Don't pitch to Bonds: A real Superman: "It is impossible to fairly compare players of different eras with one another. With the advances in equipment, training, nutrition, travel, not to mention the evolution of the game’s eligibility rules or strategy, it is impossible to imagine how a player plucked from 1916 would have performed in 2006 and just as difficult to imagine how a player from 2006 would have fared in 1926. What one can easily do however is to look at how players compared to their contemporaries."
See, this bugs me, a lot. Yes, Ruth had fantastic numbers. Mind-numbingly fantastic. More-homers-by-himself-than-the-rest-of-the-league type ridiculousness. It's commonly accepted that comparing raw numbers in baseball is difficult across eras, so Ruth's greatness is often presented by comparing his numbers' to his peers'. But, and this is where I get annoyed, what about the sizable block of the population excluded from being his peers? Would that 1920 stat line with 54 homers have been as impressive if, say, Josh Gibson had 42 homers that year? Not to mention would he have lost a homer or two if Satchel Paige, instead of John "Scrub" Doe, were filling the a rotation slot for the Orioles?
It would be ludicrous to argue that Ruth might have appeared simply good in that context. No doubt in my mind exists that he still would be considered an all-time great. But near-universal recognition as the all-time greatest? I think he'd definitely slide a few notches lower.
When (if) Barry Bonds passes Ruth, expect to see a little more Ruth-glorification, coupled with righteous indignation towards Bonds, and even calls for silliness like asterisks. Just note the event, and remember the mitigating circumstances in each one's circumstances, and that both were simply operating under the accepted practices of baseball at their times. Then, go remember and celebrate Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, etc. as more appropriate heroes.