Two sluggers, linked by nothing but some time to kill on a Tuesday night in May.
It’s about 9:05 on a Tuesday night in May.
Last Tuesday, May 30, to be exact. The Marlins are playing the Phillies. When it started, 16,241 people had paid to enter Marlins Park and watch in person. Some other, harder to discern number of people had come home, from work or school or the airport, and flipped to the game on television. Some portion of those—fewer than half, to be sure—had found the Marlins’ broadcast wherein Rich Waltz and Todd Hollandsworth would guide them through some low-stakes action.
From "Babe Ruth's Sports Comics", a Golden Age comic book, a look at Babe Ruth's start in the big leagues.
Babe Ruth died in August 1948 at the age of 53. The following spring "Babe Ruth Sports Comics" was released to a nation full of comics-loving children. The magazine promised to to be "an all-sports magazine. ... You might get a little more baseball than other sports in the spring and summer, a little more football in the fall, and a little more basketball and ice hockey in the winter." Of course, with Babe Ruth's name plastered on the cover, the Great Bambino was featured throughout the comics. For the first few issues, for example, Ruth's life story was told and illustrated in a kid-friendly manner. There were also tips about how to swing a bat and throw a pitch and whatnot, mini-biographies of stars like Lou Boudreau and "The Clown Prince of Baseball", and other features kids of the 1940s might like.
But Ruth was the draw, even if kids reading the magazine were all plenty aware that he had died only the year before. So what did kids who read "Babe Ruth Sports Comics" see of their hero? From the magazine's second issue in June 1949, here's a look at "The Life of Babe Ruth: Chapter 2, Babe Enters Professional Baseball".
There's not much to be gained by ranking across generations.
I have a confession. I suppose it’s not a very juicy confession. But all the same, I feel like I need to confess that I love All-Time teams. Or, at least, I used to love them. I used to make them when I was bored in school in the backs of my notebooks. All-Time Twins. All-Time Yankees. All-Time Guys Named Mike. And I was a sucker for other people’s All-Time teams too. Babe Ruth made a team of what he thought were the greatest players in baseball history back in the 1930s and named Hal Chase and Ray Schalk to it. Walter Johnson, and Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb published their dream teams too. Cobb put Buck Weaver at third base, while The Big Train honored both Chase and Johnny Kling. One of my first baseball books I owned as a kid was an old library book from 1963 that listed Pie Traynor as the greatest 3B in history. I’d read any of that stuff.
Which is why I was excited to hear about Graham Womack’s All-Time Dream Project, which asked fans to vote on the greatest players in baseball history and got heavy-hitting writers like Craig Calcaterra, Josh Wilker, and Dan Szymborski to write about them. Graham’s project, which is also raising money to run journalism workshops for kids, is great. And I don’t want to take anything away from it. But in the afterglow, Craig wrote about how the results illustrated that we may be overvaluing the past, saying “We get locked into older things first, and it’s that much harder for us to appreciate more recent greatness…. I think [voters] pick Rogers Hornsby over Joe Morgan because their father said he was the best and because the pictures of him are in black and white and, boy, if that ain’t history, I don’t know what is.”
The rest of this article is restricted to Baseball Prospectus Subscribers.
Not a subscriber?
Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get access to the best baseball content on the web.
Spring training has become far more professional and predictable since its earliest days.
While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.
As another exhibition season approaches, revisit some of spring training's wilder times in the following piece, which originally ran as a "You Could Look it Up" column on March 6, 2004.
Teaching the meaning of the replacement level to old sportswriters and other children.
Integral to those numbers is something called WAR, which stands for wins above replacement. What replacement? A replacement player, of course, but he’s mythical.
Statistics zealots apparently love to deal with mythical or hypothetical players. The problem for those of us who prefer dealing with reality and actual human beings is we can’t buy into the idea of using mathematical formulas instead of real players.—Murray Chass, September 5, 2010.
I have considered WAR and VORP (“value over replacement player;” yes there’s that replacement guy again), and I have a basic problem with them. The replacement player isn’t real; he’s a myth, and I’ve never seen a myth play baseball. It’s like fantasy baseball. That stuff isn’t real either. —Chass, March 6, 2011
Before we begin, a disclaimer of sorts, or at least a plea for indulgence. I know we hit ol’ Murray quite recently, and at that time some of the comments suggested that we stop shooting at this fish and leave him in his Hall of Fame barrel. I’m sympathetic to that point of view to the extent that I suspect we in the sabermetric community are the only people paying the slightest attention, and unsympathetic because (a) the existence of retrograde thought offends me, (b) battling ignorance is part of my job description, and (c) attacking it is so darned fun.
One of my favorite essays on any topic is Nate Silver's "Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe Ruth?" from Baseball Between the Numbers. Rather than rehashing the same tired arguments about how much harder it was to hit a home run in Ruth's time or how much better the competition against Bonds was almost a century later, Silver uses a variety of metrics to demonstrate how the two players would actually perform on a level playing field.
History repeats itself, not just in the larger scheme, but even in the anecdotes it generates.
I had a tough time choosing a topic for today's bit of baseball time travel, not because I couldn't think of something but because there was simply too much from which to pick. At first I thought I might do something inspired by a moment on this year's book tour. Last week, Joe Sheehan and I appeared on a New York-area television station. Among the questions it was proposed we answer was, "WILL THE YANKEES SURVIVE THE LOSS OF JOE TORRE?" My instinctive response was, "No. There will be some kind of mass-suicide event by May." Joe quickly dared me to use that line on the air, and I was eager to comply, but somehow it didn't come up quite that way on the actual broadcast and like so many good lines, it remained unsaid.
Returning to a subject from this past winter, Dan digs in to discuss the all-time greats.
"It is the best game because the players look like us. They are not seven feet tall, they don’t weigh 350 pounds, and they don’t bench-press 650. We can relate to them. We can see them—they’re not obscured by some hideous face mask, and they don’t play behind a wall of Plexiglas—we can touch them and we can feel them. I see Greg Maddux with his shirt off, with his concave chest and no discernible muscles, and I marvel: This is one of the six greatest pitchers in the history of the game? I see Tony Gwynn with his shirt off and I see a short, fat guy with the smallest hands I've ever seen on an athlete, and I wonder: 'This is the best hitter since Ted Williams?'...They are regular guys, at least most of them, who just happen to be really, really good at something that everyone else is not."
--Tim Kurkjian, from chapter one of Is This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod's Heart to Zim's Head--My 25 Years in Baseball
Sorting out the all-time achievements of the game's greatest sluggers can give us an answer we can all agree upon.
You're going to have to pick your poison here, old-timers. You can either hate Barry Bonds, or you can hate statheads, but when it comes to solving the "problem" of the all-time home run title, you can't have it both ways. Those that want to place an asterisk on Bonds' achievements have always focused on the question of whether or not he's been cheating, something that remains unproven in the legal if not literal sense. In that argument, you can never win, not until Bonds pumps out a positive steroid test, something that seems pretty unlikely at this late stage of his career. Instead, if you really want to make your point sans the Frickian asterisk, you're going to have to rely on that other thing that baseball purists hate: math.
Over and over, people always bring up that we can't compare Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds. To that, we say "nuts." Because we most certainly can. There's some question as to how physical skills might translate, but it's easy enough to translate statistics to adjust for park, league, and era. In fact, it's one of the bedrocks of Baseball Prospectus. Since before its founding, Clay has been making translations available. Translations of player performance aren't that complex on the surface and are easily read, just like a normal stat line. It's behind the scenes where it gets complex, and why Davenport Translations have never been seriously contested. Unlike attempts at the "One True Stat" like VORP, or Runs Created, or WARP, or Win Shares, all with their various degrees success or failure, translations seldom raise any significant argument among serious statheads, and no one has developed a competing system.
Steven takes us back to 1919, when Babe Ruth blazed a path through new media that ensured his star would shine more brightly in history than any other, including a certain contemporary slugger.
The assumption here seems to be that home runs were the only reason why Ruth became famous, and hitting the same number of home runs as he did entitles one to the same kind of appreciation. That expectation leaves out roughly 98% of the Babe Ruth story. Even the question "Who is better, Bonds or Ruth?" completely misses the point. George Herman Ruth became the Babe because of when he played and who he was. His home runs opened the door to stardom and the big man walked through it. Bonds will never be what Ruth is or what Ruth was, and it has only a little to do with the rumors of his dalliance with performance enhancing drugs or his lack of charisma or how many home runs he hits. Given his talent and his personality Ruth would have been a star in any era, but the Babe was a creation of his time. That moment is gone and won't return; Bonds could hit a thousand home runs but he still couldn't bring it back.