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June 12, 2008 at 1:33 am ET
Bonds vs. Ruth Part I: The First Six Seasons

Back in February, Ed Valentine and I got into a debate over who was better — Babe Ruth or The G-POPE Barry Bonds. Seems like one of those great sports debates that can never be answered, but in a four-part series with the help of WhatIfSports.com, Bugs & Cranks hopes to add new perspective to the debate….

The idea is to switch these two all-time greats in time — what if Bonds quantum leaped into Ruth’s place on the Red Sox and Yankees teams of the 1910’s-1930’s? what if Ruth replaced Bonds on the Pirates and Giants of the past 21 years?

Here are the results of the first six seasons….

Season One

As a 19-year-old rookie with the Pirates in 1986, Babe Ruth wins only one game and pitches 29 innings. Missing a full season of Bonds plate appearances, the Pirates lose over 100 games. Ruth’s ERA is over 2.5 runs higher as an ’86 Pirate than it had been with the ’14 Red Sox.

Ruth, 1986 Pirates 1-0 6.45 29.3 4 15
Ruth, 1914 Red Sox 2-1 3.91 23 3 7

Rookie Barry Bonds doesn’t start for the 1914 Red Sox, but he’s the fourth OF behind Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper, and is often used as a pinch-runner. The Sox win 5 fewer games with Bonds than they had with Ruth.

Bonds, 1914 Red Sox .252 3 10 18 .389 .725
Bonds, 1986 Pirates .230 16 48 36 .330 .41

Wins Diff
1914 Red Sox w/ Ruth 91
1914 Red Sox w/ Bonds 86 -5
1986 Pirates w/ Bonds 64
1986 Pirates w/ Ruth 57 -7

Season Two

In 1915, it may look like Year Two Bonds has less power — hitting only 8 home runs compared to his 1987 total of 25. But looking back, Braggo Roth led the American League in home runs in 1915 — with only 7. Still despite Barry’s electrifying power, the 1915 Red Sox finish behind the Tigers — who they had edged out by a single game with Ruth on their way to victory in the World Series.

Bonds, 1915 Red Sox .298 8 130 32 .363 .460
Bonds, 1987 Pirates .261 25 59 32 .329 .492
Ruth, 1987 Pirates .406 9 38
Ruth, 1915 Red Sox .315 4 21

In 1987, second-year Ruth emerges as a workhorse of the Pittsburgh rotation — going 15-12 and throwing over 200 innings. His bat is also impressive as he bats over .400 and belts 9 home runs. His contribution helps the Pirates win 3 more games than they had with Bonds. Those extra victories push Pittsburgh’s win total to 83, giving the Bucs their first winning season since 1983.

Ruth, 1987 Pirates 15-12 3.48 235.3 158 107
Ruth, 1915 Red Sox 18-8 2.44 217.7 112 85
Wins Diff
1915 Red Sox w/ Ruth 101
1915 Red Sox w/ Bonds 93 -12
1987 Pirates w/ Bonds 80
1987 Pirates w/ Ruth 83 +3

Season Three

In 1988, Babe Ruth wins the NL Cy Young award. He wins 22 games, pitches over 300 innings, and strikeouts over 200. He also hits another 9 home runs. But all that can’t compensate for the loss of Bonds in the Pirates lineup — the Ruth-led Pirates finish below .500, while the Bonds version won 85 games.

Ruth, 1988 Pirates 22-10 2.23 335.3 204 118
Ruth, 1916 Red Sox 23-12 1.75 323.7 170 118

In 1916, Bonds puts up impressive offensive numbers — he would have been in the top 4 in the league in home runs, RBI, OBP and SLG. But taking away Ruth’s league-leading 41 starts and 9 shutouts is too much. The Bonds-led Sox finish under .500 — instead of winning 91 games and a second straight World Series as they had with Ruth.

Bonds, 1916 Red Sox .290 8 90 12 .397 .431
Bonds, 1988 Pirates .283 24 58 17 .368 .491
Ruth, 1988 Pirates .347 9 22
Ruth, 1916 Red Sox .272 3 15

Wins Diff
1916 Red Sox w/ Ruth 91
1916 Red Sox w/ Bonds 73 -18
1988 Pirates w/ Bonds 85
1988 Pirates w/ Ruth 76 -9

Season Four

In 1917, Bonds puts up similar offensive numbers to what he had in 1916, but also steals a career-high 40 bases. The Sox get back over .500, winning 83 games — but they still did better with Ruth’s 24 wins and 2.01 ERA.

Bonds, 1917 Red Sox .305 7 84 40 .396 .444
Bonds, 1989 Pirates .248 19 58 32 .351 .426
Ruth, 1989 Pirates .303 2 16
Ruth, 1917 Red Sox .325 2 12

In 1989, Ruth’s 2.37 ERA is good enough for third-best in the NL, but with a 17-16 record, he also leads the league in losses. His Pirates finish near the NL East cellar with only 73 wins, one less than the Bonds version managed. Ruth’s frustration boils over at one point and he takes a swing at an umpire, earning him a suspension and costing him a few starts. Towards the end of the season, teammate Bobby Bonilla suggests Ruth may be able to help the Pirates more with his bat in the lineup every day. One year removed from winning the Cy Young, The Babe agrees and announces that next year he’ll be one of the team’s starting outfielders.

Ruth, 1989 Pirates 17-16 2.37 342 167 126
Ruth, 1917 Red Sox 24-13 2.01 326.3 128 108

Wins Diff
1917 Red Sox w/ Ruth 90
1917 Red Sox w/ Bonds 83 -7
1989 Pirates w/ Bonds 74
1989 Pirates w/ Ruth 73 -1

Season Five

In 1990, Ruth makes Bonilla look like a genius. He hits .364 with 43 home runs and 133 RBI — numbers that would give him the Triple Crown. Despite the National League’s first Triple Crown since 1937, the Pirates again finish below .500 — losing 21 more games than the division-winning Bonds version. Perhaps because of Pittsburgh’s losing record, Ruth is denied the NL MVP. Bonds stole 52 bases that year, but it’s hard to see that explaining the 21-game difference — perhaps it was more a matter of clubhouse chemistry, or the distraction of the media circus that followed Ruth.

Bonds, 1918 Red Sox .328 6 91 61 .456 .461
Bonds, 1990 Pirates .301 33 114 52 .301 .406
Ruth, 1990 Pirates .364 43 133 .460 .826
Ruth, 1918 Red Sox .300 11 66 .411 .555

Back in 1918, Bonds leads the AL in RBI, steals, and OBP — and finishes in the top 3 in HR and SLG. His Red Sox win two more games than the Ruth version — but apparently not the right games. Ruth’s squad had edged out Cleveland and Washington by only a handful of games. The Bonds-led Sox don’t fare as well with those clubs head-to-head, so they finish third. Cleveland wins a playoff against the Senators, but loses the World Series in 7 games — to the Chicago Cubs. (So, when the Cubs get off to a hot start in 2008, fans talk about it being 90 years and express their hope they can win before their drought equals Boston’s 92 years between titles.)

Wins Diff
1918 Red Sox w/ Ruth 75
1918 Red Sox w/ Bonds 77 +2
1990 Pirates w/ Bonds 95
1990 Pirates w/ Ruth 74 -21

Season Six

In 1919, Bonds really starts to emerge as a new kind of superstar. His career-high 12 home runs lead the AL and tie him for the best in the majors. He also leads the majors in steals and OBP. While these Red Sox finish below .500, they still win 9 more games than they had with Ruth and his then-record 29 home runs. After the season, Bonds threatens not to return to the team if his $10,000 salary isn’t doubled. On January 6, 1920, the announcement comes that Bonds has been sold to the New York Yankees for $200,000 and another $300,000 in loans. Boston owner Harry Frazee justifies the movie by saying, “With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Bonds had remained with us.” One New York paper notes “the short right field wall at the Polo Grounds should prove an easy target for Bonds,” and predicts he will break the home run record that summer.

Wins Diff
1919 Red Sox w/ Ruth 66
1919 Red Sox w/ Bonds 75 +9
1991 Pirates w/ Bonds 98
1991 Pirates w/ Ruth 92 -6

Meanwhile, in 1991, Babe Ruth’s assault on National League pitching continues. His 53 home runs and 153 RBI lead the majors and dwarf the accomplishments of sluggers like Jose Canseco and Cecil Fielder. He also leads the bigs in OBP and SLG. Three years after winning the Cy Young, Ruth takes home his first MVP. And yet, it’s still not good enough to get to his first postseason despite winning 92 games (6 less than the Bonds version).

Bonds, 1919 Red Sox .315 12 95 55 .449 .464
Bonds, 1991 Pirates .292 25 116 43 .410 .514
Ruth, 1991 Pirates .308 53 153 .464 .708
Ruth, 1919 Red Sox .322 29 114 .456 .657

Next Time on Bonds vs. Ruth….

Will Bonds set (and re-set) the home run record in New York? Who will make the playoffs first? Will Babe Ruth be able to throw out Sid Bream? And what will his future hold in San Francisco?

Bonds vs. Ruth would not be possible without the help of Matt Mendelsohn and Paul Bessire of WhatIfSports.com. And it would be far less colorful without the graphic by B&C mastermind Jesse Pugh.

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4 Responses to “Bonds vs. Ruth Part I: The First Six Seasons”
  1. Larry says:

    Sweet piece. And the graphic IS masterful.

  2. B.E. Earl says:

    Not sure about the “science” behind the “fiction”, but Ruth’s 1990 numbers dwarfed Bonds’ actual 1990 numbers for everything but SB – so how exactly do the Pirates lose 21 more games with Ruth? SB just aren’t that important.

    But as pure science fiction…this was fun.

  3. brian hall says:

    When did Chalk get photoshop skills?

  4. David Chalk David Chalk says:

    Nice of you to drop by Hall,

    As stated in the last sentence of the piece, the photoshop skills are all Jesse Pugh. The Back To The Future car was all him too.

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