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Baseball overflows with history, and debate about players from different eras is constant among fans. Among the most fabled names in baseball’s history are Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson, for a number of reasons. With that in mind, let’s explore who was the better player, Ruth or Robinson.
No player in the history of Major League Baseball matches the statistical accomplishments of Babe Ruth. He won 7 World Series titles, hit 714 home runs as an extraordinary hitter, and even set pitching records before shifting to play outfield only. Still, Jackie Robinson’s career is among the most storied ever, despite being shorter in length.
Differences in how baseball was played in various eras makes it almost impossible to compare such players. With Ruth and Robinson, one also should consider their impacts on the society around them, even outside of baseball.
They were both at one point undeniably the best player in baseball, each contributing greatly to very successful teams. Let’s have a look at some of the details.
Babe Ruth made such an impact on American sports in the 1920s that his name is linked with everyday lingo for, basically, the unbelievable. A prodigiously long home run might be described as “Ruthian.” As would any huge, Ruthian accomplishment.
It’s hard to emphasize the nearly unreal statistics that Ruth accomplished, compared with his contemporaries. During his early years when Ruth only pitched, the all-time record for home runs in a season was just 27. In 42 seasons of professional baseball, no player could hit more than 27 round-trippers.
Then Ruth switched to outfield, and hit 29 dingers in 1919. Then he hit 54 the next season and the myth was in the making.
Before Ruth hit 29 homers in 1919, the record for home runs in a season had stood for 35 years (27, by Ned Williamson in 1884). To nearly double the record the following season made Ruth a legend.
He lifted the New York Yankees from second (or third) fiddle in New York (to the Giants and Dodgers) to top of the baseball world. He started hitting long home runs to thrill fans at exactly the moment the league needed it most ~ after the Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919-1920. Gambling had eroded the public’s trust of the game, and Ruth brought them back.
Ruth also changed how the game was played. Prior to his long-ball heroics, baseball was a “station to station” game, where the ball was too “dead” to hit far, let alone over fences. Teams relied on speed and bunting, in very low-scoring affairs dominated by pitchers. Once Ruth proved that the longball filled the stands, other players followed suit.
Go ahead and Google words to describe Jackie Robinson, and a couple of them will stand out: courage, and selfless. Whereas Ruth muscled his name into our dictionaries, Robinson made such an impact that his uniform number was retired not just by his team, but by the entire league. No MLB player will ever wear No. 42 again.
Some might argue that his signing to the Dodgers to break the age-old (and unwritten) color barrier in baseball was his biggest accomplishment. It’s a valid point, as he became the first black player ever in the majors. Still, fans would be remiss to ignore what he actually did on the field baseball-wise. Among the highlights:
- First season of 1947: Led the National League in stolen bases, and selected as Rookie of the Year.
- In 1949 he won the league batting title by hitting .342, while also again grabbing the most stolen bases in the league. Voted the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), a tremendous accomplishment regardless of race.
- Played in 6 World Series contests, including in 1955 when the Dodgers finally won it all.
- Elected to the All Star team for 6 straight seasons, through 1954.
- Named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
Robinson’s career, however, was not long (9 seasons), and his baseball statistics are difficult to compare with those of Ruth, who played 22 seasons. However, like Ruth, the game was changed by his success. He brought back the stolen base as a strategic play, setting the stage for a boom in steals in the 1960s.
His daring on the basepaths, including steals of home (like in the first inning of the 1955 World Series!), influenced the play of hundreds of players to come. But it may be off the field where Robinson had the most impact.
Jackie Robinson’s single biggest accomplishment was becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball. But besides that, it’s hard to measure his greatness in terms of his perseverance. That he finished that first season in 1947 is alone a spectacular accomplishment.
Robinson played 151 regular-season games, plus 7 more in the World Series against the Yankees under the spotlight of the Big Apple, while under constant and often brutal harassment from fans and opponents alike. He had opposing managers challenging his manhood, and base runners trying to spike him at bases.
He also encountered bigotry and trouble off the field as the team traveled city to city.
That he kept his composure, never causing a confrontation or drama, says much about his mettle. His behavior as much as his solid play went miles toward helping other black players to stick in the majors. (Larry Doby played that part later in the American League).
A final word on Robinson’s statistics: remember that during his MLB career he had to deal with the best black pitchers around ~ something Ruth did not have to do. Additionally, some of the fielders of Robinson’s time, like Willie Mays in centerfield, had better skills (and modern gloves) than Ruth’s contemporaries. This would result in hitting into more outs than in the old days.
Any true baseball fan who opens Ruth’s statistics, of all his hitting accomplishments, has to be amazed. Some numbers stick out as non-human, like:
- Career on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.164 is almost unbelievable. Anything over 1.000 for a season for a player is superb. Ruth surpassed that 14 times ~ including a high of 1.379 in 1920.
- It’s hard to look at some of his runs batted in totals for his 154-game seasons. They are astronomical compared with modern RBI leaders: 168 in 1921; and 165 in 1927 (and he didn’t even lead the league!) Today’s sluggers can claim success if they crack 100 RBI for a season or string of several seasons in triple digits. Ruth cracked 150 RBIs 6 times.
- He is the all-time leader in career slugging percentage, ending at .690.
- Ruth’s stolen bases totaled more than 10 bases 5 times.
- His totals in walks and runs scored are astronomical. He walked 170 times in 1923 (today, cracking 100 is considered good); and scored 177 runs in 1921 (this despite being considered a big man; Ruth clearly could run well enough).
- Prior to becoming an outfielder only, Ruth was one of the best at pitching in baseball. He established the longest string of consecutive shutout innings in World Series play, totaling 29.2 innings of scoreless ball for the Boston Red Sox in 3 World Series, 1915-1918. It would not be topped until 1961.
- He won 3 world titles as a pitcher with the Red Sox; then 4 more as an outfielder for the Yankees.
For a number of reasons, it’s impossible to fairly judge the baseball skills and accomplishments of legendary stars Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Each contributed greatly to his team’s success on the field, and garnered awards as the top player in their respective leagues when they played.
They played different positions, and had dissimilar styles of play, and their careers were separated by decades. Accurately weighing competition levels against each player is not possible.
If one had to differentiate, it could be said that Ruth accumulated hitting statistics that are unlike any other, as a whole career numbers that are pretty much unapproachable. On the other side, Robinson’s performance cumulatively both on and off the field impacted the game like no other player before. Both players were champions, and future Hall of Fame members.