Would the Babe Make the Cut In Modern Era?
It’s been 90 years since Babe Ruth posted a career-high .393 average, a success ratio so cartoonish for a power hitter it likely represents another reason to dismiss pitching in the early 20th century. Or is it?
Baseball historians have forever wondered why the Babe was so much better than his competition in the 1920s and early 1930s, finishing not just with his storied 714 home runs, but a .342 career average, as well. There are two theories that might explain Ruth’s dominance: The first was the slow, undersized athletes of the era, specially the pitchers, who made it easy for the Babe to stand out.
The second was Ruth’s athleticism and, specifically, his futuristic swing. While everyone else was content to slap the ball, Ruth took a massive cut, investing all of his 215 pounds every time he made contact. No one could get Ruth out in his prime — he was, after all, the game’s greatest hitter.
Yet, Curt Schilling made headlines two years ago when he said the Babe would never catch up to today’s 95-mph fastball.
While Schilling didn’t dismiss Ruth outright, he nevertheless said the Yankees’ slugger would be no more than an average new millennium player, several notches below Barry Bonds.
Not everyone buys that. Reggie Jackson, for one, believes Ruth was a genetic freak.
“Babe was so much better than the stars of his era — I mean, head and shoulders better,” Jackson said, noting Ruth’s 94 wins as a pitcher and 123 stolen bases. “To me, that means he would’ve excelled in any era. Great is great; it transcends time.”
In 1921, scientists asked Ruth to undergo a series of tests the Army had administered during World War I to separate officers from enlistees. Clinicians fitted Ruth with a tube around his chest and handed him a bat that was attached to wires.
The testing continued with Ruth being shown a series of dots and letters and shapes; he was asked to memorize them. The Babe was then asked to tap a metal plate with an electric stylus as quickly as possible.
According to an article in Popular Science, Ruth’s eye movement was 12 percent faster than the average person’s. His nerves were steadier than 499 out of 500 people and his intelligence — “demonstrated by the quickness and accuracy of understanding” — was 10 percent above normal.
Obviously, the methods were crude but nevertheless significant. There was something different about Ruth beyond his confidence and famed nightlife. So, to be fair, before measuring him in a present-day context, Ruth would have to be given a chance to modernize his own game.
That 42-ounce bat, for instance, would surely be exchanged for today’s more practical 34-ounce version. Likewise, Ruth would have to be allowed to eat and train like today’s athletes, not to mention given the opportunity to study video before he went to war against Justin Verlander’s fastball or Mariano Rivera’s cutter.
It’s important to qualify any discussion of Ruth’s transportability, given how much the game has changed. After all, he never played at night, which undoubtedly fattened many of those career statistics. But it’s also true Ruth endured long train rides between cities, which must’ve had an effect on his stamina, especially during the summer’s dog days.
One more thing: While it’s undoubtedly true no one threw as hard as Verlander in the early ’20s, Ruth also had to deal with a generation of spitball artists, whose pitches created a Wiffle-ball effect unlike anything the modern game can reproduce.
“Remember one thing about pitchers who cheat: They have to have excellent command to take advantage of it,” Tom House told MLB Insiders Magazine.
House, a former major league hurler who currently runs the National Pitching Association in Southern California, added: “The pitchers who used spit or pine or scuffed the ball against Ruth, it was an art form to them. That’s what Ruth was up against in his day.”
Yet, there remains a certain timelessness in Ruth’s swing, discernible even in super-slow motion or in the crazy hyper-speed that makes 1920s video look so silly. It’s impossible not to admire the power in Ruth’s hands, the gathering and unfolding of his limbs as he locks in on a fastball.
But that’s the very technique that today’s specialists believe would sabotage Ruth. The fact that it took him so long to “wind up” his power wasn’t a problem against the mediocre fastballs of his day. But modernists don’t think Ruth could’ve figured out the additional 10-15 mph he would’ve confronted in 2013.
“Honestly, I think it would’ve been tough for Ruth to succeed against that,” said Kevin Long, the Yankees’ hitting instructor. “I see too much movement in his stride, he’s hitting off his front foot. That’s OK only if you’re sitting on an 80-mph fastball or waiting on a curveball that only breaks on two (up and down) planes.
“Hitters today have to be more centered because pitching has changed radically. The ball moves in so many different directions now. There isn’t time for all the movement Ruth had in his swing.”
Ruth was indeed a front-foot hitter, Long is correct about that. But Davey Johnson disagrees that such an unorthodox approach would’ve necessarily doomed the Babe.
“Anyone who thinks (front-foot hitting) would’ve made it tougher for Ruth today doesn’t understand that the principles of hitting are the same today as they were in Ruth’s time,” Johnson said. “Look at (Hank) Aaron, who was very successful hitting off his front foot. Look at (Roberto) Clemente. Same thing.”
Same warrior ethos, too — that much we know about Ruth. Put him in today’s game, give him a wad of chewing tobacco and see what the time tunnel brings. Somehow, you know the Babe wouldn’t have been afraid.