Ned Williamson, stalwart third baseman of the Chicago White Stockings, his chest like a hogshead barrel, was viewed as a man who possessed insane pop during his 1880s heyday. He was massive for the post-Civil War era, standing just under six-foot-tall and tipping the scales at 210 pounds. In 1883, Harry Stovey, a Philadelphia Athletics first baseman, had clouted 14 home runs, breaking the single-season record set three years prior by Charley Jones of the Boston Red Caps with his 9 round-trippers. But Nasty Ned Williamson exploded through the dinger stratosphere, launching 27 home runs the following season.
There was some juice to the ball that year, which had been like a sock puppet previously, with three other batsmen clearing the 20-homer threshold. Come 1885, in nearly the exact same amount of at-bats, Williamson’s home run total plummeted to 3, but his record would not be going anywhere, standing for 35 years, one season longer than it took someone, in the form of Roger Maris, to best Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark of 60 home runs, and two years less than it took Mark McGuire — allowing that you acknowledge steroid-tainted numbers — to surpass Maris.
Williamson didn’t get a lot of usage out of his glory — he succumbed to a combo of dropsy and tuberculosis, aged 36, in 1894. But during the early era of baseball, his was a mark that batsmen chased, a line of statistical dominance that Babe Ruth finally nudged beyond in 1919, cracking 29 home runs in his first year with the New York Yankees. Ruth had been trending towards becoming the eventual record-holder, his days as a pitcher largely behind him, as he focused on the particular brand of magic he whipped up in the batter’s box.
And yet, there was nothing that could have prepared anyone for what Ruth did about a century ago over the course of the 1920 and 1921 seasons, which remain so far ahead of their time that we have to wrestle with the idea that they even happened, while simultaneously trying to comprehend that this athlete informs the core strategies of the game we now watch in 2021.
Ruth would seem an unlikely fellow to offer any insight into how some performers are able to go to rarefied levels beyond even the greats of the great of their given field. The temptation has always been to think of him as pure brawn — a tower of power who blasted baseballs because of his bulk. This was no auteur of science fiction, no prognosticator of events that were yet to be, but considering what he did in 1920, Ruth may as well have been a futurist, though the consensus of the day, and it’s why he struggled to get a managing job later, was that Ruth was, well, a lunkhead. A dumb ox with a big stick.
Major League Baseball, in its early history, was a legs league. The stolen base reigned as a salient feature, but bigger yet was the gapper that allowed the fleet of feet to turn a single into a double, a double into a triple. Ruth was no speed merchant, though, in 1920, he also wasn’t that rotund figure we often summon to mind when we think of the so-called Sultan of Swat. He looked like a man who ate eight eggs for breakfast, developed his arm muscles with manual labor in the offseason, and had spindly, even dainty, legs. One could even say that Ruth sported a proto-Dad bod.
He had bettered Williamson’s home run record by two the year before, but it was in 1920 that things got preternatural, when Ruth hit 54 home runs. All of these decades later, a central question persists: Why? What was going on with this man and what was he doing that made his results so entirely like those of anyone else?
For some context: 11 homers would have placed you at seventh in the league that season, while 19 was good for second place. What was equally arresting was Ruth’s penchant to walk, racking up 150 free passes to first. This was an age when hitters hit—you didn’t want to walk. A walk was a letdown; a man wished to take his rips. A home run was unlikely — a comet spotted in the sky — but a walk was anticlimactic.
Ruth, meanwhile, decided that he would deal primarily in both, which is precisely the approach that most batters employ now, more than a century later. The single is not sought after. A batter swings with an upper-cutting motion, his aim to create elevation, powering the ball through the air, and rarely shortening this swing; no matter what the count. A primary objective is to self-score and advance himself via round-tripper, rather than partaking of station-to-station baseball where a team stacks a number of singles to accumulate their runs. If he strikes out, as everyone now does with great frequency, so be it. The bases on balls, too, are prized, because the batter has his base, and he’s also boosted the pitch count of the starter on the mound, which causes him to tire faster, and be replaced earlier by an ostensibly inferior hurler. But there was Ruth, in the first few seasons after the Great War, clearing bases with his moonshots, or taking his free pass down to first. He was playing a different game, two different games, really. Then anyone else at the time. And he didn’t strike out much, as we think of it these days, to boot.
The most dominant athletes in history can statistically surpass their peers by sizable percentages — Wayne Gretzky, for instance, had a season in which he scored 60% more than anyone else in the NHL. What athletes do not do, though, is double and nearly triple the outputs of their contemporaries, with the exception of Ruth.
The Red Sox, who made what is surely the most unwise move in the history of sports in selling Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season, had previously made a move among the smartest, though it’s never received much fanfare, when they essentially said, “Hey, big man, you’re pretty good at this pitching thing, but let’s have you focus on the hitting, sound good?”
Ruth was a dominant pitcher and it is because of this dominance that he is clearly the best baseball player in history. Practically speaking, what are you going to do when one of the two or three best hitters was also once on a Hall of Fame track as a hurler? It’s like being the best forward in hockey and one of the best goalies as well. To look at Ruth was to wonder where the dominance came from. Even in his relatively svelte days, he was lumpy. With those loosey-goosey muscles that looked like they might fall off his arms or get lost under the folds of skin. A slugger like Jimmie Foxx, who’d come along in a few years, suggested Paul Bunyan, while Ruth’s eventual Yankees running mate, Lou Gehrig, was an enormous man, with legs shaped like locomotives.
Part of Ruth’s dominance stemmed from his mental acuity and his courage, which fascinates me, and runs counter to how he’s mentioned in pop culture. In that, he opted to play the game in a manner that no one believed you should. There’s an irony here, given that after his playing days were over he was viewed as a physical freak whose use had been maximized, and you wouldn’t want him as a bench boss shepherding a team through the season. Again, the idea of the lunkhead savant. Even then, in the late 1930s, when the dust of his achievements had settled somewhat, no one appeared to understand what made Babe Ruth great, and how he performed as one only can — even an athlete — when they essentially transcend their body.
Players choked up on their bats, and an offensive genius like Ty Cobb hit with his hands spaced three or four inches apart for greater bat control, but try it next time you’re playing Whiffle Ball at a cookout and you’ll spear yourself in the stomach with the butt end. What is seldom mentioned about Cobb, though, was that he was seen as a power threat—he led the league in home runs once, finishing in the top ten in home runs ten other times. (To widen the perspective: that’s two less top ten homer seasons than Mickey Mantle, who arguably possessed more power than anyone.) The threat, as such, was eight or nine dingers a year. 54 was Plutonian. And a lot of Cobb’s career overlapped with Ruth’s.
It’s not that Ruth was as tall as a tree, wide as a building — he was a big man, yes, but not the biggest, not the strongest, not in the best shape, not “farm strong” as many players were because of where and how they grew up, plus the jobs they worked in the offseason. His approach was completely different, for starters, the sum of a conscious decision to attempt to achieve results that no one else had entertained. His bat was a huge piece of lumber, more log than baton-like. He loved a good walk, never feeling cheated when he received one, but feeling that he cheated himself when he chased a ball that was not one he could drive. In terms of what the Babe would or would not swing at, his mind was a kind of computer that could process percentages in a fraction of a second. A ball on this part of the plate could only be driven so hard to this portion of the field. A ball on this other part of the plate could be made to travel 465 feet. He worked pitchers, waited them out, did the math of the short term and the long term with insane, in a good way, mental acuity. He might take three bases on balls in one game from a pitcher, waiting until that moment when the ball came to a certain spot in a certain quadrant, at which point Ruth would bring the barrel of his bat to bear upon it, with his uppercut swing, and to the railroad tracks beyond the outfield fence the ball would fly.
He wanted the pitches with which he worked to come in over a given portion of the plate. The others, he could leave, unless facing two strikes, with the pitch being too close to take. He was a deductive hitter, whose approach had a dash of science to it. Other hitters slapped the ball the other way; Ruth wanted his pitches middle-in so that he could fully extend his arms. Cobb chopped down on the ball, desirous of hard grounders and laced line drives. Ruth swung upwards, through the bulk of the strike zone—maximum plate coverage—so that even the balls he didn’t quite drive out of the park struck outfield fencers and became doubles—not because of Ruth’s speed, but rather because of distance traveled. He picked up some triples here and there, but his game was walks, homers, a brace of doubles. This was the ultimate modern ballplayer; so far as advanced metrics and theory goes, and if you put him in today’s game, with its strategies just as often tabulated and put forward by analytics experts out of Yale, he’d be our ultimate modern ballplayer right now.
I often think that Ruth gave himself over to this approach because of his success in the game as a pitcher. He had been that dominant, had that much credibility. In that, he probably believed he could go all-in on a new direction and risk some potential failure. Mound success emboldened Ruth in the batter’s box. Players create power in different ways. Hank Aaron generated his power with his wrists. Harmon Killebrew had an upper body like a circus-strong man. Reggie Jackson swung from his rear end. Jose Canseco used steroids. No player-generated bat speed like Babe Ruth, which made him a veritable Hercules, even when he looked like your friend’s dad with a potbelly who nonetheless wanted to get in on the backyard football game after the Thanksgiving turkey.
When one watches what film there is that exists of Ruth taking his hacks, what stands out is the balletic grace. He takes a decent-sized stride, something a hitting coach today would try to jettison from a player’s mechanics. But the stride isn’t all it seems, because normally what happens when a batter strides is that the rest of the body starts moving forward with it as well — and also the energy contained in that body.
That’s not how the Ruth stride works. It’s more of a timing device that is going to work like a clock in reverse. The right foot strides, that spindly leg gets closer to the pitcher, but the result is that everything else stays back all the longer — most importantly, Ruth’s hands and his hips. Ruth is able to allow the ball to get deeper on him than most batters, especially then, which means he’s less likely to be fooled or to swing at a ball that he can’t drive. This aids the computer machine that is his batter’s eye, as it computes percentages. The hips swivel with sublime rotational force, as the hands follow, bequeathed with greater energy — which will produce greater torque — because of what the hips are doing, as if hips and hands are connected, part of a chain reaction. There is almost something chemical to what is happening here, the product of a lab, an engineered batsman that could do what other players couldn’t do.
That 1920 campaign remains, in comparison to one’s peers, utterly unlike anything in North American sports history, save Ruth’s 1921 follow-up season, which is the best a baseball player has ever been. The 54 home runs surge to 59, and Ruth somehow manages, even while walking 145 times to tally 457 total bases, the highest in history. A walk doesn’t count towards your total base quantity. So what that means is, those walks represent 145 fewer times that Ruth could have contributed to his total base total. Put another way: you’ve had a mega-offensive season when you reach 300 total bases. 400 is crazy legend stuff. 457 is barely comprehensible.
When people say the word Ruthian, I think they have in mind the Ruth of the 1927 Yankees, with his 60 home runs, but by then, Ruth and Gehrig had gotten together, and Ruth must have said something to the younger man about hips, hands, the uppercut swing, insisting upon getting one’s pitch. That Yankee line-up was ferocious, and a ferocious line-up makes everything easier for everyone, including a Babe Ruth. Gehrig hit 47 home runs that year, the Yankees had their famous Murderers Row, a phrase we still encounter often in a litany of contexts, but others were now working from Ruth’s methodology. Foxx, for instance, would commence his bashing in 1929, but all of the early true power hitters were junior versions of Ruth, as if they’d gone to his hitting school. No one who hit a lot of home runs did not walk a ton as well. It wasn’t the walk that was anticlimactic now — it was the single.
For a guy who was supposed to be a kind of burly farm animal as an athlete, there was a lot of mental derring-do in Ruth’s game. To hit as he did necessitate a form of ideological commitment that ran counter to what everyone else was doing. Which is the same way that Bobby Orr played hockey as a defenseman who commanded play in the offensive end, and to various degrees, all of the generational athletes — Gretzky, Jordan, Ali, Brady. It was Ruth, though, who first cracked open the brave new world in athletics, doing in American team sports precisely what no one else dared to do, and what you’d be discouraged to try. Artists blaze trails this way, and it is among a kind of artists that Ruth still stands. Impressive stuff for a lunkhead. •