Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why Babe Ruth was the Greatest Hitter Ever

A psychologist friend sent me this link after I told him I was reading "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs" by Bill Jenkinson, acknowledged as perhaps the greatest expert on long-ball hitters among baseball historians.

A couple of items from the Columbia U. 1921 study [coincidentally the year in the title of the book] struck me, including the fact that Babe hit balls at the knees on the outside corner the best in tests. Jenkinson's book, without citing this source, makes much of the fact that an abnormally large percentage of Ruth's homers came in left-center field, where a low-outside corner pitch would be likely to go with a left-handed batter.

Also, the Columbia study shows that Babe, even though tired from a very long day & still in his uniform from a game at Polo Grounds nearby, performed extremely well on hand-eye-brain tests although in a state of fatigue. They point out that Babe held his breath while swinging, a habit which actually lowered his available strength and bat-speed. Also, they noted that he used a 54-ounce bat, much heavier than a 33 ouncer used today by sluggers. Jenkinson goes into detail on how a heavier bat would drive a ball farther, but would be slower than a 33-ouncer. So that the moderns, with their technological advantages, might have the edge over Ruth.

Why then was Babe Ruth such a phenomenal athlete? Given the juiced-up stats of today's sluggers and the sober regimen they follow to stay in shape, what would Babe's stats have looked like had he taken care of himself---he was a notorious binge eater and drinker and not played endless exhibition games which sapped his strength and shortened his career by perhaps a half-decade or more? The same might be asked about Walter Johnson, whose win totals would have probably surpassed Cy Young's had he been pitching for a team with even average hitters in the lineup. Ruth, Johnson, and Lou Gehrig were all legendary athletes whose careers were foreshortened or diminished by unfortunate circumstances, though Ruth still had a long career for a person of such untrammeled appetites and endless public relations appearances.

The Columbia study above, one of the first of its kind, notes that the Babe's stats would have been much more impressive had he started out as a full-time hitter instead of concentrating on pitching the first five years of his career. At that, he was one of the finest pitchers in baseball during an era of wonderful throwers!

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find Harry Stein's famous article with the most famous ethnic teams in baseball, but both Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner, two of the top five all-time Hall-of-Fame initial initiates, were German-language speakers. Gehrig was also of German extraction, so the Dutchman team has a pretty good shot at being as good as any other group---at least in hitting.

1 comment :

dave in boca said...

Steve Sailer left this comment in my e-mail: "Ruth actually was one of the first ballplayers to take up the modern system of staying in shape all winter long. After his disastrous 1925 season, when many in baseball thought he was washed up at age 30, he hired a personal trainer and worked out in gyms every winter for the second half of his career. He managed to stay at an extremely high level of production much longer than was typical for players back then, who tended to fall apart in their mid-30s like Hornsby and Foxx (although there were exceptions like Wagner, Cobb, and Speaker). Of course, Ruth was lucky in that he made enough money that he didn't have to get a job at the mill over the winter -- that's one reason the superstars were more super than the average player back then -- the run of the mill players were wearing their bodies down each winter working on the loading dock or wherever."

Or playing other sports less conducive to longevity, like famous Brooklyn Dodger Dolph Camilli's brother, who fought under the name Frank Campbell, and was killed in a boxing match by Max Baer in 1930. Baer went to his grave feeling guilty for the accidental death.

Besides sports, Steve is a noted thinker on genetic & societal mores, as Steven Pinker notes in a New Republic article just out on the stands.