What I've been reading
As Barry Bonds, unfortunately, comes closer to breaking Henry Aaron's all-time home run record, it's a nice time for a book to come out reminding us that Babe Ruth will always be the King of Baseball, not only for his power, but for the simple fact that he completely changed the way the game is played. Barry Bonds wouldn't have had to take all those drugs to become a great(er) home run hitter if it hadn't been for Ruth. All these hitters today who crank big flies off their back feet and when they're jammed on inside fastballs and when the pitcher makes a mistake in the tiny strike zone of today should thank Babe every day. Without him, they're nothing. That's why certain players, no matter who passes them on the all-time list, are the greatest. Ruth changed baseball completely. That's why he's the greatest baseball player of all time.
Jenkinson is a long-time Ruthian scholar, and he spent 30 years on this book. It's a fascinating look at Ruth, because Jenkinson has done something no one else has ever bothered to do: looked at all the evidence about Ruth, not only the raw numbers, but the distance he hit his home runs, the ballparks he played in, and the conditions under which he played. The consensus is that ballplayers are getting better all the time (not just because of the drugs), and therefore Ruth wouldn't be much of a hitter today. Jenkinson turns that argument on its ear and does a pretty good job of proving that Ruth might even be better today. As he points out, for most players, the argument of modernity producing better people is valid. Ruth, however, was a freak of nature. That's why his argument makes a certain amount of sense.
This is a book for baseball geeks, no doubt about it. It's not a biography of Ruth as much a statistical analysis of his career. It's not even particularly well-written. Jenkinson doesn't really have much of an affinity for arresting prose. A lot of the book is "The next homer Ruth hit, on __ May 192_, traveled ___ feet. Following that, he went to Fenway at hit two more, each traveling ___ feet." And so on. Like I said, this is for baseball geeks only. But for those geeks, it's a wonderful and revelatory book.
What Jenkinson has done is combed through the newspaper accounts of Ruth's career. he interviewed people who had seen him in person (something that becomes far more difficult with each passing year, of course) and he visited several of the places where Ruth hit homers, even though many of them had been changed over the years. He comes to some surprising conclusions.
First, Ruth hit balls further than anyone in baseball history. He makes the point that Ruth may have hit the only 600-foot home run ever recorded, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, on one of his many barnstorming tours (my dad grew up in the suburbs of Wilkes Barre, and famed one-armed outfielder Pete Gray did too). Ruth hit far more 500-foot home runs than such juiced-up titans like Mark McGwire and Bonds (in fact, Bonds' homers are relatively short), and he even outpaced the two men Jenkinson thinks are in contention for the second-strongest man ever - Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle. Because of the media attention Ruth received, Jenkinson is fairly certain that his research is conclusive, and when he can't document something, he tells us. The fact that Ruth hits balls a greater distance than anyone else shouldn't really mean anything, because once it leaves the yard, who cares, but Jenkinson uses the distance of Ruth's blasts to make his major argument, which is that Ruth was cheated out of at least 300 home runs over his career, and therefore no one, not Aaron and certainly not Bonds, should be anywhere near him.
How is that so? Jenkinson points out how much bigger ballparks were in Ruth's day. Everyone focuses on the fact that Yankee Stadium had a short right field porch, but Jenkinson makes the case that Ruth hit very few homers down the line in right and was robbed of far more in other areas of the field. Remember, before Ruth came along, everyone was hitting singles, doubles, and triples, and so the outfields were vast to accommodate this. Ruth was working against the way baseball was played, and therefore lost dozens of home runs as flyouts to deep center, flyouts that would easily clear the walls of modern stadia. Jenkinson notes that in Fenway Park in the teens, dead center was 488 feet away, while today it's 405 feet. The power alley in right was 420 feet instead of 375. Dead center in Yankee Stadium when Ruth played there was 490 feet, and the power alley in left was 460. These dimensions are staggering, and the fact that Ruth routinely cleared them makes his lifetime totals even more amazing. Bonds, Jenkinson points out, rarely hits balls 450 feet. Ruth was also hurt by a weird rule that said a ball was foul if it landed in foul territory at any time. Umpires could watch a ball, and if it left the field of play in fair territory but then curved foul, it was a foul ball. The pitching mound was higher, too, meaning the pitchers had the advantage, plus they tried to walk him intentionally just like pitchers do with Bonds today. Other factors worked against Ruth as well. The travel conditions were atrocious, and the balls were awful. If someone didn't hit the ball out of the stadium, the same balls were often used for several innings or even the entire game, no matter how dirty they became. Today, if a new ball skips in the dirt, the umpire doesn't even hesitate, but chucks it out. The hitting conditions are so much better today it's astonishing that more people haven't come anywhere close to Ruth. But that's part of why Ruth was an amazing player.
Jenkinson makes a few more points about Ruth's era. The medical conditions were almost medieval, and Ruth missed significant time in 1925 and 1929 due to injuries that, if incurred today, would have meant some time on the disabled list but would not be serious. The Yankees also played far more games than today's players did. The schedule was shorter (154 games to 162 today), but if the Yankees had a day off, they usually played exhibition games. They scheduled these to make extra money, of course, and even if Ruth had wanted to sit out (which he didn't, because he loved playing so much), they wouldn't have allowed it, because he was their main attraction. So the Yankees would take the train from New York to Chicago and stop at several places along the way to play exhibitions. After the season Ruth went on barnstorming tours to parts of the country where Major League baseball hadn't reached yet (in Ruth's era, St. Louis was the westernmost city in the big leagues). Again, he didn't have to do this, but it was encouraged. If Ruth were a superstar today, he would play far fewer games (just the regulation ones) and would be much healthier. He managed to last until he was 40 years old, but he could still hit when he retired (in the last game in which he hit a home run, he hit three). Today he would have been a designated hitter from the time he was 35 or so, and he probably would have played at least 3 or 4 more years. That Ruth lasted as long as he did is a marvel. And, of course, he spent his first few years pitching (he was one of the best left-handed pitchers of the time, and probably ever). Today there's no way they would let him pitch. He'd be hitting home runs from the very beginning.
The title of the book comes from Ruth's astonishing 1921 season, probably the best year any baseball player has ever had. He hit more home runs in 1927 (60 to 59), but he hit .378, slugged .846 (the second-best ever, behind his 1920 season), hit 44 doubles and 16 (!) triples, drove in 171 runs, and scored 177. Jenkinson looks at the parks in which he hit his home runs, combined with the rules changes, and concludes that in a modern ball park under modern rules, Ruth would have hit 104 home runs. It's a staggering figure, but there's not a lot of reason to doubt it. Jenkinson even addresses the problem people always have with Ruth - that he didn't play against black players. Well, yes, but he did play against Cuban players in various barnstorming tours, and he often played against teams in the Negro Leagues on those tours. He faced some of the best Negro League pitchers of the time, and did very well against them. Jenkinson says that the Negro Leaguers were trying their best against Ruth, because they were competitors, and he makes a pretty good case. It's rather insulting to think they wouldn't try to beat Ruth, even if it was in an exhibition. Jenkinson admits that it's not a perfect way to judge Ruth, but it's still pretty compelling.
This is a fascinating book, even though it's not for everyone. Despite the writing style, Jenkinson is engaging enough with his statistics that he keeps everything flying along, and even though he's obviously biased toward Ruth, he still looks at the evidence as objectively as he can. Baseball lovers should read this book. It would be nice if the people who talk about baseball on television and are in awe of Barry Bonds would do the same. I can't even imagine what it was like watching Ruth hit. It would have been way cool.