THE GREAT BAMBINO: NEED I SAY MORE?
Well, maybe just a little more. The 2019 baseball season has managed to undo what The Great Bambino spent a lifetime achieving. It finally made the home run boring, with every player, regardless of size, power or ability, swinging for the fences. The result: the most home runs (6,776) in the history of the game (and the most strike outs, too, of course – 42,823), but the fans apparently are not that excited about the long ball anymore, since attendance dropped by a million people. Babe Ruth, baseball's greatest player, invented the home run, and made it one of the most exciting aspects of the game, drawing crowds which were unprecedented at the time, on and off the field. And each season since he led the league in round trippers in 1918, almost every baseball player has been affected with the Babe Ruth Syndrome, swinging for the seats with every pitch.
Before I go on, first let me state my qualifications as a "baseball writer." After several years of playing stoop ball and street stick ball with my Spaldeen on 41st Avenue in crowded Corona, Queens, we moved to the "country" of Bayside, a community of only several miles
away. However, in 1947 Bayside had more empty lots, and potential baseball "diamonds," than Cod had liver pills. That's when I acquired my first baseball gear – bat, glove and ball – the hat came later. We played baseball from sunup to sundown, and sometimes even later . . . until we couldn't see the ball at all. In 1953/54, I made the Babe Ruth League, after blasting several home runs in the tryouts. As the saying goes, I "had a great bat." But, that was where the "saying" stopped. I started playing right field, but after several games I was mostly used as a pitch hitter. It seems fly balls had a habit of landing everywhere except my glove . . . one even conked me on my head, evoking a snide remark from my coach that I should wear a football helmet in the outfield. My career as a player didn't last long, but I've been an avid fan forever. And I still have the gear to prove it!
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see "The Great Bambino" play, but I did witness his "retirement" speech at Yankee Stadium on the little Dumont TV set in our living room when I was eight. Over the years, after reading and hearing so many stories about George Herman "Babe" Ruth, I could come to only one conclusion – he was the greatest baseball player and home run hitter of all time, actually the "inventor" of the long ball. Before The Babe took the field, a player could lead the league in home runs with 8. The Babe's first home run title was in 1918 when he led the league with 11 round trippers – and he was a pitcher at the time! (But that's another story).
Major League Baseball (MLB) has gotten so many things wrong over the years, but its greatest sin is how they compile home run records by season or career. There is only one true way to measure home runs, and that's by the number of a player's "at bats." First off, when it comes to home runs we must automatically disqualify the "steroid users" such as Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds and a few others. So that leaves two true home run competitors – Hank Aaron, with 755, and Babe Ruth, with 714. Now, here's the kicker: Aaron had 12,364 at bats (16.38 homers per at bats), while The Babe only had 8,399 – 3,965 less than Aaron, or 11.76 homers per at bats. Keeping with the same home-runs-to-at-bats ratio, you do the math, because when I do it, using the X-factor solution, it tells me The Babe would have had a career total of 1,051 home runs. As a side fact, Aaron had a lifetime batting average of .305 and Bambino's was .342, assuring him 10th place on the all-time batting average list. The same goes for the season home run record. According to MLB, the leader is Roger Maris (baseball's equivalent to the music industry's "one hit wonder") with 61, which is ridiculous, with or without an asterisk. Maris had 590 at bats in 1961. And when The Babe hit 60 in 1927, he did it with only 540 at bats. (X-factor again: The Babe would have hit 65 that season).
One of the reasons Babe had so few at bats is that he was constantly being fined or suspended by his managers for various offenses. It appears that Babe's "steroids" was wine, women and song. But, he also broke MLB rules by "barnstorming" in the off-season – playing exhibition games, usually with his teammate and friend, Lou Gehrig, in other franchises, such as the Pacific Coast League, the Negro League, the Federal League and others, where fans turned out by the tens of thousands. Among fans were throngs of youngsters, who The Babe always made a special effort to meet, to autograph baseballs and give batting tips. There's no question that more people watched Babe Ruth play baseball than any other player in history. The other reason The Babe had fewer at bats is the fact that he was a pitcher for 10 seasons. And, not just a pitcher but one of the best in baseball, with a 94 and 46 record and a 2.28 ERA. In fact, in 1916 he led the American League with a 23 and 12 record, an unbelievable 1.75 ERA and gave up no – zero – home runs.
In addition to his home run and pitching fetes, The Babe was among lifetime leaders in many other categories, in spite of his fewer at bats. For example, he is second in RBIs with 2,214, ahead of Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx, and his .342 batting average puts him 10th on the all time list, ahead of Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.
As if all this isn't enough to convince you The Great Bambino was "the greatest," take this into account. On-base plus slugging (OPS) is a sabermetric baseball statistic calculated as the sum of a player's on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The ability of a player both to get on base and to hit for power, two important offensive skills, are represented. An OPS of .900 or higher in Major League Baseball puts the player in the upper echelon of hitters. Babe Ruth's OPS is rated at 1.164 – an all-time high, and a record no one will ever break.
In his final years, Babe Ruth continued to make many public appearances, especially in support of American efforts in World War II and for orphan childrens' groups. In 1946, he became ill with nasopharyngeal cancer and died from the disease two years later. Ruth remains a part of American culture and in 2018, President Donald Trump posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Great Bambino...Gone, But Not Forgotten