Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Ten Things You May Have Forgotten About Babe Ruth and Why He's Still the Best
I can clearly remember the first time I heard about Babe Ruth; remember it just like it was yesterday.
I was three years old; or maybe four; could have been five. My father sat me down and showed me an article in a sports magazine that had just arrived in the mail. I think it was Sports Illustrated; might have been Sport. He showed me pictures of the famous Bambino and told me all the stories: how he had been a pitcher and then switched to the outfield because he was such a great hitter, how he hit more home runs than anyone ever had or ever would; and, most of all, how he had called his shot in the World Series. I was hooked, forever convinced that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a baseball player comparable to the Babe. I remember it just like it was yesterday.
Or maybe the day before yesterday.
Most baseball fans of a certain generation have a similar story in their memory banks, sort of a sports coming-of-age moment, when they first learned of the mighty deeds of Babe Ruth. Thereafter, we tend to feel that we know everything there is to know about him. The problem is that, like my own recall, sometimes we forget a few of the details.
I am always amused when people try to come up with excuses for why someone other than Babe Ruth may be baseball's all-time greatest player. I think the feeling of complete knowledge in the face of a faulty memory contributes to this. To me, it's a worthless intellectual exercise to even consider that anyone else is superior. There really is no discussion. No one else is even close. As a player or as a personality, the Babe was just that much better. It's unfortunate, however, that the newer generation may occasionally believe impostors with their fancy statistics and new-age reasoning.
I have always felt that any statistical analysis that doesn't start with Babe Ruth being the greatest is, by definition, seriously and fatally flawed and worth about as much as the romper the guy was probably wearing at the time he came up with it.
Here are a few reasons why I love Babe Ruth and things about him you probably know, but may have forgotten:
1) The Babe was a man totally without pretense or guile. He made no attempt to portray himself as anything other than what he was. Sure, his legend was partly the creation of a very astute business manager who was decades ahead of his time in the marketing business, and the Babe may have had a few habits that might be looked down upon in certain quarters of civilized society, but he was essentially a true character. He rarely tried to hide his habits or apologize for them. We were never forced to witness the Babe visibly shrinking in front of a jury or Congress, groveling and mumbling lame excuses, not-talking-about-the-past, wagging his finger in arrogant mockery of his accusers, suddenly forgetting how to speak English, or defiantly lying about his actions to save his miserable butt. I believe, given similar circumstances, the Babe probably would have borrowed a line from Popeye and asserted, "I yam what I yam." And the public would have understood.
2) He never tried to impress people who he thought were important and he never resorted to namedropping to try to impress anyone else. Everyone was the same in the Babe's eyes--a "kid" or a "dame," he treated them all the same. When he met the top man in the free world, the Babe confidently looked him right in the eye and said, "Hot as hell ain't it Prez."
Once, he was invited to attend a Gatsbian party at a swanky place in Manhatten. The next day he told pitcher Waite Hoyt how much fun he had at the party, with "guys with green vests and plaid vests and tails on their coats," serving an endless supply of champagne and of jumping and splashing in the huge fountain.
"Where was this?" Hoyt asked finally.
Somewhere in the city--the Babe wasn't exactly certain where--but "there was a dame named Mrs. Vanderbilt" who was the hostess. The "dame" named Vanderbilt was New York City's leading socialite and the site of the party had been her famous mansion at 58th Street and 5th Avenue--at the time called the grandest mansion in the city, know to everyone in America. Everyone, that is, except the Babe.
3) The Babe didn't worry about politically correct niceties. Not that he had any malice, he just didn't think about it. Once while helping New Yorker Al Smith stump for the Presidency, the Babe was speaking on a radio show with teammate Tony Lazzeri, who was of Italian heritage. "Tell me Tony," Babe said into the microphone, "who are the wops going to vote for this year."
4) He wasn't just a pitcher before he switched to the outfield, he was a great pitcher who could lay legitimate claim to the best lefthander of his era. People forget just how great a pitcher the Babe was. Consider:
He never had a losing season as a pitcher.
His lifetime ERA was 2.28. That puts him 17th on the all-time list (of pitchers with more than 1000 innings pitched).
He had a lifetime record of 94-46. That's a .671 winning percentage--which places him 11th on the all-time list.
He topped 300 innings pitched in a season twice (for pitch-count fanatics, he threw 323 in 1916 as a 21-year-old).
From 1915 to 1918 he put together a four-year run that rivals Sandy Koufax at his best, and Babe was much younger. When he was 23 years old, he already owned a career record of 80-41 with a 2.09 ERA.
He threw nine shutouts in 1916--a league record for lefties that was unmatched until Ron Guidry threw nine in 1978.
His 14-inning victory in Game 2 of the 1916 World Series for Boston remains the longest single-game effort by a pitcher in World Series history. With modern bullpens and pitch counts, that's one that will most likely never be broken.
The Babe had a run of 29 scoreless innings pitched in World Series play, a record that stood for 42 years, until broken by Whitey Ford.
He was 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA in 3 World Series starts.
Had Babe Ruth finished his career as a pitcher, he would have made the Hall of Fame at that position. He was one of the best pitchers during an era of pitching domination and then became the best hitter during an era of hitting domination. The only comparison for modern fans to comprehend would be if Clayton Kershaw decided next year that he was going to play outfield. To make the comparison correct though we would have to pretend that Kershaw had pitched in the postseason like he has in the regular season, which has not happened. And, oh yeah, Kershaw would need to hit 45 home runs--each year for the next 15 years.
5) Babe Ruth was not a slow fat guy for most of his career. In the 1921 World Series, he stole second and third base in the same inning. He stole as many as 17 bases in a season twice and had 123 for his career. He hit double digit triples four times and had 136 for his career. That's a lot of running, not just trotting, around the bases.
6) He did not use a diet of hot dogs, beer and women to stay healthy. Although he did more than his share of damage with all three, he was actually one of the first professional athletes to have a personal trainer. After his disastrous 1925 season, marked by the "bellyache" heard 'round the world, he hooked up with a former boxer who had a sort of gym for the stars in New York. Thereafter Babe worked out regularly during the winter months for the rest of his career and even took some dietary advice. This more than anything resulted in his remarkable performance into his late 30s which was decidedly unusual in that era.
7) The Babe holds up well to nerds. Babe was tops in Moneyball stats decades before Billy Beane was even a glimmer in the eye of Brad Pitt. He is baseball's all-time leader in OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging, and just in case you think he was artificially aided by his ballpark or the times he is the leader in OPS+ which accounts for that sort of thing.
WAR, wins above replacement, is the current stat de jour among the intelligentsia. A seasonal WAR of 10.0 or better is considered superlative and has been bettered just 56 times in recorded history. Babe Ruth did it nine of those times. He has the top two WAR seasons in baseball history with a 14.0 in 1923 and 12.9 in 1921, is tied for the third highest, occupies six of the top 12 spots and has the highest career WAR. However, rather than justify the Babe, these facts, in my mind, only justifiy OPS, OPS+ and WAR as valid measures of greatness (see above).
8) Babe didn't just usher in an era of home runs, or thrive in an era when everyone was hitting them, capitalizing on a new rabbit ball and small parks--he completely revolutionized the game and dominated all his peers. In 1920 he homered more than every team except two. While some of his run, RBI and batting average totals were certainly influenced by playing in the batting average-happy 1920s, the home run totals are a different matter.
A good measure of how much above the norm a player was is to compare him to other players of the time, who played with the same ball and in the same parks. In the history of baseball, a hitter getting more than 10 % of the entire league's total of home runs has been accomplished ten times. Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies did it in 1915 when he hit 24 of the National League's 225 (10.7%). Babe Ruth did it the other nine times, beginning in 1918 when he hit 11 of the leagues's 97 home runs (11.3%) while playing in only 95 games, 20 of them as a pitcher (13-7). As he led the league in home runs in 12 of the next 14 years, Babe had seasons such as 1920 when he hit 54 of the league's 370 homers (14.6%). For comparison, when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, the National League had 2952. This gave Bonds 2.4 %. To equal 10%, Bonds would have needed to hit 296. Since there were 16 teams in Bonds' league in 2001, compared to 8 in 1920, without breaking out the slide rule we can say that, allowing for the extra teams, Bonds would have still needed to hit about 150 to have a comparable slice of the league's total. Still a pretty big task.
9) Contrary to his occasional remark to the press that "I always swing hard just in case I make contact," Babe was far from the modern home run-or-strike out guy. While he did strikeout more than was the norm for his time, it was not dramatically so--and nowhere close to the drastic difference in his home run total and the rest of baseball. He never struck out more than 100 times in any season. His most was 93 in 1923. In 1931, as an old man, he struck out a mere 51 times in 534 at bats, less than one in ten. He did lead the league in strikeouts five times, but the record when he started was 120 and 100 had been topped eight times by 1918. When he led the league in 1927 with 89, Lou Gehrig was a close second with 84. Babe currently ranks 121st on the all-time strike out list, just behind Dean Palmer, Gorman Thomas and Ellis Burks.
10) Babe knew how to rise to the occasion. In addition to his early pitching heroics, on the offensive side, he twice hit three home runs in one World Series game. While the 3 home runs have been matched now 3 times, no one has ever come close to doing it twice.
He played in ten World Series, won seven. During those Series he hit 15 home runs in 129 at bats and had a lifetime Series batting average of .326. The average should be viewed with the knowledge that he was 1-for-11 in his first three World Series with Boston when he was a pitcher.
Boston had been in three World Series in the Babe's first four years and never won another pennant for 86 years. The Yankees had never won a pennant in their existence, but won seven in 12 years after getting Babe.
He hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium, the house that he built of course, and the first home run in the first All-Star game.
Perhaps the best way to explain Babe Ruth to modern fans is to say that he was "the Babe Ruth of baseball." Nothing more needs to be said.