Barry and the Babe: Incomparable Performances

Barry Bonds walks to left field as a sign reads: 'The Babe did it on hot dogs.' i i

Barry Bonds got a skeptical greeting from the fans in Philadelphia as he chased the Babe. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Barry Bonds walks to left field as a sign reads: 'The Babe did it on hot dogs.'

Barry Bonds got a skeptical greeting from the fans in Philadelphia as he chased the Babe.

Getty Images

Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. Shall we compare? Or shall we instead embark on some other, more fruitful line of debate, such as "If Superman and the Flash had a race around the world, who would win?"

This much I know: Ruth is Ruth. Plucked from a boy's home, he was a man-child who grew into an American icon. On the field, his power changed the way the game was played. He was among the great pitching talents of his time. Off the field, his many transgressions came during a more forgiving era for sports figures. His career went on a bit too long, and he was frustrated in his efforts to gain a managing job when his playing days ended. His premature death from cancer played out in the public spotlight and added to his legend. And nearly 60 years after his death, Ruth remains Ruth.

But who is Bonds? Far from the rough gem that the young Ruth offered an unsuspecting baseball world, Bonds was born and raised to play the game by a father who was a big-league star (the late Bobby Bonds), a godfather who was an icon (Willie Mays) and a string of talented coaches. On the field, Bonds is acknowledged as ONE of the great players of his generation, with a string of MVP awards to back the notion that he may be THE best. As a younger man, he combined speed, power and defense with the occasional lapse in focus and enthusiasm. Off the field, he has never been a media favorite. His reputation among the scribbling classes suffered from his surly moods and stand-offish behavior long before the specter of steroids arrived to haunt the game. Though he is far from a pariah in the clubhouse, he is not loved by many of his teammates, whom he has brought no championships. And as for history, there is the suspicion that Bonds will now be remembered for the wrong reasons, in the tradition of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

I concede there is NO feasible way to compare baseball performances across a chasm of seven decades. Who had it better? Who had it worse? I point to day ball and doubleheaders in Ruth's time and apologists for the modern player cite night ball and jet travel. I note that there were no black or Latino or Asian athletes in the mix in Ruth's day and others assert that additional expansion teams have greatly diluted the overall talent pool.

And yet, as Bonds moves into the passing lane to overtake Ruth on the all-time home run list, we CAN talk with simple admiration about two years: Babe Ruth in 1927 and Barry Bonds in 2001.

In 1927, Ruth put up his stats for one of the greatest offensive teams of all time. The '27 Yankees — Murderers' Row — won 110 regular season games and swept the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. It was a great season for Ruth, but it did not come out of nowhere. He had already astonished baseball by clubbing 59 home runs in 1921.

In fact, Ruth's 1927 season was far from his best as a pure power hitter. In 1921, to go along with those 59 home runs, he drove in 171 runs and accumulated an astonishing 454 total bases. The adjective you're looking for is "Ruthian."

Born half a century too late, I never saw Ruth play. I saw Bonds infrequently until the end of the 2001 season, when his pursuit of the outer limits of home-run production took control of my TV set. Deep into the night, ESPN would go to San Francisco and there was Bonds, driving another ball into the bay.

All that year, Bonds worked with a jeweler's precision. Never have I seen a hitter do more damage given fewer pitches to hit. Like the great left-handed hitter Ted Williams before him, Bonds simply refused to swing at a pitch he felt he could not turn into something useful. Sometimes, it seemed an entire game would see only one strike thrown his way. Often he would take that single strike and send it on a 400-plus-foot trip.

It was a whole different way to think about the sandlot refrain "it only takes one to hit one." It also calls to mind Tom Hanks' tobacco-splattered line from A League of Their Own: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it."

So please don't dismiss 2001 as some sort of better-hitting-through-chemistry fluke. It was a display of true excellence. What he did that year was beyond hard. It was "Bondsian."

Todd Holzman is Supervising Editor of NPR.org. He is pretty certain that his favorite baseball player of all time has not yet been born. But if the names Bob Gibson, Leon Wagner, Joe Rudi, Greg Maddux, Reggie Smith, Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, Kenny Lofton and lately Albert Pujols mean anything to you... well, you get the picture.

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