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.
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.
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.”
Bonds: Six votes (Martinez, Moss, Reynolds, Scott, Trembley, Middlebrooks)
Ruth: Three votes (Carroll, Gomes, Hickey)
Neutral: One vote (Joyce)
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 December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.