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
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
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,
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
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
*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.