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Bonds Vs. Ruth? We'll Take Henry Aaron

By Bill Peterson · May 17th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Sometime this week or next, Barry Bonds is likely to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list, which means absolutely nothing except that it's brought the discussion back around to Ruth.

Baseball always comes back around to Ruth, the Bambino who built the Yankees, who restored the game's credibility through his incredible exploits on the field and whose incredible exploits off the field branded an eternal mythology.

Ruth is no god, but he's Moses or Noah, without whom the rest of the story could not have been told. Baseball's first compensatory hero at the dawn of mass culture in the 1920s, he is, was and always will be the standard, regardless of how time weathers his records.

Many who love baseball wonder how the game would have survived without Ruth because his power hitting made the game matter when it might have died from the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Baseball lives because of Babe Ruth, so Babe Ruth lives for as long as the game.

Ruth is part man, part myth, part magic and a lot of institutional memory. No one ever wants to lose him, not even when it's really time for him to go, like right now, as Bonds is about to match and exceed 714 career homers. That number, 714, is not the record for career home runs -- but it's the number Ruth hit, which alone makes it historic if not sacred.

When Roger Maris broke Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961, not even the commissioner's office wanted to recognize the new standard. Fans were indignant. The tension made Maris' hair fall out.

When Henry Aaron approached Ruth's career home run record in the early 1970s, hundreds of death threats and racist hate letters every day were his reward.

Dissolute and debauched though he was, the public loved and still loves Ruth for the good will and pure, dumb fun he attached to stardom. Back before America went completely perverse and tricked itself into thinking that men playing boys' games are supposed to be moral exemplars, Ruth tickled hearts as America's Biggest Boy.

The country was rapidly urbanizing in the 1920s, by the end of which half the population lived in cities. A city boy through and through, Ruth emblemized urban life all the way from the penthouse to the gutter and back. If his carousing rankled the farm folk, it's not like they expected more from a ball player.

For all his determination, the public mostly disinherited Bonds before the steroid allegations because he made stardom too unpleasant even as he bloated himself in interviews, performances and training sessions. Strong allegations of steroid use have intensified the friction between baseball's best player and its fans, especially now that Ruth is in sight.

From among the dissenters as Bonds approaches 714, there is to be heard a convincing argument as to why the contemporary slugger is no match for the ancient. To wit, Bonds isn't really a human performance example or a natural athlete. He hatched himself in a laboratory, and we laugh at him the way we chuckled at the Soviet bloc Olympians 30 years ago.

Barry Bonds is a monster, no more man than man-made, a Frankenstein with eyes fixed on Babe Ruth. Ruth worked out a bit, but he also trained on prohibition liquor, cigars, hot dogs and women and probably placed a wager here and there.

If John Daly were a great golf pro, he might be Ruth. If Albert Pujols were also a free-wheeling street runner, he might be Ruth. And if Bonds were a gregarious lover of his gifts and the people who love them, he might be Ruth. But he isn't.

The man who's forgotten in all this is the true Home Run Champion, Henry Aaron, who bashed 755. Bonds and Ruth have one element in common that Aaron doesn't share. Aaron's home run feats are more legitimate by far, while both Bonds' and Ruth's are tainted. If Aaron needed more at-bats than Bonds or Ruth, he also worked under the least favorable conditions for one hitter to dominate.

The prevalence of steroid use in recent years created a sub-class of players who didn't use them. We'll spend the next several years trying to piece together how steroids influenced baseball records, and almost everyone who played the meat of his career in the past 10 years will be under question as he comes up for the Hall of Fame. Even if Bonds was a Hall of Famer before 2000, it won't spare him the inquisitor.

Ruth has never endured that kind of scrutiny. When statisticians analyze his career, they end up finding that he might have hit an extra 400 home runs if he played today because the parks are smaller, the outfield fences are lower, he would have faced more raggedy pitchers and those balls that used to be called foul because they landed foul in the seats now would be home runs if they left the park fair.

But if we're going to say that Ruth is out 400 homers through no fault of his own, we also have to say, through no fault of his own, that he didn't compete against championship talent from the African-American population. A good number of historians believe Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson would have hit more homers than Ruth. We'll never know.

As we try to place the past 10 years in historic context because of steroids, we should remember that the career and single-season records are equally suspect before about 1950, when African-Americans began competing in numbers three years after Jackie Robinson's debut. If we're going to be purists about records, we might decide that the only records to really count were established by fellows playing between about 1950 to about 1990, after African Americans began playing and before steroids took hold.

Aaron played in the major leagues from 1954 through 1976. Before he retired, he was the last Negro League player still going in the big leagues.

Because he played when all races were allowed, only Aaron's home run mark is fully human. Because he played before steroids, only his home run mark is truly human.



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