Babe Ruth deserves an asterisk next to his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
At first glance, that sentence sounds utterly ridiculous.
While there is a debate raging as to whether or not the likes of Rogers Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa deserve induction in Cooperstown, we fail to acknowledge that success for previous stars also came with major caveats.
Babe Ruth is often glorified as the greatest athlete of the 20th century; a gargantuan figure who transcended sports at a time when America needed a hero. When you match the stats on the back of Ruth’s baseball card to his place in folklore, there is no question he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But when you look deeper into his story, you will realize that Ruth was the beneficiary of a titled field — not unlike some of the advantages we accuse Bonds and Sosa of enjoying.
For starters, Ruth never played against the best competition in the world. Baseball in the 1920s remained an exclusively all-white sport, so Ruth’s numbers need to be adjusted accordingly. How would he have fared against Satchel Paige or some of the best pitching from the Negro Leagues? Would his home run numbers look as lofty next to Josh Gibson? We’ll never know the answer to those questions (Remember that many fans who watched them both play at the same time used to refer to Ruth as the “White Josh Gibson”).
Ruth also never had to deal with specialized relief pitching. Today, Ruth would have seen an array of left-handed specialists in the later innings of ballgames who came in to try and strike him out. When he wasn’t being walked intentionally, that is what Bonds dealt with on a regular basis. But back in his day, Ruth often faced a tired starting pitcher late into the game because bullpens were seen as a last resort. And often, starters would come back on short rest to appear as relief pitchers.
For example, in the season in which Ruth smacked 60 home runs for the Yankees in 1927, the next-best team in the American League was the Philadelphia A’s. Their ace pitcher Lefty Grove made 51 appearances that season — meaning he pitched in almost one out of every three ballgames. And Grove was the team’s number one starting pitcher. That would never happen today and Ruth’s statistics should probably be adjusted accordingly.
There are also tiny facts like Ruth never having to play any day games after a night game — because all games were played in the day time back then. And Ruth also played in an era where journalists were all about building up heroes, rather than tearing them down. How would Ruth fare in the era of tabloid journalism? Would his off-the-field exploits be looked at so favorably? Again, we’ll never know.
And I know what you’re going to say: That everybody who played alongside Babe Ruth had the same advantages as he did; and he didn’t choose to segregate baseball to create an uneven playing field. And it wasn’t his fault that managers didn’t know how to use a bullpen.
I understand that argument completely. Ruth played the hand he was dealt, while players like Clemens and Bonds tried to stack the deck in their favor. But as the Mitchell Report proved, it wasn’t just the star players who were being accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. You had marginal players like Jason Grimsley, Tim Laker and F.P. Santangelo using steroids as well. There is too much of an emphasis on the star players who allegedly used during this time and not enough focus on the fact that the silent majority was also guilty too. I don’t recall the season in which Tim Laker hit 50 home runs. Even in the steroid era, the best players separated themselves from the ordinary ones.
And because there have been a significant number of pitchers who have been guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, then I think it somewhat levels the playing field. If the best pitcher of his generation — Roger Clemens — and the best hitter of the same generation — Barry Bonds — are both accused of being major drug cheats, doesn’t it seem to indicate the hitters didn’t have as great an advantage as we first suspected?
We’ll never know what a clean Bonds and Clemens would have accomplished, just as we’ll never know how Ruth would have fared against better competition. Would Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson have been so dominant if the mound was lowered while they were in the height of their success? We’ll never know.
But what we do know is that Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens were the very best of their era. If you want to label this the Steroid Era, that’s fine. If you want to put an asterisk next to their plaque in Cooperstown, that’s fine too.
Just make sure you add an asterisk to Ruth’s plaque as well.