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Babe Ruth vs. Josh Gibson: Who was a better hitter?

Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani is delivering a season we’ve never seen before, generating comparisons to Babe Ruth. While Ruth is in a different category than Ohtani, since he rarely pitched and hit in the same season, talk about Ruth’s legacy is also a great reminder of Josh Gibson.

The Sultan of Swat, one of Bath Ruth’s many nicknames, is part of MLB history and is recognized as one of the greatest sluggers since the game’s creation. The former home run king has certainly deserved all of the attention, but Gibson also flies under the radar for his eye-popping power.

Let’s dive into the Babe Ruth vs. Josh Gibson debate and why both might be underrated.

Examining Babe Ruth’s legacy

The Great Bambino dominated the sport like we haven’t seen again. There are arguments to be made defending his immortality in baseball lore, including that he hit for so much power at a time without modern technology or training programs to improve his game. But the counterargument against him is just as fair, he dominated baseball during a time of segregation when pitchers threw the equivalent of batting practice speeds today.

Even a quick look at Ruth’s stats highlight the absurdity of his accomplishments. Averaging a 1.164 OPS across 8,399 career at-bats is absurd, but that’s how good he was.

  • Babe Ruth stats: 2,873 hits, 714 home runs, 506 doubles, 2,214 RBIs, .342/.474/.680, 1.164 OPS

There are numbers even more impressive than Ruth leading MLB 13 separate seasons in OPS and 14 seasons in slugging percentage.

From 1918-1935, Ruth accounted for 10 of the 13 highest single-season wRC+, seven of the 10 highest ISO seasons and finished with the five best FanGraphs’ WAR seasons during that span. Comparing him to his peers during that time is also remarkable.

  • Babe Ruth stats (1918-’35): 705 home runs, 2,167 RBIs, ..479 OBP, .455 ISO, 199 wRC+, 164.7 fWAR
  • Roger Hornsby stats (1918-’35): 286 home runs, 1,436 RBIs, .443 OBP, .231 ISO, 177 wRC+, 115.5 fWAR
  • Frankie Frisch stats (1919-’35): 104 home runs, 1,214 RBIs, .370 OBP, 114 wRC+, 75.0 fWAR
  • Lou Gehrig stats (1925-’35: 378 home runs, 1,569 RBIs, .446 OBP, .195 ISO, 177 wRC+, 93.5 fWAR

The numbers pale in comparison. Ruth dominated the sport as a hitter in a way that fans at the time viewed baseball. Whether he would be successful against today’s fastball velocities or not, he is one of the greatest MLB players ever.

Now, before diving into a direct comparison, let’s take a quick dive into Josh Gibson.

How many home runs did Josh Gibson hit?

When Major League Baseball finally recognized the Negro League play (1920-’48) as official MLB seasons, it was a small step towards correcting decades of wrongs. At that moment, Josh Gibson would finally receive some of the statistical recognition he deserved.

The change led to Seamheads.com adding a portion of numbers to Gibson’s all-time stats thanks to exhaustive work searching for historical box scores from Negro League games. While the full scope of Gibson’s accomplishments will likely never be known, some of his numbers compare quite favorably to Ruth.

As baseball historian Scott Simkus explained, part of the issues with tracking stats id Negro League teams varied their scheduling every summer. Official games were counted when they faced other Negro League teams, but matchups against white semipro teams were often not counter.

So, while rumors from former players suggest that Gibson hit around 900 home runs during his professional baseball career, there is no way of ever knowing officially. But it’s also impossible to not think about the stories, like Gibson hitting a ball out of the old Yankee Stadium.

This is a catcher who was credited with hitting 69 home runs in 1934 and posted a .467 batting average with 57 home runs in 1933. Wherever Gibson could play, whether it was the Mexican League or in Puerto Rico, he dominated against every level of talent. He is also credited from The Sporting News with hitting a 580-foot home run and received stunning praise from his peers.

“Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I’ve ever seen. Anything he touched was hit hard. He could power outside pitches to right field. Shortstops would move to left field when Josh came to the plate.”

Former Cleveland Buckeye pitcher/manager Alonzo Boone, via National Baseball Hall of Fame

Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of his era, complimented Gibson by saying:  “You look for his weakness and while your lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs.”

Sadly, Gibson passed away at 35. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943, but refused to undergo surgery for fear he would become disabled. Not long after the 1946 season, via The Baltimore Sun, Gibson passed away on Jan. 20, 1947 from a stroke at the age of 35.

Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Comparing Babe Ruth vs. Josh Gibson

Playing in different leagues under contrasting circumstances, a straight comparison between Gibson and Ruth is difficult. Ruth’s official accomplishments and decades of his stories being told have greatly influenced the debate, leading to him being recognized as the greatest power hitter in MLB history.

We can contrast some numbers, via Baseball Reference’s 162 game averages and StatHead’s player comparisons, to compare how Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson stack up against one another.

  • Babe Ruth career stats (162 game avg): 46 home runs, 143 RBIs, .342/.474/.690/, 1.164 OPS, 206 OPS+
  • Josh Gibson career stats (162 game avg): 42 home runs, 186 RBIs, .366/.450/.691, 1.141 OPS, 202 OPS+
Ratio
Rk Name From To Age X/H% AB/HR
1Josh Gibson1930194618-346.6%13.1%14.1%44%13.1
2Babe Ruth1914193519-406.7%19.4%12.8%47%11.8

There are remarkable similarities between the two players’ ratios. Ruth played into his 40s, something Gibson never had the chance to do, and his all-time stats benefit from MLB games being officially recognized since it started. But when projecting the numbers over a 162-game season or look at the home run and extra-base hit rates, things are much closer.

Babe Ruth earned the reputation and legacy he still holds today and most MLB fans are far more likely to view him as a baseball icon than Josh Gibson. While none of us were lucky enough to witness either player swing a bat, it’s evident these are both two of the best hitters of all time and they would go swing-for-swing in a Home Run Derby.

Interested in more historical baseball content, check out our piece on who is the greatest MLB team ever.