On Feb. 6, 1895 Babe Ruth was born. Many would consider him a no doubt choice for the list of 10 most influential figures in baseball history, but does he deserve it?
Many of you probably remember my Jacob Ruppert column from a few weeks ago; I mentioned there that I had long considered Babe Ruth a man who deserved a spot on the list. When my father heard this, he raised the question of whether Ruth was really an influential figure. Wasn’t Ruth simply the leading figure of a larger movement, one that included a livelier ball and a move away from the small-ball offense that had dominated baseball to that point?
But the reason I believe Ruth belongs on the list of most influential is best explained, unlikely as it might seem, by the Charge at Krojanty. This is a battle most well known as the source of the myth that the Polish army—either outgunned, stupid, or both—charged at the Nazi tanks with mounted cavalry armed only with swords and lances.
Now, before history teachers everywhere (including some of mine) write in, I will emphasize again that the idea that the Polish charged at tanks with medieval weaponry is untrue and was entirely a creation of the Nazi propaganda machine. The Poles were neither so foolish nor so outgunned. But that the rumor could even exist reflects an important truth. The Polish cavalry that took the field of battle that day would have been a match for virtually any army in human history.
From Caesar’s legions to Napoleon’s Grande Armee, given equal numbers, the Polish cavalry force could have given any army a battle. But they were hugely outmatched by the mechanized, twentieth-century warfare embodied by the Nazi army. The armaments possessed by the Germans rendered mounted cavalry obsolete—and the strategies they represented, hopelessly obsolete.
In baseball history, Ruth is mechanized warfare. Until Ruth’s arrival on the scene, small-ball strategy reigned supreme, perhaps best represented by the archetypical series of plays when a batter would bunt his way on, steal second base, move to third on a ground out to the right side and score on a sac fly.
Ruth was a one-man mechanism to put that strategy out to pasture. All that bunting and stealing and productive outs were great, but they didn’t mean much when Ruth could come up, wallop a ball 400 feet and equal the output all that small ball created. Put simply, small ball was a cavalry charge. Ruth was a tank.
|The Monument for one of baseball’s ten most influential figures (Icon/SMI)|
But while there were a number of factors that allowed for a player like Ruth to emerge, including the banning of the spitball and the rule change that mandated new balls be introduced in play rather than reusing the same ball throughout the game.
(Whether or not the ball itself was “livelier” as Ruth began hitting his home runs is a subject of some debate. The actual composition of the ball was unchanged, but differences in quality of materials or the manufacturing process could have caused a change.)
The biggest change was simply Ruth. Most of you know the statistics, but they are worth reviewing for their sheer madness. He was dominant offensively unlike anyone had ever seen.
In 1920, Ruth alone famously out-homered every other team in the American League. He led the American League in OPS every year—save 1925—for the entire period of 1918-1931.
t the time of his retirement, Ruth left the game as the all-time leader in home runs (of course), RBI, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and strike outs, while second in runs.
The closest comparison to Ruth might be Barry Bonds in his BALCO prime, but even that cannot compare, as the young Ruth was—at the least—a good defensive outfielder and even farther ahead of his peers than Bonds.
It is not just Ruth’s offensive dominance that makes him one of the most influential players on the list; it is that he established his style of play—long ball, for lack of a better term—as a viable strategy.
Prior to Ruth, players were coached out of uppercut swings on the theory that such a swing would bring down their batting averages. This is true—if one were to pick out a “weakness” in Ruth’s game, it was that his batting average was never as consistently high as some contemporaries’—but the slugging that comes from that kind of swing makes up for it.
As Bill James (and others, I’m sure) have pointed out, Ruth’s swing developed into the sort it was for two reasons. Then, as now, coaches did not waste much time worrying about how their pitchers hit. As late as 1918, when Ruth led the American League in homers despite only coming to the plate 380 times, he threw almost 20 complete games. The blurriness of the line between Ruth the hitter and Ruth the pitcher allowed him to perfect his technique to the extent that by the time he was a full-time regular it was too effective to modify.
Second, and perhaps more relevantly, Ruth’s personality was not conducive to coaching in any case. Although he remained defiant of authority for most of his career—he was suspended by Judge Landis for barnstorming after the 1921 season, and once earned a $5,000 fine from Miller Huggins—he was especially so during his Boston days. (In fact, some at the time cited Ruth’s attitude as the primary reason behind his sale to the Yankees; it wasn’t, but it was a contributing factor.)
Had the Red Sox coaches attempted to persuade Ruth to adopt a more level, line-drive kind of swing, he would have simply ignored them—or worse, given that Ruth both swung at an umpire and went into the crowd to chase a heckler.
Although small ball has made the occasional return to glory in baseball—particularly in the late 1960’s—slugging—and the home run in particular—remains baseball’s dominant offensive weapon. Such a change was probably inevitable as the game evolved, but Babe Ruth rushed it to the forefront, and for that he deserves his place as one of the ten most influential men in baseball history.