The Book That Overrated Babe Ruth
Part One

by Keith Glab,

December 3, 2008

Last summer, Richard submitted an article entitled "The Greatest Giant Ever."  I immediately got excited about an issue I had never before considered: which was greater, Barry Bonds' time with the Giants or the entirety of Willie Mays' career?  Bonds still has a significant edge in batting runs when you subtract the Pittsburgh portion of his career - about 1134 to 844 - and was a more valuable hitter whether you use that difference of 190 batting runs or any other metric you like.  But most of Barry's speed came early in his career, giving Mays an edge of 338 to 263 stolen bases; the "Say-Hey Kid" was clearly a more valuable defensive player; Mays missed almost two full seasons while serving in the Korean War; and Barry Bonds has the steroids issue hanging over his head.

Knowing Richard, a comparison between the two Giants would be extremely in-depth and comprehensive, so I couldn't wait to delve into the submission.  Indeed, it was in-depth.  Indeed, it was comprehensive.  Unfortunately, it had absolutely nothing to do with a comparison between Mays and Bonds.  Rich spent over 2,000 words going over Mays' extensive list of accomplishments and lauding the type of player he was.  Bonds was only mentioned in passing, I suppose to let us know that he - not Christy Mathewson or Mel Ott - was runner up to Mays for the title of "The Greatest Giant Ever."

Now, there is nothing wrong with spending 2,000 words praising Willie Mays.  He was one of the very best players of all time.  Particularly in an era in which many writers tend to focus on what is wrong with an athlete - and I am as guilty of that as anyone - there is a place for focusing on the positives, basking in his greatness, and even perhaps exaggerating his accomplishments.  I was only disappointed because I had expected something different: I already knew that Mays was an exceptional player and have read many such essays praising him nonstop, but I still don't know whether he or Bonds had a better career as a Giant.  I know what Rich's opinion is, and I believe him when he says that the majority of Giants fans agree with him.  But I haven't spent a whole lot of time analyzing the issue myself, not being a Giants fan outside of the Jose Uribe years, and I have never seen a direct comparison between the two careers.  That's a shame.


This summer, Gregory lent me a book written by baseball historian Bill Jenkinson entitled, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Recrowning Baseball's Greatest Slugger.  That title would have you believe that this was a book much like Richard's article: one that focuses on the positives of Ruth's career, basking in his greatness, and even perhaps exaggerating his accomplishments.  The mistake that Jenkinson makes is that he writes an introduction to his book portraying it as an objective, hard-hitting analysis of how well Babe Ruth might have performed in the modern era and how he compares to the other great sluggers in baseball history.  He continues under this premise throughout the book, but his biased analysis makes it little more than extensive praise for Babe Ruth.  Whereas Richard merely gave his article a somewhat misleading title, Bill misleads the reader - and most likely himself - throughout 400 pages of text.

In his introduction, Jenkinson reveals that he had set out to determine who the "Paul Bunyan of baseball" was - the player who hit the most balls the furthest.  That analysis naturally led him to the study of Babe Ruth.  He no doubt recounts this origin story to let us know that he has no vested interest in portraying Ruth as any better than he actually was.  Perhaps he didn't - until he began doing his research.  What I suspect happened is that he became amazed by Ruth's accomplishments while studying him - and rightfully so.  But in falling in love with him, he then decided to do everything in his power to make Ruth look even better than he was.

This is pretty evident from the get-go.  Jenkinson labels Ruth as "one of the best pitchers in the history of his sport" and a "superior baserunner" on page four.  He goes on to say that in 1923, Ruth "was running the bases like Ty Cobb and playing the outfield like Tris Speaker."  But it isn't difficult to spot these statements as misleading exaggerations.

Ruth's career ERA of 2.28 is tied for 14th all-time, and his won-loss percentage of .671 ranks 11th.  We shall soon see Jenkinson spend nearly 400 pages factoring in playing conditions so as to make him appear a better hitter than his stats show; it might have helped him to use some of that analysis with regards to his pitching record.  The two players tied with him at 14th for career ERA are Will White and Ed Reulbach.  No one considers them among the best pitchers in the history of their sport, or even borderline Hall of Famers, because of the length of their pitching careers and the era in which they played.  Ruth's career ERA relative to his league was 122, tied for 86th all time.  His winning percentage indeed was good, but not much better than his Red Sox teammates, who did not enjoy the luxury of having Babe Ruth hitting in the lineup every time they pitched.  Jenkinson even gawks over Ruth's ability to throw complete games, even though pretty much every pitcher in his era was doing so.  He fails to mention that Ruth walked nearly as many batters as he whiffed; a pity, because that's a pitching stat that he could have adjusted in Ruth's favor given the conditions of his era. 

Ruth was indeed a very good pitcher, and probably an underrated one as well.  Jenkinson would have been better off writing something along those lines than blatantly overrating his pitching ability.

Defensively, Jenkinson cites first-hand accounts that praise Ruth's fielding prowess and the fact that he finished with 378 putouts in 1923 as evidence that Ruth was a terrific fielder in his younger days.  Moderately convincing, but on the other hand, we have the story that Ruth played right field in Yankee Stadium to avoid the sun.  If that legend is true, it makes his barely-over-league-average fielding percentage less impressive, as he probably lost fewer balls in the sun than the average outfielder of the pre-night game era.  If he actually played right field in Yankee Stadium because there is less ground to cover there and left field on the road because his arm wasn't that great, well, that doesn't bode well for our defensive ranking of Ruth, either.  Certainly, his assists, errors, and putout totals (other than in the fluke 1923 season) don't suggest that Ruth was anything more than average defensively, even in his younger days. 

Jenkinson would have us believe that Ruth was a "highly proficient outfielder and first baseman," even though his career fielding percentage at first base was an atrocious .966.  I can't imagine why he would go to such extraordinary lengths to exaggerate Ruth's defensive ability.              

The baserunning issue is the most ridiculous of the three.  Jenkinson spends excruciating amounts of space discussing each of Ruth's 450+ foot bombs that weren't homers due to the vast outfield dimensions of his era.  This is an important issue, and the central point of the book in many ways.  Unfortunately, we have to ask that if Ruth keeps regularly hitting these ridiculously long bombs that aren't caught and aren't homers, why he never even finished among the top three in his league in triples.  We also know that Ruth barely stole bases more often than he was caught during his career, which isn't the sign of a terrific baserunner in any era.  The most important of those caught stealings ended the 1926 World Series.  Jenkinson is even an apologist for that gaffe, writing that the man at bat "wasn't likely to get an extra base hit against Grover Cleveland Alexander."  That man was Bob Meusel, who went 2-for-3 against Alexander with a double, triple, and walk in the previous game.  Should Meusel have only kept the inning alive but not scored Ruth, two future Hall of Famers followed in Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri.

Babe Ruth drew 11 walks and hit four homers in that seven-game 1926 World Series.  Rather than focus on those accomplishments in lieu of the poor decision to try stealing a base against MVP catcher Bob O'Farrell, Jenkinson defends the maneuver on the premise that "if Ruth hadn't tried to steal that base, the Yankees' chances of winning would have been reduced.  If he hadn't possessed the guts to take that chance, Babe Ruth would not have become the game's greatest player."

Again, the central thesis of this book is how great of a home run hitter Ruth was.  So you could say that the fact that Bill Jenkinson exaggerates Ruth's accomplishments as a pitcher, fielder, and baserunner is irrelevant to the main point.  I argue that it is precisely the biased, Ruth-can-do-no-wrong analysis we see here that necessitates taking much of his home run analyses with a grain of salt.   

Continue to Part 2

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at