May 22, 2006
Barry and The Babe

I suppose I should say something about Barry Bonds finally catching up to Babe Ruth in the career home run department. I addressed this topic almost three years ago when Bonds spoke publicly about his pursuit of 714 and ultimately 755. I don't think my feelings have changed much. Both Barry and The Babe are alltime great players, and wherever you choose to rank one in comparison to the other, it doesn't take anything away from either one's accomplishments.

In a sense, it's a testament to Ruth's immortality that we're even focusing this much attention on a player's ascension to Number Two on a career totals list. I don't recall there being this much fuss when Pete Rose moved into second place on the alltime hits list. (Quick: Who did Rose pass on his way to Ty Cobb? Answer here.) Jim Caple explored that theme over the weekend, but for me, the go-to guy for all things historical is Steve Goldman, who writes about how The Babe's place in history is secure in part because of where in history he appeared.

By the 1920s, the average American household was receiving more than one newspaper. The number of radio stations jumped from five in 1921 to over 500 in 1922 and over a thousand in 1923. In 1922, the year Ruth struggled with multiple suspensions for illegal barnstorming and fighting, a grand total of 100,000 radios were manufactured. By 1925, it was estimated that 50 million Americans were listening in. The first World Series broadcast--starring the Babe--aired in 1921. Newspaper circulation increased dramatically. Syndicates were created to distribute content nationally, so when New York World columnist Heywood Broun wrote “The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail” after the Yankees won the 1923 World Series, the entire country read his words. Much of the new media was produced in New York City, and in a wonderful coincidence, as of 1920 that was exactly where Ruth could be found. Simultaneously, the economy took off; after some post-war doldrums from 1919 through 1921, the Gross National Product rose annually with no inflation and little unemployment, so people had the funds to spend on these new forms of entertainment and information.

Babe Ruth was the right superstar in the right place at the right time. He transformed the game of baseball, both in how it was played and in how it was perceived by the public, and he did so right as a media boom that was hungry for content was springing up around him. Whatever you think of Barry Bonds' achievement in equalling Ruth's home run total, it's not his fault that he's competing with that.

On a side note, I see that Patrick Hruby has attempted to take a scientific approach to the question of how many homers Bonds might have if he'd never used performance enhancing drugs. The number he comes up with is 616. Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that Bonds shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame because his numbers were all inflated by steroids.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 22, 2006 to Baseball | TrackBack

If that was a media boom, what have we got now, with 24-hour news/sports televison stations?

I swear I think ESPN should just rename itself "The Barry Channel."

I don't begrudge Bonds the homeruns, but I've become very tired of him.

Posted by: Linkmeister on May 22, 2006 3:36 PM

I don't know if there is a bit of Barry fatigue but I found it interesting that Barbaro's injury in the Preakness not Barry catching Babe Ruth was the sports lead in today's USA today. (Both events were from Saturday.) Barry was relegated to page 3.

Posted by: Patrick on May 22, 2006 4:36 PM

I'm not as upset with Bonds as much as ESPN's blatant attempts to take over sports and to manufacturer what is important. The Bonds story is merely an example. Outside of San Francisco, the Bonds legacy has been forever tainted. But, ESPN has taken it upon themselves to tell the country who is right, with wall-to-wall coverage and his own reality show.

Just as a news world dominated by FOX is a recipe for misinformation, so is a sports world dominated by ESPN. Here's rooting for OLN and FOX Sports.

Posted by: RedScare on May 23, 2006 9:21 AM

The number he comes up with is 616. Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that Bonds shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame because his numbers were all inflated by steroids.

Barry Bonds almost certainly would have been a Hall of Fame player without the steroids.

It's not that he shouldn't be in simply because his numbers were artificially boosted by steroid use. Rather, the argument is that by cheating, he may well surpass a longstanding record in a sport where such longstanding records are almost sacrosanct. It's not just his numbers he's messing with by cheating, but the standards of the quintessential American sport.

People may not find that argument compelling when it comes to Bonds and the Hall of Fame, but it's not an unreasonable argument.

Posted by: Kevin Whited on May 23, 2006 10:21 AM

Another interesting and legitimate question is this: How many less than 714 would Ruth have hit if he had had to play against the best players of his day, not just those who happened to be non-Hispanic whites. Arguably if there are any asterisks to hand out, they ought to be for all the records made before the days of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mayes.

Posted by: Kent on May 23, 2006 1:42 PM

You can always play the "what if" game with historical baseball statistics and try to imagine how segregation, the DH, astroturf, ballpark sizes, whatever.

But steroids are different in one very crucial way. You know exactly when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby entered the league. You know when the American league decided strategy was overrrated and adopted the DH. You know exactly what years the Astros played at Colt .45 Park, the Astrodome and when they moved to Enron/Minute Maid. These are all parts of the official record of baseball.

With steroids you don't know. You don't know when players started taking them, you don't know which players took them, you don't even really know what steroids did for them. That's my biggest beef with steroids in baseball.

Posted by: Patrick on May 23, 2006 4:01 PM