I have been telling people that I think Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all-time. Others may choose Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb or someone else. For me, it’s Ruth, who hit 714 home runs, won 94 games as a pitcher, and even stole 123 bases. More than 60 years after his death, there’s a reason Ruth’s name remains hallowed, like Michael Jordan in basketball or Joe Montana in football.
Mark Shapiro, a producer on the ESPN Sports Century project a decade ago that measured the top athletes of the 20th Century told Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke he considered Ruth the best of the century.
“Had he not moved to the outfield, he would have been the best pitcher ever,” Shapiro told Plaschke, for a December 31, 1999 column. “If he had played football, he would have been one of the best football players ever.”
“Everything he did, he did bigger and better than anyone else.”
Imagine Ruth’s numbers if he had been a hitter his entire career– at least 800 home runs, no tainted record for Barry Bonds. Imagine if Ruth had maintained solid conditioning throughout. Imagine Babe Ruth on steroids.
Anyhow, I was on Baseball Reference a little while ago, as I am most days and noted with surprise that Ruth did not win Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1927, when he hit 60 home runs. That award went to his teammate, Lou Gehrig. It can be argued that Gehrig had a better all-around season, just as it could be said Sammy Sosa did better than Mark McGwire in 1998. But let’s look further at that.
Gehrig hit .373 in 1927, with 47 home runs and 175 runs batted in, along with 218 hits, 52 doubles and 18 triples. Meanwhile, Ruth coupled his 60 long bombs with a .356 batting average, 192 hits, 158 runs and 164 runs batted in. Both had on-base percentages approaching .500 and were the two best members of a Yankee team that won 109 games and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. (Those Yankees may be the best team ever, but that’s cause for another debate)
What it comes down to for me is that if I had to choose between Ruth or Gehrig that year for my team, I’d take Ruth. No question. I could sleep knowing I’d passed on Gehrig, as there are a select number of players in baseball history on par with him. I think a number of players could have put up gargantuan numbers hitting next to the Sultan of Swat (Mel Ott, Bill Terry and Al Simmons come to mind.) But there was only one Babe Ruth.
Surprisingly, Ruth won a single MVP award during his career, in 1923 when he led the league in home runs and runs batted in but missed out on the Triple Crown, despite hitting .393. The MVP award debuted in 1922, a year after the best season that Ruth– or any player– ever had, his 1921 campaign where he hit .378 with 59 home runs and 171 runs batted in. Ruth had more home runs that year than eight entire teams, half the clubs in the majors that year.
They just don’t make them like Ruth anymore.