The Babe at Fenway and other home run storiesby John Walsh
November 16, 2009
If diamonds are a girl's best friend, why do so many girls get mad when you want to go to the ballpark?
- Bob Dylan
We usually think of the Live Ball Era beginning in the year 1920. One of the reasons we hold this belief is that in 1920 new Yankee Babe Ruth clouted 54 home runs, a number nearly inconceivable at that time. The Babe won the home run crown that season, edging out runner-up George Sisler by a mere 35 homers. Ruth's 1920 total set a single-season record of course, topping the 29 homers he hit himself the previous season. As you often hear, Ruth hit more home runs that year than all but one team.
How did Ruth manage to hit all those home runs in 1920? Was it something in the ball? Maybe some rule changes? Well, the spitball was outlawed before the 1920 season, but the most prominent spitballers were permitted to continue throwing their sloppy stuff due to a grandfather clause. Doesn't seem like outlawing fringe spitballers would make a big difference.
We are also often told that baseball officials started changing the ball more frequently, resulting in a whiter ball that was easier to see (and hit). But I believe this change came after the 1920 season, the season when Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitched ball that had been in play all game and was difficult to pick up on the way to the plate.
So, what happened in 1920 that gave rise to the Live Ball Era? Maybe nothing. Let's have a look at the Babe's home runs before 1920, when he was still pitching for the Boston Red Sox.
The previous year, 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs for the Red Sox. That was a single-season record at the time, too. It was also the first year that Ruth got to the plate more than 400 times in a season. He also started 15 games as a pitcher that year (and relieved in two more). Maybe the pitching was a distraction or maybe in 1919 Ruth was still far from perfecting his home run swing, because 29 is a long way from 54.
Or is it? If you look at Ruth's home/road splits for home runs, you find something very interesting. Fenway Park was an exceptionally difficult place to hit home runs. In fact, of Ruth's 29 homers in 1919, only nine were hit in Boston, while 20 where hit on the road. What might Ruth's 1919 total have been in a neutral park? Well, we can do the quick and dirty "double-the-road-stats" method* to come up with 40. Ruth only had 539 plate appearances in 1919 (an abbreviated season was played that year). If we give Ruth an additional 50 PA (bringing him to his 1920 level), our hypothetical total for Ruth's home runs reaches 43, which is now getting into Live Ball territory.
*I'm not usually a fan of this doubling-the-road-stats "technique" at all. That's because players on average perform significantly better at home than the do on the road. So doubling-the-road-stats will generally short-change a player, but nobody ever mentions that when they double the road stats. I'll have something to say about home field advantage for home runs in a minute or two.
Let's go back a little further: In 1918 Ruth got 377 plate appearances and hit 11 home runs. The number of those hit in Fenway Park: zero. Before 1918, Ruth was pitching full time, getting only around 100-150 plate appearances in the years 1915-1917. In 1917, Ruth hit only two home runs, one of them at home. In 1916, hit hit a total of 3, zero at home. In 1915, three total, one at home. Add it all up, and Ruth hit 38 road home runs and 11 home home runs during his Fenway years.
Ruth's Home Runs as a member of the Red Sox +------+------+------+ | Year | Home | Away | +------+------+------+ | 1915 | 1 | 3 | | 1916 | 0 | 3 | | 1917 | 1 | 1 | | 1918 | 0 | 11 | | 1919 | 9 | 20 | +------+------+------+ | Tot | 11 | 38 | +------+------+------+
Fenway was really a tough home run park, at least for left-handed hitters. In 1920, when Ruth was playing for the Yankees, whose home park then was the Polo Grounds, he hit 29 homers at home and 25 on the road. Note the 25 road home runs is not very different from the 20 road homers in 1919.
That's about as far as I want to go with Ruth and the advent of the lively ball. It's something I came across when looking at some home run data that became publicly available this year. I'm talking about the home run logs that you can find over at Baseball Reference. They provide information on every single home run ever hit in the history of major league baseball. There's lots of great stuff you can research with this data, one of which is home/road splits for home runs.
The home run slugger who is usually cited as being most helped by his home park is Mel Ott. Ott, who hit 511 home runs, played 22 seasons, all with the New York Giants, whose home park was the Polo Grounds. Have you ever seen a picture or diagram of the Polo Grounds? It has the strangest shape of any major league ballpark I've ever seen. It is very, very short down the lines (moreso in right field), but then gets very deep very quickly. It's hard to imagine it without looking at a picture, so you might want to check this out. Actually, I just noticed that fair territory at the Polo Grounds has the same shape as home plate (I told you it was peculiar). I wonder if that was intentional.
Mel Ott, who batted left-handed, hit 323 home runs in the Polo Grounds and only 188 on the road, meaning he hit 63 percent of his round-trippers at home. That is the highest percentage of any player with at least 500 home runs. This might cause you to discount Ott's achievements somewhat — after all, he probably would have fallen far short of 500 homers had he not had the good fortune to play his whole career in the shadow of Coogan's Bluff.
On the other hand, others have argued that Ott actually learned to take advantage of the short porch in right field at the Polo Grounds and he should be given credit for that. The following is taken from one my favorite baseball books, Paths to Glory, by Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt:
Maybe most important, however, and almost impossible to model, is the fact that players are intelligent and can adapt to their surroundings. For example, Hall of Famer Mel Ott hit an incredible 323 of his career 511 home runs in his home park, the Polo Grounds in New York. As baseball historian Stew Thornley has pointed out, he learned to take advantage of his enviornment. In his first four years in New York, Ott hit 30 home runs at home and 31 on the road. It makes sense for ball clubs to try and determine which type of player or playing style best fits their home parks, but this is often surprisingly complicated.
That sounds right and I'm glad it turned out this way. Ott was my dad's favorite player when he was a kid and I've always liked the guy, too. Seems like an underrated player, given his numbers. So, I'm glad he learned to exploit the Polo Grounds and wasn't just handed 130 home runs on a platter. Makes everyone feel better all around. I thought I'd do my part in this feel-good story and demonstrate, using this great home run data, that Ott really did learn how to exploit his quirky home park. I expected to find that Ott did a better job than other Giants left-handed hitters of taking advantage of the short right field line at the Polo Grounds.
Except for one thing: I didn't find what I thought I would find. Dusty Rhodes hit 40 home runs at the Grounds and only 14 on the road. And that doesn't include the two he hit in the 1954 World Series (both at home, natch). Let's see: Whitey Lockman hit 81 at home, 30 on the road. Marshall Willard, 63 and 23. Johnny Mize also loved the home cookin': 95 at home, 62 on the road. And it's not only the guys who were around long enough to "learn" how to hit home runs into the right field porch: Jack Graham, nine home, five away. Danny Gardella, 17 and seven. Art Nehf, five and one. And my favorite: a player named Lou Chiozza hit nine home runs in the Polo Grounds and one on the road.
Of course, I've cherry-picked these guys to make my point. There were some left-handed hitters who hit more on the road. Not many, though. Of the 66 players who hit at least one home run for the Giants from 1920 until 1957, only 12 hit more home runs on the road than at home. The only player with more than a handful of home runs who had a negative split was Bill Terry with 76 at home and 78 on the road.
Overall, from 1920 through 1957, Giants left-handed hitters mashed 1,897 home runs, with 65 percent of them coming in the Polo Grounds. Actually, Ott hit a slightly lower percentage of his homers at home. So, from this it doesn't appear that Ott "learned" how to exploit the Polo Grounds at all, but rather all Giants lefty hitters enjoyed this very favorable home run environment.* Even Lou Chiozza.
*The question of whether a player can learn to adapt to his home park is an interesting one and one that I think needs more research. It makes sense that a player could change his style of play to suit extreme parks in some cases, but I don't think I've ever seen a careful study of it.
But what percentage of home runs do we expect a player to hit at home? We should expect it to be more than 50 percent, right? I mean, there is a home field advantage in baseball — on average the home team wins 54 perecent of games played. Well, according to the complete home run data, 50.4 percent of home runs are hit at home.* That's a very slight excess of home runs hit in home games: For every 200 home runs a team (or player) hits, you'd expect 101 to be hit at home and 99 on the road.
*I was surprised that the home field advantage for home runs is so small, but looking closer I realized that the number comes out low because batters get fewer PAs at home than on the road. This is due to the fact that the home team does not usually bat in the bottom of the ninth in games they win. On a per inning basis, the percentage of home runs hit at home is around 52 percent.
Frank Thomas is another 500-homer guy who was really helped by his home park. The Big Hurt hit 60 percent of his 521 home runs at home, which was for most of his career, U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. In White Sox games during that period, 54 percent of home runs by right-handed batters were hit in at U.S. Cellular, so Thomas was able to exploit the favorable park more than the average hitter. Or maybe he was luckier.
At the other end of the list, the unlucky guys who hit a majority of their homers on the road, we have: Eddie Mathews (47 percent hit at home), Ted Williams (48%) and Eddie Murray (48 percent). These numbers are not so extreme, simply because it's hard to hit 500 homers if you're penalized heavily by your home park.
When you talk about Williams, Joe DiMaggio often turns up in the same conversation. These two had many things in common, one of them being they played in parks ill-suited to their power stroke. Fenway Park had a very deep right field fence, which was actually shortened to help Williams. (The current bullpens used to be part of right field.) Even after the change, Fenway was (and still is) a tough home-run park for lefties.
Yankee Stadium, of course, was murder on right-handed power. If memory serves, the deepest part of the park was 467 feet in left center. In fact, if you look at all players with at least 300 home runs, DiMaggio was the second most hurt by his home park: only 41 percent of his home runs were hit in the Stadium. (Joe Adcock's home proportion of homers was just tenths of a percentage point lower than DiMag's). Some other right-handed Yankees who were hurt by Yankee Stadium's deep left field: Hank Bauer (only 43 percent of his homers were hit at home), Clete Boyer (39 percent), Bill Skowron (36 percent), Elston Howard (33 percent) and Gil McDougald (26 percent).
Wow, seems like I've filled my word quota already — I had a few more topics that I wanted to touch on. Such as, who held the single-season home run record prior to Ruth, and why. Also, how it was seemingly impossible to hit home runs, from either side of the plate, in Washington's Griffith Stadium. Willie Mays's home run splits: Might Mays have caught Ruth's 714 if he hadn't played so many games at Candlestick Park, as some have suggested? I'll tackle these pressing questions in a follow-up article. Stay tuned.
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.