Clearing the Bases
By Allen Barra
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Allen Barra
All rights reserved.
Getting Tough with Babe Ruth
Four Myths About Babe Ruth
1. Babe Ruth as the Savior of Baseball
As every baseball fan knows, it's an article of faith that Babe Ruth "saved" baseball after the disgrace of the 1919 "Black Sox scandal" and the 1920 death of Ray Chapman from a fastball to the head by Carl Mays. While Ruth's power and flamboyance revitalized the game and in time brought out new fans, there is no evidence whatsoever that baseball in this period was in any danger of losing fans for any reason. Here are the American and National League attendance figures for 1917, '18, '19, '20, and '21:
American League 2,858,858 1,707,999 3,654,236 5,084,300 4,620,328
National League 2,361,136 1,372,127 2,878,203 4,036,575 3,986,984
Attendance in both leagues did take a sharp dip, but it was in 1918 — probably due to the dip in the economy from the end of the war — but, in any event, well before either the Black Sox scandal or Chapman's death. The AL led by nearly half a million in 1917, just 335,000 or so in 1918, then, in 1919, it was back up to over 775,000. But 1920 was the first season that the Black Sox scandal could have hurt attendance and it was actually up substantially, by more than 1,400,000 in the AL, but also by nearly 1,160,000 in the National League, where Ruth did not play. In 1921, attendance in both leagues took a surprising dip, despite the fact that Ruth was having what many consider to be the greatest season of his career. The answer that would seem to make the most sense is that baseball went into a sharp one-year decline after World War I, after which interest rose sharply for the next two seasons before leveling off. Ruth no doubt helped to fuel the surge but he may very well have been carried along by it as well. In any event, there was no drop in attendance following the Black Sox scandal or the death of Ray Chapman, so there was nothing for Ruth to save baseball from.
2. Babe Ruth Begat the Lively Ball Era
Ruth was, apparently, the first player to stride up to the plate in just about any and all situations with the intention of hitting a home run. From 1919, when he led the American League with 29 home runs while still playing for Boston, through 1921, when he led the league with 59 while playing for the Yankees, no one else quite got the idea. In those three seasons, one George Kelly, first baseman for the New York Giants, is the only other player in either league to hit more than 19 (Kelly led the NL in 1921 with 23). Then, in 1922, Rogers Hornsby led the National League with the incredible total of 42, and Ken Williams of the Browns passed up Ruth for the AL crown, 39 to 35. In fact, Curt Walker of the A's also surpassed Ruth with 37. But rather than surge forward, over the next five seasons power hitters fade into the background and leave the stage to Ruth. Cy Williams, playing for the lowly Phillies in 1923, is the only hitter in either league to hit as many as 41 until Gehrig burst on the scene with 47 in 1927.
What is the explanation for this? Why did it take everyone else so long to start catching up to the coming trend in baseball, the home run? And why, once the home run is established by Ruth, do both leagues then go into a home run lapse that lasts several seasons? Even assuming that Ruth was greater by far than any of his contemporaries, is it possible that from 1919 to 1927 — in fact, to 1929 — that sixteen major league teams could produce just three other men capable of hitting as many as 40 home runs in a season?
I don't think so, and I'd like to suggest two other reasons that are related. The first is the strong prejudice that early baseball felt toward the home run. Back in 1845, Alexander Cartwright's original rules actually outlawed the home run — a ball hit over the fence was regarded as a foul. Hall of Famer Henry Chadwick, inventor of the box score, wrote in 1892 that "Long hits are showy, but they do not pay in the long run. Sharp grounders insuring the first-base certain, and sometimes the second-base easily, are worth all the hits made for home-runs." Chadwick felt that the number of strikeouts caused by players "swinging for the fences" far outweighed the value of the home run — a feeling that may have had some validity in his day when the number of errors in an average game was so high that putting the ball in play was of vital importance (in modern times the "sharp grounders" he called for would be swallowed up in Bill Mazeroski's and Ozzie Smith's gloves). That prejudice has never entirely disappeared from baseball. You saw it in Ty Cobb's relentless criticism of Ruth and how he had ruined "scientific" baseball. You'll see it pop up again in our next item in Branch Rickey's putdown of Ralph Kiner. In fact, on the day I write this, Sports Illustrated has published their "Overrated and Underrated" issue with Mark McGwire listed by Michael Bamberger in the former category because "In the batter's box he's one-dimensional. The harsh truth is that McGwire represents all that's wrong with modern baseball and modern life. ... He strikes out every fourth time at bat." There you go, those strikeouts again. Makes you wonder what modern baseball writers think is so much more beneficial about hitting into double plays.
I don't have time to go into a detailed analysis here of McGwire's (and Barry Bonds's) achievements — tell enough of your friends how great this book is and I might get around to it in volume two — but in passing I'll say that McGwire did turn himself into a fine first baseman, that he was in fact much more adept at reaching base than many players with gaudier batting averages, and that the cell phone, Entertainment Weekly magazine, and Adam Sandler movies are far more indicative of what's wrong with the modern world than anything Mark McGwire ever did. And the harsher truth, whether Bamberger wishes to face it or not, is that in terms of winning baseball games it is relative slap-and-tickle hitters like Pete Rose and Tony Gwynn who are overrated. (Quick now: pick a batting order of Mark McGwires or Tony Gwynns or Pete Roses and bet your house or your children's college fund on which one is going to score more runs. Now tell me who's overrated.)
I think the other reason that the best players were slow to catch on to the home run is that well into the '20s, it appeared as if much of the old-timers' criticism was correct. In 1921 and 1922, the New York Giants of John McGraw, the ultimate exponent of hit-behind-the-runner-put-the-ball-in-play–type baseball had beaten the Yankees in 9 out of 12 World Series games with Ruth hitting just 1 home run in 33 at-bats. I greatly suspect that not until 1923, when the Yankees won in 6 games with Ruth hitting 3 home runs, did many writers and fans truly see the home run as a great offensive weapon, much the way football fans and coaches and players didn't truly accept the forward pass until Notre Dame had beaten Army with it. And think about this: before 1927, no player besides Ruth who had hit as many as 37 home runs had played on a team that had won a pennant. In 1922, Hornsby became the first National Leaguer to break 40 when he hit 42, but the Cardinals finished third, 8 full games in back of the Giants. In 1925 he hit 39, but St. Louis finished fourth, 18 games behind Pittsburgh. In 1922 Ken Williams of the Browns hit 39, and St. Louis finished just 1 game behind the Yankees, but in 1923 Cy Williams of the Phillies hit 41, and his team finished dead last. It's likely that many veteran observers regarded the home run as a kind of desperation device to be used only when a team fell behind, much the way many football coaches felt (and still feel) about the pass. And, of course, only bad teams struggle to come from behind. I really believe that it isn't until the crushing one-two of Ruth and Gehrig in '27 and '28 that most baseball men gave into the home run and accepted it as the game's ultimate offensive weapon.
Because look what happens after that. In 1929, two players besides Ruth (Chuck Klein of the Phillies and the Giants' Mel Ott) hit more than 40 home runs, while two (Hornsby and the Cubs' Hack Wilson) hit 39, and four more in the two leagues hit more than 30. By 1930, fugedaboudit. Everyone is hitting big. Hack Wilson puts up Ruthian type numbers in the NL, including 56 home runs and a still-standing record of 191 RBI. By 1932, the year of Ruth's last World Series team, the A's Jimmy Foxx has passed up Ruth (who is, after all, thirty-seven by now) and everyone else with a .749 slugging average and 58 home runs.
And so, the era of the lively ball that Babe Ruth ushered in had reached full flower. Right? Not quite.
There's a problem with that scenario, and it's basically this: the era of the lively ball started well before Ruth's influence. Let's take a glance at the American League hitting stats for the two years before Ruth became an outfielder as well as the three years after:
AL BA OBA SLG A HR ERA
1917 .248 .318 .321 133 2.67
1918 .254 .324 .323 96 2.78
1919 .269 .334 .359 240 3.32
1920 .284 .348 .388 269 3.79
1921 .293 .357 .409 477 4.29
1922 .285 .349 .398 525 4.04
Hitting was on the rise — slightly — in 1918, and then, in 1919, it really started to take off, particularly in the area of home runs. The reasons why hitting was on the rise in this era have been recounted and argued in detail in numerous baseball histories, and it's likely that there is no one single reason for it (though I tend to favor Bill James's point that the major leagues started keeping large supplies of fresh, clean, new balls with life in them after Ray Chapman was killed by a dirty, hard-to-see ball in 1920. But that doesn't explain why home runs went up from 96 to 240 the season before that happened). Ruth became a fulltime regular in 1919 and hit 29 home runs; take away his numbers and there's still a pretty big increase in for everyone else. You could, I suppose, make the argument that a lot of people were suddenly trying to imitate Babe Ruth — but then you'd have to explain why no one else in the league hit more than 10 home runs. In point of fact, individuals weren't hitting a lot more home runs; it was simply that almost everyone on the team was hitting a couple more. For instance, Cleveland and Washington, who finished second and third in the league in 1918, hit just 9 and 5 home runs respectively. In 1919 they hit 25 and 24, repectively. You'd also have to explain why the same kind of increases show up in the National League. In 1917 the NL hit .250; in 1918, .255; in 1919, .258; and in 1920, .270. NL hitters hit 139 home runs in 1918; in 1919 the figure went up to 207; and the next year to 261. Come on, now, are you going to tell me Babe Ruth was also responsible for these dramatic rises in the other league, too?
No, I'm sorry, the evidence in this case simply doesn't support the legends that have grown up around Ruth. Babe was a huge influence, and he did a lot to refocus baseball into a power game, and he was the single most spectacular example of that new power. But Babe Ruth did not create the "Lively Ball Era." Mickey Mantle, when asked by an idiot reporter whether he'd rather bat .400 or hit 60 home runs, gave an undeservedly sensible answer. "I'd rather hit .400," he said, "because the way I swing, if I hit .400 I'd get the 60 home runs." Allow for a slight exaggeration in numbers, and that's what happened between 1919 and the early '30s. Conditions were right for people to hit .400, or at least .375, and the way they were swinging, they got their 60 (or 58 or 56 or 42) home runs.
3. Babe Ruth the All-Around Player
In 1952, while trying to convince Pittsburgh Pirates owner John Galbraith to sell Ralph Kiner and then use the money to develop and buy new players, Branch Rickey composed the following free verse:
Babe Ruth could run. Our man cannot.
Ruth could throw.
Our man cannot.
Ruth could steal a base. Our man cannot.
Ruth was a good fielder. Our man is not.
Ruth could hit with power to all fields. Our man cannot.
Ruth never requested
a diminutive field to fit him. Our man does.
Branch Rickey was, almost certainly, the greatest baseball mind ever. But even great minds have their blind sides. Why Rickey continually belittled and underrated Ralph Kiner, the only great player he ever had at Pittsburgh, is a mystery even Rickey's biographers have never explained, but that's not the point we're concerned with here. Ruth's reputation, as it has been handed down to us, is one of a great all-around player. Let's look at the evaluation of Ruth's all-around abilities from the man who invented the modern farm and scouting systems.
First, Babe Ruth could run. Yeah, a little, for a huge fat guy. Well, to be fair, they say Babe could haul it when he was young. All I can say is that we have more steals/caught stealing information for Babe Ruth than for most great early stars, including Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, which is to say for fifteen of his twenty-one seasons, and if there is any case there to be made for Ruth's speed, I can't see it. From 1920 (when, after all, he was just twenty-five) to the end of his career in 1935, Ruth is known to have attempted 240 steals, of which he was successful just 123 times. This is such a miserable ratio — out of 240 base runners, Ruth was able to create perhaps 40 additional runs by moving to second where a single could bring him home, and as a trade-off he removed 117 other baserunners, killing an absurd number of scoring opportunities but also costing his team God-knows-how-many runs by using up outs on the bases that would have better gone to batters. In fact, Ruth was such a lousy base-stealer that one wonders today why he was even allowed to keep trying to steal. One possible answer is that everyone tried to steal bases back then, that it was such a common part of the game that even knowledgeable baseball people (and there is no more knowledgeable baseball person ever than Branch Rickey) simply did not stop to consider that a man who was thrown out as often as he stole was actually hurting his team.
Another reason might be that no one could keep a tight reign on Babe. Perhaps his most reckless and selfish moment on a baseball diamond was his unsuccessful attempt to steal second base in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1926 Series, depriving Bob Meusel and possibly Lou Gehrig of a chance to win the game and Series (One can only imagine Rickey's reaction if Kiner had tried such a stunt).
For the record, we have complete stolen base information on Ralph Kiner's stolen bases for just five years, 1951 through 1955. He was 9 of 11 in that period. I submit to Branch Rickey or anyone else that a team would have been better off with Ralph Kiner's stolen base record than Ruth's.
Second, Babe Ruth could throw. He is generally described as one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of his time; in point of fact he was one of the greatest pitchers, right or left, of the period. Total Baseball ranks him number one for 1916 — not the number-one pitcher, the number-one player. In other words, his pitching made him perhaps the most valuable player in the league. In 1917, they rank him fifth-best player; in 1918, when he is still mostly pitching, they place him second, with Walter Johnson first.
But I think Rickey, as he was comparing Ruth with Kiner, meant "throw" in the sense of being able to make assists and hit the cutoff man from the outfield. Ruth seems to have been able to do this very well, with 203 assists to show for an 18-year career, though curiously, he never led the league. Like most outfielders with a strong arm, he had high assist totals early in his career — a high of 21 in 1920, and then 20 in 1923 — and then fewer as his career went on and runners learned not to test him. He does not appear to be as good in his own time as, say, Roberto Clemente, who had 266 assists in eighteen seasons, leading his league four times and getting as many as 27 in 1961, was in his.
By the way, Kiner appears to have had about an average arm for a left fielder. Like Ruth, he never led the league in assists for his position. Overall, he had 80 assists in ten seasons, a slightly better average than Hall of Fame left fielder Lou Brock, who, according to the Stats Inc. Major League Handbook, had 142 in nineteen seasons, and several-time Gold Glove left fielder Barry Bonds, who had 129 for his first fourteen seasons.
Third, Babe Ruth could steal a base. Oops, that was already covered in the first item.
Fourth, Babe Ruth was a good fielder. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Clearing the Bases by Allen Barra. Copyright © 2002 Allen Barra. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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