Defending the Babe

We love our asterisks. “You’re guy doesn’t belong, because of that! My guy belongs, because of this.” Historians love asterisks, and sports historians love them a little more when arguing this and that, but nobody loves the asterisk more than the baseball historian. It’s their favorite punctuation mark. Rather than write about an athlete’s attempt to topple a record from the past with exclamation marks, they diminish that athlete’s drive to the record with some sort of unofficial, verbal asterisk, or they embellish the athlete’s attempt by asterisking everyone else in his way.

“But Babe Ruth had a .342 career batting average.” Pfft. (Pfft is the sound of an asterisk sliding into a conversation.) He got most of his hits against starting pitchers who were tired by his third or fourth at-bat.  “As a pitcher, Ruth went 65-33.” *Yeah but (the yeahbut is another unofficial, verbal asterisk) between 1915-1917, he played for the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox won the World Series three out of four of those years, so of course he won a lot of those games. “He pitched 29.2 scoreless innings in those World Series games.” *It was the dead ball era. It was easier to pitch scoreless innings back then. “He pitched a 2.06 ERA during those years.” *Again, it was the dead ball era, and he wasn’t even in the top ten ERA leaders most of those years. “He hit some of his 714 during those dead ball years.” *He didn’t have to face African American pitchers back then, he didn’t have to play night games, and he didn’t have to face the rigors of extensive travel back then. “He ended up with 714 after only hitting 20 the first five years of his career. Are you saying that’s not an accomplishment?” *He didn’t have to face as many teams, as many different starters, and there was only one prominent reliever back then. How many of those home runs did he hit in his third and fourth at-bats when the starter was fatigued? “Baseball was the premier league during Ruth’s playing days, and it attracted the best athletes in the country.” *In the country. Modern baseball now invites the best from around the world to compete.

The Babe Ruth defender cannot win, as baseball historians have an asterisk ready for every single one of Babe Ruth’s accomplishments, but for every argument for an asterisk there is a counterargument, and every counterargument has its own counterargument, until we arrive at the conclusion if we’re going to asterisk everyone then we should probably not asterisk anyone (*except for the PED players), because it’s almost impossible to compare eras.

The primary asterisk we hear against calling Babe Ruth the unquestioned “Sultan of Swat” is that he didn’t have to face African-American, Hispanic, or any other minority pitchers. Between the years 1846 and 1947, professional baseball was not integrated. Was it immoral? Of course it was. The idea that a baseball player wasn’t allowed to compete for a job in a sport was a stain on baseball, its history and tradition, and its records. Baseball could’ve led by example, in this regard, and there are no excuses, no if, ands, or buts to support why this wasn’t done from the very beginning. Full stop.

Due to the fact that Major League Baseball (MLB) participated in the stain of segregation, Babe Ruth did not have the chance to face a wide swath of the population. Since integration, some of the greatest pitchers of all time have been either African American, Hispanic, and Asian. Yet, if integration were introduced when it should’ve been, in the very beginning, how many of the members of other races would’ve replaced the starting pitchers Babe Ruth faced? The fact is that it was unfair that pitchers were not given the chance to compete for the jobs, but the inference that Babe Ruth’s career total of 714 home runs would be significantly lower if he faced black pitchers is just as unfair. Buck O’Neill’s quote basically reinforces the unfairness of baseball historians attaching this unofficial, verbal asterisk to Ruth’s career numbers.

Buck on Babe

Buck O’Neill, who played in the [African-American] Leagues, then scouted and managed in Major League baseball, said, “[African-American] League pitching lacked the depth of Major League Baseball.” Before we go any further, we should note that that had to be a difficult thing to say for a man who successfully fought to keep the tradition and history of [African-American] League Baseball alive. O’Neill could’ve viewed the comparisons from a subjective perspective, or even a competitive point of view, that stated how all of his [African-American] League peers were just as good as anyone in Major League Baseball. He didn’t. To his credit, O’Neill viewed the two leagues objectively and said the depth of [African-American] League pitching was comparatively lacking.

Mr. O’Neill did not say that the top hitters of his league weren’t comparable however. He later said that when he heard Josh Gibson hit the ball it “created a particular sound like dynamite.” He said he only heard that two other times, “Babe Ruth was the first, and 50 years later, Bo Jackson was the third.” Some suggest that Josh Gibson hit 800 home runs though this cannot be substantiated for the official record. Mr. O’Neill also did not say that the best pitchers in the [African-American] Leagues would not have made the Majors. He just said that the rotations weren’t as deep as the Major League rotations.

Based on what Mr. O’Neill saw in his playing days, scouting, managing, and just appreciating the game as an insider/outsider for 50+ years, we can infer him saying that if integration were never an issue, and black pitchers were allowed to play in the Major League from the beginning, pitching across the league probably wouldn’t have been significantly different top to bottom. Further research from The Society of American Baseball Research also notes that becoming a Major League pitcher has never been particularly attractive to the African-American athlete. After 1947, the percentage of African American pitchers peaked at around 6% in the 1970’s. A USA Today article interviewed various commentators on this subject, and they offered speculative reasons for this, but regardless what those reasons are, the fact remains that the demographic has never been particularly attracted to the position. The inference baseball historians make is that Ruth’s home run totals pale in comparison to the other more modern, hitters, because the more modern hitters faced African-American pitchers, but most of them have faced pitching staffs that are, historically, between 1% and 2% African-American on average. So, if Babe Ruth played in the 1970’s, and faced a peak of 6% African American pitchers, and he didn’t hit a single home run off of any of them, his home run total would probably be around 671.

To asterisk this asterisk, we do have a sample of how Babe Ruth might have fared against the African American pitchers his era. Some might further asterisk that asterisk by stating that the sample we have for this involved sixteen contests that were exhibition games. It is true, but we can guess that the [African-American] League pitchers did not pitch as if they were exhibition games when they faced Major League ballplayers. We can guess that even though they were exhibition games, the pitchers put forth their best effort to show that they were just as good if not better than the pitchers in the Major League. When they faced The Babe, especially, we can be sure that they did everything they could to get the man out. He ended up hitting 12 home runs against them in 55 at-bats, for a 22% rate. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in 8,399 at bats against Major League Pitching, at a 9% clip. This isn’t to suggest if Ruth hit against African American pitchers, in the Majors, throughout his career, he would have hit home runs in 22% of his at-bats against them, but that the “lack of depth” O’Neill described would’ve become clear to baseball historians and Babe Ruth’s numbers wouldn’t have been as significantly different as they imply.

Babe Ruth in the Modern Game

 Baseball historian, Bob Klapisch writes that, “Ruth was found to have had substantially above-average hand-eye coordination, intelligence and steadier nerves.”

I find this addition worthy, because Klapisch’s repeat of Ruth’s scouting report, combined with O’Neill’s description of the rare sound the ball made coming off his bat, describe intangibles that cannot be taught or coached. The jokes coaches of various sports repeat is, “You can’t coach someone to be taller, and you can’t coach someone to be faster.” You also can’t coach someone to have above-average hand-eye coordination. It’s an intangible that an athlete has or doesn’t, and that’s one of the many reasons why I think Babe Ruth would be a top-tier baseball player in any era.

Kevin Long, the Yankees’ hitting instructor, counters, “I see too much movement in [Babe Ruth’s] stride, he’s hitting off his front foot. That’s OK only if you’re sitting on an 80-mph fastball or waiting on a curveball that only breaks on two [up and down] planes.”

Hitting instructor, Kevin Long, makes the ‘we live in the best of times’ argument many indulge in that suggests the modern athlete is so superior that the athletes of yesteryear couldn’t compete. He states that if Ruth were playing in the modern game, he’d have tendencies that would inhibit his success, yet a hitting instructor knows that tendencies can be corrected. He then suggests Babe Ruth would have a tough time adjusting to a faster fastball, or a better curveball, as if it were a feat to which a modern Babe Ruth couldn’t adjust. It’s ridiculous on the face of it to suggest that an athlete, as superior as many describe Ruth, of “above average intelligence with steadier nerves” couldn’t adjust. Athletic ability aside for just a moment, if we could transport Babe Ruth, from birth on, to the modern era, and we could transport the conditions in which he was raised with him, Ruth would have the same driving force to learn, adjust, and succeed, because he would be as desperate to succeed now as he was then. Those who train fighters in boxing tell us that often what separates equally talented boxers is the sense of desperation one of the boxers has to succeed. They say that a fighter desperate to escape his current conditions, is more coachable and trainable, because they want it more. As anyone who has played any sport knows, defeat, personal failure, and a resultant embarrassment are part of it. Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is a game in which its top stars endure more failure than success. The top hitters, for example, do not reach base 70% of the time. If Babe Ruth was the superior athlete that Klapisch and numerous others describe, he would fail to hit the modern 100mph fastball, and the modern curveball, as Long describes, but how many modern athletes fail to hit those same pitches. I believe that Babe Ruth would learn from his failures, adjust, and eventually succeed on the level he did in the 1920’s and 1930’s, because of the sense of desperation that would surely supersede his more priviledged peers.

Major League players, coaches, and managers on the Red Sox, Yankees and the other teams he played throughout the American League, in his era, considered Babe Ruth the asterisk of his era. They considered him a freak of nature athletically. *If African-Americans were allowed to play baseball in the Major League, they argue, Babe Ruth wouldn’t have appeared so freakishly talented. It’s a theoretical argument that has merit, especially if the unsubstantiated rumors about Josh Gibson are anywhere close to true, except when it comes to pitching. The principles of pitching aren’t solely based on athletic talent. If this argument focused on the NBA or the NFL, the athletic argument would take center stage. Integration of African-Americans transformed those leagues, but the eventual integration of baseball in 1947 showed very few pitchers make the jump to the Major Leagues. Did the Major League teams make these decisions as a result of racism? There were a number of hitters who made the jump, but very few pitchers did.

Buck O’Neill never explored why he thought the [African-American] League pitching staffs weren’t as deep as the Major League Baseball ones, but the inference baseball historians make that Babe Ruth didn’t face the superior athletes of his era deserves its own asterisk because superior athleticism doesn’t significantly enhance one’s ability to pitch. The difference between a dominant pitcher and an average one is not necessarily athletic, but it’s not necessarily based on intelligence either. Star-quality pitching at the Major League level is one of those things that I’m sure if we asked Major League scouts, how do we make a dominant Major League pitcher, they would say, “If we knew, we’d probably make a lot more of them.” A dominant Major League pitcher is as much about tangibles as it is intangibles, like perseverance through perpetual failure, that are not based on race, economic conditions, or any other indicators that we can point to in a substantial manner.

The problem with the integration argument is that we can’t argue what if’s, what abouts, and all that, so Ruth’s legacy suffers from the institutional wrongdoings of his era that now lead us to either accept his 714 home runs with asterisks, or dismiss them entirely.

Asterisk Them All

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1926: Babe Ruth batting during an exhibition game.

Baseball historians also list ‘Babe Ruth didn’t have to play night games’ as one of the unofficial, verbal asterisks we should all place an asterisk on his .342, 714 numbers, and they usually throw it on the list of generally accepted asterisks against Ruth. I don’t understand this asterisk. I think baseball historians add it to a list, as opposed to saying it as a standalone, because no one parses this asterisk out to ask what difference it makes. I understand the ‘Babe Ruth didn’t have to travel extensively’ asterisk to some degree, because we all know how long flights can lead to some fatigue. If we combine the two and say Ruth never had to travel to the west coast to play a 10:00 PM game, that might have some merit, but from what we know of Babe Ruth, it appears he had no trouble playing at night.

Unless you consider a diet of hot dogs and beer performance enhancing, we might asterisk in Babe Ruth’s favor by saying he played baseball without any enhancements or supplements of any kind. Babe Ruth certainly never heard of steroids, creatine, and he likely never heard of amphetamines, as they didn’t make their way into baseball until somewhere in the World War II era of the 1940’s or 1950’s. Babe Ruth’s era knew little-to-nothing about the benefits of weightlifting, or the advanced training methods of the modern era. Even some relatively modern athletes, as far back as the 1970’s report that they (team doctors and trainers included) actually considered weight training counterproductive to baseball. So, we could argue that if Ruth matured athletically in the climate of modern, advanced training methods, weightlifting, and the science behind strength and conditioning, his numbers could be significantly higher. If Ruth had video resources, modern hitting instruction, or any of the advanced scouting hitters have today, his numbers could even be higher. As Buck O’Neill, and others allude, Babe Ruth might have been one of the most naturally gifted athletes of his century, especially when considering the stories of how much damage he did to his body with his nightlife, alcohol consumption, and his general diet.

Babe Ruth Basically Invented the Home Run

This part might be hard for modern baseball fans to understand, but before Babe Ruth, the home run wasn’t the prized event it is today. Up until Babe Ruth, baseball teams didn’t sign pure home run hitters, and they didn’t strategize for the home run. Even when Ruth hit 148 home runs for the Yankees, between 1920 and 1922, the Yankees still didn’t win their first World Series title. So, while the rest of baseball saw the popularity of home runs for what it was among the fans, their version of statistical analysis led them to believe that home runs didn’t equate to wins. The myth that most of us believed that no one hit home runs before Babe Ruth was not true. Various players hit them, but the rationale back then was when you swung for the fences, it messed up the mechanics of your swing. As Ty Cobb once observed it was Ruth’s first career as a pitcher that allowed him to perfect his reckless, from-the-heels, all-or-nothing cut, since nothing much was expected of pitchers at the plate. One of the greatest home run hitters of all time, Babe Ruth wasn’t even signed as a home run hitter, and he wasn’t utilized by the team that signed him as one (Boston Red Sox), until his final, fifth year with them. His first year, he only hit four home runs, but he was a primarily a pitcher when he did that. The Red Sox viewed Babe Ruth as a pitcher who could hit, and they used him in that manner.

How many years did the Red Sox cost Babe Ruth in terms of home run production? First, we’ll dismiss Ruth’s 1914 season from the record, because Ruth was a rookie, and no one knew much about him. He went 22-9 as a pitcher in the minors, but as a hitter he had 28 hits in 131 plate appearances for a .231 batting average and one home run. So, at this point even the eventual Hall of Fame home run hitter had no reason to believe he would be anything more or less than a dominant pitcher, on a Major League Level. In his next three years (1915-1917), Ruth went 65-33 with the Red Sox and an 2.06 ERA. While that number looks great by today’s standards, some argue that these numbers occurred during the dead ball era, and that Ruth was not as dominant a pitcher as some baseball historians suggest. These naysayers also say that his win rate was influenced by the fact that he was on a Red Sox team that perennially competed for the World Series. As a counterpoint, Red Sox outfielder Harry Hooper approached the team’s manager Ed Barrow and told him the team needed to get Ruth’s bat into the lineup. Barrow said no. “I’d be the laughingstock of baseball if I took the best left hander in the league and put him in the outfield.” So, why would any manager who fears getting fired every year, allow such a successful pitcher in the batting order for more opportunity to injury, possible fatigue, and embarrassment for trying to make such a good pitcher a hitter? World War I. There are disputes about how Ed Barrow eventually decided to put Ruth in the batting order*, but some suggest that Barrow put Ruth in the batting order out of desperation because World War I depleted the Red Sox roster to the point that Ruth was one of the few options available to him at the time. Babe Ruth didn’t go to World War I, because his number was never called, so those of us who don’t follow the rich tradition of baseball intensely, probably wouldn’t know the name Babe Ruth, if it weren’t for World War I.

Not only did Ruth hit .300 and tie for the home run title, in 1919, but the Red Sox won the World Series. When the World Series arrived, Barrow limited Ruth’s at bats, but that was probably because Ruth shut out the Cubs in the first game, to stretch Ruth’s record of shutout innings to 22.1 innings. Ruth would stretch that record to a then record 29.2 innings of consecutive shutout innings, and Ruth won his next start to help the Red Sox win the series four games to two.

The first five seasons of his career, spent with the Boston Red Sox, Ruth only hit 49 home runs. Hank Aaron already hit 140 at the same age and in the fifth years in their respective careers. We could argue that the Red Sox accidentally cost Ruth about four and a half years of potentially productive years as a home run hitter, by keeping him out of the batting lineup until his fifth year.

When the Yankees traded for Ruth, they viewed Ruth as a hitter, and they switched him to the outfield. (Stats show he only pitched 20 innings in 15 years with the Yankees.) He hit 54 home runs in his first year, 1920, with the Yankees, and a star was born, and the glory of the home run was born with it. The second most home runs hit that year were by George Sisler 19, and in ’21 Ruth hit 59, and 2nd place was Bob Meusel at 24. Ruth’s success helped bring about the end of dead ball era.

Another unofficial, verbal asterisk that we could use in Ruth’s favor is the ball. How many fresh balls does the modern hitter have? How many times, in one at-bat, does an umpire or batter ask for a new ball? If a foul ball is hit, the umpire reaches into his bag and hands the catcher a new ball. In Ruth’s day, reports suggest “the ball was sacred”. The fielders were to return the game ball to the pitcher after a foul ball, and Major League Teams hired security personnel and ushers to retrieve it from the stands. In this era, teams played with one ball until “it was literally falling to pieces, and you couldn’t use it anymore”. John Rossi’s piece states that the ball “would be covered with grass and mud stains, along with goodly amount of tobacco juice from being spit on by the fielders. They would also lose their resiliency. Thus, the name the dead-ball era.” Some suggest that Ruth may have been partially responsible for Major League Baseball creating rules for a cleaner ball. As a result of the popularity of his home runs, the owners of Major League Baseball teams decided to feed into the massive attendance jump for just about every team in 1920. The owners made various “trick” pitches illegal, including the spitball, and they instituted a better ball, though this term would be refuted by laboratory tests. The owners wanted to keep the ball white, so hitters could see it. The spitball was banned in 1920, but numerous pitchers, who used it as their primary pitch throughout their career, were grandfathered in. If Babe Ruth didn’t invent the home run, he single-handedly revolutionized the game from the John McGraw “inside” baseball tactics of bunt, steal, sacrifice to move over, and score on sacrifice fly to win 1-0, to a hitter’s game. Ruth’s home runs were not the sole reason for the explosion of baseball’s popularity. The end of the war, the money involved, and the more lively ball, as opposed to the 1-0 contests that tends to only please purists. He wasn’t the sole reason, but he was the primary reason there was more money in the game, as attendance exploded after his home run explosions, and for the more lively ball. As Robert W. Creamer concludes in Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, “Ruth’s 1919 breakthrough did not provide a gradual evolution. It was sudden and cataclysmic.”

The one other element that most baseball historians don’t mention when they discuss how Babe Ruth changed the game was that Babe Ruth became this nation’s first sports celebrity. He was America’s first athletic superstar at a time when baseball sorely needed it after the Black Sox scandal. Baseball had famous hitters from Ty Cobb to Tris Speaker to Honus Wagner who were just as good, and some might argue, better than Ruth, but Babe Ruth’s hitting style, his personality, and his off-the-field activities made him larger than life. Those other hitters were huge in their hometown, and every baseball fan of the era knew their name, but by the time Ruth joined the Yankees, everyone had a love/hate relationship with him. I haven’t done extensive research on this, but my guess is Ruth was baseball’s first constant headline maker. This media attention brought fans to the stands, and since the first transmission of television broadcasts didn’t occur until 1925, the primary source of revenue for owners was fan attendance. There are many bullet points to add to Babe Ruth’s claim to fame, but the ideas that he almost single-handedly changed one of the three major sports and defined the idea of sports celebrity might shine the brightest, and no baseball historian can asterisk their way out of that argument.

In all of the research I did for this piece, I found authoritative asterisks that suggest while Babe Ruth might have been one of the best athletes of his generation, he couldn’t compete against the modern athlete. I found a counterargument to that asterisk that suggest most modern star athletes entering high school dream of playing in either the NFL, the NBA, and the MLB, in that order. In Babe Ruth’s era, the MLB was the premier sports organization that attracted the best, caucasian athletes in the country. Professional football and professional basketball existed, but they were nowhere near as popular as Major League Baseball. The premier athletes in the United States wanted to play baseball, and Babe Ruth faced off against the best athletes of his era. I’m sure you just thought of a counterargument to that argument, and that’s the point I made earlier. For every argument, there is a counterargument, and a counter to that counterargument, as evidenced by all the articles, opinion articles, and replies to those articles. The one definitive, authoritative, and irrefutable conclusion on whether or not Babe Ruth was a superior athlete who could compete in any era is that there is no definitive, authoritative, and irrefutable conclusion.

“Why do you care?” might be the question Babe Ruth defenders hear most often. “What difference does it make?” might be the second most, “Babe Ruth’s (1914-1935) career now is almost 100 years old.” My drive might have something to do with the fact that I cannot stand it when people say, “It is the best of times, right now, as far as athletics are concerned.” This argument of the tangibles suggest that athletes who dominated during “the worst of times” could not compete in today’s game. The argument also stubbornly insists that any argument that includes a Babe Ruth must be the as-is model. We cannot transport him to today’s era of training and diet science, so why debate it? They put these asterisks on the great athletes from Ruth to Walter Payton to Wilt Chamberlain to just about every athlete who dominated his game during his era. The debate over whether Ruth, and all of the other athletes on the list, would’ve been as dominant as they were, will go on, but to suggest that Ruth wouldn’t have made the Majors, that Payton would’ve been used in third-down situations, or that Wilt Chamberlain was only dominant because he was so much taller than everyone else in that era, dismisses so many transcendent tangibles and intangibles that the great ones almost have imbedded in their DNA. Some elements have nothing to do with the natural ability to dominate and that returns us to the best asterisk in this article, the desperation asterisk. Ruth, like Payton, and Bill Russell were born and raised in situations they desperately sought to escape, and they believed sports were their ticket out. As stated earlier, he who wins athletic contests are often the most athletic, but some of the times, the desperation to win and eventually succeed defines the difference in a manner that transcends the best of times and the worst of times.

I provide the numbers below, because someone once said that numbers speak for themselves, but I think we all know that they don’t, because they invite asterisks, counterpoints to those asterisks, and counterarguments to the counterargument.

Total Home Runs: Ruth 714 vs. Aaron 755 vs. Pujols 703

Total Games — Ruth 2,503 vs. Aaron 3,298 vs. Pujols 3,080

At Bats — Ruth 8,399 vs. Aaron 12,365 vs. Pujols 11,421

Plate Appearances — Ruth 10,623 vs. Aaron 13,941 vs. Pujols 13,041

Batting Average — Ruth .342 vs. Aaron .305 vs. Pujols .296

Runs — Ruth and Aaron tied at 2,174 vs. Pujols 1,914

Runs Batted In — Ruth 2,214 vs. Aaron 2,297 vs. Pujols 2,218

Walks — Ruth 2,062 vs. Aaron 1,402 vs. Pujols 1,373

Strike Outs — Ruth 1,330 vs. Aaron 1,383 vs. Pujols 1,404

Slugging Percentage — Ruth .690 vs. Aaron .555 vs. Pujols .544

Number of Unique Pitchers Hitter Hit Home Runs On — Ruth 342*(as a Yankee) vs. Aaron 310 vs. Pujols 458

Seasons — Ruth 22 vs. Aaron 23 vs. Pujols 22

World Series Rings — Ruth 7 vs. Aaron 1 vs. Pujols 2


*In Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, the author Robert W. Creamer states that Ruth’s transition was not a managerial decision, or one based on WWI depletion, but Babe Ruth’s decision. After experiencing some success as a hitter, Ruth decided he no longer wanted to pitch. Ruth’s and manager Ed Barrow argued about this, but Ruth eventually won the argument. The book also states that Ruth’s ability to avoid the draft involved him being married at the time and some squabbles between Major League Baseball and government agencies.

**Other sites say that on May 6, Barrow changed his mind and started Ruth at first base. After that, Ruth played in the field when he wasn’t pitching and the Red Sox were facing a right-hander. Ruth responded by hitting 11 home runs to lead the American League and pitching to a 13-7 record.

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