Ruth will always stand alone in baseball's greatness debate

May 14, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

There has been some confusion of late, but perhaps it is just a question of semantics.

Barry Bonds is two home runs away from passing Babe Ruth on baseball's all-time list, which has created a phony debate over who was truly the greater baseball player. This is because there are some people who have confused the simple act of passing The Babe on one page of the record book with the broader concept of surpassing him as the most significant figure in the history of the sport.

Bonds will never do that. Not with home run No. 715 or home run No. 756 or even if he sticks around until he's 50 and kicks Sadaharu Oh off the top of the international career home run list (868).

Ruth will remain in a class by himself because he was more than just a bigger-than-life home run hitter. He was an international iconic figure who created the notion of professional sports superstardom and transformed Major League Baseball into a cornerstone of American culture.

That's why it is so futile to get caught up in a discussion of who was the better athlete (though the 94-46 record and 2.28 career ERA as a pitcher certainly argue in favor of Ruth) or who would have done what in the other's era (though Bonds probably would have enjoyed watching his popups clear that 295-foot right-field porch in the old Yankee Stadium). It all misses the point.

The only way to truly measure the significance of each is to judge him in his particular historical context.

The Bambino remade the game in his own image, replacing the hit-and-run sport of the early 1900s with the shot-and-trot game that remains popular today. He didn't just lead the league in home runs during the 1920s. There were years (1920 and '27) when he personally hit more home runs than every other team in American League.

Roger Maris took his single-season home run record in 1961 and Hank Aaron eclipsed his career home run total in 1974, but you can still make the case that he was the greatest home run hitter off all time, since Aaron had nearly 4,000 more career at-bats and Bonds - in spite of his record walk and intentional walk totals - already has nearly 900 more. That's the equivalent of almost two full seasons.

If you want to poke some holes in the Ruth legend, it's true that he played in a sport that excluded African-Americans and he never had to bat in the age of the split-fingered fastball or the specialized bullpen, but Ruth's greatness was never limited to his on-field heroics - even if you can make the case that his unique status as both a great pitcher and a towering offensive figure set him apart from Bonds and Aaron.

Ruth truly embodied the American dream - the Baltimore street urchin who grew up to dine with presidents and kings. Bonds only embodies the selfish athlete of the present, allegedly so obsessed with his place in the home run hierarchy of the late 1990s that he turned to steroids to keep up with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

There's your point of separation. Ruth never had to worry about keeping up with anyone, because no one was even close. He was baseball's greatest player, its greatest ambassador, and he so relished his place in the sports firmament that the public deified him in spite of his many personal flaws.

Bonds is bigger than life, too, but his suspicious physical transformation is just evidence that he - and many others of his generation - decided that the end (money, fame and sports immortality) justified whatever means necessary to achieve it. His surly, arrogant countenance only makes it easier not to accept the legitimacy of his quest.

Clearly, the average sports fan of 2006 recognizes that the baseball milestones of today do not carry the same weight of those of the pre-steroid age, something former Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal articulated well last week in an article in The Sporting News cleverly titled "The Yawn of a New Era."

"Everything is devalued now - the player, the era, the home run," Rosenthal writes. "And it remains difficult to evaluate where this all goes."

That's why Ruth will always be the man, no matter how many of today's pumped-up athletes find their way past him on the all-time home run list.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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