The two greatest hitters of all time
March, 9, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesA 20-year-old rookie Ted Williams has fun with a retired Babe Ruth in 1939.
It's not surprising that Babe Ruth and Ted Williams reached the finals of our Greatest Season Ever bracket. In Ruth, you have the most iconic player of all time; in Williams, you have the owner of perhaps the most iconic season of all time.
Maybe it's a little surprising that a season that occurred 91 years ago and another that occurred 71 years ago made our final round -- as I wrote the other day, try to imagine such a result in any other sport. But it speaks to the legacy that baseball holds over us, the importance of its history as our national pastime, the weight and consideration we still give to statistics and magical numbers and, yes, the iconic status of two hitters whose great seasons came before the game was integrated.
On a pure statistical level, Ruth and Williams are the two greatest hitters of all time. In offense-only career wins above replacement, Ruth ranks No. 1 and Williams ranks No. 6 (despite missing nearly five full seasons to military service). In career OPS, Ruth and Williams rank first and second. In adjusted OPS, they still rank one and two. In career runs created, Ruth ranks second (behind Barry Bonds) and Williams ranks sixth despite the missed time. In adjusted batting wins, Ruth is first and Williams essentially tied for third with Ty Cobb (Bonds is second). In a statistic called offensive winning percentage, which calculates how an entire lineup of Ruth or Williams would fare with an average pitching staff and average defense, Ruth rates first and Williams second. The figures: .858 and .857. (All rankings from Baseball-Reference.com.)
Now, I have no doubt that if you put Albert Pujols into a time machine that took him back to 1921, he'd put up numbers comparable to Ruth's. I'm sure if you brought Ruth back in the time machine to 2011 that he'd be able to match Pujols' numbers. But he was the evolutionary figure, the guy who swung hard every time, who was willing to sacrifice strikeouts if it led to more home runs. He brought power to the game, leaving John McGraw's "inside baseball" in the dust. Look, was it easier in Ruth's time? Of course it was. The pitchers didn't throw as hard; this is fact, not speculation, best indicated by the nugget that Ruth used a 52-ounce bat early in his career. His bats did get lighter (he was one of the first batters to start using a thinner handle to better whip his stick through the strike zone), but you wouldn't be able to consistently get around on 95 mph fastballs with a 52-ounce or 48-ounce or 44-ounce bat.
An interesting comparison between Ruth and Williams is they both grew up in troubled circumstances. Ruth's father owned a saloon, and young George Herman Ruth was always in trouble. Nobody knows the exact reasons Ruth was initially sent away to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. (His sister claimed it was because Ruth simply refused to go to school.) He first went there when he was 8, more permanently when he turned 10. Reports vary on whether his mother (until she died) and father visited him at the school. Williams' father abandoned the family, and Bill James quotes Williams as once saying, "Well, I wouldn't have wanted to be married to a woman like that, either."
As James writes, "By the time he was 20, Williams was insecure, moody and filled with hate. ... He had a lot more in common with Ty Cobb than Babe Ruth." That passion fueled Williams as a hitter. But he was not a fan favorite the first part of his career, even in Boston. There were times he didn't hustle, there were times he made obscene gestures to fans and he famously feuded with reporters. Ruth, of course, was beloved, a hulking, gregarious figure who lived a big life and hit big home runs. It's been 76 years since he played his last game, and he still looms large over the sport as the widely regarded greatest player of all time.
Ruth, in 1921, hit .378 with 59 home runs, 171 RBIs and 177 runs scored. He drew 145 walks, struck out 81 times, had a .512 on-base percentage and slugged .846. Williams hit .406 in 1941, refusing to sit on the final day of the season with a .400 average and went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader. He drew 147 walks and struck out just 37 times, leading the league with 37 home runs and 135 runs scored. His .553 on-base percentage is the third-highest single-season total of all time, behind two of Bonds' seasons. Of course, Williams is the last guy to hit .400. Amazingly, he didn't win the MVP Award that season, losing out to Joe DiMaggio, although Williams actually outhit DiMaggio during the latter's 56-game hitting streak.
Ruth or Williams? Who gets your vote?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.