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Who was better? Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds?

Jun 24, 2013, 11:03 AM EDT

Ruth Called Shot Baseball

This is a fun exercise from David Laurila of FanGraphs. He asked ten major leaguers — some players and some coaches — who they thought was “better,” Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. David didn’t define the terms. He left it up to the respondents to decide what “better” meant and to explain their choices.

I won’t give away how many thought Ruth was better than Bonds — you have to read that for yourself — but I will say I was pretty impressed with the answers. Especially given who a couple of the respondents were (note: Luke Scott was one of them, and in the past his reasoning on various topic has been … curious). I was impressed because the players seem to have a way better appreciation of the differences between eras than most fans and even many baseball writers do. I was a bit disappointed that a couple of them didn’t appreciate that Ruth was also an elite pitcher when talking about the “all-around game” of the two, but on the whole I think the answers are pretty darn good. Even Scott’s. Indeed, his may be one of the best-reasoned in the lot.

As for me: I agree with the guy who said that Bonds would do better in Ruth’s era than Ruth would in Bonds’. I think it’s hard to argue against that. If you differ, please give me your reasons for it. I’m genuinely curious.

254 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. drewsylvania - Jun 24, 2013 at 6:57 PM

    Can’t be answered. To answer it, we have to separate player from world. Which is impossible.

    However, if you brought Bonds back in time to hit when Ruth did, and vice versa, Bonds would destroy Ruth’s records while Ruth wouldn’t make a roster.

    • yahmule - Jun 24, 2013 at 7:52 PM

      “Can’t be answered” the man declared before confidently stating something that can’t be proven.

    • wardhobby - Jun 24, 2013 at 8:10 PM

      Bonds couldn’t even throw out Sid Bream, sliding in with the winning run in the playoffs!

    • babemantle49 - Jun 25, 2013 at 7:50 AM

      It is difficult for me to understand how anybody could favorably compare Barry Bonds’ career hitting statistics to the career hitting statistics of Babe Ruth, nor can I comprehend how a person could believe Bonds would have done well even if he’d played back during Ruth’s day. Bonds’ career batting-statistics definitely are inferior to those of Babe Ruth…….. when all the mitigating factors are considered.

      For starters the first five years of Ruth’s major league career he was used mostly as a starting pitcher; the first 4 years the most games Ruth appeared in was only 67 appearing in only 5 games the 1st year and just 95 games in his 5th year…. Ruth’s homerun numbers for these first 5 years were; 0, 4, 3, 3, & 11. By contrast Bonds was a full-time hitter from his rookie season, in which he played in over 100 games, until he retired. If Ruth’s first 5 ‘starting-pitcher’ seasons are omitted from his career hitting statistics, as they rightfully should be, than he only had 17 years to put up his offensive-statistics whereas Bonds enjoyed 22 seasons to acheive his total career offensive-stats.

      Also there are several differences in playing conditions between the eras of in which Ruth and Bonds played. For example the size of the ballparks have gotten smaller and the distance a home-run ball has to travel has steadily shortened from the days when Ruth was playing up through Bonds’ career. Another difference that greatly favored Bonds is that the average baseball that ended up being knocked for a -run during the time that Bonds played was in far better shape than those in Babe Ruth’s day, because during the years of Ruth’s career the game-umpires were likely to keep a ball in the game until it was in very bad shape, forcing the hitters of that era to swat at some odd-shaped and softened baseballs…. in comparasion, during Bonds’ playing days the umpire would usually toss in a new one if the baseball had the least bit of dust on it.

      • jk55299 - Jun 25, 2013 at 9:15 AM

        Silliness, No cutters, forkballs, splitfingered fastballs or minorities. All day games. 295 to right in Yankee Stadium at the time for a dead pull hitter like Ruth. Give me a break. If he were allowed to play Bonds would have hit 400 every year with 75 homeruns. Limited to no relief pitching…A bunch of small white guys that did not workout. Go join an adult semi-pro team today to see Ruth’s level of competition.

      • brotherspike - Jun 25, 2013 at 4:58 PM

        I agree with jk55299… also, pitchers in Ruth’s era were seldom pulled. ruth had a chance to see these guys a minimum of 3 sometimes 5 ABs per game, not to mention they pitched every 4 days and there were only 8 teams. He saw the same guys A LOT!

      • lturouske48 - Jun 25, 2013 at 7:42 PM

        Here’s another one for you. A true judge of both speed and power is the triple. Ruth had 136 in his career, Bonds had 77!

      • lturouske48 - Jun 28, 2013 at 10:47 PM

        A true test of speed and power, the triple. In fewer at bats, which of the two hit more? RUTH!

      • jbrown3816 - Jun 30, 2013 at 10:24 PM

        @lturouske48 – If Bonds had the same kinds of power alleys that Ruth had playing in the Polo Grounds and old Yankee Stadium (not to mention the other cavernous ballparks of that era), he would have hit more triples as well.

        Ruth was a fantastic ballplayer, but the fact remains that he did not play against all of the best players of his era. Whether it was because of the reserve clause (which led parsimonious owners to stash potentially great players in the low minors) or the color line, Ruth benefited from inferior competition. He would have been a feared hitter and a perennial All-Star if he had played in, say, the 1960s, but there’s no way he would have been the equal of such transcendent players as Mays, Aaron, or Clemente.

    • jimeejohnson - Jun 29, 2013 at 9:33 PM

      Ratio of thumbs up to thumbs down indicates your comment sucks.

    • wpjohnson - Jun 30, 2013 at 9:17 AM

      Do you suppose that Bonds benefited from the juiced up ball? How many homeruns would Bonds have hit using the baseball of the teens and twenties? What percentage of the total home runs did Bonds hit each year. Even banjo hitting 150 pound shortstops were hitting 20 or 30. Often Ruth hit more home runs himself than did whole teams. that is what you need to compare.

      If Ruth had the juiced ball he may well have hit over a thousand home runs.

      Who was better? No contest. Ruth by a big margin.

      And, we didn’t even look at pitching. Ruth would have been a Hall of Fame inductee if he had never left the mound for the outfield. What could your boy, Barry, do?

    • rg396ray - Sep 23, 2013 at 4:46 PM

      NOT SO FAST. It may be a given for Bonds one-upping Ruth with his modern day skills but transplanting Bonds to 1927 is not such a good idea. We know the ball parks were much larger so thats Bonds first drawback. The strike zone was much larger. A fast ball under Bonds chin level would be a strike and the pitchers back then got away with throwing at batters more easily, and there were no batting helmets! A psychological disadvantage for sure. Over 100 balls per game used today while back in the 20′s less than a dozen normally used. A banged up ball would have been easier for the pitcher to doctor up and don’t forget some pitchers were still allowed to throw the spitter. AND, also don’t forget that Bonds would have to play with the equipment used in that era. Without acclimation, Bonds would be hard pressed to even hit 30 homers. It amazes me just how strong Ruth had to be to hit those home runs in the larger ball parks. Incidentally, Ruth had only one “cheap” home run in 1927 to RF at Yankee Stadium, c. 325 ft. YS was 495 ft in 1927 and one day the Babe hit 2 long flyouts almost up against the fence. Today they would have been home runs in any ball park. Now, if Ruth were transplanted into 2013 he would surely flop but if he were given the time to practice and acclimate himself he would still be phenomenal. The same goes for Gehrig, Cobb, Johnson, and Foxx. Raymond

  2. sabatimus - Jun 24, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    Idiotic question; the players played almost a century apart. That alone is enough to bury this.

  3. sabatimus - Jun 24, 2013 at 7:07 PM

    I guess Craig had a slow day and needed a flame war.

  4. tanzkommandant - Jun 24, 2013 at 8:22 PM

    Ruth didn’t play against blacks so his numbers cannot be taken seriously.

    • yahmule - Jun 24, 2013 at 10:33 PM

      He batted .400 barnstorming against Negro League players.

    • laminator12 - Jun 25, 2013 at 10:58 AM

      Weak comment. Ruth , wasn’t on the juice like bonds either. Pitchers also threw more junk back then..one could say that josh Gibson, who was the babe Ruth of the negro league, never faced white pitchers. So lets not go with the race card.

  5. bills399 - Jun 24, 2013 at 9:24 PM

    love the poster who says Ruth played against “just whites” then says people who like Ruth over bonds are racist lol. Hate to tell you but “those whites” were some of the all time greats. The fact that Ruth played against white people due to politics was not his fault. This argument is stupid though, like saying “well Michael Jordan only player against predominantly black players…..so….” Even with the influx of Hispanic players, a hand full of black and Asian players, white players dominate baseball. Again, sorry to blow up ur argument, but field an all time team of minority players and an all time team of white players, white team wins every game…..sorry.

    • tanzkommandant - Jun 25, 2013 at 8:26 AM

      Not even close to those results, Mojambo. The greatest players of all time is even at every position. In the canon of the game, the only position whites have a clear advantage is pitching. We’re only talking one game or one series here, however, in which case there is ample talent at the pitching position. It’s a dead heat & I defy anyone to explain otherwise.

      • laminator12 - Jun 25, 2013 at 11:09 AM

        You have some race issues…and for anyone to praise bonds is a slap to hank Aaron , the true home run king and a first class human being.. Bonds was a arrogant prick, with small balls, because all the steroids shank them. And if you wish to get very specific I believe if you check the stats Aaron ad well over 1500 more at bats than Ruth..

      • brotherspike - Jun 25, 2013 at 5:03 PM

        @laminator12. Now you’re just being silly. The playing fields were level with Bonds, and that was many, many years after doing it naturally against pitchers juicing for a decade before him.
        As far as the arrogant prick” comment goes, you watch to much TV dude. Bonds was a fan’s player, 100% He loved his fans. He loved kids! If you were reading, or watching the same guys who destroyed his father, and believing them without making up your mind from reality, Shame on you.

    • jk55299 - Jun 25, 2013 at 10:30 AM

      It’s about limiting who is playing, a smaller talent pool. Ruth was 6’2 215 in his prime and he was considered Adam Dunn size. The talent back then was so week.

      • jimeejohnson - Jun 29, 2013 at 9:34 PM

        The talent back then was so weak? I know you’re lying!

    • jk55299 - Jun 25, 2013 at 10:31 AM

      It’s about limiting who is playing, a smaller talent pool. Ruth was 6’2 215 in his prime and he was considered Adam Dunn size. The talent back then was so weak.

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:39 AM

      The Michael Jordan comparison make no sense, Jordan got to play against the best that was available inconsequential of the color of their skin, while baseball was strictly whites only for Ruth not the best that was available. And you are smoking crack if you think the all time team of whites beats the all time team of minority players.

      Possible starting nine for minority team: Wilie Mays CF, Barry Bonds LF, Hank Aaron RF, Alex Rodriguez 3B, Derek Jeter SS, Jackie Robinson 2B, Albert Jujols 1B, Ivan (Pudge) Rodriqez C, Bob Gibson P.

      My starting outfield are 3 out of the 4 all time leading home run hitters. The all time leading stolen base leader (Rickie Henderson) is on my bench along with Ken Griffey Jr., Ozzie Smith, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Pedro Martinez, Eeine Banks, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey Tony Gwyn, Frank Thomas, Barry Larkin, and the greatest closer of all time Maiano Rivera. Yes you have dominate pitching but my team is used to dominate pitching and my pitching is not weak. Further more, we have the greatest speed, hitting, and fielding of all time.

  6. dutchman1350 - Jun 24, 2013 at 9:42 PM

    Beer > steroids

  7. luz56 - Jun 24, 2013 at 9:59 PM

    Lou Gehrig…..

  8. yahmule - Jun 24, 2013 at 10:47 PM

    The primary reason why Babe Ruth’s excellence would be evident in an era. Albert Pujols took the same tests years later and posted similar results.

    http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Fullerton/

  9. babemantle49 - Jun 25, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    How could Bonds have done well playing during Ruth’s era when he would have been having to play without his ‘cream’ and his ‘butt-shots’ steroids?

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:42 AM

      By using Coke and Alcohol just like Ruth.

  10. jfk69 - Jun 25, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    Babe helped build a stadium and team legacy.
    Bonds himself a freak body and a tarnished baseball legacy.
    Based on his juicing. His career might have well ended up like Griffey’s. Moments of greatness with repeated trips to the DL

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:43 AM

      Lets not forget about Ruth’s abuse of drugs, alcohol, and women.

  11. jk55299 - Jun 25, 2013 at 10:34 AM

    In every other sport we accept that the skill level has improved. It is easy to see in other sports like track…Athletes are getting better. Do we really think that George Mikan would be a dominant force in the NBA? Why would we think that Ruth would be anything better than Adam Dunn or Rob Deer?

    • richiebburg - Jun 25, 2013 at 2:04 PM

      because if he was alive today he would have access to the same knowledge/technology todays players do??? Ruths furthest homer was over 500ft. I don’t think he was lacking in the strength department

    • yahmule - Jun 25, 2013 at 4:12 PM

      Overall skill level has improved, stupid. That doesn’t mean Jack Dempsey would have been Butterbean today. You’re too dumb for this discussion.

    • gildaroy2000 - Jun 25, 2013 at 10:46 PM

      jk,

      The reason I think Ruth would be better in today’s era is the talent pool isn’t that great. Do to expansion, a lot of the players in the majors today would normally be in the minors. Even as far back as the 50′s, there were much better ballplayers. Almost every team had a “star” and most teams had really good pitching.

      I think Ruth would have a field day against most of the pitchers of this era.

  12. richiebburg - Jun 25, 2013 at 2:03 PM

    Ruth hit 500ft with tree limbs and whatever ball they played with back then.. His strength is not an issue

  13. mpzz - Jun 25, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    Given today’s training methods and nutritional knowledge, there’s no question Ruth would have outplayed Bonds in today’s game, either with or without PED’s. But if Bonds had been allowed to play in the twenties, without steroids or HGH? He probably would still have been a decent player, but in Ruth’s class? Don’t be ridiculous.
    By the way, how good a pitcher would Bonds have been in his own era?

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:49 AM

      Really you think Ruth would take advantage or today’s training methods and nutritional knowledge? He didn’t take advantage then and he wouldn’t take advantage now.

  14. eightysixisback - Jun 25, 2013 at 2:21 PM

    This came from baseball in the classroom on CBS New York and was about ruth’s 1920 season:

    In that Year, Ruth’s first with the Yankees, he hit 54 home runs, thus becoming the first player ever to hit 30, 40, and 50 in a season. He out-homered every other team in the American League and all but one team in the National League. He also hit more home runs than eleven pairs of teams that year! For example, that year the Red Sox hit 22 homers while the Tigers slugged 30 circuit clouts, drawing their combined total two shy of the Bambino’s 54.
    Add in the fact that Ruth was a dominant pitcher in his early years and i have to go with ruth. Bonds was an amazing player but without the steroids he wasn’t hitting the most homeruns in the major leagues let alone beating the homerun totals of entire teams. Ruth’s game was so far beyond any of the other players it was incredible. Bonds was a five tool guy and although he was a tool himself i think he would have still been one of the best players ever without the roids but i think ruth was better. if he was that far ahead of everyone else back then it makes me think if he had played today and had all the training and equipment and advantages that today’s players have he would have dominated today also. Bonds had an unfair advantage over his competition. (at least over some of them, okay maybe only over a few of them, lol) Bonds was great and i think he would have been great in any era but the fact that ruth was a great pitcher and hitter and also that he was so far beyond all the rest in his time to me makes him the greatest.

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 6:06 AM

      Why does everyone like to throughout the fact that Ruth hit more homeruns than the entirity of other teams? There is no question that Ruth was the best of his day and to compare Ken Griffey Jr., Fank Thomas, Alex Rodrigez, Roger Clemens, Curt Schiling, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and all of the great players of today to the lack luster players that Ruth faced is insulting to them and just make Bonds that much better.

      Oh and did Ruth every steal 40 bases and have 40 homeruns in a season, how about 30 bases and 30 homeruns in a season?

  15. skinsfanwill - Jun 25, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    The one thing you all left off was the fact that when the mlb all-stars met the negro league all-stars, there was total domination by the negro league players. Year in and year out. Now do all of your homework. Not just the section that you want to hear. So Ruth was nowhere near facing the best competition in his era.

    • yahmule - Jun 25, 2013 at 4:21 PM

      Actually, you should do your homework, instead of posting bombastic comments with no supporting documentation. I recommend baseballfever.com as good place to educate yourself. Here’s a hint, the records fluctuated depending upon how many Major Leaguers were actually suited up for these games and the definition of All Star was quite fluid.

      The primary difference between the two leagues talent-wise was that the Negro Leagues lacked pitching depth, which tended to inflate batting statistics.

      Babe Ruth batted over .400 against Negro League competition on barnstorming tours, per Leigh Montville in The Big Bam.

  16. doctorseven - Jun 26, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    I believe mpzz’s last sentence trumps everything.

  17. snipedanglecelly13 - Jun 27, 2013 at 6:56 AM

    Bonds had to use steroids to get his power, Ruth all the way

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 6:10 AM

      and the things that Ruth put into his system had no affect on his game.

  18. beachcomber2020 - Jun 27, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    All things considered…the league is better now. The athlete is better now. The pitchers are better now. The stuff that the pitcher’s are throwing is overall better now. The batter is better prepared and has more conditioning advantages going for him. I just believe that Bonds had more to handle at the plate against pitcher after pitcher throwing their best with superior scouting and caution in play. And Ruth having limited resources and calling for more of his natural abilities and strength. Which by the way…pushed that one to its limits. But Ruth rose above all with that natural talent. It comes down to two different times with two different players. Who at their own time and place put forth unbelievable production. Ruth could throw along with hit. Bonds could run along with hit. Both were the centers of their lineup. Both could dominate. Both abused their bodies with outside chemicals. Who was better. That answer is a total waste of time and thinking. TWO different worlds in a sport called by the same name.

    • spursareold - Jul 1, 2013 at 8:22 AM

      The OVERALL pitching is NOT better now. It’s been diluted by expansion to the point where probably half of it is AAA in quality.

      • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 6:16 AM

        But there are more high tier pitchers in today’s game.

  19. redsghost - Jun 27, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    Bonds in his skinny Pittsburgh days, or during his steroid days? Babe would win if steroidless Bonds played.

  20. slapshot2239 - Jun 29, 2013 at 12:37 AM

    HELLO GUYS

    HEY FIRST OF ALL YOU CAN’T COMPARE BARRY BONDS TO BABE RUTH OR ANY PLYER FROM YESTERDAY

    YOU NAME IT TED WILLIAMS & BOB FELLAR & MR OCTOBER ………….

    THE FACT IS BONDS IS A CHEATER BECAUSE OF STEROIDS PLUS HE SUCKED BIG TIME IN OCTOBER BASEBALL

    NO PLAYER OF TODAY ARE HAS GOOD OF THE LEGENDS OF THE PAST PICK YOUR HERO

    YANKEES FAN & SLAPSHOT

    • jimeejohnson - Jun 29, 2013 at 9:36 PM

      Those who use all caps are only kidding themselves.

    • soccermonkey12 - Sep 29, 2013 at 6:13 AM

      Yes talk shit on the guy that did what he needed to do to keep playing and forget about the alcohol, drug, and women abuse that your HERO committed.

  21. kt47 - Oct 1, 2013 at 11:46 PM

    No one was better than the Babe.

    Bonds only hit 49 home runs before and after he hit 73 in 2001. If he matched his best “pre-steroid” year of 49 HRs, he would have less total home runs than Hank Aaron. He never hit 60 or even 50 home runs in any year of his career.
    Steroids give ballplayers a lot more power, but more importantly, more confidence when batting. The steroid era saw many “small” ballplayers hitting opposite field home runs which was unheard of before this time.
    Bonds used a 34″ bat and choked up an inch and crowded the plate along with armor protection of his right arm gave him an advantage on the pitcher as far as hitting pitches on the outside corner. With his added steroid strength, he was able to have a compact, very quick swing to generate power while having better bat control. Without steroids, he couldn’t do this as well.

    In contrast, Ruth used a very heavy bat (up to 50 ounces vs. Bonds 30 ounce lightweight). He had a lifetime batting average of .342 and his home runs per at bats is the best ever (11.7 AB per HR vs. Bonds 12.9 AB per HR. Aaron was 16.37 AB per HR).
    He had more RBIs than anyone. The oldtime ballplayers had more difficult playing conditions than the modern ballplayer. “Dead” baseballs, larger ball parks, travel by train rather than planes. If you add in Ruth’s pitching record, no one even comes close to comparing him as a complete ballplayer.

  22. nyydave - Nov 12, 2013 at 2:16 PM

    Are we including Bonds on steroids? Because if so, we might as well speculate about Ruth on steroids. And that’s downright scary.
    Yes, Ruth had certain advantages. Most notably, he didn’t face black pitchers, and defenses weren’t as sophisticated as today. But he had disadvantages too. With fewer major league teams, and since baseball was by far the most popular team sport, more top athletes went into baseball, and pitching wasn’t diluted by expansion. Ruth also played day in, day out, including full doubleheaders and full exhibition games in between official games. And on his best day, I don’t think Bonds ever hit a ball as far as Ruth did, on multiple occasions. Ruth would still hold the record – it wouldn’t even be close – if he’d been playing in modern-size ballparks.
    And then there’s the rest: Ruth was an outstanding pitcher, and a good fielder and baserunner. If anybody was ever born to play baseball, it was Babe Ruth.
    Bottom line: if you were putting together a dream team today, who would you start with? For me, there’s no question. You start with Ruth.

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