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Bert Randolph Sugar is a writer sports historian who has written over 50 books, mostly about baseball and boxing.  He was the owner and editor of of Boxing Illustrated magazine[…]

The greatest baseball player ever was Babe Ruth. Not only because every home run hit after him “has his DNA in it,” but also for his prowess as a pitcher. “This man was a hell of a player.”

Question: Who is—or was—the smartest player in the history of rnbaseball?

Bert Sugar: Ty Cobb.  I mean, he was a solid B-player, rnwho became an A+ player because he was smart.  He had some help.  Ernie rnHarwell, who was the man who got me into sports when I was at Michigan rnLaw—a brilliant, brilliant voice, wonderful person—told me that the usedrn to have something, at old Navin Field, where Cobb played called Cobb’s rnLake.  And Cobb would have them water that area every day so his bunts rnjust went phbtt, and stayed there.  And that was a hit.  Cobb could rnfigure out who could be intimidated, when to run on a batter for a rnstolen base, where to drop a bunt, when... and he held his bat with his rnhands apart.  And then as the pitch came, he’d move them up and down so rnto direct the ball to where he wanted it. 

And he hated Babe rnRuth.  He hated Babe Ruth because he changed the game.  And then one rnday, in 1925, because everybody was giving him hell because Ruth was rnhitting homers, he hit three home runs in a game and said, “There, I canrn hit homers too.”  And that was the last time he tried.  He could play rnthe game here. [Points to his temple] 

Pitchers, some of them...rn I always loved Gaylord Perry who was known far and wide for throwing a rnspitball.  Perry will tell you he didn’t throw a spitball that often.  rnBut he’d be licking his hands so that they thought every pitch coming rnwas a spitball because the batter has an easier job than the pitcher.  rnThe pitcher’s got to keep him off balance and throw him what he doesn’t rnexpect.  So, if you’re talking about intelligence; that falls to the rnpitcher, or the catcher who is calling the signals because the game’s inrn their hands. 

You know, batting is a special science, so is rnpitching.  But pitching requires more of this.  I remember once asking rnBarry Bonds, “Barry, how do you deal with the steroid crap?”  And I rndidn’t say “crap.”  I was always very subtle.  And he thought for a rnsecond and he said, “Nothing beats eye-to-hand coordination.  And you rnknow what?  Steroids ain’t gonna help you if you can’t hit the ball.  Itrn ain’t gonna go further except into the catcher’s mitt.”  So, batting...rn I mean Ted Williams.  As great a hitter as he was, was less thinking rnthan his eyes.  His eyes.  He went to Korea and the second time around rnas a pilot.  In fact, his flight commander’s name was John Glenn, who rnsaid he was the greatest pilot he ever saw.  He comes back after a year rnand a half out of baseball, almost two full seasons, and he’s taking rnbatting practice just to get his skills back to the point where his rnhands were bloodied from the number of times he had to swing to get his rnrhythm.  And he went up to the office of Tom Yawkey, then the owner, andrn he said, “Mr. Yawkey, the plate is off.”  “No,” he says, “No it’s not rnoff," he says, “Yes, we redid the stadium, we put everything back where rnit belonged.  We refurbished it.”  He said, “It’s off by this much.”  rnThey measured.  For a year and a half, they’d been playing with a plate rnthat was off this much.  Who saw it?  Ted Williams.  I guess that’s rnintelligence, but it’s also eyesight. 

rn Question:
Who is—or was—the greatest baseball player rnever?

Bert Sugar: The greatest player I’ve ever seen?  Joe rnDiMaggio, Willie Mays second, Roberto Clemente third.  Clemente could...rn Clemente is lost in this because he didn’t play in a major market.  He rnplayed in Pittsburgh.  He had an arm that could throw out a runner in rnthe next county.  Willie Mays was brilliant.  DiMaggio, only because I rngrew up with him. You know, your first hero is always going to be your rnhero for life.  I don’t care how old you are, when you fell in "like" rnwith a player, that was your hero.  Joe Lewis was my boxing hero.  Sammyrn Baugh, B-A-U-G-H, who I still think is the greatest quarterback ever, rnwas my first hero in playing for the Redskins.  You fell "in like" with rnsomeone—I’d say “love”, but in today’s society it’s got a different rnconnotation.  Everything’s got a different connotation today.  But, I rntell any sports fan, I ask them, who was your first hero, and they’ll rntell me, Mickey Mantle for some, Ted Williams for some, Joe Montana for rnsome, depending on their age and their locale.  And I’ll say, "Is he rnstill your hero?"  And he’ll say "my greatest hero."  Because that was rnwhen they fell in love with sports, so that was their first hero and rntheir love for sports has grown, but they haven’t lost that nostalgic rnreflection. 

And when I wrote the book "The Baseball Hall of rnFame," I wrote a sort of insert for every decade as for the greatest rnplayer ever in that decade.  And there was Honus Wagner who was terriblyrn overlooked for the first decade of the 20th century playing for rnPittsburgh.  He was the National League’s Ty Cobb.  Well, when Ty Cobb rn-- and we do this in the book, we put all the plaques in and then the rnfirst five men voted into the Hall of Fame were, Ty Cobb, and second wasrn a tie between Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner, before Kristy Matheson, rnWalter Johnson.  And they have the five of them, as you‘ll see in the rnbook, the picture of the, if you will, first class, inducted into the rnHall of Fame.  And there’s Honus Wagner, who got as many votes as Babe rnRuth.  And today, all anybody knows about him is that he’s a face on thern most valuable trading card.  Well, he wins, what, eight batting titles rnand stolen base titles, and etc., etc.  And nobody remembers him except rnas a face on this valuable card.  And that’s unfortunate.  We’ve lost rnsome of that in the history of baseball, which has more history than anyrn sport; than all sports put together. 

Guess we’re into rnstatistics now.  We’ve got on-base percentages and it’s still history.  rnAnd the stories are the game.  The statistics may be the mortar of the rngame, the real, I think, if you will, "glory" of the game is rnencapsulated in stories more than statistics. 

Say, ".367," you rnsay Ty Cobb, that’s the end of that conversation.  You tell a story on rnTy Cobb, and now it becomes more than a conversation, it becomes a rnmental note.  And really a romantic one, some of them, and some of them rnabout Cobb, dreadful, but still, it does more than "Well he batted .367 rnlifetime."  Okay, that was exciting. 

But I think the greatest rnplayer ever was Babe Ruth.  Not just his home runs.  Because every home rnrun hit after him has his DNA in it.  But when he was basically rntransferred from the pitcher’s mound to the outfield, and the reason forrn that was quite simply: the Red Sox had lost all their outfielders to rnWorld War I and they had this pitcher that could hit.  He hits 11 rnhomeruns, which at the time with a dead ball, led the league in rnhomeruns.  So they put him out in the field.  And in his contract later rnwith the Yankees, he only played the non-sun field; right field in rnYankee stadium, left field in a lot of other places. 

But, when rnhe left the mound, he had 89 wins at the age of 23.  That’s more wins rnthan any pitcher in the Hall of Fame at the age of 23, except Feller andrn Kid Nichols.  And he wins five more games with the Yankees.  They just rnput him in the last day of the season.  And he wins all five appearancesrn while still hitting home runs, while still hitting .342.  This man was arn hell of a player.  And so I give him "greatest ever" because of rnpitching and hitting.  Sure, George Sisler pitched. Cobb even gotrn into a game pitching.  He wanted to pitch against Sisler, who had been arn pitcher before he became a... so had Bob Lemon had become a fielder rnbefore he became a pitcher.  Sometimes you shift position. 

rnBabe Ruth, greatest player ever.  No question in my mind’s eye.

Recorded May 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen