by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
December 3, 2008
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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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.