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Fan debate: Was Willie Mays better than Babe Ruth?
The 'Say Hey Kid' is one of the most beloved athletes of all time. Willie Mays not only transcended baseball, but also the world of sports. His grace on the field is still fondly referenced as he turns 80.
Babe Ruth stands above Mays in some offensive categories, most notably home runs, but not in some people's hearts.
Challenges in comparing Mays to Ruth
Everyone can speculate about how Ruth would have played in an integrated professional league, or how both players operated under different sets of rules resulting in various statistics being determined. But, every Major League player can only perform within the confines of his place in history.
Before we begin, keep in mind that Ruth was a superb left-handed pitcher early in his career when he played for the Boston Red Sox. That alone places him into a unique category in baseball lore, but those statistics will not be shown as this analysis focuses solely on their roles as positional players.
With the pre-game festivities complete, let's compare these two great men.
Both played 22 Major League seasons. Ruth appeared in 2,503 games and had 8,399 at bats, while Mays played in 2,992 and had 10,881 at bats.
Some say that a player who appears in more games than another benefited from the extra opportunity to create extra numbers. That line of thought puts more weight into some perceived unfair element statistical disadvantage, than it offers credit for endurance and resulting production.
When you consider fielding, Mays certainly comes out ahead of Ruth. The Babe had a .968 fielding percentage. Mays had a .981. Plus, Ruth didn't play centerfield, or make the spectacular catches that Mays did.
At the plate
Ruth had a .342 lifetime batting average, with 2,873 hits and a .474 on base percentage. Mays had a .302 average, 3,283 hits and a .384 on base percentage.
Ruth had 2,213 RBI's and scored 2,174 runs. Mays had 1,903 RBI's and scored 2,062 runs.
Every pure baseball fan knows that Ruth hit 714 home runs, mostly for the New York Yankees, and that Mays hit 660 home runs, mostly for the New York and San Francisco Giants. Ruth leads all major league players with a .690 slugging percentage. Mays had a .557 slugging percentage.
Would Mays have topped Ruth's home run record?
Mays missed almost the entire 1952 season and all of the 1953 season when he was in the military. It is fair to suggest that Mays, who was then in his early 20s, may have produced numbers that were somewhat similar to his seasonal career averages.
He averaged 36 home runs per season. If he would not have missed almost two full seasons, he may have hit somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 home runs. That amount puts him directly within Ruth's magic 714 total.
Both of these iconic Hall of Fame players would have a spot in an all-time starting lineup. Based on a higher batting average, the lefty Ruth could hit third while the righty Mays watched him from the on-deck circle. Mays in centerfield and Ruth in left. Ted Williams would be in right, but that is another story for another day.
One person should never conclude that he, or she, has the right answer to these speculative questions. The point is to generate thought, debate and further independent research on the part of all who love the great game of baseball.
Growing up in the Philadelphia region during the late 1970s and early 1980s naturally enabled everyone to become Philadelphia Phillies fans. My friends and I learned the game on little league fields, through trading cards, and by playing APBA. That era became an important part of our young lives.
Supportive family members and friends, as well as relentless persistence, created an opportunity for me to work in the front office for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons in the early 1990s. Today, a new golden era has sparked a resurgence of baseball passion in everyone who never surrendered that feeling of their old school days.
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