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"Alright alright alright alright ALRIGHT alright alright. Time for the song and dance."
Hey, guess what? Some people think Babe Ruth wasn't the greatest player of all time!
For a long time, I have taken the position that if one thinks that Babe Ruth isn't the greatest player of all time because of some automatic disqualification having to do with playing before the color barrier was broken, I won't argue. If one feels that giving him credit for playing in a league which excluded some of the best players of his generation is unfair and unjust, I'll agree. I will not argue with that position, because it was racist and unfair and anticompetitive and hateful for Major League Baseball to exclude blacks, and if one wants to discredit anything that happened before 1947, that is one's right. However, in light of Barry Bonds' chase of Ruth's 714 homers (or hadn't you heard?), I do feel that I must stop letting these silly arguments go by like 83 mile per hour fastballs without even taking my bat my shoulders.
Don't get me wrong. I still feel that we as baseball fans were deprived of baseball history by the color barrier, and preventing blacks from playing major league baseball was hateful, based on jealousy and irrational fear, and simply unfair. Nevertheless, if you are going to "play the race card," so to speak, you must do it correctly.
Many people have come along recently and thrown out the race argument sloppily, as if it merely need be said that there was a color barrier, and because of the inherent unfairness of the color barrier, Ruth is automatically disqualified from consideration as the greatest hitter of all time. While this is politically correct, and makes the people who say it feel good about themselves, it is the incorrect conclusion. I bring it up now because of Dayn Perry. He is one of those people.
Perry argues in an article for FOXSports.com that Ruth is not the greatest hitter of all time, and bases his argument on the Holy Trinity of Why Ruth is Not the Greatest – Yankees Stadium, The Color Barrier, and Ruth's moral composition. Only the color barrier argument concerns me, as the Yankee Stadium argument has been discredited easily by our own Yankee correspondent Tony Aubry, and moral composition has never been part of the deal (Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Albert Belle, Vida Blue, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco . . . ).
Don't get me wrong – Babe Ruth may not be the greatest player of all time. He is in my opinion, but I could certainly be wrong. However, it is quite clear that, whether I am wrong or not, Dayn Perry is definitely wrong. As the best example of Perry's idiocy, he makes the following laughable statement as proof that Ruth is not great because he played before the color line was broken:
"For instance, imagine the kind of stats, say, Lance Berkman could put up if he never had to face a Pedro Martinez, a Dontrelle Willis, a Johan Santana, a Carlos Zambrano or a Mariano Rivera and never had the likes of Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron turning doubles into fly outs."
Hmm. Imagine indeed. Except, the silliness of this argument kind of presents itself rather obviously, doesn't it? Lance Berkman debuted in 1999, the year after Pedro Martinez went to the American League. I am guessing that Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, and Mariano Rivera have had zero impact on Berkman's career since they have all been in the American League the entire time that Berkman has been in the National. Furthermore, of Lance Berkman's 3289 career at-bats, only fifty (50) have come against Dontrelle Willis and Carlos Zambrano, so I am guessing that these guys haven't significantly affected Berkman's career either.
Perry's argument is essentially a takeoff on the standard incorrect way to play the race card, which is to say, "What if Ruth had to face the likes of Dontrelle Willis and Bob Gibson and Satchel Paige?" This is obviously silliness – since the three played in three different eras, no one had ever had face the three of them, and even guys that faced them in their primes only did so a few times per year. It is not as if, had the color barrier never existed, suddenly Babe Ruth would have faced Satchel Paige every time he came to the plate.
For that matter, yes, Carlos Zambrano, Dontrelle Willis, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera, and, for that matter, Ferguson Jenkins, Luis Tiant, Bob Gibson, Dave Stewart, and Jose Mesa, are all excellent pitchers. But what about Daniel Cabrera, Jerome Williams, Antonio Alfonseca, Victor Zambrano, Ramon Ortiz, and Jose Lima? If Berkman suffers from facing excellent black and Hispanic pitchers, isn't he better than he would be if he never got to face the terrible black and Hispanic pitchers?
But that isn't the point, is it? Dayn Perry's ridiculous assertion lacks both merit and logic, and as such actually makes the point that the color barrier does not disqualify the Babe. However, there is a correct argument to be made about the color barrier – fact is people like Dayn Perry are too busy patting themselves on the back for having an adroit perception of American history that they don't stop long enough to think of it. So I will go ahead and tell them what it is.
In his entire career, the batter Pedro Martinez has faced the most times is, ironically enough, current teammate Carlos Delgado. They have faced each other 80 times. You don't make the color barrier argument by saying that Babe Ruth would not have been the same if Satchel Paige had been allowed to play, because one pitcher simply does not have that great of an effect on player's career, even making adjustments for four man rotations and a league with only eight teams.
You don't say that Babe Ruth wouldn't have been the same if Willie Mays or Barry Bonds or Roberto Clemente would have been in the outfield, because the majority of homeruns (by far) have nothing to do with who is in the field as they sail over the fence.
The correct way to think about the race argument is this – modern day major league baseball is roughly composed half of blacks and Hispanics and half of whites. Imagine that you took all the best players in the league, and then told of the blacks and Hispanics that they had to go home. In their place, you put white players. But the best white players are already playing major league baseball, so all the new "replacement" players are second rate guys, guys who wouldn't be in the majors if not for having sent the blacks and Hispanics home.
That is what the color barrier did. It prevented half of the best players around from playing, and it allowed the league to be half filled with second rate ballplayers.
The effect of the color barrier was not that Babe Ruth never faced Satchel Paige. If Satchel had been in the majors during Ruth's career, Ruth may only have hit 710 homeruns. Or, given the fact that Satchel never would have backed down from the Babe, Ruth may have run into a few more fastballs over his career and hit 720 homeruns, but also struck out 15 more times.
Rather, the effect of the color barrier was that the talent pool as a whole was diminished during the Babe's career, and the competition would have been much stiffer if Ruth would have played against all of the best black and white players, rather than all of the best white players and all of the second rate white players.
Ruth's numbers would have suffered not because he faced Satchel Paige, but because the inclusion of blacks as a whole would have driven the talent level of the league upward – if you widen the pool of players, and the talent goes up. Satchel Paige alone would not have hurt Ruth's numbers, but a better pool of pitchers as a whole definitely would have. And that is why the color barrier allows us to disregard pre-1947 numbers the way we do.
But wait – let's not send the Babe packing just yet. Despite the absence of black and Hispanic players before 1947, no one else did what the Babe did. His OPS was twice that of the league he played in, even adjusting for the smallish effects that Yankee Stadium had on his numbers and the high octane offense of the 1920s and 1930s. He broke the single season homerun record four times – something no one else has done twice. He hit 714 homeruns in fewer at-bats than anyone else. He led the league in homeruns and OPS more times than any other player.
Babe Ruth played further above his league than any other player in baseball history except for the Barry Bonds of the last few years, and Ruth did it for an entire career. No player who has come along since 1947 has come close to challenging the things Ruth did, and no player who had the same color barrier based advantages as Ruth before 1947 came close either.
I don't know how things would have changed if Babe Ruth would have played in an integrated league. I am guessing that Ruth's numbers would have dipped a bit, but not significantly, while the rest of the league would have played closer to Ruth's bar. I am almost certain that Ruth would still be, in my mind, the greatest hitter of all time, because he is so by an extremely wide margin already. But it would be closer for sure.
And again, if you want to not merely consider the effects integration would have had but actually not consider pre-1947 baseball at all, that is fine.
But please just don't say it is because Lance Berkman would be so much better if not for Johann Santana, because regardless of how you feel about Babe Ruth and the color barrier, such silly statements do injustice to the issue as a whole, and simply embarrass everyone.
The Moral Component
Fact is, Dayn Perry's article is so asinine that it really merits two articles about what an idiot he is. I will comment further simply as post script to my comments above.
Perry further discredits Ruth by commenting on the moral aspect of Ruth's legend. After initially faulting the media for making Ruth a legend instead of a rascal, Perry goes on to list what he sees as several faults which make Ruth not the greatest hitter of all time – a humorous non-sequitor which amounts to discrediting SUVs because of the people who drive them or K-Mart because of the people who shop there. Perry provides the following litany of things which have nothing to do with Ruth's baseball playing:
- Ruth was a drunk (he was experimenting with alcohol by age 7 and drank heavily throughout his career)
- a glutton (his diet consistent mostly of hot dogs and soda),
- a malcontent (as a Red Sox, he ignored signs at the plate, once threatened to punch his manager in the face, went AWOL from the club on a semi-regular basis and ritually broke curfew)
- a philanderer (he was unfaithful to his wife on a number of occasions, and it was rumored that a 1925 illness was the result of a runaway case of gonorrhea)
Perry concludes by stating, with an air of self-satisfaction, that "[a]s a result, Ruth neglected his obligations to the team by failing to stay in even passable physical shape."
Hmm. Didn't stay in passable physical shape, eh? Those are pretty good numbers for a guy whose shape couldn't "pass." And what those other things have to do with whether Ruth was a good hitter, I am not sure.
But the important point here is Perry's lack of context, or even awareness of baseball history. Perry's lack of sense is exposed by one simple question which I ask here:
If Babe Ruth is not the greatest hitter of all time, and it is because of all those reasons, then who is?
Can't be Bonds, right? Philanderer, drug addict, malcontent.
What about Ty Cobb? Well, clearly Cobb's racism would count against him, in addition to his alcohol abuse. He was also a malcontent. Oh, and the color barrier thing.
Ted Williams? Malcontent.
Mickey Mantle? Womanizer, glutton, alcoholic.
Jimmie Foxx? Alcoholic, womanizer, malcontent.
There are very few great players who couldn't be called out on one or more of the things Perry calls Ruth out on, plus worse. Fact is, if we are going to take these types of factors into account, we may only be left with Dale Murphy and Orel Hershisier. Perry's incredible lack of awareness on this topic indicates one of two things – he either arrived at his conclusion first and then fit his facts to match, or he is an incredible boob. And it might be both.
Personally, I would rather we judged hitters by their hitting, and left all the other stuff for their wives, doctors, and parents. Thus endeth the post-script.
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Asher resides in Alexandria, VA, and can be reached at email@example.com.