Thursday, August 9, 2007

Putting Babe Ruth into Perspective....

In light of Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's Major League Baseball (MLB) home run record, now's as good a time as any to put Babe Ruth into proper perspective.

Here is the simple, unvarnished truth, not only was Babe Ruth the BEST home run hitter ever, he dominated his sport in a way that no other athlete has ever dominated ANY sport at ANY time! Here's why;

(1) Babe Ruth hit his home runs in the "dead ball era," when a baseball was more like a "wet sock" than today's baseballs that are closer to a superball, then an original baseball, and he hit them out of ball parks that would be considered cavernous by today's standards.

(2) Babe Ruth was MLB's THIRD home run king. Harry Stovie held the record until 1895 with 120 dingers, a record broken by Roger Conner who hit, a then astounding, 138 homers. Conner's record lasted until 1921, when it was broken by Ruth on July 18th of that year.

(3) Pre-Ruth, the best home run hitter in MLB was a player named Frank "Home Run" Baker, who led the league in homers from around 1910 to 1914, with a high of 12 homers in a season in1913. These were Ruth's contemporaries - the "best" of his day.

(4) Ruth began his career as a pitcher and a very good one, going 18-8 in his rookie season in 1915 while hitting .315 helping the Red Sox to a 101 win season. He went 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA an 9 shutouts in 1916, 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA and 6 shutouts, and 13-7 in 1918 with a 2.22 ERA. He also extended his World Series scoreless streak to 29 2/3 inning that year. he didn't play every day until 1919!

(5) When Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927 he hit more home runs than any other team in MLB. In 1920, when he hit 54 homers, only the Philadelphia Phillies hit more as a team (64) in what was then known as the "hitter friendly" Baker Bowl.

Sure, you can only directly compare athletes to those of their own era, but you can compare how the best athletes of each era dominated their own eras. For a modern MLB player to dominate the sport the way Ruth did, he'd have to hit somewhere around 250 home runs! That last fact (#5) is why Ruth is on a completely different level than virtually any other athlete. Surely Ruth never played night baseball, nor travelled cross-country for games, and he never played against ball players like Satchel Page and the other stars of the Negro Leagues, but he did dominate that era in a way that no other player dominated any other era, and that's really the only comparison one can make.

For Barry Bonds, or Hank Aaron or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or A-Rod to match Ruth they'd have to hit more home runs in their eras than any other team did!

In all of sports perhaps only Wilt Chamberlain, who once averaged fifty points for entire NBA season and scored an incredible 100 points in an NBA game comes close to dominating a sport the way that Ruth did, and only Mohammed Ali transcended sports the way Ruth did. In fact, Ruth is the prototype of the "modern athlete," a person possessed of incredible athletic prowess, combined with immense personal charisma and failings almost as super-human as their talents.

It's so easy to forget how incredibly great Babe Ruth is because of all the changes in the game since his day - the increasinly juiced ball, the smaller ball parks and the lowered pitcher's mounds. Even changes in the fair/foul poles instituted in 1934, at the end of Ruth's career (he hit his last home run on May 25th, 1934 with the Boston Braves.

An example is vividly given in Bill Jenkinson's 2006 book The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs In Jenkinson's book, he makes the case that had the foul pole been moved to the modern standards adopted in 1935 and had Ruth played in the modern ball parks, he would've hit 104 homers in 1927!

I don't blame modern athletes for using "performance enhancing drugs," almost everyone, including "weekend warriors" routinely use some of those same drugs - HgH, Andro and other such performance enhancers are all too common among both athletes and those interested in longevity or "life extension." If Ruth were alive today, he'd almost undoubtedly use them himself. Hell, it'd have been a better regimine than his traditional hot dogs and beer.

In fact, in Ruth's case, the other changes - smaller ball parks, wider foul poles and a baseball that's more like a super ball then the "wet sock" Ruth hit, have had a far greater impact on any comparisons. The game itself has changed. In many ways, Ruth himself transformed the game of baseball, as many of the changes were the result of MLB looking to find "another Ruth."

Hail Bonds, hail and recall the great Hank Aaron, but remember and revere George Herman "Babe" Ruth, for he was not merely a record holder, but remains a sports legend!


mal said...

A lot of valid points, JMK.

One error: Ruth did not hit his HRs in a dead ball era. After the Black Sox scandal of 1919, AL president Ban Johnson opted for a livelier ball for the 1920 AL season to create excitement.

Ruth, who, if memory serves, hit 29 HRs for Boston in 1919 as a pitcher/ outfielder jumped to 54 HRs with NY in 1920. The NL did not adopt the live ball until the next year.

As Casey said "You can look it up!"

Mick Brady said...

Man, I feel like I'm in a different league here altogether. Never a fan of stats myself, though I enjoyed the game a great deal at various points in my life.

The thing that always puzzled me about Babe Ruth was the fact that he looked like he couldn't even hit the ball past the pitcher's mound. He was the least athletic-looking athlete I've ever seen, except maybe for the golfer, John Daly.

Where did all that strength come from? He certainly wasn't taking steroids, and it looks as though he wasn't even taking care of himself. Comments, anyone?

JMK said...

You're right Mal, though the ball has "evolved" over the decades, getting livelier with each new incarnation.

Today's superball is nothing like the 1960s balls that Aaron, Mays and mantle hit, which were livelier still than those of the forties and fifties that Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio hit.

What's astounding about Ruth is how dominant he was in that era, at least twice hitting more home runs than any other team in the American league!

That's not to say that the best of their day, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron weren't GREAT...they certainly were, but no one has dominated any team sport during any era the way that Ruth did.

As we approach the century mark since he first began playing (1915), it's a sad thing to forget that history.

JMK said...

Mick, I used to say the same thing, but look at the picture I posted (from his early years), before that berr and hot dog diet caught up with him, and he was am very athletic looking ballplayer.

I was shocked at the pictures from his youth.

Mostly we see the barrel chested, spindly legged Ruth of legend, but those were pictures from the end of his career, when he was past his prime.

The fact that he could and did put twenty seasons in the major leagues is a testament to his natural ability. Even as his body faded, he was still able to hit...maybe the hand-eye coordination is the last to go...I can't explain how he did it.

mal said...

Babe had a wonderful uppercut swing and tremendous bat speed which led to the term "Ruthian" for long HRs. The last home run he hit was in 1935 at Forbes Filed in Pittsburgh which either landed on or cleared the roof on the right field pavillion.

Ruth was 6' 2" at a time when the average male was about 5' 8". He was a big guy even by today's standards.

I remember watching the 1961 World Series when Whitey Ford broke the WS record for consecutives scoreless innings - held by, yep, Ruth. I was astounded.

Ty Cobb, probably the greatest hitter of all time (lifetime .366!) despised what Ruth did to the game which he had dominated during the early 1900s. He once announced that he would show how easy it was to replicate what Babe did and hit 3 HRs in a game to prove it!

For those who denigrate Babe's numbers by claiming he never faced blacks, I say what about the contemporary black stars who never faced whites?

If one listens to the revisionists, one would think that every Negro League player and pitcher was a superman.


Neither race had an abundance of great performers during the segregated years - hell that's what made them great. The great black players did not dine on Satchel Paige every day although he did pitch more often than most because of advance ticket sales.

But they, like the white contemporaries, faced a lot of bush league pitching and hitting.

JMK said...

I didn't know that about Ty Cobb, but I got the feeling that he hated just about everyone. He was supposed to have been a pretty irrascible guy.

He was a truly great baseball player despite his personal flaws, much like Ruth (only the flaws and their styles of play differed).

I guess it's hard to compare different eras. The ball has gotten tighter and more lively, the pitcher's mound has been raised and lowered, etc.

I was surprised to see how much Ruth dominated his era, in fact, in a way that no other player dominated any other era.

In baseball's modern era I can't think of anyone who's come close to that. In basketball, Jordan dominated that game like no other player, leading Chicago to titles over the teams led by every other superstar of his era (Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, etc)...even though Jordan didn't statistically dominate the sport the way Wilt Chamberlain did, he and Bill Russel dominated that sport in the way it counts - in winning titles.

Of course, basketball is a far more individual sport, where one player can have a much greater impact on a team than most team sports.

Ruth won a ton of titles, but he was, for much of his career, paired with other great Yankee players like Lou Gehrig and Red Ruffing (well, the last few years of Ruth's Yankee career)...great facts Mal.

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