Hall of Fame season is here. Just this Wednesday Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. were elected to the prestigious club, and now we can take a pause on debating who's-in-and-who's-out for a little while. In the middle of this debate, of course, is always a discussion regarding the inner circle folks, or who we already think to be the greatest of all time. Spitting hairs over whether a player is the best at their position, or maybe the second best, or maybe the fourth best if you look at it a different way, is basically a hallmark of baseball discourse. That'll never change. But what has been changing, interestingly enough, is the stance on Babe Ruth. Even though he was secured firmly into the position of "greatest player of all time" for quite some time, some have called into question the legitimacy of his throne.
Babe Ruth, without question, is the greatest player of all time. It kind of sounds idiotic to say to a bunch of Yankees fans--"Well, of course he's the greatest of all time! That's ridiculous to question!" In an age of incredible skepticism, many in the saber world have been critical of this argument that Ruth is the greatest. I'm one of these people, and even I don't fully get it. Largely, critiques revolve around Ruth's advantage because of the era in which he resided: segregation, a brief period in the Dead Ball Era, lesser quality pitchers, and inferior competition in general.
I think they're valid arguments prima facie, but it becomes a hard stance to take when thinking about it for just a little while, especially once you lump in his societal significance. Here's why, in a few simple points.
1. Babe Ruth didn't just surpass competition, he lapped them.
This one is simple. If you want to ding Ruth for his era, I think that's fair enough. But if you were to do that, how much could you honestly take from him? He has the highest OPS+ in history, 714 home runs, 163.1 WAR, and a career .342/.474/.690 slash line. The closest home run total in the length of his career was Lou Gehrig at 378, and then Jimmie Foxx at 302. Only Lou Gehrig could come close to his offensive numbers; in 1927, other than Gehrig's 47 home runs and 209 wRC+, he doubled the next home run hitter in Hack Wilson. So if you make the argument of saying that we should discount these numbers by a bit because of segregation or the era of pitching, it really can't be by that much. Nearly--again, other than Gehrig--no one could do what he did, and it broke every offensive record of the time, by a significant margin. Even against better competition, he's still the best player in the league by a significant margin. It's really debating, "He's the best of his time by a ton!" or "He's the best of his time by a little less than a ton!"
2. Ruth saved the sport, and then changed it.
I'm of the opinion that greatness is not just defined by numbers, but your effect on the game. Ruth's effect on the game, and on popular culture in general, goes far beyond just the numbers. After the Black Sox scandal of 1919, there were legitimate concerns over whether baseball could continue to be a viable sport. People were calling into question the legitimacy of supposedly "fair" games, and the sport was also near the tail end of the Dead Ball Era--no one at the time even understood what a home run hitter was.
Ruth then hit 54 home runs in 1920 after being traded to the Yankees, and the nation was captivated. His home runs were often described as events in of themselves, and following his home runs was even more gripping than even the home run races of the 1990's. His home runs saved the sport from wallowing in its own mud, and he created a new style of play for the sport. Whenever you watch a slugger, especially a left-hander and especially on the Yankees, it's in the archetype of Ruth. Pre-Ruth, the emphasis was on defense and speed and pitching and strategy, and then the focus shifted to power, and that's what captivates audiences; it's the very style of play that helped turn baseball into the richest sport in the past 20 years.
3. Ruth created the Yankees as we know them.
The Yankees in their current form likely don't exist without Babe Ruth. Even though Gehrig was a large part of their early dynasty years, the trade for Babe Ruth created a baseball dynasty that would last until 1964, including seven pennants and four world series titles. He led the team in WAR 11 times; nine of those were 10+ WAR seasons. That's enough to give them a boost to the pennant in of itself, especially because in four of those pennant winning years they won it by fewer than ten games. They also drew more than one million in attendance nine times during Ruth's tenure.
Oh yeah, and not to mention The House That Ruth Built. The Yankees until 1923 played at the Polo Grounds, and the Giants' owner forced the team to move out when the Yankees began outdrawing their team because of Ruth. That led to the creation of Yankee Stadium, and of course the short porch in right field. It's amazing to think that the team has been constructed around those general dimensions since then, and because of him. Building a stadium for one single player is one of the more astonishing things in sports history.
4. Ruth is cemented in popular culture, and transcends the sport.
I can't think of an athlete, and certainly not of another baseball player, that transcends the sport as much as Babe Ruth. "The Babe Ruth of X" is something you hear pretty often, and it just doesn't apply to any other player. That isn't statistical evidence or anything, but like I've said before--it doesn't matter, because he already has a statistical case that's even largely immune to any discounts thrown at it. But even so, Ruth is more of an icon or a symbol than a player, and American culture holds him up as an example of the pinnacle of American sporting.
If you want to argue that Babe Ruth isn't statistically the greatest, it's difficult but possible. Barry Bonds comes the closest, and there's still some discounting to do in his case brcause of his alleged PED use. Oh yeah, and Bonds never pitched. Ruth was a successful pitcher--albeit in the Dead Ball Era--for over 1200 innings, putting up an impressive 82 ERA-. I think there's a ton that's up for debate when it comes to the Hall of Fame, but not with Ruth. Even in today's modern baseball world, it's in the shadow of, and on the backs of, Ruth, who put the sport into modern territory.