Players’ View: Who was Better, Bonds or Ruth?

I recently posed a question to seven players and three coaches. It was a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Given the subjectivity involved, it may not even have a right answer.

Who was better, Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth?

The question was phrased exactly that way. It was up to the people responding to interpret the meaning of “better” and to elaborate accordingly. They were asked face-to-face, with no opportunity to reference statistical data on their phones or on their laptops. Their responses — listed below in alphabetical order — were both interesting and varied.

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Jamey Carroll, Minnesota Twins infielder: “If you look at the overall game dominance Ruth had — he was doing something nobody else was doing. I’d lean more toward him and what he did in his time. I played against Barry Bonds, who was obviously great, but what Ruth did stood out even more against his contemporaries. It’s hard to compare them because things were so much different when Ruth played, but I’d have to say Ruth.”

Jonny Gomes, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “Babe Ruth, for the simple fact that he also pitched. If we’re talking all-around player… the guy was frigging one of the best pitchers in the game. And I mean one of the best ever.”

Jim Hickey, Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach: “The difference in eras makes it almost impossible to say. Even so, I kind of use the barometer that Ruth changed the way the game was played. Bonds really didn’t. But who knows, maybe Ruth was chemically-enhanced. It‘s a hard question because they played in completely different eras.”

Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “I wish I’d have had the pleasure of watching Ruth play. For what little bit I saw of Barry… I don’t know. It’s tough. I’ve seen highlights of Ruth, and I know he was also a pitcher with an incredible arm. Barry could do it all. I don’t think I could pick one or the other. We’re talking about two of the best to have ever played the game. I have to be neutral on this one.”

Dave Martinez, Tampa Bay Rays bench coach: “I played with Barry — he was unbelievable — and I’ve obviously only seen video of Ruth. I’ve obviously seen the numbers. As far as all-around players, Barry was one of the best to ever play the game. He could play the outfield, hit, throw, steal bases. He did it all. Ruth was obviously hitting home runs — a lot of home runs — when no one else was. But I have to go with Barry.”

Brandon Moss, Oakland A‘s outfielder: “It’s a decision I’m making having obviously never seen Babe Ruth play, but I would have to go with Barry Bonds as the better player. That’s because of the all-around game he displayed. And along with having seen him, I’ve played in the same park Bonds did in San Francisco. To do what he did there is just amazing, because that ballpark is so hard to hit the ball out of. I feel Bonds is the greatest player ever.”

Mark Reynolds, Cleveland Indians infielder: “I don’t know much about Babe Ruth, but minus whatever people say about Barry — you know what I mean by that — you still need to have the ability. To be able to do what he did; it’s just remarkable. I play the same sport he does and know how hard it is. He made it look like tee-ball; kind of like Miguel Cabrera is doing right now. As far as Babe Ruth goes, I’m no expert, but I’ll venture out on a limb and say that — back in those days — they didn’t have specialized guys out of the bullpen throwing 100. Starters stayed in 9, 10 innings. It was a different game.”

Luke Scott, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “In one respect that’s an easy question. Barry Bonds was a superior player because of the era he played in. The level of baseball is much better now, just as basketball and the NFL are better. That said, I don’t think Barry Bonds had as much impact on the game as Babe Ruth. No one has ever impacted the game the way Ruth did. He was “The Sultan of Swat,” “The King of Swing.” He did more for the game than anybody. But again, if you put the two of them together on a baseball field, who would outperform the other and put up better numbers? It would be Barry Bonds.”

Dave Trembley, Houston Astros third base coach: “Ruth was a very good pitcher, and that has to be considered. He also played in the dead ball era, and changed baseball. But I would say Bonds was a better all-around player, because he had both speed and power. He had to hit in the age of specialization, with relievers, match-ups, shifts… there are a lot variables. Travel, night games. Back in Ruth’s era, starting pitchers went longer and you saw them more often. It would be interesting to see how they’d have done in each other’s era. I think Bonds would do better in Ruth’s era than Ruth would do in Bonds’. Of course, they wouldn’t have let Bonds play in Ruth’s era.”

Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox infielder: “I’ve never seen Ruth play — not even on TV — so it’s hard for me to compare him to Barry Bonds. I know how impressive Bonds was. I can also say pitching was more advanced when Barry was playing, and so was training. But I don’t know if I can say one or the other. Well, I guess maybe I’d lean Barry.”

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FINAL TALLY

Bonds: Six votes (Martinez, Moss, Reynolds, Scott, Trembley, Middlebrooks)

Ruth: Three votes (Carroll, Gomes, Hickey)

Neutral: One vote (Joyce)

We hoped you liked reading Players’ View: Who was Better, Bonds or Ruth? by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Iron
Guest
Iron

It’s fair to say Bonds is much more athletic than Ruth, and that Ruth would not be able to do what he did against modern pitching. But it ignores what kind of hitter he might have been with modern strength, conditioning, swing analysis, lighter bats, etc. The argument does not only go in the one direction.

Jason H
Guest
Jason H

Why is it fair to say Bonds is much more athletic than Ruth?

TimothyS
Guest
TimothyS

Because people always picture Babe Ruth at the end of his career, when his girth had gotten quite large.

abreutime
Guest
abreutime

Are you arguing otherwise?

Jason H
Guest
Jason H

While I have no idea who was more athletic, or how you would measure that, I would be comfortable saying that neither was “much more” athletic than the other. They both displayed otherworldly athletic talent by dominating their sports in unprecedented ways in the case of Ruth, and with a lone precedent (Ruth) in the case of Bonds.

jbergey
Member
jbergey

Ruth was one of the best pitchers in baseball until he became a full time hitter. As far as speed and defense Bonds was “much more athletic” but in the case of being a world class pitcher Ruth was “much more athletic” so I am not sure if the athletic comments holds up in this situation.

UZR
Guest
UZR

He has the second most runs saved of any player ever.

los
Guest
los

Didn’t you guys ever learn that Athletic = “Black”. Just like Scrappy = “White”

baycommuter
Guest
baycommuter

Not necessarily. Buster Posey is an unusually athletic catcher; Jose Altuve is scrappy.

Jake in Pittsburgh
Guest
Jake in Pittsburgh

Forget Ruth…Willie Mays is the best all-around baseball player in history. When you compare Ruth and Bonds, you automatically gravitate toward home runs. But for the whole position player package, it’s Willie Mays.

And that’s the tragedy of Barry Bonds. He should have been the next Willie Mays. He should have been the best combination of speed and power and baseball dynamism since Say Hey. Mays’ fielding would keep him at #1, but we would be speaking of them as #1 and #1a.

But that wasn’t good enough for Barry. He threw away the chance to be Willie Mays. And for what? To reach the storied heights of Mark McGwire (!) and Sammy Sosa (!!).

He should be mentioned alongside Willie Mays (the godfather he supposedly admires so much). But he crumpled it up and threw it away so that he could be mentioned in the same breath as McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, and Giambi.

Way to go, Barry.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia

Why do you think Willie Mays didn’t use performance enhancers?

enhanced performance
Guest
enhanced performance

It is fair to say that Dave Laurila is a complete moron. It is generally a bad idea to get personal but this post is so damaging to the integrity of the game that it deserves its author to be personally slandered.
Barry Bonds is a historic cheat and to gloss over that is to miss the point in a way that shows a colossal failure to see the forest from the trees. His ability to hit the ball was only historic BECAUSE he cheated. He was a very good player, like a Ken Griffey, and then he cheated. From 2000, his 35 year old season, he hit over 300 homeruns, led the league in walks and won 4 consecutive MVPs and finished second once. There is a book called Game of Shadows that meticulously details when and how he cheated. Hint, this stuff happened AFTER he cheated.

Next is Dave Laurila going to discuss how great a financier Bernie Madoff was…. he was the chairman of the NASDAQ stock market. To discuss Bonds in the same breath as Babe Ruth is simply disrespectful. It is like equating Benedict Arnold to George Washington and never mentioning that Arnold was a traitor who invalidated his service to America. Bonds was an excellent player who did more to destroy the sanctity of the game than any other player. This is because he was so successful at cheating that he produced statistics that ruined the comparisons among eras. He was a fraud and Babe Ruth was not.

Ethics are a real thing
Guest
Ethics are a real thing

Beautifully said.

Madoff = Bonds = Lance Armstrong = Marion Jones.

Success through the repeated, systematic cheating of others and un-leveling of the playing field is a disgrace. As is Laurila, for celebrating one such disgusting and disgraceful individual in Bonds. Being the greatest cheat in the history of one’s sport in no way elevates — and all who celebrate Bonds now, knowing what we know, are a blight.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia

The same could be said about Ruth though. We know he did illegal things to gain advantage. I mean, this was a guy who injected himself with sheep testicle extract to try to get an advantage.

Babe Ruth is the godfather of PEDs.

Simpleton Sez
Guest
Simpleton Sez

It’s a good thing those pre-1980 players never did anything wrong! Do you hear me?!? NOTHING!!!

Willie
Guest
Willie

I have been a Giants fan since my first game in 1964. San Francisco is my home town. I love the Giants.
Thre is really no way to discuss this question because Barry Bonds was a liar and a cheat. Ruth was a drunk, but as far as I know that doesn’t count as enhancement against the rules.
All of baseball knows he is a cheat and they do not respect him. The proof…he couldn’t get a job. The folks who talked about his athleticism and strength are missing the obvious insults that Barry poured upon the game in a near-blasphemous manner.
His name should be removed from all of the record books. The same for all who taint the game with their lies and deceit.
If you can’t play to the level you want to without cheating, then be a man…settle for what you can do honestly or get the he– out of the game.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia

“Ruth was a drunk, but as far as I know that doesn’t count as enhancement against the rules.”

No, but injecting yourself with sheep testosterone probably does. Ruth has no “sanctity of the game” leg to stand on.