Willie Mays vs. Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I finished reading a biography on Willie Mays. The story of Mays’ life from child hood through his elder years is both fascinating and storybook on several levels. However, the gears in my head didn’t start turning until the end of the epilogue and the brief discussion of the greatest player of all time. Was it Willie Mays or Babe Ruth? I, like many baseball bloggers, sometimes find inspiration to write in unique places. At most I was going to review the book (I’ll provide the book’s information later). After giving it more thought I decided to break down this seemingly never-ending argument about Mays versus Ruth.

Mays’ was the quintessential five-tool player. Ruth was, well Ruth. To do the argument justice will take more than one post. So let this be the first in a series of posts discussing the classic baseball argument: who was the greatest baseball player of all time? Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or someone else?

Criteria used for this anaylsis does not rely heavily on SABR metrics. The offensive perspective is simple: HRs, Hits, BA. In a later post, a comparison of RBIs, games played, MVP awards will be used.

Let’s start with Babe Ruth from the offensive perspective. Ruth played 22 seasons (1914-1935) with the Boston Braves, the Red Sox, and of course the Yankees. We are familiar with a number of Ruth’s stats, most specifically his home run total of 714. 2,873 hits and a career .342 BA. Ruth’s cultural fame is for his hitting and home runs.  Historically, he ranks 1st in slugging (several active players may surpass Ruth; most notably Albert Pujols currently ranks 4th all-time.) Aside from Ruth’s offensive prowess, he was a multi-20 game winner as a pitcher. I must note he was not a regular pitcher after 1920. He pitched in a total of 10 seasons, posting a 2.28 career ERA. Ruth  did not pitch from 1921-1929 and only pitched one game in both 1930 and 1933. However, he posted a career 94-46 win-loss record.

The Baseball Writer’s inducted Ruth into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.

Next week: The Babe’s defense

All statistical data from baseball-reference.com

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4 thoughts on “Willie Mays vs. Babe Ruth

  1. I am not a baseball purist, just a great fan, and I say Willie Mays is the best ballplayer for two distinct reasons. The first is he played more than half of his career in Candlestick Park, arguably one of the toughest ball parks ever. I believe if he had played in New York for his whole career, his statistics would be so much better. The second distinct reason was the move to San Francisco was especially hard for black ballplayers, and Willie has that adjustment to make. The periods they played in were significantly different but Ruth was for the most part given a much easier path than most players

  2. There is no comparison. The real argument in baseball is “who was the second greatestest player ever – Cobb, Mays, Aaron, Gehrig, Williams, Hornsby, Wagner, etc? Babe is unquestionably the greatest athlete this world has ever seen. I could go on and on about his accomplishments, but there is only one fair criteria when comparing players of different eras – that is simply..how did they do against their comtempories. I give you one stat (because that is really all that is necessary)..During the decade (I’m talking decade, not season) bABE ACCOUNTED FOR NEARLY TEN PERCENT OF ALL HOME RUNS HIT IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE. Willie was great. So was Cobb, Williams, Aaron, but the greatestest of all? SHUT UP!!!

    • Mike,
      Thanks for the response. Your statement, “Babe is unquestionably the greatest athlete this world has ever seen,” is not true. When it comes to athletic ability, there are a number of other professional, and amateur athletes since Babe’s time that demonstrated more athletic ability than the Babe. For our discussion here, let’s focus on Mays. Mays was a 5-tool player. He was very well rounded. His father, Cat Mays, who in his own right was a talented baseball player, stressed the ability to do more than just hit homers. Mays probably could’ve been a professional football player as well. My argument is not to diminish anything Babe did. He was a 20 game winner as a pitcher before switching to the outfield. Baseball was Babe’s thing. Except Mays was right up there, across the statistical board.

      Secondly, you state “but there is only one fair criteria when comparing players of different eras – that is simply..how did they do against their comtempories;” when it comes to professional sports, this doesn’t hold as much water as you may think. If we were to compare the all-time greats solely to their contemporaries, then all of this discussion is moot. Babe, Mays, Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, are all above their contemporaries. That is what makes them the “great players.” The true measure of what they do is based on the records of past stars.

      Third, your statement about Babe’s accounting for nearly ten percent of all homers in the AL isn’t significant. First off, the leagues were not comprised of as many teams as they are today. I would suspect had Mays, A-Rod, or Aaron played in that era, they would’ve put up similar percentages. Second, what about the NL? the National League has been, and really continues to be a league of “small ball.” Move the runner over rather than knock it out of the park. Which, makes the point about Mays even more significant since he played in the NL. Finally, baseball is much more than just home runs. When comparing players we need to look at so many other categories, and I’m not even including Sabermetrics. Let us also remember one other important factor, Babe Ruth was probably the best marketed professional athlete of the 20th Century. Babe became baseball because baseball needed Babe to erase the stink that came from the 1919 “Blacksox” Scandal. Had Ruth played in a different era, he easily would’ve been just another power hitter. He most likely would’ve never even pitched a game.

      Cheers,
      Vince V.

  3. Hi Vince, I’ll be interested in how you break this down and arrive at a final conclusion. I’ve seen several comparisons between Mays and Mantle, but not really all that many between Mays and Ruth.
    Take care, Bill

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