The Book That Overrated Babe Ruth
Part Two

by Keith Glab,
December 3, 2008

Back to Part 1

In The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, Bill Jenkinson does offer a lot of support for his estimated distances of Ruthian shots; he lists two primary newspaper sources for accounts of each event, quoting one and telling us that "when it came to the objective accounts of actual game events, there was a clear pattern of consistency" among multiple newspaper sources. A lot of Jenkinson's analysis is nevertheless from the "take my word for it" school of argument.  While he'll go into intricate detail describing one of Ruth's shots, he'll dismiss comparatively behemoth blasts from more modern sluggers because they generally hit something before traveling their full distance in modern ballparks.  While according to him, Ruth's blasts appear to defy gravity and continue traveling, Jenkinson is sure that other players would have lost velocity and died sooner than most people believe had they not hit a concourse or a grandstand.

Another example of this type of "reasoning" is found when he recounts the many exhibition games in which Ruth participated.  He addresses the theory that in some exhibition games, pitchers were instructed to groove pitches to Ruth in order to make a good show for the fans and sell more tickets for the next time he was in town.  Writes Jenkinson, "that prospect has been painstakingly researched, and, in the majority of cases, it just wasn't true."  This issue is important, because Jenkinson argues that Ruth deserves some credit for the approximately 400 exhibition home runs he hit during his career.

The more important issue regarding these exhibition games - which Jenkinson mentions, but probably should have made an even larger point of - is that many of these exhibition games took place during the season.  Between that, day baseball, scheduled doubleheaders, travel by bus instead of by plane, no Sunday games played in Boston and Philadelphia that resulted in one-day road trips, and a barnstorming season that began after the World Series, baseball athletes from Ruth's day had a much more grueling workload than modern players despite having eight fewer games on their official regular season schedule.  Of all the advantages that modern sluggers have, this might be the most significant.     

Another advantage comes from a rule change of which I was unaware until reading this book.  From 1906 to 1930, a home run was judged fair or foul based on where it finally landed, not where it crossed the foul pole.  Also during that period, a ball that bounced over the fence was ruled a home run, not a ground rule double as it is today.  In the book, Jenkinson claims that Ruth "lost at least fifty home runs due to this rule," apparently backing off from an earlier study in which he figured the total to be around 75.  In contrast, Jenkinson declared that "Babe never hit a home run that bounced over the fence."  As unlikely as that disparity seems, it is clear that Ruth did lose some home runs due to that rule, and hitters who played between 1906 and 1930 should be viewed in a slightly different light because of it.

But the majority of the "comparative difficulty" analysis between Ruth and modern sluggers is poppycock. Regarding equipment changes, Jenkinson rightly argues that Ruth would have been better with today's bats, made with modern technology.  He then takes it too far by suggesting that Ruth would have also performed better had he played with a lighter bat during his era.  Even if that were true, Ruth shouldn't get any extra credit for his hamartia of excessive pride in refusing to use what he dubbed as "toothpick" bats.  Jenkinson's assessment of baseball gloves is silly, conceding that Ruth's batting average would have actually suffered in the modern era due to improvements made in baseball gloves, apparently not realizing that balls that glance off gloves are typically ruled as errors and do not affect batting average.  His judgment of baseballs falls into the "because I said so" category: "the balls used today are better for offensive production than those used seventy-five to one hundred years ago.  There are few official data sources for this conclusion, but every anecdotal source confirms this thesis."

Part of the problem is that Jenkinson is skewing the timeline to serve his purpose.  Ruth accumulated more than 86% of his career at-bats after the lively ball was introduced in 1920.  Home Run Baker played less than 10% of his career after that time.  Yet Jenkinson craftily twists the facts to call Baker a contemporary of Ruth's because their careers overlap for eight years when in reality, Baker's career was essentially over by the time Ruth converted to a full-time hitter.  Jenkinson then quotes Baker extensively as his one "anecdotal source" about how scuffed and dirty baseballs were kept in play in his day, favoring pitchers.  This evidence is actually damning for Ruth, as he benefited from that practice as a pitcher pre-1920 then benefited from its abolition as a hitter from 1920 onwards.     

Speaking of pitching, Jenkinson concludes that the pitching Ruth faced was more difficult to hit than the pitching that modern sluggers face.  This is one of the most ridiculous assertions in a book that is littered with them.  Ruth did not have to face the best black, Latino, and Asian pitchers of his day the way that modern sluggers do.  Even if you believe that starting pitchers threw just as hard in the 1920s as they do today, there is no question that today's relievers throw harder.  According to Baseball Info Solutions, there were nine relievers in 2008 whose average fastball was clocked over 95 MPH, while no starters could make that claim.  Ruth and his contemporaries enjoyed advantage by rarely having to face relief pitchers who did not have to pace themselves over several innings, at least in terms of velocity.

More importantly, secondary pitches have come a long way in the past 90 years.  In Ruth's time, pitchers were just beginning to use their changeup (then called a "slow ball") by altering their grip rather than their delivery.  Ruth and his contemporaries no doubt faced oodles of pitches that, by today's standards, would have been accused of tipping their pitches.  The slider, by most accounts, was not invented until the early 30s.  It's pretty reasonable to assume that the average one thrown today is a more effective pitch than the ones that Ruth faced late in his career.  Ruth never had to face a splitter, but he did face a handful of spitballers who were grandfathered into the 1920 rule abolishing the pitch. 

Jenkinson proves an apologist for Ruth because he "received a lower percentage of hittable balls than anyone else who ever played Major League Baseball."  It is completely unreasonable to assume that Ruth got fewer good pitches to hit than the great all-time sluggers that had lesser hitters than Lou Gehrig batting behind them.  Even if we were to make that assumption, it is Ruth's own fault for getting frustrated and chasing those bad pitches when Ted Williams and Barry Bonds had the patience to lay off most of the bad ones.  This is not to characterize Ruth, who led the league in walks 11 times, as a free swinger.  I am merely responding to Jenkinson's assertion that pitching was more difficult for Babe Ruth than anyone else because of the way he was pitched. 

By now, hopefully the frustration of reading this book is clear, although there are several more questionable points Jenkinson makes that could be discussed.  In addition to the frustrating content, the style of the writing can also be irritating at times.  Jenkinson places himself into the book too often, making his writing seem egotistical, biased, and condescending at various points.  He also has a monotonous, plodding way about listing Ruth's year-by-year accomplishments at the beginning of the book.  That part took an awfully long time to get through.

This isn't to say that the book isn't worth reading.  Learning about the foul home run rule and exhibition schedules in Ruth's era alone would have made the read worthwhile.  I also learned about Hub "Shucks" Pruett, a screwball pitcher with a 4.63 career ERA who struck out Ruth in 10 of the 13 times they faced each other in Pruett's rookie season.  I learned that 1934 was the first season in which both the American and National Leagues used standardized balls.  I particularly enjoyed an anecdote about a frustrated Eddie Collins throwing his glove at Ruth as he rounded the bases for his second homer in a game, which is an interesting counterpoint to all of the accounts that would portray the Hall of Fame second baseman as a saint.

And overall, I enjoyed reading most of the book, because even though I did not agree with much of the reasoning and conclusions that Jenkinson drew, there were those few that were prescient, and the sheer number Ruth's 450+ foot shots chronicled is staggering.  Still, I really wish that Jenkinson had adhered to the objective analysis that he spoke of in his introduction, as a player like Babe Ruth needs no makeup on his career credentials.  What I worry about is that readers with a less skeptical eye will buy into a lot of the conclusions that Jenkinson draws about hitters in the 20s and 30s.  Someone with little knowledge of baseball history might even come away from this book thinking that the 20s and 30s were an era dominated by pitchers because hitters had it so very tough.  On the other end of the spectrum, someone more cynical than I could read this book, spot the flaws in Jenkinson's analysis, and get so disillusioned as to think that Babe Ruth was way overrated and does not deserve to rank as the greatest player of all time.

That's a shame.      

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at