Thursday, September 02, 2004

The 700 Club

An interesting box appeared in the September 2, 2004, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sports Pages. Entitled Countdown to 700 the box focused in on Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Bath Ruth and Hank Aaron. What was interesting to me were the following statistics:

Hank Aaron: 755 Home Runs in 3298 games
Bath Ruth: 714 Home Runs in 2503 games
Barry Bonds: 696 Home Runs and counting in 2688 games.

Comparisons are inevitable but. . .

Ruth never had to face relief specialists of the modern ilk. He also probably played at least a few seasons with a rabbit ball. Ruth played all of his games during the day when heat and fatigue must have occasionally made some impact, especially on players wearing flannel uniforms. Finally, he stroked some of his home runs in the band boxes of the time. He did all of this in 795 fewer games than Aaron.

Aaron, on the other hand, played in the dawning era of relief specialists, arguably a tougher task than his predecessors. He also had to travel through more time zones, including from coast to coast, sometimes playing a game after arriving at his hotel at 2 or 3AM the morning before. Aaron had to constantly switch between night and day games in an era where the starting times were likely to be more evenly distributed between the two than they are today. And above all, as Aaron closed in on Ruth’s hallowed record, he faced enormous social pressures unseen since Jackie Robinson’s debut. Death threats and open racism were thrust upon him constantly. It was bad enough to face Koufax, Drysdale, Gibson and the like without worrying what some kook in the stands might do.

Bonds has seen even greater relief specialization than either of his predecessors with middle, set-up and closer roles more clearly defined during his career. Thus, he was always facing a fresh arm coming at him from a new angle. On the other hand, the quality of big league pitching, certainly in Aaron’s era if not Ruth’s, was uniformly better than that which Bonds sees today, at least when he sees it at all. Bonds has been walked intentionally far more than either Aaron or Ruth.

It would be hard to say who has received more scrutiny. Certainly Ruth played in the biggest media market of them all and was a national celebrity. He loved the spotlight. Aaron spent his career in the relative obscurity of Milwaukee and the Atlanta of several decades ago. He did not appear to like attention. Bonds, as we all know, is on nationwide television constantly to say nothing of the internet and can be downright hostile to the press at times.

In the end, comparisons are nearly impossible from era to era let alone across several, but they are made anyway. In this case, the differences in the number of games it took each player to achieve his mark are striking to this fan.

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