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Outside the Lines:
Best Hitter Ever?
Here's the transcript from Show 119 of weekly Outside The Lines - Best Hitter Ever?
MARK SCHWARZ, GUEST HOST- July 7, 2002. Did any player ever accomplish more with a bat than Ted Williams?
REGGIE JACKSON, HALL OF FAMER- Firmly considered as, by all of us, as the greatest hitter that ever lived.
SCHWARZ- While Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak may never be equaled, Ty Cobb has the games highest all time batting average -- 23 points higher than Williams. Hank Aaron holds perhaps baseball's most treasured hitting mark and Mickey Mantle may have been the finest switch hitter of all time.
But were they better than Willie Mays? How about Tony Gwynn? Stan Musial? Or Rogers Hornsby? How do you determine the games greatest hitter? Is Gehrig the equal of Ruth? And does Barry Bonds compare with Ted Williams?
PLAY BY PLAY ANNOUNCER- Here's the pitch, and there is a long drive to deep right center. It could be. It could be. It is!
SCHWARZ- "Teddy Ballgame's" lifelong ambition was to be remembered as the greatest hitter of all time. Did he succeed? Today on Outside The Lines, we'll examine greatness to identify the best hitter ever.
It was at age 20 when Ted Williams said that all he wanted out of life is to walk down the street and have folks say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."
A few years ago, Williams compiled a list of his Top 20 hitters, putting Babe Ruth at the top, humbly excluding himself from consideration. So, how do we make the definitive list?
There is no formula, but if hits alone won baseball games, Pete Rose might be the greatest ever. But they don't. Runs do. The ability to produce runs is the greatest barometer of offensive performance, and therefore the key to identifying the best hitter ever.
The discussion about baseball's greatest hitter begins and probably ends with five names -- Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby.
They are the only players to rank in the Top 10 all time, in both slugging percentage and on base average -- baseball's two most significant indicators of offensive excellence. Which would seem to eliminate Ty Cobb. No small feat when you consider the Georgia Peach had the highest batting average of all time. And he accomplished that during the game's "dead ball era," when the league was hitting below .250. Yet, Cobb's slugging percentage is still higher than Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Matthews, both members of the 500 home run club.
Making a late bid, but not quite in the race, is Barry Bonds, who for the last season and a half has been putting up numbers even Ruth would envy. Arguably the best offensive player since Williams, Bonds has set all time single-season marks for home runs, slugging percentage and walks.
JON MILLER, ESPN- He's done 15 things that we've never seen in the history of the game. I remember asking Dave Winfield back in June, to try to give me an idea of what it was like to be as hot as Barry was, and Winfield said, "What are you talking about? I was never as hot as Barry was. Nobody has ever been that hot."
SCHWARZ- Bonds already ranks sixth all-time in slugging, but his production is likely to diminish as he nears his 40th birthday.
Rogers Hornsby is almost certainly the greatest right-handed hitter ever. His .424 average is the highest for a single season since 1900. The Raja was Cobb with more pop. He won a pair of triple crowns, and over a four-year period, Hornsby batted .404.
Lou Gehrig's exploits were obscured by Ruthian shadows, but the Iron Horse is the only hitter to have five seasons of at least 400 total bases. And he's also tops in monster RBI years. Seven times Gehrig topped 150 driven in. Ruth did it five times. Jimmie Foxx drove in 150 four times.
Ted Williams ranked Foxx right behind only Ruth and Gehrig among the game's greatest hitters. He was certainly in their class. Foxx's .609 slugging percentage was fourth all time, and The Beast matched Gehrig with three seasons of at least 45 homers and a .345 batting average.
Ruth blew them both away, though, doing it seven times.
In the end, Ruth and Williams appeared to stand alone, ranking one-two in each of the most critical categories. Ruth is first all-time in slugging percentage, at .690. Williams right behind him at .634.
In on base percentage, the order is reversed. Williams is the only man to reach base more often than the Babe; his .482 narrowly surpassing Ruth's .474 mark. Williams is the last man to hit .400, and if he could have managed just five more base hits in 1957, he would have done it again at age 38.
JACK MANN, NEWSDAY SPORTS EDITOR (1956-'62)- The .388 at the age that Williams hit it was probably more amazing than the .406 when he was relatively a kid.
ELDON AUKER, FORMER RED SOX TEAMMATE- He spent every minute that he wasn't swinging a bat asking about the pitchers in the American League. When the season opened, he knew more about the American League pitchers than some of us who'd been in the league for about six or seven years.
SCHWARZ- On nine occasions, Williams finished with an on base average of .490 or better. Ruth did it seven times. Hornsby is the only other to accomplish .490 more than once. Williams won a pair of triple crowns, two more than Ruth. But Ruth's power was unmatched. The Babe didn't just win home-run titles; he would hit more home runs than entire teams. His 54 homers in 1920 was nearly three times his closest pursuer.
ROBERT CREAMER, BASEBALL HISTORIAN- He was so far ahead of everybody else in baseball that year, and his total bases were far ahead. His home runs were far ahead. Everything. He was like the old Empire State Building rising up above six-story buildings.
SCHWARZ- Six times, Babe Ruth batted .370 with at least 40 homers. In the history of the game, all others combined have had only five such seasons. Unlike Williams, Ruth benefited by having Gehrig, arguably the third best hitter of all time, hitting behind him for a decade. And consider this -- Had the Splendid Splinter not lost five full seasons to military service, he most likely would have challenged Ruth's home run total of 714, and perhaps also been the all-time RBI king.
ESPN has come up with yet another way of comparing hitters, and we call it "batter efficiency." The formula is total bases plus walks plus hit by pitch, divided by total plate appearances. Not surprisingly, we find the usual suspects at the top. Once again, Ruth and Williams one-two. At .744, the Babe, given his 1,356 extra base hits essentially reached first base three of every four times up, and impressively Barry Bonds is currently fifth all-time.
Joining us this morning to consider the question who is the best hitter ever, a pretty good one. Reggie Jackson, who hit 10 home runs in 27 World Series games, three of those in game six of the '77 series. Reggie joins us from the Regency Hotel in Manhattan.
Also, we have baseball historian John Thorn, the author of "Ted Williams - Seasons of the Kid." He's in Kingston, New York this morning. Good morning, gentlemen. Obviously, a tough week for both of you with the passing of Ted Williams, but it gives us an opportunity to have a conversation Ted probably would have liked. Let's go around the horn starting with you, Reggie.
As we just saw, an argument could be made for several players. In your opinion, who is the greatest hitter ever, and why?
JACKSON- Oh, gosh. I don't think you can give a particular who is the (best). Certainly we went along for a long, long time and talked about Ted Williams as being the greatest, and you could certainly settle with that and everyone was comfortable with it.
I think the great thing about baseball is that you will always have those conversations, because you have so many variables that come into it. There's guys like Ruth that drove in 170 runs, more than anybody, I think, four times. Additionally, you have -- I mean, Gehrig that did that four times. You have Ruth that you have to mention so you talk about all-time batting averages of .342 for Ruth and .344 for Ted Williams, and on up the ladder.
So, for me, I would pick the most productive player during clutch performances, during post-season, because this is a professional game and we play to win the championship, so names like Gehrig, Ruth would be at the top of the list for me.
SCHWARZ- John Thorn, is there any discussion beyond Ted Williams and Babe Ruth in your opinion?
JOHN THORN, BASEBALL HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR- I don't think there is among the three other candidates you've posed -- Gehrig, Foxx and Hornsby. But I think you've got to talk about Bonds. What he's done the last couple of years is mind-blowing. And the fact that he's going to be 40 soon doesn't mean to me that his production is going to diminish.
I think that the two measures that you look about for -- run production and on base and slugging. And as you mentioned at the head of the show, Ruth leads in one and Williams in the other. One thing that you have to consider, I believe, is that Ruth was facing weaker pitching and played no night baseball, and played against no African-American, and never saw a slider, and never saw a relief pitcher of the sort that Williams did.
SCHWARZ- And Bonds, of course, those trends are even more pronounced.
THORN- That's correct.
SCHWARZ- So, does Barry Bonds really have a case, a legitimate case, to be considered as the greatest hitter ever?
THORN- As far as I'm concerned, it's an extremely legitimate case. This year, he is on pace to break the single-season record for on base average, which Williams had with .551. Last year, he broke the all-time on base plus slugging record held by Babe Ruth. Of course, he has the home run record. Of course, he has the walk record and prodigiously, he has the slugging record, which nobody ever thought would be broken.
SCHWARZ- Reggie, in your opinion, Barry Bonds earlier this season, in fact, said he doesn't even belong in a category with you and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Can we really talk about Barry at this point with the greatest hitters of all time?
JACKSON- I think when you talk about Barry and he says he doesn't belong with Mays or Jackson or players like that, we need to note that, because that's Barry being humble. And we need to remember those days.
However, getting back to the serious side of Barry Bonds, I think productively and statistically you have separate ways of judging who the greatest hitters are, and certainly productively. What Bonds is doing since I can remember in following baseball and back in the early '50s, he unequivocally is the most feared hitter I've ever seen. The only reason he does not lead the league in home runs or RBIs or batting average is because he has 108-110 base on balls. On pace for over 200, which would be the most prodigious number or a ridiculous number of base on balls.
So, certainly, Bonds is going to get mentioned in the paragraph when they talk about most feared and greatest hitters of all time.
SCHWARZ- Now, one player that, John, you didn't mention is Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb had the highest batting average of all time, and he played about two-thirds of his career in the "dead ball era," where his numbers were probably vastly deflated. I understand he only hit about 116 career home runs, but can you make a case for Ty Cobb?
THORN- Yeah, I think you can make a case, because if you were to have your Sherman Peabody way-back machine and you were able to bring Ty Cobb into the present day, he wouldn't hit like Ty Cobb. Instead of having 22, 24 triples, he'd have 35 to 40 home runs. You know, people talk about today's ball players being beefed up and on steroids. I think we have today's parks being on reverse steroids. Ty Cobb played in an era when 550 feet to center field was routine.
SCHWARZ- Well, it's interesting that you bring back steroids, because we will discuss that after a break and have a very special guest named Sparky Anderson joining us.
Can you compare hitters from different eras? Both Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa deny using steroids, but steroid use in the big leagues is reportedly rampant. Is the integrity of baseball's record books being compromised by today's bigger and stronger players? We'll address that when Outside The Lines returns.
SCHWARZ- Who is the best hitter ever? We're discussing that with the man who has the highest World Series slugging percentage in history, Reggie Jackson. We're also talking now with Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, a man who led the Reds to a pair of World Series championships, the only man to do that in both leagues. He did it in '84 with the Tigers, as well. And also baseball historian John Thorn.
Sparky, thank you for joining us this morning from Thousand Oaks, California. Wanted to get you a chance to weigh in on the topic who is the greatest hitter ever, and why?
SPARKY ANDERSON, 3RD WINNINGEST MANAGER IN BASEBALL HISTORY- Well, first of all I want to say hello to John and to Regg. Regg is my buddy. But you know, I think they both had tremendous ideas. There's only one thing I always look at -- Ted Williams missed five of his prime years. He played in a ballpark that took a rocket to hit it into right field where he would hit. He would not go against the shift, he went through the shift. I, myself, personally think we are only kidding ourselves if we don't look at this man and see what Stan Musial said two days ago when he said, "He's the greatest hitter that ever lived."
I just don't think with the ball he was using -- and today we're using a nitro ball. It's a rocket. I'll hit a fungo from here in Thousand Oaks, and you send off a missile from Cape Canaveral, and I'll beat you there. So, I just don't think they're being really, really looking at the situation the way it was. Five years of your prime years...
SCHWARZ- So, Sparky, you don't even think that Barry Bonds belongs in that conversation?
ANDERSON- Oh, yes, I think Barry Bonds belongs in any conversation we talk about. But I think what Reggie said is so true. We could box up 100 guys -- I think we could literally box up 100 players and put them into the conversation. But there's only one man that ever came before Williams, and that was Williams. And when Williams was there and after Williams and for eternity, no man will ever hit like Ted Williams.
SCHWARZ- Reggie, we want to look at a quote from a Penn State professor who helped draft a federal law banning steroids. He said the following -- he was a big Mickey Mantle fan. He said -- "I believe that many records are being broken by guys that without drugs could not carry the jocks of the greats of my generation. They're messing with the memories of my youth. It offends me."
Reggie, does it offend you?
JACKSON- Well, I think that's a bit harsh. I do not think that you can lump the great players of today into a statement like that. You need to quantify it or qualify it. Certainly, steroids are in the game. They've talked about it, players have talked about it.
When you talk about today's great players -- Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Bonds, Sosa, McGwire before, Giambi, Clemens -- these players are great players in any era. And to detract from any one because steroids are in the game and even prevalent as everyone is saying, it is unfair. Because there is no question that these guys are great players in any era.
Now, are there some players that are, as Ken Caminiti said, that he used steroids during his most valuable player year. And if he gets compared with the other great players that won the Most Valuable Player award, yes, that is unfair and it's upsetting, et cetera, and on and on, with the rest of the adjectives that I could add to it.
However, I guess what I want to say, Mark, is if I was dating a player's wife, the media would chase that down so hard and find out every little thing about it. Now the media has earned the right to vote for Hall of Famers, Most Valuable Players, Rookie of the Year. When something like this is going on in the game, that is detracting from the game, a scar on the game, embarrassing to all of us, I'd like to see the media chase that down as well. I think they have an obligation. And if they do not want to do that, then I would like to just say well, gosh, it is illegal last time I heard about it, let the police or the law chase it down.
SCHWARZ- Sparky, in your opinion following up on what Reggie said, do you think that the use of steroids in today's game jeopardizes the integrity of any of the long-standing offensive records?
ANDERSON- You know, I always said Reggie had a lot of knowledge, and he is correct, he's hit it 100 percent. You know, where were these people while they were playing, why weren't they talking? You know, that's the thing that bothers me. How do you come afterward and start talking about your fellow guys. You know, I just don't believe that this stuff is running rampant. I don't deny the possibility that it has helped a few guys. But these guys are so talented, like Reggie said. They're so talented today; they don't be needing all this stuff. There's an occasional guy.
SCHWARZ- John, do you feel that Sparky is correct; that it's not rampant and that it's not a huge detracting factor from the longstanding records that we all note?
THORN- I agree with both Reggie and Sparky on their points of view. It seems to me that the Penn State professor's remarks and his potential legislation has more to do with degrading the memories of his youth than with anything else, and baseball is a backward-looking game.
In the Olympics, if Johnny Weissmuller were to be on the U.S. Olympic team next time around, and the winning time that he had in 1924, he couldn't make a girls high school team. Why is it that in baseball, we think that all the great stars were Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx? Ball players today are fabulous, they stay in great shape all year round and they're tremendous legislated advantages for the hitter. The narrowness of the strike zone as mandated now, the smallness of the parks, the year-round conditioning program. I think steroids play a part, but they're a small part in the offensive performances we have seen over the last 15 years.
SCHWARZ- Reggie, one more time around the horn with all of you. Your career batting average was .262. Ted Williams, as we mentioned, .344; Babe Ruth, .342. You were certainly in one of the most difficult eras for hitting and you played with some very difficult hitters parks, including Oakland. But how difficult is it as a great hitter to hit for average and power?
JACKSON- Well, you know, I was not a great average hitter. I made the Hall of Fame with production in post-season, and that basically was my story -- and during the season when it counted. You know, it is extremely difficult to hit for average and power -- and when you see a player like Alex Rodriguez or Bonds or Sammy and players producing like that today, we can do nothing but tip our cap. You see what Ted Williams did, Ruth and Gehrig with the numbers they put up. Certainly, we can do nothing but tip their cap.
It has been talked about as being the most difficult thing to do. I think the only golfer you could talk about, as comparing to a baseball player for difficulty of doing something would be Tiger Woods and Nicklaus. But certainly I'm going to go back now and say if I would have to pick a greatest hitter of all time, when Sparky said Ted Williams missed five years; he hit 700-plus home-runs, he drives in over 2,200 runs, he be the man!
SCHWARZ- Definitively. One quick word from Sparky and from John Thorn. Is there a player in today's game that possibly could become, other than Bonds, the greatest hitter of all time? One sentence.
ANDERSON- I really felt that Griffey, if he could have stayed healthy and I really still believe if he can get himself healthy, he's going to put an awful lot of good years together. This is a great player and the kid Guerrero up in Montreal; I just think he's an outstanding looking player.
SCHWARZ- John, anybody other than Bonds?
THORN- I think you're looking at Alex Rodriguez, because of how young he started putting those numbers up.
SCHWARZ- John Thorn, thank you so much from Kingston, Sparky from Thousand Oaks, and Reggie Jackson from The Regency in Manhattan, enjoyed having all of you this morning on Outside The Lines.
Coming up, a look at what you said about last week's program. Why is the rest of the world reluctant to embrace the success of America's World Cup wonders?
Last week on Outside The Lines, we examined the strong anti-American sentiment that resulted from the surprising surge of U.S. soccer team in last month's World Cup. Now, many of you were not surprised by the backlash, but at least one viewer was.
Viewer from Traverse City, Michigan wrote- "It's a strange world we live in when the major leagues best hitter is from Japan, the NBA's top prospect is from China, and Europeans are intimidated by the United States soccer team."
To watch last week's show, or any of our nearly 120 Sunday morning Outside The Lines programs, log on to keyword "OTLWeekly" at ESPN.com. We look forward to your comments on who's the best hitter ever. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
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