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Who's the Greatest Baseball Player Ever?

No sport is more dependent on its statistics than baseball.

For decades, fans have used those numbers to decide for themselves who the greatest baseball player of all time is.

It's a tough question, no doubt, as divisive and subjective trying to name the greatest NFL quarterback.

But using baseball's statistics, in tandem with other barometers, the answer to the question becomes rather clear to some experts. It's why the long-running sports publication The Sporting News in its comprehensive baseball book "Baseball's 100 Greatest Players" (Sporting News Publishing Co., 1998) places George Herman "Babe" Ruth atop its list as the greatest baseball player to ever play the game.

The Society for American Baseball Research also names Ruth the sport's greatest player. And it's hard to argue otherwise.

Why Babe was the best

Ruth impacted his sport like no other athlete ever has, and may ever will. His overall statistics are staggering: he had a .342 career batting average, 2,873 hits, 2,217 RBIs and of course, 714 home runs. As Leigh Montville points out in his biography of Ruth, "The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth" (Anchor, 2007), these astonishing stats were accumulated during baseball's "dead-ball" era, during which games were played in huge, cavernous stadiums that made home runs and other big hits difficult to achieve .

His career home run record lasted nearly 40 years, until another legend, Hank Aaron, surpassed it. Ruth was part of seven World Series-winning teams, including the first four championships the New York Yankees ever won.

Off the field, he is considered by many the first true sports celebrity. Fans flocked to the ballparks to see him, and his hard-partying ways made him a legendary to millions of people.

Ruth's prodigious power output changed the way the game was played. In 1920, his first season with the Yankees, Ruth hit 54 home runs more than any team except the Philadelphia Phillies hit that season. He was the first player to hit 60 homers in a season, which he did in 1927. Anyway you dissect them, his achievements were... Ruthian.

Other baseball greats

Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb and especially Willie Mays are names often thrown into the "greatest player ever" debate.

No less an authority on the game than the late St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck called Mays, with his combination of speed, power and instincts, "the greatest ballplayer he ever saw."

And James Hirsch, author of "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" (Scribner, 2010), said in an interview that "Babe Ruth was baseball's most dominant player, while Willie Mays was its greatest master."

Mays' statistics offer solid support for Hirsch's statement: he had 660 HRs, 1,902 RBIs, .302 batting average, 3,283 hits and 338 stolen bases. But while Ruth's hitting numbers alone make a strong case for him being the game's greatest player, the fact is, he was more than just a great slugger.

Before he became a Yankee, Ruth was a dominant left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

His pitching record was 89-46, and he led that team to three World Series titles. After the Red Sox sold Ruth's contract to the Yankees (and began what many fans considered the Curse of the Babe), Ruth won another five games before his new team realized they preferred him hitting than pitching.

Here's one final indication of how good a pitcher Ruth was: His name remains in the pitching side of the American League record books . He still shares the league single-season record for shutouts (in which the opponent scores no points) by a southpaw, with nine shutouts in 1916.

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