A few years back, Barry Bonds was thinking of a number. Not just any number, but the number 714, the home run total of one George Herman Ruth. Why, you might ask, would Bonds concern himself with a record broken 30 years ago? Why not focus on the established Major League record of 755 dingers held by Hank Aaron? Well, for what it’s worth, here was Barry’s answer:
“755 isn’t a number that’s always caught my eye…the only number I care about is Babe Ruth’s. As a left-handed hitter, I wiped him out. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth’s everything, right? I got his (single season) slugging percentage, I got him on on-base, I got him on walks and then I’ll take his home run record and that’s it. Don’t talk about him no more.”
Barry then expanded on his thoughtful and eloquent commentary with this cryptic remark on Josh Gibson, who hit 84 home runs in 1936: “Why doesn’t that count? Why don’t any of those statistics count? You can tell me that in 1886, the Pittsburgh Pirates won a game by 20 runs, but the statistics in the Negro Leagues don’t count?”
So was Barry dissing the Babe on account of race? That would seem to be the point, given his history. Studying history is always a good thing, but one wishes that Barry would broaden his research to include all manner of baseball’s greatest players across the racial spectrum, including the fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t begin play until 1887.
He could begin by taking a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. There he would find the plaques of 26 veterans of the Negro and Mexican leagues hanging on its hallowed walls, proving that at least to some, their stats do count. It’s just that they count as a different set of numbers as well they should. For better or for worse, you can’t change history. (Luckily for Mr. Bonds, as he might have the number 962 in his sights; the career home run total of Mr. Gibson.)
And, when whiling away the day in that quaint western New York town, he might do a little brushing up on the stats of the aforementioned Mr. Ruth, who ironically, throughout his career was savaged by bigoted fans for his “Negro-ish” looks. Yes, Bonds has surpassed some of the Babe’s numbers, but there are others he cannot hope to equal.
For example, he will not retire with a .342 batting average, nor will he ever catch the Bambino in lifetime slugging average, runs-batted-in, or World Series rings. And while it is well-chronicled that Ruth out-homered every other American League team twice, for Bonds to have come close to this in his record-breaking year of 2001, he would have had to hit 131 taters, just to tie the lowest total of any other NL team.
Speaking of home run dominance, the Babe led the league in that category an incredible 12 times while Bonds has managed that feat a total of twice, which is twice less than the esteemed Mr. Aaron, who had the class to challenge and surpass Ruth only where it mattered, on the field. And while it is true that they only have three batting titles between them, consider that Bonds’ excellent high-water mark of .370 was topped by the Babe six times.
And not to beat a dead horse, but then there’s that darned pitching issue. Had Ruth not pitched for five years (94-46, lifetime), Bonds would have no chance at any of the Babe’s career marks. But pitch he did, which only elevates him in baseball’s pantheon. Only the Babe, over those five magic seasons, can lay claim to hitting more home runs (20) than he allowed (7).
And even if, like most modern baseball apologists, you believe that today’s pitchers are bigger, stronger, etc., and that Ruth didn’t have to face the Negro League pitchers who managed to serve up 962 fat ones to Josh Gibson, consider that the Bambino didn’t have the benefit of today’s postage stamp-sized strike zone or a brand new, tightly-wound ball on nearly every pitch.
George Herman Ruth is the only player to have a stadium, a WWII profanity, and a curse associated with his name. Add to this that many people vividly remember where they were the day he died, and you can still feel the electricity and charisma generated by the great man these long decades after his passing. The bitter Mr. Bonds plays in a stadium that is named after a phone company, and the only curse associated with his name seems to apply to the World Series aspirations of the teams graced by his presence.