This annotated week in baseball history: Feb. 5-Feb. 12, 1895

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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. jim lyons said...

    How can anyone who is a real baseball aficianado and (required) has spent any significant time reviewing his statistics as both a pitcher and a hitter not agree?  He simply changed the game.  No other single person other than ______________ (fill in the blank with one or two names) was near the complete player that Ruth was. 

    As he could pitch and hit with the greatest of all time and was a relatively good outfielder who changed the game.  This cannot seriously be argued. 

    On a side note, I would fill in the blank with Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson.  Unfortunately, Landis robbed Jackson of his rightful place in playing the game and in (what should have been) his place in history.  But, that’s another long story and debate.

  2. noodle said...

    Ruth and Jackie Robinson and that is about it for my top 10.

    His comment that “I had a better year than the president” sums it up. He had a better career than anybody. (Possible exception is hockey’s Gretzky.) 

    Seriously, can you make a top 10 without Ruth??

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    To what extent do you agree with the traditional view that Ruth “saved” baseball after the Black Sox scandal? If there is some validity to that view, it would be part of his case to be included on the list of 10 most influential figures in baseball.

    And there is also the view that he was a major factor in launching the Yankee dynasty, and even in spreading the gospel of baseball in Japan (aided by Lefty O’Doul). To the extent those views are legitimate, they also bolster the case.

  4. EB said...

    First a confession I am the father referred to in Richards’ article.Second yes he was influential but the question is does he make the top 10. Some background the average height for men in 1920 was 5’9” Ruth was 6’2” an accident of birth lucky not influential (Shoeless Joe 6’1”, Cobb 6’1). All great athletes who were they of average height and weight for their time may or may not be so “influential”. Would Ruth hold all the records he does if African-Americans were allowed to play? In terms of influence where would baseball and the nation be if Jackie Robinson had failed? Ruth influential yes in the top 10 maybe.

  5. db said...

    Ruth was, by far, the biggest star in sports.  Even megastars like Jordan, pre-scandal Tiger, LeBron, Montana, Jim Brown were less embedded in the social consciousness.  He massively increased the popularity of baseball.  Like Noodle said, there are only 2 baseball players who have any real impact as historical figures.  Robinson might get the nod, but its close.

  6. Erik Christensen said...

    Go ANYWHERE in the world and ask people if they know who Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson are…

    Most will know who Ruth was…

    Robinson… not so much

  7. Grant said...

    Richard, you wrote:

    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’

    Other than Cobb, Hornsby and Speaker who are we talking about?  I mean it’s not like Ruth hit
    .295 every year after his great early years.
    From 1914-1924 career BAVG     .351
    From 1914-1932   ”        .349
    From 1914-1935   ”        .342

    Two subpar years at ages 38 and 39 accounted
    for the 7 point drop in career BAVG.
    Let’s take his career from his first
    over career BAVG season (1920) to his last(1931).
    His avg for the 12 years .358 Other than
    1922 & 1925 (injury/suspension) his poorest
    year was .323 (1933). In summary, from the ages
    25-36 in 9 of those 12 years he hit from .345 -
    .393 One bad year of 10 full seasons in your prime hardly constitutes inconsistently high
    performance.

    Grant

  8. Hank said...

    Babe Ruth hit .393 in 1923, which isn’t exactly chopped liver.

    Ruth famously was supposed to have claimed that if he wasn’t trying to hit home runs that he could have batted for a .500 batting average. I’m guessing that’s not true, but I wonder how high he could have hit if he had gone strictly for batting average.

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