Should Baseball’s segregation negatively impact our evaluation of Babe Ruth’s statistics?

In a recent article, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote of ranking Babe Ruth among the all-time greatest baseball players that, “it’s difficult to put him at the top of this list when he played in an era of segregation”. The assumption is that it was easier for Ruth since many great players were not allowed to play in major league baseball. It is true that we will never know how players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, stars of the Negro League, would have lined up against the likes of Ruth and Cobb because they did not play against each other outside of exhibition games. While the assumption underlying Olney’s statement is undeniable, this article seeks to make a counter argument that may offer as much weight for Ruth’s excellence. There are a few issues that can be explored:

1) In Ruth’s favor: The best athletes in the country commonly played professional baseball during Ruth’s time. Although there were other professional sports, baseball players made more money and garnered more fame than football players or olympic athletes. Currently, Major League Baseball is second (as of 2014) in average career earnings behind Basketball. Hockey, Football, and likely global soccer leagues are not far behind. This means that baseball has real competition from other sports for the best athletes. This would suggest that Ruth’s statistics might be even greater if he played in the modern era since some of the pitchers he could have faced today have opted for a career as an NFL quarterback instead.

2) Against Ruth’s dominance: The growth of baseball around the world (especially in Japan, Korea, and the Caribbean) means that the talent pool now is much richer than in Ruth’s time. Athletes from many of these areas would have either not played competitive professional sports, or would have played something other than baseball in Ruth’s time.

3) In Ruth’s favor: Ruth’s barnstorming tours of Japan were key in the growth of baseball in that country. This doesn’t help his stats, but shows that he was always willing (especially when the money was better than playing domestically) to take on all comers around the world. It seems clear that Ruth would have likely have preferred the greater money and fairness that would have come from playing with players disallowed in the major leagues.

4) In Ruth’s favor: The outstanding statistics of the stars of the historical Negro Leagues must also be examined with some caution. Would Josh Gibson have hit as many home runs if he had faced major league pitching on a daily basis? The argument goes both ways. If Ruth’s numbers take a hit then so should the numbers of players like Satchel Paige.

This is not to say that Ruth’s statistics would have been the same or even greater if he started his career in 2016, but it is to say that segregation alone should not diminish the evaluation of his numbers.