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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 1998 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell McGwire, Maris and the Babe

MARK MCGWIRE AND SAMMY SOSA have been a godsend at a time when we desperately needed somebody in public life to show some class and be someone that young people could look up to. Incidentally, it shows how time flies that neither of these guys had been born when Roger Maris set the home-run record that they both broke.

Now that Big Mac is the new home-run king, how does he compare with Roger Maris and with Babe Ruth before him?

Maris was a fine, all-around ballplayer who was voted Most Valuable Player the year before he broke Ruth's home-run record. But Maris never before or since came within 20 home runs of the record he set in 1961. He was a one-year wonder. By contrast, this was Mark McGwire's third consecutive year of hitting 50 or more home runs. He is for real.

While Maris hit one more home run than Ruth in 50 more times at bat, McGwire hit 70 homers in fewer times at bat than the Babe had when he hit 60. Big Mac is in fact the only man in the history of baseball to hit home runs with greater frequency than Ruth, in proportion to his times at bat. Moreover, this is the second season in which McGwire has done that.

With all of McGwire's greater achievements than Maris, there is still no justification for the incredible difference in the way these two men were treated. Maris, like McGwire, was a quiet, decent man who was respected by his teammates. Yet Maris was treated like a pariah by much of the media and the public.

When Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle made runs at Babe Ruth's home-run record, they were cheered. But Maris was resented, perhaps because he was considered an upstart at these Olympian heights or because he was not as much of a personality.

Maris was hounded by the media, in person and in print, and he began to lose hair from the stress. When he hit his record-breaking 61st home run, only about one-third of the seats in Yankee Stadium were filled, in contrast to the packed ball parks for both McGwire and Sosa in the closing days of this season.

Whatever the reasons for the differences, such disparities are among the many inequities that have always been part of human life. The only thing we can do is decide whether to whine over them or move on. Maris took it and moved on.

As for Babe Ruth, he faced no such pressures and his record of 60 home runs in 1927 was no such bolt from the blue. He had already held the previous record of 59 since 1921.

In fact, Ruth first broke the home-run record with 29 round-trippers in 1919. It was Ruth who put the home run on the map and revolutionized the way baseball would be played ever since.

Hitters started holding the bat down at the knob and swinging from the heels, instead of choking up and poking singles here and there. Low-scoring games won by bunts and stolen bases gave way to slugfests.

Ruth was historic in yet another sense. He was, quite simply, the greatest ballplayer that ever lived -- and that record has never been seriously challenged.

Babe Ruth was a great pitcher before he became a great hitter. He still holds the American League record for shutouts in a season by a left-hander. His record for the most consecutive shutout innings pitched in a World Series -- 29 innings -- lasted longer than his record for the most home runs in a season.

Ruth is the only man to have led the league in all four major categories, in one season or another, during his career -- highest winning percentage and lowest earned run average as a pitcher and highest batting average and most home runs as a hitter. If you want to win a bet with someone, bet him that Babe Ruth stole home more times than Lou Brock.

While there are now three players who hit more home runs in a season than Ruth and one who hit more homers over a lifetime, Ruth is still in a class by himself when it comes to slugging average.

While batting averages are based on how many hits you get, in proportion to your times at bat, slugging averages are based on how many total bases those hits add up to. For example, if you hit two singles, a double and a home run in ten times at bat, that adds up to 8 total bases, giving you a slugging average of .800. You have to hit often, as well as hard, to do that.

Obviously, no one can slug .800 all season -- unless he is Babe Ruth. The Babe was the only man to have slugged over .800 -- and he did two seasons in a row. He is still the greatest.

10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.