Debate: Who's the greatest slugger ever?

Barry Bonds has matched Hank Aaron's all-time record and is about to become the new home-run king. But is he? Will he merely have more home runs than any player in major league history, or is he truly the greatest slugger the game has ever seen?

A few of ESPN.com's sluggers -- Jim Caple, Rob Neyer and Jayson Stark -- have more than a passing interest in the subject and recently engaged in a hard-hitting e-mail debate that we've excerpted below.

Why even have this discussion? Barry Bonds will soon have 756 home runs, and that will be the record. We don't get to pick and choose which statistics we accept in baseball.

Except of course we do. No, we cannot (and should not) control what's in the record books, which should simply describe what happened on the field. But that doesn't mean we don't get to pick and choose what we think about what happened on the field. There was a time, not so long ago really, when you were considered a great player if you hit 400 home runs. But does anybody consider Dave Kingman a great player? I mean, aside from Kingman himself? Nobody that I know.

Similarly, Pete Rose might be the "Hit King," but that doesn't make him the king of hitting. Not in my book. So while Barry Bonds obviously owns the record, it's up to each of us to decide what that record means, because without meaning, a record is just a number in a book, little different from all the rest of the numbers.

I completely agree with that. That's why Bud Selig doesn't need to glue any asterisks to this record, or any other record, or any numbers whatsoever from this era. The people who think everything they've heard about Barry is true already have that asterisk dancing around their brains.

So Barry, for them, will be exactly like Pete. He'll be a guy of whom people will say: "He hit 756 homers. He stole 500 bases. He did things nobody else did. BUT ... " Isn't that precisely the way people talk about Pete Rose?

I don't think they consider Pete that way at all. They think of him as the all-time record-holder for hits and a guy who hustled, and some also think of him as a guy who is a liar, a gamble and a louse.

But I agree with what both of you are saying. We always place statistics in context with what was going on in the era. Or we should. Ruth hit his home runs in an era when no minorities were allowed to play, when he never had to face the likes of Pedro Martinez or Bob Gibson, when there were no sliders, and a time when the talent base was further diminished because much of the male population was malnourished (source: William Manchester's account of 1940 draftees in "The Glory and the Dream''). Aaron hit his home runs in an era when amphetamine use was as rampant as it is today. Barry hit his home runs in an era when ballparks and strike zones were smaller while hitters were bigger and stronger, both through approved means (increased knowledge of the usefullness of weight training) and unapproved means (steroids).

Right. The key word in all these discussions is the same: context. Today, though, there's a complicating factor that simply didn't exist (to any real degree) before the last 15 or 20 years. We know that Ruth didn't have to face the great black pitchers of his era. We know that the top players of the 1930s and '40s were, in part because of poor nutrition and the Depression and World War II, not facing particularly tough competition. Aaron and Mays ... and I suppose you and some of our audience might not agree with me here ... but Aaron and Mays didn't face, day to day, the nasty stuff that today's pitchers are hurling plateward.

The thing is, though, we can measure those things. Believe it or not, if the Hall of Fame ever releases the Negro League stats they've now kept in a lockbox for three years, we can even figure out just how Ruth might have fared against those great black pitchers. But when it comes to the wonderful performance-enhancing drugs of the Steroid Era, we really can't measure much of anything, because we really don't know who was doing what, and when. That's what makes this particular context different from all the other contexts. And that's what makes this particular discussion worth having.

I disagree with your last point. We know far more about players today than we'll ever garner from dusty records that are more than 60-70 years old.

You think so? Eventually we'll have play-by-play accounts for those dusty games from 60-70 years ago, which means the only real difference between those dusty games and today's games is that we'll never have video analysis. But most of us aren't using video analysis now. I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just not quite sure what you mean, Jim.

I always feel a little squeamish quoting Jose Canseco. But one thing he told Congress that day in March 2005 was absolutely true. He said it's impossible for any of us to know exactly how many more home runs anybody hit because he was taking steroids or anything else. And, of course, it's impossible to know how many more someone might have hit if the pitchers weren't taking them, too. It's just one more assumption people are always pushing us to make about that era that's just not possible to make.

Rob makes a tremendous point. We can't accurately measure anything that went on in that era. All we can do is assume that hundreds of players were doing something and then take the numbers that were put up and say, "Here's how they stacked up within that context." In many ways, that's not really all that different than trying to assess Ruth in his era or Aaron in his time.

The difference is that the public is clamoring for us to stamp a scarlet letter on any great player generally assumed to have "cheated" -- as if none of what those players did should even count when we assess the historical significance of their careers. You don't hear that about the "other side of the story" context in Ruth's era or Aaron's.

Which brings us back to Barry. I don't see any way baseball can't "count" his record. But Bud Selig's reluctance to put his stamp on it suggests to me he wants to put the kabosh on it in whatever way he can. Is that an honorable position? A reasonable position? An insane position? And if anyone thinks it is, how can he discredit it without saying, "None of Barry's stats count," which is totally unworkable?

Anyway, the question of course isn't who's got the record, or even what it "means" (because the first of those is self-evident, and I'm not smart enough to answer the second). I think a question we might be able to answer is not, "Who's got the most home runs?" but rather, "Who's the greatest home-run hitter?"

And in my mind, the answer obviously is Babe Ruth, because his home runs not only dominated the game, but changed the game. In 1919, Ruth hit 29 homers. People wondered if that record might stand forever. In 1920, he hit 54 homers, which was more than any other team in the American League. In fact, the Red Sox and Tigers that season didn't combine to hit 54 home runs. I won't try to argue that nobody else would have figured out that you could swing from your heels and hit the ball out of the park. But the Babe did figure it out. And considering that his numbers were overwhelming, I think he's No. 1 with just a bit of extra credit for something nobody else had come close to doing before.

My personal favorite Ruth note is that when he was a pitcher he several times hit more home runs than he allowed -- and one of those seasons he threw more than 300 innings. His combination of pitching and hitting, I think it's safe to say, will never be surpassed and is reason enough to consider him the best player of all time.

But he is not the ultimate home-run hitter ...

The level of competition just wasn't that good back then. Minorities were banned. Players were smaller. Simply put, Ruth was feasting off some mediocre talent. Sure, all-time greats such as Walter Johnson would have excelled in any era, but the average player of Ruth's era simply couldn't hold a torch to the modern player.

That's why my pick for greatest home-run hitter is Hank. He did it even though much of his era was dominated by pitchers. He did it while teams were moving toward larger ballparks. And he did it without the aid of any performance enhancer.

Here's my point. You take the three of these guys in their prime, allow each to prepare for an offseason with the same training facilities/supplements, and then send them off against the same pitchers for a season ... and Hank will come out on top. He out-hit Ruth under tougher conditions, and he almost out-hit Bonds without Barry's advantages. He is the home-run king.

While I'd side with Rob and argue that Ruth ought to be No. 1 on this list, I think you're not giving Barry his due.

He played the first seven years of his career (1986-92) before The Home Run Era erupted -- and the only two National Leaguers who hit more home runs than he did in that time period were Darryl Strawberry and Andre Dawson.

Then let's accept the "Game of Shadows" timeline and look at his career from the beginning of the Home Run Era (1993) through 1998 -- which, according to "Game of Shadows," was before he met his friends from BALCO. The only National Leaguer with more homers than him in those years was Sammy Sosa -- by one homer (236-235)! And the only players in the whole sport with a better home-run ratio than Barry were Mark McGwire and Junior Griffey. And that, remember, was in a period before Barry even got all that interested in hitting home runs.

So that's not that different than Aaron during his own peak power years (1957-73), is it? Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey and Mickey Mantle all topped Hank in home-run ratio in that era, even though Hank out-totaled them.

So Jim, I'd like to hear your explanation for how Aaron was a more dominant slugger than Barry was. I think I've established that, measured against their peers, he and Barry held very similar places in their eras even if we don't even count the years from 1999 on when we look at Barry. Your witness ...

It's simple, Jayson. Bonds is a great, great player, probably in the top five of all time. But given that he is gasping to reach Hank's total even after he probably took something stronger than Wheaties after 1998, I'd say Hank is the greater home-run hitter. I mean, you're bringing up a couple guys (Dawson, Straw) in your argument who didn't come within 400 home runs of Hank.

Again, give Hank the same advantages Barry has had, he might have had 800 home runs.

There you go again, Jim. I'm not minimizing anything about Hank Aaron. What made him great was that he was great for sooooooo lonnnnnng. My point was that you're underestimating Barry's home-run-king credentials at every stage of his career. If I divided up Hank's career into three segments, we'd be comparing him to guys who didn't come within 400 home runs (or more) of him, too -- such as Rocky Colavito or Roger Maris, for instance.

But just like Hank, Barry has kept on going. When I was out in San Francisco, my brother-in-law (a Giants season-ticket holder) made a great point about Barry -- that even if you believe he cheated, he was the best player in baseball before he cheated and the best player in baseball after he cheated. So are there doubts about the legitimacy of this record? Sure. But should there be doubts about the greatness of the player who is about to break it? Not about his talent. Only about his character and credibility.

Jim, I'm afraid you set yourself up for that one. You wrote, "You take the three of these guys in their prime, allow each to prepare for an offseason with the same training facilities/supplements, and then send them off against the same pitchers for a season ... and Hank will come out on top. He out-hit Ruth under tougher conditions and he almost out-hit Bonds without Barry's advantages."

You can't mean that, though. For a career, maybe. But not for a season. It's fairly well-known that Aaron never hit 50 homers in a season. That's not actually any sort of indictment; during Aaron's career in the National League -- the better league, by the way -- nobody hit 50 homers. But in the 1960s, Aaron did not lead the National League in home runs per 600 plate appearances. Willie McCovey did, with 36 on the nose. Mays and Aaron essentially are tied for second place, with 34 homers per 600 PA.

Again, that's not an indictment of Aaron. It just seems to me that if you're saying a guy was the best at something, he should have been the best during a decade in the prime of his career. And since the name of Mays came up, I might as well mention that if Mays hadn't spent nearly two full season in the army, and if Aaron's career hadn't been artificially extended by at least one season in Milwaukee (thanks to the DH and Allan Selig), Mays' and Aaron's career totals would be a lot closer than they are. Which leads me to ask (if only rhetorically), does Willie Mays belong in this discussion, too?

Gee, I must really be missing something because I thought we were discussing who the greatest home-run hitter is, and silly me, I suggested the guy who hit the most friggin' home runs in his career. I didn't realize only seasons in which you hit at least 50 home runs are counted. (BTW: Here's a nice bit of trivia to lay on someone: Who had more 50-homer seasons, Bonds or Mantle? Clue: It isn't Bonds.)

But since you bring up Willie Mays, my favorite player of all time -- I would love to say Willie is the best. I would love to think that he would have hit 95 home runs those two seasons he missed in the army. But given that he hit 20 the year before he went in the army and 41 the year he came back, I just don't think he would have. He would have been close but I don't think he would have made. And he could have always tacked on some more HRs by switching to the AL his final season as well, but I don't know if he would have hit very many. Which is not to say Willie wasn't a better player than Hank, because he was.

And as long as we're talking about HR missed while in the army, how about Ted Williams, who missed almost five full seasons during stints in WWII and Korea?

I brought that up only because you mentioned "season" as opposed to career. And I think if I could have one home-run hitter for one season, there are at least half-a-dozen guys I'd take before Aaron. As for Williams, I thought about him but didn't do the math correctly. Now I've done it. He missed almost four full seasons, and the great majority of another. Based on what he did in the surrounding seasons and assuming reasonable health in the "missing" seasons, he'd have come close to breaking Ruth's record in his last season. So we might say that, absent Naziism and Communism, there would have been three 700-homer guys before Barry Bonds. Which does complicate this discussion somewhat. Jayson, you care to weigh in here?

Hank Aaron spent almost his whole career playing in the shadow of Willie Mays. I don't think he should have to spend this conversation in the shadow of Willie Mays, too. This should be Hank's moment in time, just as much as it's Barry's. He earned that. But if we're going to start debating overall greatness of these three men, let's look at it this way:

There can't be any doubt Ruth was the dominant player and hitter of his time. Barry also was the dominant player of his time, although if anybody wants to inject Griffey into the argument, I'll listen. But in Hank's era, as awesome as he was, don't people generally agree Mays was the dominant figure of that era? And Mantle is all over that debate, too.

So it's difficult to know where we should place Aaron in this greatest-slugger discussion, isn't it? As Tom Verducci pointed out in his tremendous piece in SI, Aaron didn't have any of the top 68 home run seasons in baseball history -- yet he was the all-time home-run leader for most of our lifetimes until Barry came along.

I'll take that a step further. Hank didn't have any of the top 13 home-run seasons while he was an active player. So when we assess him, we have to pile on massive credit for being such a good player for such a long time. Otherwise, he can't possibly "win" this debate. Can he?

I think we might have gotten off the tracks a bit here (though I agree with you about putting a strict time limit on our Home Run Derby). If we're talking about one season, the answer is Ruth or Bonds or McGwire or Ralph Kiner or Mantle, I would guess. But if we 're talking about getting a bunch of guys in one league and making them play 20 seasons under the same conditions, that brings us back to the guys who actually played for 20 seasons (or close to that). Which leaves out everybody except Ruth and Bonds and Mays and Aaron. And Williams, if we give him the war years. I've got Ruth in this fight and Jim's got Aaron. Jayson, have you made your choice?

I thought I made this clear earlier. But if I didn't, let me say it more emphatically. While I think we've given Bonds too little credit, I would take Ruth. The only way to justify choosing anybody else is the way Caple tried to bamboozle us -- by arguing that if they all played under the same conditions, Hank would have hit way more homers, as if it's possible to know that. What we do know is that Ruth had two seasons where he outhomered every other team in the league. I'm big on comparing players to their peers. And no player ever crushed his peers the way Ruth did.

Now, on another note, I was asked the other night on ESPN Radio whether I thought the media was covering this story correctly. That's a factor the Babe never had to worry about. But it's a major topic in the cases of Aaron and Bonds. I can't speak for what happened in Aaron's day. But I have no problem with the fact that the media is all over the map on Barry. This is a very confusing event to chronicle or put in perspective. So if we seem conflicted, we should be conflicted. The whole planet is conflicted about this. Your thoughts?

Honestly? I don't really know how the chase is being covered, except that you're right: it's all over the map. I would like to mention one thing about the coverage, though. I read something recently -- Salon, I think -- suggesting that the coverage of Bonds, much of it negative, would be significantly different (and presumably more positive) if he weren't black.

Now, it's really not our place to claim that baseball writers are colorblind, because of course we, as baseball writers, are not exactly the most objective souls on that subject. But there is some evidence here, isn't there? And it's on our side. Going all the way back to 1947, Jackie Robinson was the first-ever Rookie of the Year. Since then, many, many black players have won awards, with the great majority of the voters being white. I suspect you'd have a real hard time finding any sort of racial bias in the Hall of Fame voting, either.

And getting back to the matter at hand, would anybody like to argue that Mark McGwire has been treated with kid gloves in recent years, by the writers? The Hall of Fame balloting this year certainly would suggest otherwise. I'm not saying that race doesn't matter. But I'm tired of people telling me race always matters; the latter is nearly as ridiculous as the former. And I believe that if Barry Bonds was a white, steroids-bloated jerk, he'd be covered essentially the same way that he is being covered now.

Well put, Rob. Barry is getting negative coverage in some part because he's been such a jerk for much of his career. Had he been like Tony Gwynn, he'd be getting better play. I'm not saying that's right -- in fact, it is not right -- but it is the way it is. Race isn't the issue; but relationship with the media is one of them. But an even bigger issue is the national hysteria over the "evils" of steroids.

I wrote a piece a couple of months ago, after that ESPN poll came out, in which I said I didn't think Barry was being portrayed negatively because of his race, but I was convinced that many, many African-Americans out there sincerely believe that. That sparked all kinds of e-mail, much of it nasty and mean-spirited. So I don't think we should go too far down this road, because I think the point of this exchange was to have a baseball debate, not a debate on the state of racism in American sports.

Nevertheless, it is an element in how people are perceiving the way all of us portray this man. And I don't think anything we do or say or write can change that.

I'm glad, though, that Jim brought up the way steroid use is covered. I still believe that the only kind of substance abuse in sports that people care about is abuse that might cause somebody to break a home run record. Why is that anyway?

The best defensive player in the entire NFL tested positive for steroid use last year. I'm still waiting for the national uproar. Why wasn't it just as loud and ferocious as the outrage over Barry? Explain it to me, OK?

You are right on the mark there, and the reason is no one cares whether or not it is harmful to players (and I really mean whether or not) or whether it is cheating. They just want 714 and 755 to mean the same thing that they have for the past 30-70 years.

When Hank broke Ruth's record, he was the only challenger, and his new record has been the number for the lifetime of most fans. Same with 61. Then came McGwire and Sosa and Bonds, and suddenly those numbers didn't mean what we had been brought up thinking they meant. And rather than accepting that maybe there were other factors in all this, just as there always are when a record gets broken, people decided (with the help of government and media hysteria) that these recent records didn't really count and that people could go on holding onto their precious numbers rather than celebrate some great new athletes.

Remember, when McGwire broke Maris' record in 1998, we knew all about his use of andro and we suspected he was on something stronger, and no one cared. I recently came across a Sports Illustrated column from that year in which the magazine concluded that Andro couldn't help you hit a curveball or a 95-mph fastball, so the magazine embraced McGwire's record. Now, why has that attitude changed? Again, the hysteria (our president singled out the evil of steroids in a State of the Union speech, even though he traded for Canseco when he owned the Rangers, and later said he trusts Rafael Palmeiro -- not that there is any hypocrisy in all this), plus the fact that Bonds blew away that record a couple years later and now people feel like the numbers they cherished don't mean as much to them.

And now I have to go sit in a corner and calm down.

You know, Jim, I'm glad you got us to this topic, even though it looks as if you're going to need therapy to recover from this portion of the discussion. The part of this story that upsets me the most is the destruction of the meaning of those numbers.

I said very early in this conversation that we had no way of knowing with any precision how many more home runs any of these guys hit because they were taking steroids or HGH, or how many more they would have hit if the pitchers weren't using the same stuff. But whether the answer is two or 200, it doesn't matter anymore. Too many people have decided that this record is a sham, and whatever number Barry winds up with is an illusion. And because they have, it means the ruination of the greatest numbers in sports.

People who were barely fans used to walk down the street knowing what 714 meant and 755, and 60 and 61. Now they won't care in the least what Barry's numbers were, and because they won't, baseball has lost something special it can never get back. It was the only sport where people not only knew those numbers, they revered those numbers. And if that's not true anymore, baseball has squandered a magical quality that separated it from all the other sports.

That's the biggest tragedy of all of this. Maybe people will still revere the old numbers -- 714 and 755 -- and ignore the new numbers. I'm not sure where this is heading. What do you guys think will become of the numbers that used to matter?

You bring up a good point. Just the other day a friend said, "I want the numbers to mean something again.'' But perhaps people were saying the same thing when Ruth was out-homering entire teams and destroying all previous perceptions of what constituted great production. Perhaps some were saying it when there was an explosion of 500-homer guys in the '60s and '70s. If people can accept numbers from an era in which blacks and Hispanics were banned from the game, if they can accept numbers from an era when amphetamines were rampant, then why can't they just accept the new numbers? Hell, Bob Beamon's long-jump record used to be one of the greatest feats and numbers in sports. And it was such for a long time. But it's been surpassed enough times that no one even knows what the record is now. But does that mean the new record isn't valid? No, it just means the athletes are even better.

Maybe in time fans will decide that steroids don't provide nearly as much of an advantage as having the opposition restricted solely to white players. Or that they aren't as much of an advantage as having a ligament taken from one arm and placed in another. Or that they aren't as much of an advantage as having your vision improved to 20-15. And then maybe we'll get used to the new numbers and revere them just as much as the old ones.

You know what? I don't think the perception of the numbers has much to do with the context in which they're compiled. I think it's almost entirely generational. For me, the only number that will stick is 714. That was the number that Aaron was trying to pass. That was Joe Friday's badge number, for gosh sakes. That was the number that, for more than 30 years, nobody else even approached. I promise you, though, that for some kid who's just now becoming a baseball fan, whatever number Bonds finishes at will be the number. Unless instead it's the number that Alex Rodriguez finishes with.

That's the funny thing about all our attempts, as writers, to analyze the "meaning" of 714 and 755 and maybe 800: We get to decide only for ourselves, because whatever answers we come up with, the next generation will decide something else. Which is as it should be. Because as Jim suggests, there was a time when old geezers believed that Ruth was ruining the game, that all his feats were ugly byproducts of a lively ball and a wild swing that ended too often with strikeouts. Of course, those geezers have been consigned to the dustbin of history. As we will be, someday.