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Nothing is likely to get an argument started among sports fans faster than attempts to name the all-time greatest in any sport, or even the all-time greatest in a particular aspect of a sport. However, in baseball, we can at least narrow down the list of possibilities – considerably, in fact – when it comes to hitting.
Who was the all-time greatest hitter?
A lot depends on how much weight you give to batting average versus power hitting. But it would be hard to consider someone for the title of the all-time greatest hitter if someone else had both a higher lifetime batting average and a higher lifetime slugging average. That narrows down the list considerably.
The highest lifetime batting average was Ty Cobb’s .367. But Rogers Hornsby hit .358 and, being far more of a home-run hitter, Hornsby had a higher lifetime slugging average than Cobb. No one had both a higher lifetime batting average and a higher lifetime slugging average than Cobb or Hornsby. Both of them therefore belong on the short list of candidates.
Babe Ruth had by far the highest lifetime slugging average – .690. Batting averages count how many hits there are in how many official times at bat. Slugging averages count how many total bases there are from these hits – counting a single as one base and a home run as four, for example.
If you get two singles and a double every 10 times at bat, then your batting average is .300, and your four total bases mean that your slugging average is .400. If you get two singles and a home run, then your six bases give you a slugging average of .600.
Babe Ruth’s lifetime slugging average of .690 means that he averaged nearly 7 total bases every 10 times at bat. That would mean something like a single, a double and a home run every 10 times at bat – over a span of 22 years.
Some great sluggers, in their best seasons, have had slugging averages of .700 or more, usually once or twice in a lifetime. Only two players – Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds – ever had a slugging average over .800 in a season. That’s equivalent to two singles, a double and a home run every 10 times at bat, all season long.
But if we are talking about the all-time greatest hitters, we usually mean over the course of a career, not just in a particular season when a batter was hot.
To put the Babe’s .690 lifetime slugging average in perspective, even such great sluggers as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg, in their greatest seasons, never had a slugging average as high as the .690 that Babe Ruth had for his whole career. So the Babe makes the short list.
Ted Williams is best known for batting .406. What is not nearly as well known is that he had a lifetime slugging average exceeded only by Babe Ruth’s – and Williams’ lifetime batting average of .344 was two points higher than the Babe’s. So no one had both a higher lifetime batting average and a higher lifetime slugging average than Ted Williams. He too makes the short list.
There is another important dimension to batting, the ability to come through in the clutch. This is not so easily quantifiable. However, there is one batter who stands out above all others when it comes to runs batted in – Lou Gehrig.
Despite a career shortened by the disease that bears his name, Lou Gehrig still holds the record for the most seasons with more than 150 runs batted in – seven seasons, one out of every two full seasons in his career. Babe Ruth is second with three seasons of 150 or more runs batted in. Gehrig had 184 RBIs in 1931.
Lou Gehrig also set the lifetime record for the most home runs with the bases loaded, a record recently tied by Alex Rodriguez. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, in their longer careers, hit over 200 more home runs than Gehrig, but none of the three hit as many homers with the bases loaded.
Lou Gehrig’s lifetime slugging average is third on the all-time list, just one point behind Ted Williams’. Gehrig’s lifetime batting average of .340 is 2 points lower than Babe Ruth’s and 4 points lower than Ted Williams’. But, if clutch hitting counts, Gehrig also belongs on the short list of all-time great batters.
We can argue about how to weigh various aspects of hitting, in order to pick the one all-time greatest batter, but at least we can narrow down the list of possibilities to five.
Trying to choose the greatest pitcher of all time is at least as difficult as trying to choose the greatest hitter of all time. In both cases, the best we can do is narrow down the list.
Outside a charmed circle of five batters, no one had both a higher lifetime batting average and a higher lifetime slugging average than any of those five. In alphabetical order, they are Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. There are other batters whose lifetime records came close, including Barry Bonds, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. But close cannot define the greatest.
When it comes to choosing the all-time greatest pitcher, there are even more complications than there are in choosing the candidates for the all-time greatest batter. Batting is much more of an individual achievement, while a pitcher’s record depends on what his team does, both at bat and in the field.
A great pitcher who is pitching for a team that scores very few runs may have a tougher time winning games than a pitcher who gives up an average of 3 runs a game, but who is pitching for a team that scores an average of 5 runs a game for him.
When a pitcher has a great double-play combination behind him at shortstop and second base, or a Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio in center field, that can also keep his earned run average down.
With pitchers, as with batters, a spectacular season should not carry as much weight as a whole career of great achievements. Back in the early 20th century, there were a couple of 40-game winners, and 37-game winner Iron Man McGinnity on several occasions pitched both games in a double-header. But pitching a lot of games in a season was not a formula for longevity.
On the other hand, total wins in a lifetime cannot be the sole criterion, since that obviously depends on longevity as much as on pitching effectiveness. Weighing strikeouts against earned run averages can also vary from one observer to the next.
Since the ultimate purpose of pitching is not simply to strike out batters but to keep the other team from scoring, I would give a lot of weight to shutouts. Here one man stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Walter Johnson is the only pitcher to pitch more than a hundred shutouts in his career – 110, in fact. Playing for a team that was not always among the best, more than one-fourth of his 416 career victories were shutouts.
With even the greatest pitchers of our era seldom going the full nine innings, Walter Johnson’s 110 shutouts seems to be the baseball record least likely to be broken. In order to compare the pitchers of our time with those of the past, earned run averages may have to be used.
Walter Johnson’s lifetime earned run average was 2.17. Christy Mathewson had a lifetime ERA of 2.13, but Mathewson played for better teams. It is hard to think of any other pitcher whose lifetime records top theirs, except for records based on sheer longevity, like Cy Young’s 511 victories. Cy Young had a lifetime ERA of 2.63 – obviously great, but not the greatest.
Hard as it is to narrow down the candidates for the title of greatest batter of all time, or the greatest pitcher of all time, selecting who should be nominated as having the greatest versatility seems a lot easier.
There is only one baseball player who, at various times, led the league in both batting and pitching categories. That one man was Babe Ruth.
The Bambino had a league-leading batting average of .378 in 1924 and hit .393 the previous year, when Harry Heilmann hit .403. When it came to home runs, Ruth was the only man to lead the league in that category in 12 different seasons.
Babe Ruth’s records as a pitcher are not nearly as well known. But he led the league in ERA with 1.75 in 1916. His lifetime ERA was 2.28, putting him in the company of the greatest pitchers of all time. The Babe still holds the American League record for the most shutouts in a season by a left-handed pitcher, and holds the record for the longest shutout ever pitched in the World Series – 14 innings.
Is anyone else even close to leading the league in both of these very different and very fundamental aspects of baseball?
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page.