Barack Versus the Babe
When a President is leaving office, news stories from all over analyze what he has and has not accomplished. Invariably historians will be tapped to tell us where this departing executive stands in the hierarchy of Presidents—is he near the top like Lincoln and Washington and FDR; in the middle like, like—if they are in the middle who can remember them?; or at the bottom like Buchanan or George W. Bush.
These rankings, instead of making me reflect on Presidential history, turn my thoughts to Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron (according to one of his biographies, he did not like being called “Hank.”) When Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record, some people, supposedly putting the accomplishment into perspective but really trying to denigrate it, pointed out that it took Aaron many more at bats than Ruth had to get to 714 home runs. Aaron responded, “But Ruth never had to face Juan Marichal.” (My memory is that I read or heard from someone that Mr. Aaron said something like this. I have not verified this memory. You can do that if you want. Instead, whether Aaron actually said it or not, the insight remains.)
Ruth, of course, never batted with Marichal pitching. Ruth’s last major league appearance was before Marichal was born. (I did look that up.) The real point, however, is that Ruth did not bat against his day’s equivalent of Juan Marichal. Because major league baseball was segregated in Ruth’s time, he did not bat against the best pitchers, only the best white pitchers. For example, Ruth did not face Satchel Paige, even though Paige’s prime came when Ruth was playing. Paige was clearly an outstanding pitcher—some think the best of all time. In the frequent barnstorming and exhibition games of his era, he faced major league stars and pitched excellently against them. But Paige was black and could not play in the major leagues in the 1920s and 1930s. (I do not know what to make of the fact that Paige first played in the United States on an integrated team in 1933 in Bismarck, North Dakota. Or at least that is what a biography of Paige said.)
How many home runs would Ruth have hit if some of the weaker pitchers he faced had been replaced by Paige and other outstanding black players then barred from the major leagues? We can’t know.
Aaron, however, did face Marichal, as well as Bob Gibson and other outstanding black pitchers. Baseball had become integrated. Perhaps because he had to face all the best pitchers, Aaron’s records are more impressive than Ruth’s. On the other hand, the nature of American professional athletics was changing during Aaron’s career. When Ruth played, baseball was the dominant sport, and the best athletes mostly concentrated on baseball. That may have been also true at the beginning of Aaron’s career, but by the 1970s, professional football and basketball had become more attractive to the athletically gifted, and probably not all the best American athletes homed in on baseball.
If we were comparing Ruth and Aaron to today’s players, we would have to factor in the internationalization of baseball. While there were Latin American players in Aaron’s day (but almost none in Ruth’s)—after all Marichal was a Dominican—the influx of Spanish-speaking players has mushroomed since then, and the major leagues are also seeing a steady flow of players from Japan Korea, and Taiwan and even Australia and the Netherlands.
In assessing players from different era we should consider the differing player pools but also that the game has changed in other ways—the pitching mound has been at different heights; gloves differ tremendously from those of yesteryear; night games were not always played or scheduled less frequently; travel was different; the number of double headers has changed; the use of relief pitchers has changed; spitballs, once allowed, are now banned; a ball that bounces over the outfield wall is no longer a home run; and so on.
This all leads me to the wisdom of Bill Russell (again, I have not verified that Russell said this, but the point remains even if he did not) when he stated that you cannot compare players from different eras. At best, players can only be compared to other players of the same era. You can conclude that Ruth was the greatest slugger of his day. You can debate whether Mays or Mantle were as good as Aaron, but you can’t meaningfully maintain that Tris Speaker was better than all of them.
And that conclusion should also apply to Presidents. To rank Presidents ignores the different conditions during which they held office. You might think Washington did a good job as the first one, but the world he faced and how the government then functioned is different from the environment other Presidents had. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt’s temperament and abilities suited well the conditions when he was President, but TR would probably have been a disaster as President in 1861. The issues that one President confronts are not faced by another, and the nature of Presidential powers, federalism, and congressional authority have changed over time. As a result, the presidential playing field keeps changing, and it is well nigh impossible to compare performers operating in different games.
Rankings of Presidents from different eras, while giving occupation to some historians and pundits, shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The conclusion that George W. Bush was a better or worse President than James Buchanan or that Barack Obama ranks higher or lower than Grover Cleveland is merely a parlor game (at a time when there are few parlors.) As with athletes, at most we can compare Presidents within an era, not across the whole history of the Presidential game.
However, Obama did seem to have a better basketball game than all the other Presidents.