Friday, March 30, 2007

Babe Ruth the Home Run King

I just finished reading a wonderful book about Babe Ruth called The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs. Now I should tell you up-front that I think Ty Cobb is the greatest baseball player that ever lived, and this book did not change my mind, but it is still great. The author assumes power is good, and that is why he cannot factor in the greatness of Ty Cobb; however, he did change my mind on where Babe Ruth ranks on the all time greatest athletes. I think I would actually have to say that I might put Babe tied with Jim Thorpe for #1 after reading this book.

The book begins with a short year by year history of Babe’s great career including wonderful coverage of what was then called ‘Barnstorming.’ Major leaguers did not earn the same sort of money back then, so they often traveled around after the season was over and played exhibition games until Oct. 31st to get more money. Babe did this extensively. The author, Bill Jenkinson, draws your specific attention to the big blasts Babe hit during his career.

Next, Mr. Jenkinson begins his analysis of such wondrous feats of hitting, and compares them to the great sluggers of all time. The results cannot be disputed. Babe Ruth was the best. Just take a look at this fact comparison. Mr. Jenkinson declares that homeruns of 450 feet or further are monumental blasts that only power hitters can reach. 500 feet is the sign of greatness. Steroid inhanced Barry Bonds has hit 36 such drives (none of 500 feet) in his career (all but three in the last 6 years of his career). Mark McGwire hit a nice total of 74 (all during a four year span near the end of his career). Babe Ruth hit 198! 198 that went for homeruns and no less than 80 more that did not count as homeruns because 450 feet did not reach the seats in 8 out of 9 American league ball parks during Ruth’s day. Do not forget that the first four years of Babe’ career, he was a full time pitcher. A pitcher that (if he had enough innings to qualify) has a top ten winning percentage and ERA of all time. He had more wins in his first four years than Greg Maddox, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens. There is little doubt that if Babe had remained a pitcher, he would be in the Hall of Fame with well over 300 wins.

Mr. Jenkinson then dispels all myths that baseball is tougher today than it was during Babe Ruth’s time. I can only cover a few of the examples he gives. He includes that the all day game schedule while wearing wool uniforms, modern medicine, modern hydration, air conditioning, first class travel, hollow bats, lighter bats (Babe Ruth used a 54 oz. Bat), the higher pitching mound, the batter’s eye that is now in every major league ball park (it was non-existent in Babe’s day), watered down pitching, and several others. All favor modern hitters. A few deserve special attention.

It is not uncommon to hear the complain made that Babe Ruth did not play against African American athletes, and thus cannot be measured against modern day talent. This statement is simply untrue for several reasons. One, the addition of black athletes has seen many power statistics go up, but it has not done anything to change ERA stats. For whatever reason, one cannot prove the addition of black athletes has improved pitching. Two, Babe Ruth played against Negro League Ball Clubs a lot. Mr. Jenkinson has documented (verified of course) 55 at bats Babe Ruth had against Negro League clubs. Ruth actually had a higher batting average (.400) with 12 home runs. This is a small sample, but most White papers would not report his games against Black teams, and black papers would usually not report it unless Babe did poorly. He also lets us know about many more tales from Negro League players themselves, but did not include them in the stats because no newspaper verified the account. The Late Buck O’Neill told a story of Ruth hitting a long centerfield homerun off of Satchel Paige in Paige’s prime, but it could not be verified.

A second thing that must be noted is Babe Ruth played in a time when the rules and ballparks were against power hitters. The center field fence in Yankee Stadium was 490 feet away. No one in today’s game has to try and reach bleachers that are that far away. Babe Ruth also spent most of his career trying to hit spitballs, which were legal. He also rarely got a clean, white ball. Today the ball is removed after any contact with dirt. More importantly, homeruns were judged differently near the foul line. Today if the ball crosses the fence in fair territory it is ruled a homerun. In Babe Ruth’s time if the ball crossed the fence in fair territory, but landed in foul territory, it was a foul ball. Ruth lost several homeruns a season that way. Ruth also lost multiple homeruns to the lack of standard rules. In Philadelphia Ruth hit a homerun that bounced off a loud speaker on a pole 400 feet away and 20 feet in the air. The ball bounced off the speaker and returned to field of play. It was not ruled a homerun, but rather only a double. This actually happened twice in one year. Today that would have been ruled a homerun.

This all leads to the conclusion and point of his book. Jenkinson projects totals of homeruns if Ruth played in modern ballparks with modern rules. This is done to put to rest any idea that Barry Bonds is a better hitter than Babe Ruth. The results are quite frightening. The 1927 season where Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns translates into 91 homeruns today. However more impressively was the 1921 season where Babe hit 59 homeruns. Jenkinson walks us through the process. First, Jenkinson deducts a few homeruns from Ruth’s total because Yankee Stadium’s notoriously short right field porch was actually a few feet shorter in Ruth’s years. So those that landed only a few feet over the fence were removed. Then those that would have crossed the fence in fair territory, but were ruled foul are added in. Actually he adds in less than half to be conservative. That returns the total to 58. Then there are at least 10 confirmed base hits by Ruth that bounced high off the then 12 foot high fence in right field. Jenkinson credits Babe with only 2 to raise the total to 60. Then at least 40 balls were confirmed to have landed between 440 and 475 feet between the right and left center. Because of the size of old stadiums, these were not homeruns, but would have all easily cleared the fences of modern stadiums. This gets the Bambino to an even 100 homeruns. Then four more are added because of the 162 game schedule (as opposed to 154). This ends with a total of 104 homeruns. And this is a very conservative estimate. How many times did a sports writer not bother to record a 415 foot pop out? Those blasts would have left any modern yard, but would have been directly at a Ruth-era center fielder. Ruth does not get credit for any of those. For more convincing proof, go read the book.

So the next time you hear someone talk about what a great power hitter Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or anyone is, just remember he needs to hit 104 homeruns to catch the Babe.


Steve Scott said...

What a wonderful post to come across in the blogoshpere of theology. Thought provoking yes, but also debate starting. The way baseball talk oughta be. It's obvious to me that Jenkinson (I haven't read his book, so you're my reference) leaves out a few factors - conveniently, yet without a doubt ignorantly - about the comparisons between eras that puts the Babe ahead of all moderns. I'm not arguing that Ruth isn't the best, but he did leave out the factor for hr's that we would now call ground rule doubles. Ruth also never had to deal with the visibility difficulty of twilight starts for night games, or the heavier, damper air of night games that knock balls down from the sky, especially on the west coast. (If Mays played anywhere but Candlestick, Aaron might not be so famous) Ruth didn't deal with fresh-armed specialist relief pitchers that threw 99 mph in the late innings. Also to Ruth's favor would be any walk-off homers he hit that won a game by more than one run that were counted as singles or doubles. Back then (still in '21 I think) a tie-breaking, walk-off grand slam would only be credited as a single because the winning run scored from third base.

Also, I have serious doubts about today's distance measuring system. I've seen both Bonds and McGwire hit ones easily greater than 500 ft, with reported distances less than 450. A friend wrote in about one of those and recieved a reply about a special formula they use that doesn't figure the actual distance the ball flies/would have flown but relates it to landmarks and adjusted relationships to those along with other factors.

Also the dispelled myths that supposedly favor modern hitters are offset by today's superior pitching.

Anyway, I've seen countless games with Bonds and McGwire. Ruth was great and I'd give anything to have seen him.

Lee said...

Thanks for the good response. I have to admit that the physics of baseball distance he discusses was over my head. But he does tell how he measures homeruns, and he uses the same theory to both Ruth and the modern guys. He does say that McGwire hit a few 500 feet homeruns, but Barry had never done it.

Actually, he does deal with most of the things you discuss in his chapter on Comparative Difficulties. I believe he touches on everything you mention except the heavy damp air of night games. Ruth did have the rule during his days of a ball bouncing over the fence being counted as a homerun, but in all of Ruth's 715 homeruns not a single one bounced over. So that rule did not benefit the Babe at all. He did lose a few that would today be counted as walk off homeruns (the old rule ended the game when the winning run crossed home).

I probably should have mentioned the relief pitcher argument. That is one of the fascinating things about the book. Jenkinson believe the relief pitching a wash between generations because the addition of relief pitchers watered down the number of quality starters. It also allowed in many sub-par pitchers that he would have faced in mid-relief. However, what was really interesting is the fact that Babe Ruth did face more relief pitching than anyone before him. In many ways the idea of the relief pitcher began because of Babe Ruth. In the 20's just about every team had a pitcher whose only job was to get Babe Ruth out. They were usually left handed pitchers who did not throw fast balls. "Junk pitchers" we might call them today. Sometimes they started against the Yankees, but often they were brought in late in the game to get Ruth out. Also as the decade wore on, Connie Mack began the strategy of bringing in star starting pitchers to get Ruth out in the late innings. Lefty Grove, a 100 mile an hour ace, came out of the bullpen regularly to face Ruth. The two men hated each other faced each other all the time. It was the only pitcher Mack allowed to throw fastballs to Ruth. Other teams soon followed Mack's lead. So, Ruth did face a great deal of strong armed relief pitching.

You should read the book. I really enjoyed it, and I think you would too.

Enjoy watching the upcoming season, I know I will.

Steve Scott said...

Wow, fascinating.