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  • Writer's picturePaul Semendinger

Giving The Babe Some Deserved Credit

by Paul Semendinger

February 27, 2023

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Note - This article appeared in Here's The Pitch, the IBWAA's daily newsletter on February 16, 2023

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I think it is fair to say that no player has dominated any sport the way Babe Ruth dominated baseball. There has never been another player who so single-handedly changed the way the game was played. Ruth helped baseball soar to new levels of popularity. He revolutionized the way the game was played, making the home run the big attraction. Ruth was a great pitcher, a great slugger, and a very good outfielder.


When the Babe was at his best, he thoroughly dominated the game. We all know the stats and the stories. He was larger than life. When he retired, his lifetime home run total was hundreds more than the next closest player.


The Babe was also a winner. He appeared in 10 World Series. His team won seven of those contests. He set the record for the most consecutive scoreless innings pitched in World Series play. And as a batter, he hit .326 with 15 World Series homers, including the "called shot" in the 1932 Fall Classic.


By all modern standards, no player approaches Ruth's overall dominance. He still holds the all-time records for Baseball Reference WAR, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, as well as the single-season record for runs scored in a season in the Modern Era (177). As a pitcher, Ruth averaged 4.5 WAR a season.


Ruth is credited for "saving baseball" and generating great interest in the game following the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. He barnstormed the country in the offseasons bringing the game to countless cities and towns, and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who might never otherwise have seen professional baseball players. Yankee Stadium was built because of Babe Ruth's popularity, and the Babe also helped bring the game to Japan.


Ruth was such a part of the fabric of the game, with his name symbolizing excellence, that when the young Jackie Mitchell struck him out, the story instantly became legendary. "A Girl Struck Out Babe Ruth." That story would not have been as exciting if Mitchell had only struck out Lou Gehrig or if she had fanned Rogers Hornsby or Ty Cobb. It was a bigger story because everything that involved Ruth was a bigger story.


No player ever did for baseball what Ruth did. I don't think that point can be argued. Yet, today, when Ruth is mentioned in articles, it often comes with caveats.


"Yes, Babe Ruth was great, but ..." That has become so much part of the narrative that today people automatically discount how great Ruth was. People always ask, "Would the Babe have been as good if the game were integrated?" Or, "How would Babe Ruth do against a slew of relief pitchers all throwing 100 miles per hour?"


There are so many caveats offered today discounting Ruth's many accomplishments, that it is now fair to argue that he might be underrated. No one simply says that Ruth was great and impactful. The Babe's greatness always comes with clarifiers.


This isn't to say that those clarifiers aren't legitimate. But it's also time to give Ruth some more credit than he gets today. As so many people find the reasons that the Babe might have had it easier in his day, I share the following as examples of how the game was more difficult in his day than it is today.


When people discount Ruth for one reason or another, they neglect to note all of the following that impacted the way he played, making it much more challenging than the game is today:

  1. Ruth had to face pitches that are illegal today. (The last legal spitballer, Burleigh Grimes, pitched until 1934.)

  2. When Ruth batted, there was no standard “batter’s eye” behind the pitcher. He had to focus on the baseball amid colorful fans as his hitting background.

  3. In today's game, a batter sees a brand new baseball almost every pitch. That ball is much easier to see than in Ruth's day, when a ball might be used for many innings.

  4. Ruth never had to play during night games, but he had to play in twilight games without the benefit of stadium lights to help him pick up the ball. The ball, after being used for a much longer time, also must have been "deadened" much more than the new balls batters hit against for virtually every pitch today.

  5. When Ruth played, inside pitching and "head-hunting" were much more prevalent than they are today.

  6. Ruth did not have the security of hitting with a batting helmet or any other body protection. (He actually played in the only Major League game where a player was killed by a pitched ball.)

  7. Today's uniforms are breathable and comfortable. Players can also change their uniform during the game if they get too uncomfortable. In Babe's day, they played in hot wool uniforms.

  8. Ruth never had the chance to take a "day off" by playing designated hitter.

  9. Ruth's seasons had fewer games, but he had to play doubleheaders much more often than the players today.

  10. In Ruth's day, there were no training techniques or training equipment -- no video to review one's swing or better understand how a pitcher's pitches move. Any information he had on an opponent came from his own memory.

  11. The clubhouses and facilities at the ballparks were less comfortable, more cramped, and not state-of-the-art as they are today.

  12. The dugouts were not heated and not air conditioned.

  13. The players could cool down with water (or maybe in the Babe's case, a beer or a soda). They certainly didn't have sports drinks with electrolytes.

  14. There were no vitamins or legal or illegal supplements to assist the players.

  15. The playing fields were not meticulously manicured as they are today.

  16. The equipment Ruth used was not as developed as what the players use today.

  17. There were no physical therapists, modern medical techniques, or other ways to help athletes recover from injuries big and small. Players played through injuries as best as they could. (On July 5, 1924, Ruth ran into a wall, was knocked unconscious, and stayed in the game ... and then played in a second game that day as part of a doubleheader.)

  18. Travel was much rougher in Ruth's day. The train rides were often longer than today’s plane rides and much less comfortable. The players had to sleep on trains. They didn't have private chartered airplanes.

  19. The hotels the players stayed at were not the same quality as the hotels today.

  20. Ruth did not face minority players who were excluded from the game, but he faced much heckling throughout his career due to a prevalent rumor at the time that he was African American.

Finally, many speculate that had the game been integrated, Ruth would have faced stiffer competition and, as a result, some of his lifetime numbers would be lessened. That is a fair assumption, but author Bill Jenkinson, who interviewed many stars from the Negro Leagues, offers the following partially from the recollections of Judy Johnson:


On the matter of Ruth’s physical abilities, Johnson said, “We could never seem to get him out no matter what we did.” In fact, in the sixteen games for which we have documentation, Babe went 25 for 54 with eleven home runs.


There are many instances of Ruth performing at his highest levels in the game's biggest moments (the "called shot," homering in the first game in Yankee Stadium, homering in the first All-Star Game, etc.) Is it not at least possible that if Ruth were facing a superior player, say Smokey Joe Williams or Satchel Paige, that he might also have risen to the challenge as he did so many other times in his career?


In sum, Ruth was baseball's greatest player. Let's stop discounting his great accomplishments and finding ways to note that he might not be as great as he was. Instead, let's celebrate the legendary player for who he was.

16 Comments


Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Feb 27, 2023

What the color line did was make replacement-level players worse than they should have been. 40% of MLB players today are Black and/or Latino. Take the worst 40% of white players off the rosters of teams in the Ruth era -- that's five players per team -- and the quality of both pitching and hitting increases. Now, I'd love to see some actual research on it, because I'm only doing seat-of-the-pants guess work, but it seems reasonable to me that these five players would raise the replacement level by, what, half a win, one win, two wins? If you took one win away (since a replacement player would be one win better than in a mono-chromatic game) from Ruth…


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bbcfan64
Feb 27, 2023
Replying to

One flaw to the Latin player side of it is 100 years ago baseball wasn’t the big business in Latin America that it is today. Soccer dwarfed baseball in popularity and that’s what the best athletes played. Once baseball became lucrative the baseball schools started opening up and baseball became a business advertised as a way to escape poverty, but that was long after integration. In fact Ruth’s barnstormers probably helped make baseball popular in several countries in addition to Japan,

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fuster
Feb 27, 2023

Wake up the d*** Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the [butt].

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fuster
Feb 28, 2023
Replying to


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bbcfan64
Feb 27, 2023

Another major factor was the size of the ballparks. Yankees Stadium was 461 to straight away center in the Mickey Mantle days. It was 490 when Ruth played.

Also a rule that likely robbed him of some home runs that was in effect during his career is if you hit a ball down the line that eventually lands in foul territory it was a foul. So hooking a ball over the short porch (294’?) was just a strike whereas today it’d be a home run

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yankeesblog
Feb 27, 2023
Replying to

On the flip side for at least part of the Babe's career balls that bounced into the stands in fair territory were counted as home runs. I remember reading somewhere that Ruth did not actually have any such "homers" credited to his record.

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yankeesblog
Feb 27, 2023

Yes I've often read those qualifiers to Ruth's accomplishments and rarely do I see any nuanced discussion of the point. Most if it seems like perfunctory virtue signaling. Look, it's criminal (and yes I mean that in a literal sense) that African American and Latino players were excluded from the major leagues prior too 1947. There were many players who would have made their marks and stood right alongside of the white superstars of that era.


But let's be honest about it. Not every Negro League player was a superstar and not all of them were even of major league caliber. Along with the obvious elite stars, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Bullet Joe Rogan, Cool Papa…


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sfs1944
Feb 27, 2023

Babe is and will always be the greatest ballplayer ever, period.

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fuster
Feb 28, 2023
Replying to

what's so great about that Ruth character?


Judge just finished a season where he posted an OPS+ of 211


Ruth also had a season where he posted an OPS+ of 211


and if you don't count the 9 seasons where Ruth posted an OPS+ higher than 211......

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