Ruth, Aaron, Or Bonds – Who Really Is The Greatest
- Updated: January 2, 2008
After reading this article, I just had to include it. By the way, sorry for the lapse in writing, the holidays (and my wife’s birthday on the 1st.) can make it tough to find the time to write. More of my work to follow so stay tuned…
Ruth, Aaron, Or Bonds – Who Really Is The Greatest
In the 2006 season, we watched Barry Lamar Bonds pass Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time home run list. Then this past season, we watched him overtake Hammerin’ Hank Aaron for the top spot on that list. Now that he has eclipsed both Aaron and Ruth for sole possession of that cherished record, I have to ask “who really is the greatest home run hitter of all time?” Hopefully, by the end of this article, much light will have been shed on the answer.
The case has been up for speculation in my mind for some time, so I thought if I undertake this endeavor I better have all my ducks in a row. Statistics usually speak louder than words, so I’ve chosen the eight which have the most impact on the record books where grading the great sluggers of the game is concerned — Games Played, At Bats, Hits, Home Runs, Runs Batted In, Average, On Base Percentage, and Slugging Average. Not wanting to delve too deeply into the biographical content of each player, I’ve tweaked things a bit to include career highlights and personal opinion.
George Herman Ruth was known as “The Babe”, most likely because of how young he was when he played his first professional baseball game for the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. He was barely 19 years old at the time. His time there was only brief, and he was acquired by Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Americans (Red Sox), and made his debut on July 11th, 1914. Appearing in only five games as a pitcher, he recorded four victories out of the five starts.
Between the 1917 and 1918 seasons, Ruth was shifted from the mound into right field so as to get more playing time due to his developing prowess as a hitter. Obviously, as the old cliché goes, the rest is history. Despite the fact that one of his pitching records stood for 62 years, it was his bat that ultimately did all the talking for him.
In the 22 seasons that Ruth played, he became one of the most dominant hitters that the game has ever seen. His stats were the following:
2,503 games played — 8,399 at bats — 2,873 total hits — 714 home runs — 2,213 runs batted in .342 batting average — .474 on base percentage — .690 slugging average
If you look at the numbers, he hit a home run every 11.76 at bats. Nearly 25% of his hits were round trippers but if you massage that a little, he drove in a run every 3.8 times at the plate and each home run accounted for 3.1 RBI’s. From 1923 to 1932, he hit over 40 home runs in nine of those 10 seasons. The only year that kept him from doing it 10 years straight was 1925 when an early season illness cost him nearly a third of the season. He played in only 98 games and still hit 25 homers and had a .290 batting average. But worthy of note here is that he hit 40 or more homers for seven straight seasons from 1926 to 1932, and averaged 34 home runs per season during his 21 years in the bigs.
There were a number of legends that arose during Ruth’s career, but the most noteworthy of all was his famous “Called Shot” in the third game of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs whom the Yankees swept in four straight. Ruth had already homered earlier in the game and as the story goes, he raised his right arm, pointed towards the deepest part of Wrigley Field and drilled the ball over the center field wall to the right of the flagpole and a reported 490 feet.
Other facets of his career include appearing in the first ever All Star Game in 1933 and hitting the first ever home run in All Star Game history. He was also one of the first five players (himself, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner) inducted into the Hall in its inaugural year of 1936, one year after he retired. In 1936 Ruth was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers to coach first base, but quit at the end of the season. It was the last job he would ever have in major league baseball.
Now our topic of discussion shifts to Henry Aaron. Born of humble beginnings, Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron played his first major league game when he was 20 years old. Aaron reportedly tried out for the Dodgers when he was still in high school, but he failed to make the team and returned to school. Prior to his debut with the Milwaukee Braves, Aaron spent a brief stint in the minors and played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Aaron spent 21 seasons with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, and finished his career in 1976 after two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. It was only fitting that he would finish in the city that his career started in.
During his 23 years in the majors, Aaron was known more for his consistency rather than sheer power alone. The following are his statistics for those 23 seasons:
3,298 games played — 12,364 at bats — 3,771 total hits — 755 home runs — 2,297 runs batted in .305 batting average — .374 on base percentage — .555 slugging average
Looking at his numbers, he hit a home run every 16.38 at bats, 20% of his hits were homers, and each home run accounted for 3.04 RBI’s. He hit 40 or more homers in eight seasons and 30 or more homers in 15 out of 17 seasons. Aaron, by the way is also the only player in major league history to record 30 home runs in 15 seasons, and he made the All Star team for 21 straight seasons from 1955 through 1975. In addition to all this, Aaron holds the MLB records for the most career runs batted in (2,297), the most career extra base hits (1,477), and the most career total bases (6,856).
The Hank Aaron Award was created to honor his contributions to the game, both on and off the field. It should also be noted that he was the last Negro League player to play in the majors, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, his very first year of eligibility. Perhaps Mickey Mantle said it best when it came to a description of Hank Aaron. “As far as I’m concerned, (Hank) Aaron is the best ball player of my era. He is to baseball of the last 15 years what Joe DiMaggio was before him. He’s never received the credit he’s due.”
So now we come to Barry Lamar Bonds, probably the most controversial sports figure out there. Right up front, this is not going to be a “bash Barry” tirade. I’m not even going to go there. The purpose of this article is to compare the accomplishments of the three best home run hitters in the game, not to demean any of them.
As most of you know, Barry is the son of former major leaguer Bobby Bonds, and is also the Godson of the great Willie Mays. He made his major league debut on May 30th, 1986 for the Pittsburgh Pirates being drafted sixth in the first round of the 1985 MLB draft. He also enjoyed a stellar career in college when he played for Arizona State University.
Barry is most recognized not just for breaking Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career homers, but also for eclipsing Mark McGwire’s single season home run record of 70 (set in 1998) when hit 73 round trippers three years later in 2001. He had an incredible .863 slugging percentage (a major league record), a .515 on base percentage, 17 home runs in the month of May, 39 home runs by the All Star break (a major league record), and finished the season with 177 walks (a major league record at that time). His current up to date career stats through the 2007 season are as follows:
2,986 games played — 9,847 at bats — 2,935 total hits — 762 home runs — 1,196 runs batted in .298 batting average — .444 on base percentage — .607 slugging percentage
Not only are his numbers impressive, but he is still an active player, even though in 2008, you will most likely see him in another uniform since the Giants did not offer him another contract. According to these stats, Barry hits a homer every 12.92 at bats or once for every 3.85 hits. However, most of his homers are solo shots since he only produces 1.57 RBI’s for each home run. He has hit 40 or more home runs in eight seasons (an average of 48.25 HR’s in each of those seasons) and 30 or more homers in 13 seasons.
Bonds’ other notable accomplishments include 2,558 walks and he eclipsed his own record for bases on balls in the 2004 season when he walked an astounding 232 times, 55 times more than the record he set himself only three years earlier.
We’ve come to the point in this article where I give you not only my opinion as to which one of these three sluggers was the greatest, but also my reasoning for the choice. Bonds will be playing in his 23rd season, Aaron played 23 seasons, and Ruth played 21 complete seasons with only 28 games played in what would have been a 22nd had he lasted until season’s end. Also remember that when Ruth played, there were only 154 games played in a season. Aaron’s first seven seasons (1954-60) were 154 game seasons, but the schedule expanded to 162 games effective with the 1961 season. All of Bonds’ career years have been 162 game seasons. Ruth played in that era of baseball when games were only played during the day while Aaron and Bonds played both day and night games.
Traveling and accommodations were anything but luxurious during Ruth’s era, Aaron’s were improved, and Bonds has obviously had the cushiest ones of the three. Equipment and training has gone from bottom of the barrel during Ruth’s tenure in the game, to much improved during Aaron’s career, to damn near technologically luxurious since Bond’s has been playing.
Keeping all this in mind, one thing holds true — statistics don’t lie. If you look at just the following six statistics, Ruth clearly the choice hands down. Let’s start with the homers per at bats factor — one for every 11.76 for Ruth, one for every 16.38 for Aaron, and one for every 12.92 for Bonds. Ruth’s homers totaled just fewer than 25% of his total career hits, Aaron was at 20%, and Bonds the highest with 26%. Each of Ruth’s homers brought in 3.1 RBI’s, Aaron’s 3.04, and Bonds only 1.57.
Ruth had the highest career average with .342, Aaron’s was .305, and Bonds is currently at .298. Ruth’s on base percentage was .474, Bonds is .444, and Aaron’s was .374. Ruth’s slugging percentage was .690 compared to .607 for Bonds and .555 for Aaron. Of the six statistics I just mentioned in this paragraph and the prior one, Ruth is on top of five of them.
Continuing with this type of thinking, Ruth had 1,448 fewer at bats than Bonds and a staggering 3,965 less than Aaron. Also, Ruth played in 483 fewer games than Bonds and 795 fewer games than Aaron. Saying that Ruth was the most impressive of the three is putting it mildly. For all practical purposes, he is the greatest home run hitter of all time.
**Editorial note: the original article states the date McGuire set the single season HR record (with 70 HRs) as being 1968, but seeing that Mark didn’t get into the majors until sometime in the 80’s, I decided to change that fact to the proper date of 1998.