Barry and the Babe
By: Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson
Barry Bonds’ Dec. 16 sentencing for obstruction of justice is an anticlimactic addendum to a sterling, though marred, baseball career.
Without a doubt, Bonds was a great hitter who didn’t need performance-enhancing drugs to put up Hall of Fame numbers. Bonds had dedication and self-discipline. He worked hard for many years to stay in shape, prolong his career, and be the best he could be. Unfortunately for his reputation, the consensus is that he went too far.
It’s interesting to reflect on how far people will go to gain an edge. Movie and TV stars “cheat” on what nature gives them—some with plastic surgery, others with breast augmentations, perhaps some even with steroids. Like them, Bonds tried to give the public what they were looking for—in his case, the ability to hit a baseball an awe-inspiring distance. In sports, though, cheating to gain an unfair advantage offends most Americans’ sense of fair play.
At this unhappy time for baseball, let’s look back at a player to whom Bonds was frequently compared—the game’s greatest icon: Babe Ruth. When Bonds surpassed Ruth’s career homerun total, he remarked that we shouldn’t have to hear about the Babe any more. It’s sad that he resented being spoken of in the same breath as the Babe. He should have felt honored.
Babe Ruth was sui generis—one of a kind. He occupies an irreplaceable and unmatchable spot in American sports history. In fact, you can make the case that he single-handedly elevated professional sports to national prominence.
Ruth became a legend by virtue of his prodigious athletic feats and his larger-than-life character. Where Bonds was sometimes reserved and cool toward reporters and the public, the Babe was gregarious and sunny. The fun-loving Babe led a colorful life, and he gladly made numerous visits to children in hospitals. He loved people, and people in turn loved him.
As a slugger, Ruth has no equal. Only 35 times in major league history has a player achieved a season slugging percentage of at least .700. Ruth did it nine times. Bonds did it four times, all after bulking up late in his career. Ruth hit at that level much longer, compiling an incredible cumulative slugging percentage of .711 for his 15-year career with the Yankees.
Bonds’ highest slugging percentage, in 2001, was an astounding 127 points above the runner-up, Sammy Sosa (another slugger who tested positive for steroids). That is dominance! But Ruth’s highest slugging percentage, in 1920, was even more impressive. The runner-up, Hall of Famer George Sisler, batted an eye-popping .420, was second in the league in doubles, triples, and homers—yet had a slugging percentage 215 points lower than the Babe. The next year, Ruth’s slugging percentage was 240 points higher than the runner-up, Hall of Fame outfielder Harry Heilmann, who batted .394.
The bulked-up Barry Bonds smashed some long home runs, but never did he hit a 500-foot homer. Ruth hit dozens of homers over 500 feet, set the distance mark in every American League park, and hit the longest verifiable home run in major league history in Detroit in 1921—at least 570 feet on the fly. Bonds’ power was concentrated in four seasons. Babe hit his last 500-foot home run 18 years after his first. It’s scary to think what Babe would have accomplished if he had half of Barry Bonds’ commitment to training.
Babe’s preternatural power was such that he occasionally reached second base before an infielder would catch one of his pop-ups. (Showing his fun-loving personality, he hit one pop-up so high that the infielder lost sight of it, so Babe caught it himself in his bare hands.) Another news account tells of Babe hitting a screaming line drive that nearly hit the pitcher’s head before sailing over the centerfielder and hitting the centerfield wall 500 feet away (yes, some of those early ballparks were that deep in center field) on one bounce.
The greatness of Ruth would not be complete if we did not acknowledge several other dimensions of his baseball skills. Tris Speaker, Hall of Fame outfielder, testified that Ruth was one of the five or six greatest outfielders he ever saw. The Babe stole home 10 times in his career. As a pitcher, Ruth won over 100 games; still has the 17th-lowest career ERA and the fourth-lowest World Series ERA; had a winning record in head-to-head match-ups with the great Walter Johnson; and pitched complete game victories in 1930, after not pitching for a decade, and again in 1933 after an additional three-year hiatus. He also played on seven World Series winners (three in Boston, four in New York).
In this Christmas season, I wish Barry Bonds peace. Meanwhile, baseball fans, let us rejoice in the baseball miracle that was Babe Ruth.
— Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.