Sports: Move Over Babe and Ty, Here Come Rickey and Barry

Culture Watch

Jules Tygiel is a professor of history at San Francisco State University and the author of Past Time: Baseball as History.

Two thousand and one was not a good year for the two men generally acknowledged as the foremost icons of early twentieth century baseball. When Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth retired (in 1928 and 1935, respectively) the pair dominated the offensive record book. Ruth held the records for home runs in a career and a season; highest slugging percentage in a career and a season; most walks in a career and a season, and lifetime runs batted in. Cobb held career marks for batting average, hits, runs, and the single season and career marks in stolen bases. Most of these records so far exceeded the norm as to be deemed unattainable and unbreakable.

Yet last season, several of their most cherished records fell. In the process of breaking Mark McGwire's single season homerun record, Barry Bonds also broke Ruth's single season records for walks, and even more remarkably, slugging percentage. Ruth's record of .847 seemed truly insurmountable. No other player had even seriously approached .800. Bonds finished with an .863 mark. Perhaps the best direct way to measure offensive prowess is to add on base percentage, which demonstrates the tendency to reach base and slugging percentage which indicates the ability to hit for power, together. Ruth had long held the record with a 1.379 mark. Bonds in 2001 matched that figure, placing his year in a virtual tie with Ruth's 1920 numbers for the greatest season ever.

The excitement and marvel over Bonds' feats all but obscured the demise of two other longstanding, seemingly unbreakable Ruth/Cobb records. Earlier in the year, Rickey Henderson had broken Ruth's career walks record; on the day that Bonds surpassed McGwire, Henderson broke Cobb's almost 80-year old lifetime mark for runs scored.

It is worth noting that both Bonds and Henderson are African-Americans. Indeed, over the past forty years, black players, once barred from organized baseball, have launched a wholesale assault on Ruth and Cobb's seemingly unbreakable standards. The first record to fall was Cobb's single season record of 96 stolen bases set in 1915. In 1962, Los Angeles Dodger Maury Wills stole 104 bases to establish a new record. Hank Aaron, the last remaining Negro Leaguer to appear in the Negro Leagues, broke Ruth's lifetime home run record of 714 in 1974. The next year, Aaron moved past Ruth into first place in career runs batted in.

At the same time, Lou Brock, another African-American, set a new single season standard for stolen bases, with 118 in 1974. Three years later, Brock replaced Cobb as the all-time stolen base leader. Brock's reign would be short-lived. In 1982, Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases and not long thereafter he sprinted past both Cobb and Brock on the lifetime list.

The achievements of Bonds and Henderson in 2001 removed Cobb and Ruth from the top of baseball's leader board in several more categories. Thus, in the course of little more than a half-century, African Americans have re-written the record book. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth no longer dominate the top spots. In almost every instance where their records were broken (save hits where Pete Rose displaced Cobb), the best figures now belong to African Americans. Hank Aaron reigns as the all-time homerun and RBI king. Rickey Henderson has replaced Ruth as the all-time walks leader and Cobb as the leading run scorer. He also holds the lifetime and single-season record for stolen bases. Barry Bonds now holds the single season record for home runs, walks, slugging percentage, and on base plus slugging. One might argue that the record book, like the game, has now been integrated. But this leads to a logical question: What might the record book have looked like if there had been no segregation? Would the records broken in 2001 have belonged not to Ruth and Cobb, but perhaps to Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell? Would pitchers win the Satchel Paige or Smokey Joe Williams Award, rather than one named for Cy Young?

These questions also remind us of the great irony of baseball segregation. Jim Crow in baseball not only deprived black athletes of the opportunity to compete at the highest level, it also deprived white players of testing their skills against the very best players of their age and white fans of the experience of watching many of the greatest performers in the game's history. We were, to paraphrase the great black sportswriter Sam Lacy, all cheated.

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bill - 8/22/2003

Isn't that what life teaches us "What comes around goes around"
If you want exclude a group of players because you think you are better then them. In the long run they will prove to you that they are better than you at what you were excluding them from.
maybe deep down inside the African-Americans were excluded because America was not ready for them to dominate the sport of Baseball.

keith miller - 4/1/2002

Dear Mr. Tygiel, Much enjoyed above article by you; obviously, you know your "stuff." am sure you would know of book i discovered years ago with one of best titles i have ever run across (and i know good title, for have many myself on numerous articles/essays posted by me on HNN, especially on HNN Teachers Edition), to wit --Peterson's Only the Ball Was White. also, what you may never have come across--an issue several years ago (sorry, can't remember which one) in American Heritage had brief write-up on "Cool Papa" Bell. the humorous reference therein to Bell's speed--that he could turn out the light and get into bed before it got dark! if you like, could probably find this article with AH index(es). in closing, for 30 years lived within 45 minutes, first of old Crosley Field; then Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati; so, took in many games in both parks over the years. at old Crosley once saw Roberto Clemente take ball off right-field wall, whirl in one motion, and throw "booming"--ball seemed to jump half-way there--as he threw man out at third!. saw the great Bob Gibson pitch at Riverfront; George Foster hit "titantic" blast of homer in upper deck in that huge ballpark (the ball must have been 100 feet in air by time it crossed above third base!). but, must admit, with no disparagement intended for black players, my all-time favorite at Riverfront and on, of course, the "Big Red Machine" was Johnny Bench--greatest catcher in my estimation ever (black or white). he moved like "cat" around the plate, and had arm like "rifle". besides, in 1976 in World Series against Yankees, swept in four by Reds, Bench hit 3 or 4 homers at least (he could always hit for power) with batting average for that Series of .533. his large hands helped him much too, i'm sure; once saw photo of him, showing him holding six or seven baseballs (forget which) in one hand at same time. Amazing! would like to hear from you. Cheers! Keith Miller