Which superstar would you choose: Mays or Mantle? Aaron or Ruth?

Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were two of the many greats to play during the '50s and '60s. Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Baseball's history lends itself to great debates. We ask three of our baseball experts the toughest questions in the sport. Would you choose the game's most mythical figure or the modern player who chased him down? Which New York center fielder was better? Would you take "The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived" or the all-time home run king?

Jerry Crasnick, Christina Kahrl and David Schoenfield are at the top of our order for the debut of Three Up, Three Down.

1. Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron?

David Schoenfield, ESPN.com senior writer: Ruth ... with a caveat. Look, strictly on the numbers, it's Ruth. He hit .342, Aaron hit .305. Ruth led his league 12 times in home runs and slugged .700 nine times, whereas Aaron led four times and slugged .600 six times. Ruth drew 100-plus walks 13 times, whereas Aaron's career high was 92. Even if you adjust for Ruth playing in a high-scoring era when much of Aaron's peak came in the low-scoring '60s, Ruth's advantage at the plate was monumental. He is estimated to have created 1,335 runs above the average hitter of his time compared with 875 for Aaron. And that's before we even count Ruth's 94 wins as a pitcher.

But ... how do you account for the fact that Ruth never played against black players, or that he didn't face the quality of pitching that Aaron did, or that Ruth struck out a ton for his era? If you took young Babe Ruth and young Hank Aaron and put them in the majors in 2016, who would fare better? My concern is Ruth's strikeouts. He fanned 12.5 percent of the time in his career, but in an era that averaged half as many strikeouts as now. He'd strike out 200 times a season in 2016, which means he's not hitting .342 or hitting 50-plus home runs every year. Then you consider Aaron was better in the field and better on the bases, and maybe the answer isn't so obvious.

Christina Kahrl, ESPN MLB writer: Aaron, and it isn't especially close for me.

Now, sure, relative to his era, Ruth was the more dominant player, with a 206 OPS+ compared with Aaron's 155, ranking one-two among right fielders. Ruth also generated a career value of 155.1 WAR at bat against Aaron's 136.4 -- again, one-two among right fielders.

The problem is that there isn't much to recommend Ruth's era as a competitive environment: an unintegrated game in a tiny, eight-team league where four of your opponents are non-competitive clubs that exist for little more than filling out the schedule. We can't even say all of the best white talent played in MLB at that time, because the minors still had a measure of independence and their own pennants and profitability to pursue. So say you swap out half of the pitching in the American League for the best black and Latin pitchers, keeping in mind that has an outsized impact on the talent level when you have so few teams to stock -- goodbye, Hod Lisenbee; hello, Satchel Paige. How do you think that's going to go for the Babe?

Then there's big-picture stuff: Not only was the Babe facing a limited pool of talent, he was facing people throwing more limited repertoires. The slider? Not even a thing yet; it only became commonplace in the '30s, as the Babe started fading away. Could he hit it? We don't know. We can't know.

Against that, Aaron had to deal with everything we take for granted: larger leagues stocked with a broader variety of talent throwing more pitches while he got fewer chances to see opponents, more travel, bigger ballparks. And despite all of that, he was consistent, he was awesome, and when it came time to take the Babe down a peg on the home-run leaderboard, he was worthy. For an exercise like this, I'll take Aaron every time.

Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com senior writer: Ruth. Hank Aaron played the game with an understated consistency and grace on his way to passing the Babe on baseball's career home-run list. But Ruth wins out for his showmanship, his larger-than-life persona and those 714 homers before the home-run trot became an American tradition. More than 70 years after the Bambino took his final trot as a member of the Boston Braves, the name "Babe Ruth'' continues to evoke sensations that transcend baseball.

2. Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?

Schoenfield: Mays. At their peaks, Mantle was the more devastating hitter, and you can argue that 1956-57 Mantle, who posted 11.2 WAR in '56 and 11.3 in '57, was better than the best of Mays, although Mays had six seasons of 10-plus WAR, including 11.0 in 1964 and 11.2 in 1965. You can argue that Mantle's teams won more. But everything goes to Mays. He was the better fielder and baserunner, more durable and aged better, winning an MVP Award at 34, whereas Mantle's bad knees forced him to retire at 36.

Kahrl: Mays. It becomes less close the more times I look at what is, after all, a timeless debate. Best peak? I suppose that depends on whether you pick the crest (as Dave points out) or the wave, but Mays' seven best seasons outpoint Mantle's via WAR, 73.7 to 64.7, beyond just beating Mantle in all the other career-total metrics. Mantle's advantage in offense, reflected in a 172-156 advantage in OPS+, gets taken down a few pegs by his inconsistency and his frequent unavailability through injuries, incurred on-field or self-inflicted. Then you get into baserunning, which Mays wins, or that 28-WAR swing of career defensive value, and the margins only get wider. You want Mays because he's always there and always delivering and always great, the reliably right answer.

Crasnick, Mays. It's hard to discount the appeal of Mickey Mantle when Bob Costas and so many other baseball-loving American males carry his picture around in their wallets. But injuries took a toll on his longevity and his production, whereas Mays' star burned brighter for longer. That grainy, black-and-white footage of Mays' World Series catch on Vic Wertz frames his legacy in a way that mere words could never convey.

3. Ted Williams or Barry Bonds?

Schoenfield: Bonds. This is a complicated one. In baseball, we revere previous generations like no other sport, and Williams' legacy as the greatest hitter ever -- him or Babe Ruth -- survives more than 50 years after he last played. Bonds' legacy, of course, is stained by his late-career ties to PEDs. Still, what happened is what happened. I can't pretend that Bonds didn't hit .349/.559/.809 over the best four-year span any hitter has ever had. Those are slow-pitch softball numbers against the best pitchers in the world

Like Williams, Bonds had perfected the art of hitting, which is why pitchers intentionally walked him a mind-boggling 120 times one season. But here's what pushes me to Bonds: Even before he allegedly started using PEDs sometime after the 1998 season, Bonds was the better all-around player. He was maybe the greatest defensive left fielder ever, although he didn't have a good arm, whereas Williams was indifferent to defense. He was one of the best baserunners in the game, whereas Williams wasn't fast and was indifferent to baserunning. Even if you want Williams at the plate, I'll take Bonds in the field and on the bases. And he wasn't too shabby with the stick.

Kahrl: Bonds. The toughest call for me of these three, but only because we don't know what Williams might have done if he hadn't lost the better part of five seasons to military service. Would he have been closer to 650 home runs on his career? Yes. And would his all-time record .482 OBP be higher still? Hitting against fourth-rate, all-white, war-time pitching in 1943-45, you could probably bet on that. And if Williams gets those five seasons back from World War II and Korea, he certainly narrows the career WAR gap between himself and Bonds, 123.1 to 162.4. But even filling in those gaps, would that top Bonds' performance at his peak as a slugger? PEDs or no, Bonds delivered at the plate at a time when the talent pool is global, and he delivered even better numbers. Dave has already pointed to Bonds' insanely huge production in 2001-04, but I don't know if I'd take Williams' best years over Bonds' 1990-1994 stretch, when he averaged 35 homers per season with an OPS+ of 185 (Williams' career rate was 190) while providing premium defense. For me, you just can't lard up Williams' career with enough might-have-beens and ignore his indifferent performance in every phase of the game that didn't involve holding a bat in his hands to end up putting him above Bonds.

Crasnick, Williams. Of course, you can point to Barry Bonds' 762 home runs and other cartoon numbers as the divider. But as a native New Englander, I'm too imbued with "there goes the greatest hitter that ever was'' mythology to vote against the Splendid Splinter. My heart lies with Ted the war hero, Ted the master fisherman, and the Ted Williams who knew more about the art of hitting and practiced it with greater passion than anyone who ever picked up a bat.