Babe Ruth, etc.

 by Father Gabriel Costa

BABE RUTH AND THE 1927 YANKEES (WITH A COMPARISION TO THE 1961 BRONX BOMBERS) 1927! What a year it was…Charles Lindbergh soloed across the Atlantic Ocean in a plane dubbed “The Spirit of St. Louis”…Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” motion picture…the decade of the Roaring Twenties was in full bloom and Babe Ruth and the Yankees were where they belonged: at the very top of the Baseball world! The cast of characters which comprised Murderers’ Row put the 1927 squad in first place from the opening day of the season. Six months later, they were still there after winning an astounding 110 games and compiling a winning percentage of .714, an appropriately prophetic number foreshadowing the exact number of career home runs (HR) a certain George Herman Ruth would amass. This team never spent one day out of first place. Offensively, the 1927 Yankees would lead the league in the following categories: Runs Scored (R), Batting Average (BA), Hits (H), Triples (3B), HR, Total Bases (TB), Slugging Percentage (SLG) and On-Base-Plus-Slugging (OPS). Their pitching staff, anchored by Hall of Fame southpaws Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, obviously paced the circuit in wins (W) and also in Earned Run Average (ERA) and Shutouts (SHO). They won the pennant by 19 games; and this was at a time when the second place Philadelphia A’s were just starting to compile a team that shortly would become a mini-dynasty in its own right. The 1927 Yankee team simply outclassed everyone. For example, they defeated the St. Louis Browns twenty-one times that season. The pennant was pretty much assumed to be going to the Yankees, a position taken by the media perhaps as early as May or June. But another race was taking shape. No one – but no one! – had ever given Babe Ruth a run for his money regarding home runs. Yet here was this twenty-four year old kid, Columbia Lou Gehrig, who was matching the Behemoth of Biff, clout for clout. The Babe, of course, would wind up with 60 HR, a mark that would not be topped for thirty-four years, and even then, there would be surrounding controversy. Gehrig, who would be relegated to the role of Crown Prince, would slug 47 circuit clouts, the highest total ever amassed up to that time by anyone not named Ruth. They would become the first teammates to hit 100+ HR. The World Series pitted the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Bombers. The Bucs had three future Hall of Famers on their team, Paul Waner, his brother Lloyd, and Pie Traynor. They also boasted of a fine pitching staff, paced by twenty-two game winner Carmen Hill and they led the Senior Circuit with a .305 BA. But the Pirates had no realistic chance of winning; they lost the Fall Classic in four games. The Yankees of 1927 were sandwiched by two other great teams. The 1927 Yankees begin Spring Training licking their wounds from the previous World Series, a Fall Classic about which much has been written. The St. Louis Cardinals trailed the series three games to two, when they returned to Yankee stadium for Game Six. Veteran right-hander Grover Cleveland Alexander limited the Bronx Bombers to eight hits as the Redbirds prevailed by a score of 10-2. In the seventh and final game, despite a home run by Babe Ruth, the Yankees found themselves on the short end of a 3-2 decision, with Alexander coming in to save the game and the series. This was the series in which Babe Ruth would hit three homeruns during the fourth game in St. Louis, a feat he would repeat during the same game and in the same city during the 1928 Series. It was also the Fall Classic which featured Alexander facing Yankee second baseman Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning. Alexander the Great struck out Poosh ‘em Up Tony, an event which would be immortalized on Alexander’s Hall of Fame plaque. By the way, the final out of this 1926 World Series was made by Ruth, attempting to steal second base. In a sense, this play would be the “springboard of resolve” for what would a year later come to be known as the Greatest Team of All Time. In 1927, Hall of Fame skipper Miller Huggins had the good fortune of managing the following players: • First Base: Lou Gehrig – had 447 TB (third highest total ever) and 173 runs batted in (RBI). • Second Base: Tony Lazzeri – ranked third in the league in HR, stole 22 bases (SB) and had 102 RBI. • Shortstop: Mark Koenig – had a solid .285 BA and scored 99 R. • Third Base: Joe Dugan – gritty veteran…had .638 OPS. • Left Field: Bob Meusel – had a .337 BA….902 OPS…24 SB…a border line Hall of Famer. • Center Field: Earl Combs – leadoff hitter who batted .356…23 triples…137 R. • Right Field: Babe Ruth – 1.258 OPS…158 R…164 RBI. • Catchers: Pat Collins (.825 OPS)…Johnny Grabowski (.673 OPS)…Benny Bengough (.634 OPS). • Pitching Aces: Waite Hoyt (22-7 won-loss record, 2.63 ERA) and Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00). Note that Pennock retired the first twenty-two Pirates in Game Three of the World Series. • Relief Pitcher: Wilcy Moore – 19-7 W-L record with a 2.28 ERA. This team had everything: Babe Ruth, in his most famous – but not his best – year; Lou Gehrig, having one of the greatest statistical seasons ever. No team ever had, or would ever have, a one-two punch equal to The Babe and Lou. Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri, the first Italian star and precursor to fellow Californian Joe DiMaggio, was just coming into his own. He had a settling effect on his teammates and showed leadership qualities far greater than expected from someone twenty three years old. Earl Combs, also a Hall of Famer, was fleet afoot, and got on base better than two times out of every five plate appearances. And Long Bob Meusel, who batted behind Gehrig, had one of the greatest throwing arms any outfielder was blessed to have. The team had great pitching, a deep and versatile bench and more than adequate catching. While fielding is the most difficult facet of the game to measure, the 1927 Yankees tied for 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the American League with a fielding percentage (FPCT) of .969. This mark was just a tad behind the league leading Chicago White Sox, who paced the circuit with a .971 figure. So how good was this team? As a digression, let us compare them to their 1961 counterparts, a natural excursion considering the Ruth-Gehrig Home Run Race vis-à-vis the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle Battle. The focal point of the 1961 Yankees was the “Roger Maris Controversy”. The essence of the issue involving Maris was, of course, the eight extra games in which he would play. In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 HR. This remained the seasonal record through 1960. A nice round number…Sixty! Count ‘em! The Bambino smacked his five dozen HR in a 154 game season. As both Maris and Mantle pounded ball after ball into the stands, their totals kept mounting…thirty…then forty…then forty-five…then fifty. But then Mantle dropped out of the race. So now it was only Roger versus The Babe. The reader should be aware that in 1961, the memory of the Babe was very much alive. The Bambino had been dead for less than fifteen years. His former ghost-writer, Ford Frick, was the Commissioner of Baseball. And it was decreed that Maris had to break the hallowed record within a 154 game limit. That is, any HR hit from Game 155 onwards, would be looked at in a different light. This was when the infamous “Asterisk” took on a new meaning. Maris entered the 154th game with 58 HR. The game was being played in Baltimore, the very place where the Babe was born. I vividly remember watching that game on a black-and-white television. The tension was so thick that it could be cut with a knife. Maris showed unbelievable courage and determination. He actually hit one HR that evening, and drove at least two other balls pretty far to right field. But they were either not far enough or went into foul territory. When knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm retired Maris in the 9th inning, the whole baseball world knew that the “race” was over. Maris lost. Of course we know that Maris did ultimately hit number 60 and 61 after the imposed limit. Tragically, though, in a sense, Maris never recovered from that year and was never forgiven for hitting 61 HR. Maris was a quiet, family man from North Dakota. He shunned the limelight. And the effects of the constantly answering the same questions over and over led to him to such anxiety that patches of hair literally fell from his scalp. Some of the “knocks” against Roger were: • Maris was maligned because he, and not the “home grown” Mantle, broke the record. • Maris hit only .269 that year. • Because of expansion, many observers felt that the pitching pool was diluted and weakened, thereby cheapening Maris’ heroic feat. • And, of course, he played in a longer season. The bottom line was that Maris was a very good player and should have been given more respect. And he did hold the record until 1998. (Unfortunately, shortly after that, new controversies emerged. But that’s another story.) Continuing with the comparison of both teams, we give one quantitative argument. In 2000 Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein published a book titled: Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Team of All Time. They developed a measure known as the Standard Deviation Score (SDS). Using their metric, we find that the 1927 club registers a 3.69 on this scale, whereas the 1961 club measures 2.97. My own feeling is that the 1927 Yankees had a big superiority at first base and at second base. I would say that the shortstops were pretty much even and I would give third base to the 1961 club, because of Clete Boyer’s fielding. Although Yogi Berra hit 22 HR, compared to 8 for Meusel, Long Bob bested Berra in the following four categories: BERRA MEUSEL AB 395 516 R 62 75 RBI 61 103 OPS .795 .902 So I believe the 1927 club had the advantage for left field. Earle Comb’s career year of 1927 year would put him above almost any other centerfielder in almost any other year. But Mantle’s 1961 year, while not his personal best despite his 54 HR, was one of the best ever. The Mick easily beats out The Kentucky Colonel. Roger Maris beat Ruth by one HR. He needed fifty more AB and the controversial eight extra games. The Babe comes in second place to no one, which is no knock on Maris. I give the position of Catcher to the 1961 club, because of Elston Howard and back-ups Johnny Blanchard and Berra. The pitching staffs were pretty much even, from top to bottom. Johnny Blanchard was a great pinch hitter; but, other than Blanchard, I believe the 1927 Yankees had a deeper bench. Not counting Miller Huggins, the 1927 club had four starting Hall of Famers as position players (Ruth, Gehrig, Combs and Lazzeri), and a player which many experts feel should be enshrined, Bob Meusel. Pitchers Pennock and Hoyt also had Hall of Fame careers. In comparison, Ralph Houk had two position players (Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra) and one pitcher (Whitey Ford) as Hall of Famers. What is my pick in a seven game series? I think the 1927 Yankees would have taken the 1961 Bombers in 6 games. How would the 1927 Yankees do against other great teams? I believe they would hold their own against any team of any era. I believe this for a number of reasons: 1) they certainly dominated the league that year; 2) they easily won the World Series; 3) the teams of the preceding and succeeding seasons won two pennants and one World Series; 4) the 1927 Yankees still have had an “aura” about them that has never really dulled or waned…there is a sense of transcendence about them. In 1928, the Yankees would win the pennant by a margin of 2.5 games. They would exact revenge for their bitter 1926 World Series loss to the Cardinals, by winning all four games. Ruth would again hit three home runs in the fourth game; he would also make the final play of the series: a sterling, sweeping catch of a foul ball about to go into the left field box seats. That made for two Championships in a row, with a combined 8-0 record in World Series Play. This marked the first time a team had won two consecutive Series titles without losing a game. And it all started in 1927. And the centerpiece was…is…and always will be…Babe Ruth.

February 26, 2018

BASEBALL’S GREATEST HITTER: BABE RUTH OR TED WILLIAMS This, of course, is one of the hallmark questions of sabermetrics…perhaps the classic question. To begin our discussion, we must consider our question from a number of perspectives. Are we limiting ourselves to pure hitting, and to whatever that might mean? How much weight should be given to power numbers? Are we now talking about complete hitting, by taking these power numbers into consideration? Should there be a “cut off” figure; for example, should any player with a lifetime batting average (BA) below .300 be automatically eliminated from the discussion? Recall that BA is equal to hits (H) divided by at-bats (AB). The greatest batter should be dominant: is the career BA of .366 for Detroit’s Ty Cobb more dominant than the .402 BA put up by the Cardinal’s Rogers Hornsby over the five year stretch from 1921 through 1925? Transcendence is another word which comes to mind. When Yankee outfielder Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs (HR) in 1920, he hit more HR than 14 of the remaining 15 teams and actually out-homered 11 pairs of teams that year. No one has ever approached that feat. And what if Boston’s Ted Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter, had not lost nearly five years due to serving his country during World War II and the Korean Conflict? What might he have accomplished? Most likely, instead of garnering 521 career HR, his total would have approached 700. Some greats played in four different time zones, other were limited to two. Some stars used air travel to cross the country, others rode on trains. Some sluggers played night games, many others played only during the day. Centerfielder Tris Speaker, who had a .344 lifetime BA, never played a Major League game against a player of Color, something certainly not true when considering the career of Brooklyn’s Duke Snider, the only player in the 1950’s to have five consecutive seasons with 40 or more HR. Consider the technological and medical advances, and how these have impacted on the art of hitting a baseball. Not to mention Steroids…or Performance Enhancing Drugs...or Human Growth Hormones. At this point one is almost tempted to throw up their hands and cry out that the question has too many variables and nuances…too many “What ifs?”…to level the playing field, in any meaningful way. But precisely here is the beauty of sabermetrics! It is not meant to provide “proofs” which have the same absolute certainty of mathematics. The most it can do is give plausibility. And for that, we are grateful. So, let me give the reader one man’s opinion regarding this question. I will try to put the numbers in context and attempt to determine whether factors like dominance and transcendence apply to these hitters. Let me begin with paraphrasing two sayings given to us by the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, himself. These will kind of serve as “axioms” or a backdrop for the treatment of our question as to greatest hitter of all time. The Thumper said, • Hitting a baseball is the most difficult individual act in all of sports. • The On-Base-Plus-Slugging (OPS) measure is the “bottom line” in hitting. That is, On-Base-Average (OBA) plus SLG is OPS. We can write this equation as OPS = OBA + SLG. Note that OPS is also called Production. Finally, before eliminating all but two candidates from our discussion, for reference I point out to the reader the lifetime leaders in the OPA, SLG and OPS categories: • OBA: Ted Williams (.482) followed by Babe Ruth (.474) • SLG: Babe Ruth (.690) followed by Ted Williams (.634) • OPS: Babe Ruth (1.164) followed by Ted Williams (1.116) During the first half of the last century, shortstop Honus Wagner was considered by many to be the greatest player ever. Before the advent and popularization of sabermetrics, either Wagner or Cobb was given precedence over all other players, including Babe Ruth. But Wagner played part of his career prior to the Modern Era (which most baseball historians date 1901 as its inception). Regarding Wagner’s hitting, although he won eight National League batting titles, his lifetime BA was .328. While he hit 101 HR, a “passable” figure for his era, his slugging percentage (SLG) was only .467. I would have loved to have Wagner on my team, and I do believe he will always be rated as the greatest shortstop ever, but I don’t believe he was the greatest hitter ever. Ty Cobb was dominant; no question about it. He was said to have “ruled the field with awe”. He won 12 batting titles over a 13 year stretch. He hit below .300 only once, and during his career he accumulated over 4000 hits (H). He hit over .400 three times. However, he had rivals. Outfielder Joe Jackson, second baseman Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker, all batted nearly as high as (and sometimes higher than) the Georgia Peach. Also, approximately three-quarters of Cobb’s hits were singles, he hit 117 HR and had a career SLG total of .512. One might argue very strongly that Cobb ranked with the “purest” hitters ever, based on these totals, but his lack of power statistics takes Cobb out of the discussion regarding “complete” hitters. Perhaps with the exception of Lou Gehrig, the Yankee Hall of Famer, to eliminate Rogers Hornsby from the list is very difficult to justify. His .358 lifetime BA ranks second only to Cobb and his lifetime OPS is 1.010 is the eighth best of all time. Yet, he hit only 301 HR (topping the seasonal mark of 40 HR just once) and had a SLG of .577. Had he hit 400 HR and slugged .600, he might very well have been included in the discussion with Ruth and Williams. American League first basemen Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg were all super sluggers. In the end, though, they were just a notch or two below Babe Ruth. On the OPS list they rank third, fifth and sixth, respectively. Had Gehrig not be stricken with the fatal illness which killed him before his 38th birthday and instead declined “normally”, he would have had 600+ HR and 2500+ runs batted in (RBI). These numbers, combined with his .340 BA and .632 SLG, would certainly have put the Iron Horse in to the “Williams or Ruth” debate. Stan Musial of the Cardinals was great, but slugged “only”.559. The Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, had a lifetime BA of .325 and a .579 SLG. Great players?…certainly. But neither one was the greatest hitter ever. Rightfielder Henry Aaron had 755 HR, the most ever until Barry Bonds of the Giants broke his record. Bad Henry batted .305 lifetime and slugged .555. His slugging was two points less than centerfielders Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, but he out hit Willie by three points and Mickey by seven points. Regarding OPS, Henry ranks 41st, Willie is 29th and Mickey is 10th. As great as they were, none of them can really be considered as the greatest hitter ever. Outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. had a career OPS of .907, ranking him 57th on the all-time list. This statistic, and a lifetime BA of .284, really place Junior out of the running. Sammy Sosa of the Cubs and Mark McGwire of the Cardinals just don’t cut it based on their averages and surrounding controversies. McGwire, in particular, was hitting home runs at such a clip toward the end of his career that he was raising his lifetime cumulative HR percentage to surpass even Ruth’s ratio of HR to AB. Given Ted Williams’ statement about the difficulty of hitting a baseball, for a player – a .263 hitter, no less – to hit so many HR at such an advanced age in incredulous! Controversies have long surrounded both retired Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez and HR leader Barry Bonds. Before the turn of the century, Bonds was a very good hitter. In the early part of the century, Bonds had a few seasons which were virtually unparalleled in the history of the sport. These seasons occurred upwards from the age of 35. Even so, he bested the 50+ HR seasonal mark only once in his career (albeit with 73 homers in 2001). His lifetime BA is under .300. And he has never had a 140+ RBI season. Bottom line: Bonds is not the greatest hitter ever, with or without help. Some people felt Rodriguez would break the 800 HR mark; of course, he didn’t even reach 700 circuit clouts. With a dismally low OBA (ranking about 125th), and a lifetime BA of .295, A Rod has nevertheless accumulated some remarkable numbers. And to his credit, he has (somewhat?) admitted to using “substances”. In some ways, his totals can be/will be compared with those of Henry Aaron (sans the controversies and the substances). I suspect, when the dust settles, and even with the tarnished image, he will be considered as one of the all-time greats. But, never as the greatest – hitter or player. My own feeling is that Albert Pujols of the Cardinals was by far the greatest hitter a decade ago. While old age is creeping up, he will most probably be considered as one of the top ten greatest hitters ever. And so we come to Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. Relatively speaking, they had short careers. Williams batted around 7700 times, Ruth had about 8400 AB. The both walked over 2000 times. We have already mentioned that Williams lost nearly five seasons while serving in the Armed Forces. But we have not pointed out that Ruth, because he began as a pitcher, can be considered to have “lost time” as well, although not in the same way or the same amount of time. In Understanding Sabermetrics (McFarland publishers, 2008) the idea of the Equivalence Coefficient was put forth. With this model, the authors attempted to answer the question of “What might have been?” had careers been given their expected “normal duration”. An essential part of the instrument was to incorporate a “kicker” – that is, a way to factor in special circumstances. For example, they did not extrapolate batting totals for Williams’ missed years, but assumed that The Thumper would have been even better for the years he was missing. Without reprinting and repeating the arguments, it was pretty clear that Ruth would have bested Williams in virtually everything but BA and OBA. And these conclusions were based on the assumptions that Williams would have been 5% or 10% better than he “normally” was, while Ruth would have been 5% worse than he “normally” was. Both were dominant figures. Both transcended the game. Both were heroes even to their contemporaries. But Ruth also changed the game. People started hitting home runs more frequently because of Ruth. They swung the bat differently. He made an essential change to baseball. He not only dominated the game…he transcended it. Ruth outhomered teams ninety times in his career. He still holds the seasonal records for total bases (457), extra base hits (119) and runs scored (177). And this was in 1921, a 154 game season. Counting ties, Babe Ruth won a dozen HR titles. Babe Ruth had seven seasons where he drove in 140+ runs. Ruth is the only player in history to reach the 2000+ mark in walks, runs and RBI. Before the emergence of the older Barry Bonds, Ruth was the only player to have seasonal SLG marks of .800+, reaching them in 1920 and 1921. He won 13 SLG titles during a 14 year period. Ruth was the first player to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 HR in a season. By the way, Ruth had an OPS of 1.211 while appearing in ten World Series. While Williams outhit Ruth by 2 points in BA, Ruth outslugged Williams by 56 points with respect to SLG. A final thought. I saw Ted Williams the first time I went to a Major League game. It was in early September of 1960 at Yankee Stadium. Teddy Ballgame hit a home run. The Yankee crowd gave him a standing ovation. Needless to say, I have remembered that day…and will remember it for the rest of my life. Even though I was 12 years old then and Williams was in his last year, I can truthfully say that Ted Williams was the greatest hitter I ever saw. But I never saw Ruth.

February 15, 2018

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These is much more of Babe's Yankee career, but have to edit myself or this site will never get launched!!  More on his Yankee career to come!