What he did: Ruth may have been the greatest baseball player of all-time, perhaps the best athlete ever with all of his varied abilities, but I’ve noticed there’s a view of him today that seems pervasive. The idea, which I’ve seen in Baseball Think Factory forums and elsewhere, is that early greats like Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson would find themselves horribly out of shape if whisked from their eras to the modern game, sultans of sweat in flannel uniforms. They supposedly wouldn’t hold up against current competition.
But I think this does a disservice to the Babe. Fred Lieb, a New York sportswriter during Ruth’s years on the Yankees, offered an interesting anecdote in his 1977 memoir, Baseball As I Have Known It. Lieb wrote:
During the years that Babe was in his prime, a professor at Columbia College gave Ruth a thorough physical examination, testing such measurable traits as the speed of his muscular and nervous reactions to various stimuli. The New York Times, in recording the professor’s findings, gave the story the head ‘ONE MAN IN A MILLION.’ The report said nothing about Babe’s IQ, but in twenty categories, Babe ranked well above the average male. All of his five sense were keener and sharper than average. He also scored high in strength, response to stress, and reaction time. As I recall it, the professor explained: ‘Take twenty men off the street and you will find that several of them may score above average in two, three, or four of these tests, but it [is] only one in a million who will score above average in all twenty.’
I couldn’t find any record of this article in the New York Times archives. But supposing Lieb’s story is true, it leads me to believe Ruth would excel in pretty much any era. Playing in recent years, when his natural abilities could be strengthened with modern fitness there’s no telling what Ruth might do.
Era he might have thrived in: Ruth played his prime years in a Golden Age for hitters, the 1920s and early ’30s and in a ballpark literally built for him, old Yankee Stadium which boasted a short porch in right field that suited him as a left-handed pull hitter. Thus, in most other eras, Ruth’s numbers would drop, even if he remained relatively dominant to the rest of baseball. But if we put him on one of the top American League offensive juggernauts of the late 1990s, he might hit .400 or smack 70 home runs.
Why: All the reasons we’ve talked about so far would help Ruth in the 1990s. He’d go from one Golden Age for hitters to another, facing the same weak pitching. Ruth would also have access to modern strength training which wasn’t emphasized in baseball before the 1960s (and for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume Jose Canseco doesn’t turn Ruth on to steroids.) Ruth would retain all the same preternatural instincts and abilities that made him one of a kind in his own day. It’s a wonder, really, he achieved as much as he did. Talent can only take a person so far in life. In the 1990s, Ruth’s talent would be coaxed and developed.
The projected numbers speak for themselves. On the 1996 Texas Rangers, Ruth’s historic 60-home-run season in 1927 converts to 70 home runs, 201 RBI, and a .379 batting average. In fact, 12 of his 22 seasons convert to .370 or better on the ’96 Rangers, and the stat converter has him hitting above .400 for his converted 1923 and 1926 seasons. He also hits at least 60 home runs for his converted 1920, 1921, and 1928 years. The thought here is that if Ruth played most of his career on a team like the Rangers or the Kingdome-era Seattle Mariners or even the Yankees, he’d top 800 home runs lifetime.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays