Any player/Any era: Babe Ruth

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 MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

6 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Babe Ruth”

  1. What the converter forgets is that he’d be facing much better pitching overall now than back then. Just from looking at clips of pitchers from those days, it seems almost impossible that any of them could have been anywhere near 90 mph, with their short, arm driven deliveries. He’d be facing not only faster pitchers, but relief pitchers, all of whom had multiple pitches with far more stuff than the pitchers of his day.
    What seems sensible to me is that his strikeout totals would have risen and along with it, his average would have declined. I don’t think that crediting him with 165k’s a year on average would be understated, nor would his average dropping into the low .300-.310’s be out of the question to assume.
    If we look at the cluster of rodrigues, griffey, mays, aaron and bonds, I think we can pretty well project where his overall batting average should be.
    With the increased conditioning, he would have continued to average over forty home runs per year, with multiple seasons in the fifties and possibly higher, given the proper ball park to hit in.
    800? 825? 850 home runs? Not at all out of the question either.

  2. On the other side of the converter issue, is the perspective that Babe was hitting more home runs whole teams. That would be the proportional equivalent to Babe hitting 190-240 home runs a year. And it was not like his contemporaries were weaklings, although it would have been awesome to see Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and company get the same shot as well.

    The other thing to consider is that Babe spent at least 5 years as a pitcher and part-time player and 6 years of his career were in the deadball era. Had Babe played full-time all the way through and played all of his career in the livelier era, he might have hit nearer to 1,000 home runs.

    Also to consider Ruth used amazingly heavy bats. His strength had to have been awesome.

    His season after season home run stats alone towered well above everyone in baseball not only then but right up to the present. Across the board, no one has the stats that he had, and with none of the perks that modern athletes have and no artificial aides.

    I think some of his bad rap comes from the most part of the visuals that are left of him in his later career as a heavier, but still lethal hitter who had many other great skills to call his own. As Graham says no one comes close to the all-round HOF level skills as an every-day player and pitcher that Babe had. It would be like Bob Gibson quitting pitching after 5 years or so, becoming an everyday player and turning into Hank Aaron on steroids.

  3. I always thought an interesting player to stick in a time machine and see how he would do today would be Honus Wagner. The game was so different then, yet Wagner’s superior physique and skills seem eminently translatable to the modern game. We only can guess how he or anyone would do, but it’s fun to speculate.

  4. In 1921, Ruth hit home runs of 500 or more feet in all eight AL ballparks. Ruth hit 29 of the 100 longest Major League home runs hit from 1871 through 2009. The other 17,000 men to play in the Majors hit the remaining 71. He hit the longest home run in Major League history (575 feet at Navin Field, Detroit in 1921) and the longest home run any human has hist (650 feet in an exhibition game at Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in October 1926.) Ruth once won a fung hitting contest in, I think, 1936, by fungo hitting a ball 460 feet. Just to make things interesting, Ruth, a left handed hitter, batted right handed. Bill Jenkinson, who has written extensively on this, has also documented Ruth’s performances in exhibition games against Negro League players. In 55 known at bats he got 25 hits and 12 home runs (i.e., 120 home runs in 550 at bats). Ruth batted once against Stachel Paige, in an exhibition game in 1938, when Ruth was 43. According to Buck O’Neill, who was there, Ruth hit a home run that went so far, this was the only time O’Neill said that Paige was at a loss for words. “Nuff said.

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