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Bonds', Ruth's greatness as clear as black and white

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Barry Bonds insulted Babe Ruth, saying he'd like to pass him on the all-time home run list so people wouldn't "talk about him no more."

The implication is that Bonds wouldn't mind Hank Aaron remaining on top of the homer heap because Aaron is black.

Imagine somebody making the title of home run king into a racial issue. You would think Aaron received a bunch of death threats from white lunatics when he was chasing Ruth in 1973 and '74. Oh, wait, that's right, he did.

Baseball purists have jumped on Bonds for his dis (I love it when white guys say "dis," like they're Chuck D), using words like "blasphemy" to describe Barry's statement and words like "deity" to pinpoint Ruth's place in baseball. These same twits still call baseball the "national pastime" even though it currently ranks somewhere between video games and NASCAR.

Ruth died almost 55 years ago. He hasn't played baseball for 68 years. He's old news.

His numbers speak for themselves. Ruth deserves respect.

But Bonds and today's other stars deserve respect, too. Which means they deserve to not have Babe Ruth thrown in their faces all the time.

Maybe Bonds wants us to quit talking about Ruth so we talk more about Aaron. Aaron is baseball's all-time home run leader. But he has been denied much of the reverence such a feat should earn. It's as if Aaron never broke the record.

When big-mouth Barry passes Ruth and becomes No. 2, it might suddenly make Aaron a lot more palatable to the great unwashed. If that is, indeed, the effect, good for Bonds and good for Aaron. Aaron is a class individual and should at least be remembered as a much more courageous figure than Ruth.

Ruth came out of a home for wayward boys, but Aaron came out of the Negro Leagues. You tell me who trod the tougher path.

Aaron never disgraced himself publicly. Ruth made it a fairly regular occurrence.

I'm tired of hearing about Ruth. I'm with Bonds on that one. There are few people alive who saw Ruth play. Just let the Babe be dead.

I love the way the purists come out of the woodwork to twist the statistics to make Ruth look superior. You can manipulate baseball stats to make just about anyone look superior.

Here's my favorite: Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs in 1920. No other entire team in the American League hit as many. Bonds, Aaron, Mays, McGwire (pick one) never hit more homers than each and every team in the league. Therefore, no one compares to the Bambino.

But 1920 was the first year of the lively ball. Teams still played for one run at a time. No one else even tried to hit home runs. It was thought to be bad strategy because of the strikeout potential.

Ruth showed differently, the other teams caught on, and pretty soon, the gap between Ruth and the other sluggers closed. But that 1920 stat is meaningless, because the other teams weren't concerned about hitting homers. Ruth still dominated the power numbers after that, though.

Ruth missed out on home run crowns in '22 and '25 because of illness and suspensions, but it wasn't until '27 that he was truly pushed for home-run dominance. His teammate, Lou Gehrig, hit 47. So Ruth hit 60. Now that's a statistic that needs no manipulation.

Ruth was great. Bonds is great. Did Barry, uh, "dis" the Babe? Even if he did, so what? Bonds is a grown man. He can say what he likes.

People who never saw Ruth play are falling all over each other to jump to his defense. These same people have been fortunate enough to see Bonds play. He's not just a page full of stats and a picture in a book. These people choose one of yesterday's faces over a real, live modern-day legend. The fact that yesterday's face is white probably has a lot to do with it.

I like when modern-day athletes surpass what the old-timers accomplished. It makes our time feel more important. Which, to us, it should be, if only because we live in it.

No matter what Bonds says or does, he can never eradicate Ruth from baseball lore.

But no matter what Ruth's defenders say or write, they can't change the fact that Bonds is the all-time single-season home run king and might wind up being the all-time career home run king. When he owns those two marks, Bonds will be the greatest home run hitter, period.

One other thing is certain: If Bonds had played in Ruth's era, he would have done much better than Ruth. All the games were played in sunlight back then. Black men are much better equipped for hot weather. Right, Dusty?

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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