The color bar: discounting Babe Ruth's accomplishments
One of the more common arguments against Babe Ruth as the best player of all time is that, because of the color bar, he never had to face black pitchers. I’m not buying it, at least not at face value.
At first, it sounds pretty reasonable – there were many pitchers, better than those Ruth actually faced, who would have certainly been good enough to play in the American League, if not for segregation. But since Ruth didn’t have to face them, the pitchers he did face were a little worse, and his stats were inflated for that reason.
But by that logic, everyone’s stats are inflated. Sure, Ruth didn’t have to hit against black pitchers. But Rogers Hornsby never had to face Walter Johnson, arguably the best pitcher ever. That’s because, according to the rules at the time, Hornsby was segregated to the National League for all of Johnson’s career.
Morally, of course, there’s a big difference between segregation by race and segregation by league. But the question is not a moral one; it’s an empirical one. If we don’t discount Mike Schmidt’s career because he didn’t have to face American Leaguer Jim Palmer, why do we discount Hank Greenberg’s career because he didn’t have to face Negro Leaguer Satchel Paige?
If you consider the Negro Leagues like a third major league, equal in talent to the AL and NL, the parallel is exact. It doesn’t matter which pitchers are in which leagues, so long as the talent level is about the same. Schmidt didn’t have to face Palmer, but, because of that, he had to face Tom Seaver that much more. And since Greenberg didn’t have to face Paige, he had to face Lefty Grove a few more times. As long as the leagues are even, the segregation is irrelevant.
But the Negro Leagues were almost certainly worse than the majors. The highest percentage ever of major league players who were black was in 1974, when there were about one-third as many black players as non-black. But in the 30s, there were probably at least half as many Negro League players as white major leaguers (as far as I can quickly estimate). So the Negro Leagues were, proportionally, somewhat diluted.
And if the talent level in the Negro Leagues was worse than the majors, then the white players had it harder, not easier. To even out the talent, you’d have to send some of the better white players to the Negro Leagues, and bring some of the lesser black players to the majors. That would decrease the quality of play in the majors, which means that integration would inflate the white players’ stats.
Now, in fairness to those who make the Babe Ruth argument, they’re implicitly assuming that integration would lead to the elimination of the Negro Leagues, or their conversion into minor leagues. You’d pull Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston into the majors, they would displace marginal major-leaguers, and the white stars would stay put. Under this scenario, yes, of course, integration would have made improved the major leagues. Dizzy Dean’s job would be harder, as he’d be pitching to better hitters overall.
But that’s simply an argument that the pre-integration leagues were worse than they would have been if you contracted high-level baseball (by eliminating the Negro Leagues) at the same time you eliminated the color bar. That’s trivially true. It doesn’t follow that the leagues were worse than today, significantly worse, worse enough that Babe Ruth’s stats have to be discounted.
Consider that in the last 30 years, the proportion of blacks in MLB has dropped from 27% to 9%, purportedly for cultural reasons. (Same link as above.) Blacks are segregating themselves out of baseball. Again, there is a huge moral difference between baseball rejecting blacks and blacks rejecting baseball. But as it impacts the issue of league quality, the effect is the same. What we have today is, for purposes of quality of play, the same as a two-thirds color bar. If Babe Ruth’s career is to be discounted, should we also discount Derek Jeter’s by 67% as much? Should we give three times as much credit to guys like Carl Yastrzemski and Joe Morgan, because they played in the era of maximum integration?
Perhaps we should, a little bit. But the race factor is one of many, many factors that affect the quality of play over time. Off the top of my head:
-- players today earn far more money than ever. This means more young athletes are likely to pursue a baseball career, which increases the pool of talent substantially.
-- on the other hand, other sports are now more competitive with baseball as a career choice for a talented athlete, which may act to reduce the talent pool.
-- baseball is dropping in relative popularity, because of an explosion of other recreational opportunities for children. Kids may be playing baseball less, which again reduces the quality of the talent.
-- expansion increases the number of players in MLB, which, all else being equal, reduces the talent level.
-- without question, players today have much better defensive skills than ever. This means that in the past, players’ batting averages would have been inflated by hits which would likely be turned into outs today.
-- players today have access to better medical procedures, which keeps more of today’s best players off the DL. Tommy John surgery has saved countless careers which would have been lost in the 30s.
-- more and more players are coming from countries other than the USA, for numerous reasons.
-- the pool of potential MLB players today includes players from Japan, a huge source of formerly-segregated talent.
And I’m sure you can think of more.
So compared to these, how important is the dropping of the color bar to the question of league improvement? It’s probably a drop in the bucket. Well, maybe it’s a cup in the bucket, or even a pitcher in the bucket – it would take a bit of research to know which. But in any case, to cite segregation as the only factor, or even the only important factor, while ignoring all the rest, doesn’t make sense. It attempts to answer the question by what feels good morally, rather than by a full accounting of the the evidence.