I promised myself that I wouldn't write anything on this topic and was actually feeling pretty proud for not having done so thus far. Given what I've written on the topic previously and the polarization that this issue engenders, I've spent the last three weeks or so concentrating on the historical trends in hit by pitch data as well as watching the Cubs struggle to score runs.
But, with 714 approaching I can't resist any longer. My plan had simply been to ignore 714 and 715 (as I have Barry's ESPN show) because in my mind the entire Bonds persona has become a freak show. But then I read this article from Dayn Perry who reminds us not to get too sentimental about Ruth. After all Ruth was a drunk, a philanderer, a bad teammate, a glutton, ad infinitum - facts which journalists of the day ignored. Interestingly, I heard the author of the new Ruth biography Leigh Montville interviewed on an MLB radio podcast this morning and he noted that Ruth's grand daughter believes that Ruth also had ADHD.
While I have no problem with Dayn's article (and he even brings Yankee Stadium park factors into the discussion which you gotta love) and agree that we shouldn't get all upset about Bonds passing a guy like Ruth, I think some have used Ruth's moral failings to try and excuse Bonds' actions. The two men and their situations are totally separate issues and should remain so. My distaste for what's going on is rooted in what Bonds has done, not what Ruth did. The overwhelming evidence - the kind that lets reasonable people make judgments every day - clearly indicates that Bonds cheated. Attempting to excuse him because Ruth may have been a louse much of the time makes no sense. As to what the unenhanced Bonds might have done, my opinion on the subject is similar to this quote by Cory Lidle.
"What he could have done without performance-enhancing drugs--which he hasn't been proven guilty of [using], which I'm not buying--you can maybe take what he had done in his prime, before his head started growing at an enormous rate, and just make those projections. Say that, 'This is what he could have done.' Maybe it's 550 home runs. I don't know. It definitely wouldn't have been anything close to 700."
What's more dicey in my opinion is the view espoused by some that Ruth's feats should be downgraded because he played in an era before integration, night games, the slider and all the other changes in the game since the mid 1930s. That train runs both directions, however, as Bonds had access to (legal) medical care, better equipment, and simply the accumulation of knowledge that goes with any activity as it is refined over time. Even without steroids Bonds' career has been lengthened by the operations on his knee and treatment he's received on his elbow.
I have no doubt that if Bonds and Ruth were to match their hitting skills Bonds would be by far better. An interesting analysis of this question was performed by Nate Silver in a chapter of Baseball Between the Numbers. There Silver creates a league difficulty factor based on Davenport Translations by examining the performance of players in successive seasons. He then uses these factors to translate statistics across eras. His analysis of Ruth concludes as follows:
Ruth's career EqA would be .274. He probably would have made the All-Star team a couple of times, with an EqA in his best seasons approaching .300. But he'd be remembered as merely a good player and certainly wouldn't be a credible candidate for the Hall of Fame. In modern terms, Ruth might be a Tino Martinez (career .274 EqA) or Raul Mondesi (.278).
And this idea holds for all players of the past. It's simply a fact (akin to athletes in other sports such as basketball or track and field although not as severe) that most major league players today are better than most players of the 1920s and 1930s - which is why in the end the argument seems kind of silly. Players should be judged in their own context.
But on a different note I ran into this article that tells the stories of two kids who witnessed Ruth's final three homeruns in his visit to Forbes Field on May 25th, 1935.