How Babe Ruth Saved Baseball
During the first quarter of the 20th century, revolutions were commonplace: Russia, Mexico, Ireland, the Ottoman Empire, China all had one. One often overlooked took place not in a nation but on the baseball diamond: Babe Ruth’s single-handed overthrow of the dead-ball era of baseball.
A century ago, Ruth changed the game of baseball forever. In a single season in 1920, he signed the death warrant of the way that baseball had been played since the sport’s origins, introducing the power game of the present.
From the beginning of the modern era of baseball, the game had been dominated by what is often referred to as “inside baseball.” Play for one run, hit and run, steal bases, avoid striking out and, most importantly, put the ball in play. Runs were hard come by and pitching which is a form of defense dominated baseball. Home runs were rare, and most were not hit out of the ballpark but were inside the park homers. For example, the famous Chicago White Sox “hitless wonders” won the World Series in 1906 hit a grand total of six home runs that season.
Home-run champion totals were usually in the low teens. “Home Run” Baker of the Philadelphia Athletics never hit more than 12 homers in a single season. Tommy Leach of the Pittsburgh Pirates led the National League in home runs in 1902 with a grand total of six, all were inside-the-park types.
Ruth's real value was at the plate
Ruth entered baseball in 1914 at the age of 19 as a left-handed pitcher and he was a good one, perhaps the best in the American League in the late 1910s. Just how good was he? Well, in the three seasons he was a full-time pitcher he won 65 games. But he also was an unusually good hitter for a pitcher, with batting average over .300 before he gave up pitching fullt-time. In 1918, while alternating as a pitcher and outfielder-first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, he tied for the lead in home runs with 11.
In 1919, it was decided that Ruth was more valuable as a full-time player and moved to the outfield. That season Ruth hit the remarkable total of 29 home runs, breaking the major league record for long balls. He rejected the batting style that dominated the dead-ball era. Instead of choking up on the bat, slapping at the ball, trying to hit sharp grounders through the infield, Ruth took a mighty swing, upper cutting the ball and driving it into the air. He personally hit more home runs in 1919 than 10 of the 16 baseball teams.
But it was the next season, 1920, that baseball’s revolution began. First, Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees for an astonishing sum in those days: $125,000 in cash and a loan of $325,000 to the Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, whose real interest was show business and was usually short of cash. Ruth moved to the biggest city in the nation just as the so-called “Roaring Twenties” were about to begin. The Yankees had had little success up to that time. That changed in the 1920s as the Yankees, behind Ruth, became a baseball dynasty. The ground was laid for Ruth to become the biggest figure in American sports.
He was fortunate in joining the Yankees in 1920 as baseball was undergoing a major renovation. For reasons that are not fully clear, Major League owners, called “magnates” in those days, decided to make a number of substantial changes to the game. They began by banning what were called “trick pitches” like the spitball. Over the next few seasons, all other forms of roughing up the ball to deceive the batter were outlawed.
Clean, cork-centered balls helped Ruth break out
Equally important was a decision to have the umpire introduce a new clean ball when the one in play got dirty or marked up. For a long time, professional baseball games were played with only a handful baseballs. In 1887, for example, rules required the home team to provide two balls for the game. That was increased to 12 in 1896. Generally, an umpire would allow a ball to remain in play until it became too dirty or lopsided to continue to be used. Today, Major League Baseball teams use an average of 65 balls per game.
Baseballs had been made with a rubber center, wound in wool and covered in horse hide tied with red stiches. They were not particularly lively to start with. After a few innings of play they would be covered with grass and mud stains, along with goodly amount of tobacco juice from being spit on by the fielders. They would also lose their resiliency. Thus, the name the dead-ball era.
A decision was made to make the ball livelier. A cork center replaced the rubber one, the wool was more tightly wound with the result that the ball became not only livelier but carried farther when hit. The major leagues had experimented with a cork-centered ball in 1911-12 with remarkable improvement in offensive numbers. In the 1911 and 1912 seasons, for the first time since in the modern era, the .400 batting average was achieved: twice by Ty Cobb and once by Shoeless Joe Jackson. That level would not be reached again until the lively ball era of the 1920s when a .400 average was achieved seven times.
In Ruth’s breakout season, the cork-centered ball became standard and he would take home-run hitting to new levels. That season, playing in the Polo Grounds with its short right-field fence, Ruth hit 54 home runs, an unimaginable figure for that time. His home-run total was more than every other team in the majors but one. The gap between Ruth and the next leading home-run hitter was 35, something never seen again in baseball. For comparison, the National League leader in home runs hit 15. No batter had dominated baseball like that in the past.
Fans flocked to see Ruth
Baseball fans were enthralled and flocked to see Ruth hit a homer. His Yankee team drew more than 1 million fans, the first time that figure was reached, and attendance in general set new records throughout the major leagues. Led by Ruth’s power hitting, the 1920s became Baseball’s first Golden Age.
Over the next decade, other batters adopted the Ruth approach and home-run totals jumped to new levels. The 30 figure was topped with frequency and even 40 home runs, a seemingly impossible total in the past, became commonplace and was achieved by players other than Ruth five times. Ruth hit more than 40 home runs 11 times over the next 13 years, a power level not seen until the steroid era (late 1980s-late 2000s). And for good measure, Ruth never struck 100 times in any season. For comparison, Hank Aaron, who broke Ruth’s career home-run total, topped the 40 mark eight times.
Ruth was a wonder. A gifted natural athlete, in retirement he took up golf and played at a very high level. He was also a superb bowler. But most importantly, he was bigger than life. He loved the game and seemingly played for sheer joy. He enjoyed the fans and they loved him back. He was America’s first superstar.
After the Black Sox scandal of 1919 when the game was almost destroyed by rumors of gambling, Ruth became the big smiling face of baseball. It has been said that Ruth, along with Commissioner Judge Landis, helped restore the integrity of baseball. If one wanted to assign credit to who took baseball to new heights it belongs more to the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat than the irascible Judge.