Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How Many Would He Have Hit?

In all of the talk about steroids and legitimate home run records one fact is clear. Babe Ruth stood head and shoulders above anyone who has played the game.

The only players who come close, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Mark McGwuire, Barry Bonds, etc. do not approach the Babe for pure power.

When a modern player hits a 400 foot homer – even in a Home Run Derby – the telecasters oh and ah. In the enormous parks of the ’20s Ruth hit a huge number of 475 to 490-foot outs! When Tris Speaker or Ty Cobb hauled in a ball just inside the 490 foot wall in center field all the Babe had to show for it was an F8.

And while Killebrew and Dick Allen and others hit some long ones there was no one like Ruth – even Mickey Mantle hit only a handful of home runs more than 500 feet in his career.

In spite of being a right-handed hitting power hitter who played half his games at Yankee Stadium Joe Dimaggio NEVER hit a home run to left center. If Barry Bonds had played his best season in ‘the Stadium’ he would not have hit one out either, in fact in his best year he would have hit only half as many homers there.

Here are the lengths of some of Ruth’s consecutive home runs in various years ... May of 1921 - 460 feet, 450, 490, 520, 460; June of ’21 - 490, 500, 510; July ’25 - 470, 450, 575, 440, 560, 435, 465; August ’24 - 475, 460, 425, 355, 500, 510; May ’26 - 475, 515, 365, 545.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Wherever Ruth went, playing against college kids or Satchel Paige, he hit the ball farther than anyone had hit one in that park. He hit several into train yards, or across streets, several in the high 500s and one almost 650 feet!

Was it easier for him then? There was no relief pitching. Oh, but there was for Ruth, managers like Connie Mack often brought in specialist pitchers, like a screwballer or a normal starter like Lefty Grove.

There was no slider or split-finger fastball. Ya, but there were spitballs.

The ball was livelier. It was for part of his career but when it was normalized it didn't slow him down. And he was hitting a ball that had been in play for a few innings and it had had tobacco juice, licorice, paraffin wax, etc. applied to it. If Mike Schmidt saw a piece of dust on a ball he got it thrown out. By the late afternoon it must have been very hard to pick up – especially on days when the bleachers were filled with fans in white shirts.

Ruth didn't have a helmet or protective armour like Barry Bonds when he stood in there.

Ruth wore flannel uniforms in afternoon games, not cotton ones in cool evening games. There was no air-conditioned dugout to cool off in between innings. (Ruth often wore a piece of lettuce under his cap.) And there was no relief in St. Louis or Washington at night either. Players often slept in nearby parks or the hotel roof.

Players today travel farther. Sure, they fly no more than five hours first class or on a chartered jet. Try 25 hours on a train without air conditioning.

He played fewer games (154). On top of Ruth’s yearly barn-storming tours, every day the Yankees had off they scheduled an exhibition game out of town at which the Babe was mobbed. And he continually did public appearances and fund-raisers before and after them. (I’m sure Bonds and McGwire did those all the time.)

But he didn’t play against African Americans or Latin players. In 45 games against the best Negro League pitchers Ruth exceeded his regular season batting, home run, and slugging average.

Besides the astronomical distance to center and the power alleys in days of yore, while Ruth hit a handful down the 296 line in Yankee Stadium he lost 50 home runs to one rule! In his day the ball – even if it landed in a nearby restaurant had to be judged to have landed fair – if it was fair inside the foul pole and ended up foul in the 65th row of the seats it was foul.

Technology? We now know that if Ruth had used a modern, lighter, hollowed-out barrel, thinner handled bat he'd have gotten the bat through the strike zone even faster and had far more home runs. He once picked up Aaron Ward’s 32-ounce toothpick and ripped a double, a 485-foot homer and a 535 shot but returned to his more manly 54-ounce bat the next day.

How about conditioning and knowledge of trainers? Ruth had no college physical training the way modern players do. Toward the end of his career Manager Miller Higgins prescribed constant exposure to sunlight!

How about relative skill of pitching? Sure the pitchers today are big and strong but with 6 teams the big leagues needed only 48 starters in the ’20s and ’30s. Now 30 teams need 150. And almost all of the best athletes in the ’20s became ball players, like Gehrig who would have surely been a football player today.

And finally, the strike zone in his day was higher. Imagine trying to hit Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove pitches if they were well above the belt? Of course, most managers would not allow their pitchers to throw Ruth a strike.

This has been a fairly long article. I may write more about Ruth another time but I hope you can see that, when it comes to raw power, the best pitcher in the American League in 1912, ’13, and ’14 was the greatest slugger of them all.


Rick Blechta said...

Babe Ruth: truly amazing.

John the Tomahawk Trembath said...

I say over a 1000. if the parks were of today short throws design it would be no contest. Ruth was the greatest player.

Anonymous said...

Miller Huggins died in 1929. Ruth played until 1935.