As long as he played baseball, I was obsessed with Henry Aaron, and I am saddened by his death. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that recent events apparently unrelated to the batter’s box have jarred loose some thoughts about him. That happened recently when I heard an MSNBC host label Donald Trump the worst president ever.
Of course, slotting Trump into a ranking of presidents is part of the expected exercise whenever a president leaves office. What’s the outgoing president’s place among all the presidents? We have many such rankings. Sometimes they come from professional historians or political commentators; sometimes from polls of “regular” citizens. Even though we have lived through a president’s term, we want someone to tell us where the departing executive stands in the hierarchy of presidents. Is he near the top like Lincoln and Washington and FDR; in the middle like, like—well, if they’re in the middle who can remember them?; or at the bottom like Buchanan or George W. Bush. (And who among us can speak with authority about Buchanan?)
The proclamations about Trump’s standing had me thinking about a sports acronym. Recently it has become commonplace to debate whether some athlete is the greatest of all time – the GOAT. Is it Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady? So I thought the television commentators should be using an equivalent shorthand to talk about Trump: Is he the WOAT (worst of all time) or perhaps the WE (worst ever)?
So what does this have to do with Henry Aaron? The attempts to rank Trump reminded me of things that were said when Aaron broke Ruth’s career 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 Aaron actually said this. I have not fact-checked it. You can do that if you want. Whether Aaron said it or not, the insight remains.)
Ruth, of course, never did come up against Marichal, an undisputed all-time great pitcher. 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 swing 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. (The GOAT?) 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 I read in his biography.)
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 by then become integrated. Perhaps because he had to face all the best pitchers, Aaron’s record is 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 American athletes 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, Taiwan, and even Australia and the Netherlands. Ruth today would have to face the best talent from around the world.
In assessing players from different eras we should not only 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; the strike zone has varied; 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) who 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 their time in office. You might think Washington did a good job as the first one, but the world he faced and how the government functioned was different from the environment other Presidents faced. 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 make meaningful comparisons among performers operating in different games.
Rankings of presidents from different eras, while giving occupation to some historians, pundits, and pollsters 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.
Having said that, Obama did seem to have a better basketball game than all the other Presidents, but it is open for debate whether Trump’s golf game, which got a lot of practice while he was president, was better than Eisenhower’s. And certainly Trump must have told more lies about his golf than Ike did.