era, like an Everest in Kansas."
Ruth could have taken better care of himself but didn't. Bonds is so focused on his body that people talk about it before many of his achievements. Wrong execution of the right idea?
Factoring in stress and changes in the game, Bonds gets the advantage here, but definitely with an asterisk.
There is no mathematical formula to settle this debate.
In my opinion, Ruth's vast superiority to the rest of the field during his era, combined with the fact he was one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers of his day before ever becoming a full-time hitter, lifts him a notch above anyone else who has ever played the game. In hockey context, it would have been like Wayne Gretzky playing his first five seasons as a standout goaltender before becoming the game's most prolific scorer.
But versatility aside, I'll take 714 hot dog-fueled homers over Barry's 708 long balls and counting. Simply put, the Babe was a better home run hitter in his day than Bonds is now, and Ruth's accomplishments will remain more impressive than those of Bonds.
But maybe ESPN analyst and former pitcher Tom Candiotti put it best two years ago: "I can't imagine what it was like seeing Ruth, [Ted] Williams, Aaron, Mays, [Joe] DiMaggio, [Ty] Cobb, etc. in the prime of their careers, but somehow, it must have been like what we see Barry doing right now."
That's an answer everybody can live with.