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The Myth of Ruth

By John B Holway

This April baseball marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, honoring Branch Rickey as one of the saints of baseball, if not American, history.

It’s one of Seven Great Myths of baseball, myths that have become so enshrined as “facts” that they are steadfastly believed more than the truth. They have become so encrusted in the re-telling that they may never be dislodged. Robert Redford is planning a film on Rickey and Robinson. Will he federal the myth or xpose it?

The SevenMyths, as I count them, are:

1. Babe Ruth led baseball to an attendance explosion in 1920

2. Baseball talent is diluted by expansion

3. Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games

4. Lou Boudreau invented the Shift

5. Johnny Pesky held the ball

6. The Red Sox have been under a curse

7. Branch Rickey freed the slaves

This is a good time to take a close look at them all.


John B Holway is author of Ted the Kid and The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues.

"The enemy of truth is not error; it is myth." - John F Kennedy

Riding the Wave With the Babe

The Babe didn't cause the dramatic attendance boom of the 1920s. The attendance boom caused Babe Ruth.

More than 80 years later, we can now see what was not apparent then: Baseball attendance s always plunged in war and depression and rebounded to new heights after them. It happened in both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Great Depression.

Att/game

1918 3,700 World War I low

1919 5,200 Rebound

1933 4,900 Depression low

1940 7,900 Rebound

1943 6,000 World War II low

1946 15,000 Rebound

1953 11,500 Korean low

1955 13,300 Rebound

1964 10,700 Vietnam low

1977 16,800 Rebound

It remains to be seen how the Iraq war has affected attendance.

Baseball is a summer game, to be savored when the world is balmy, both the climate and the nation’s psyche. When things go wrong and we feel like making a fist and smacking someone, that’s when we click on TV and watch 22 big guys smash into each other and get rid of our own aggressions. What happened to baseball in the 1960s and ‘70s was not good football or good pitching; it was Vietnam.

Ruth is also given credit for rescuing the game after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Actually it was the euphoria following the Armistice that did it.

In 1920 Babe Ruth suddenly shot up from 29 homers in Boston to 54 in New York. The reason: He moved from Fenway, with the game’s longest right field target, 330 feet, to the Polo Grounds, with the shortest – 258 feet. The change of 72 feet was a lucky break for him, not for baseball -- National League attendance also surged without any help from the Babe.

The annual attendance totals reveal no correlation between Babe’s home runs and fannies in the seats.

YEAR   NL AL AL HR Ruth HR
1918 2,300 3,400   98 11
1919 4,700 6,000*  291* 29*
1920 6,500 8,300* 369* 54*
1921 6,500 7,500 477* 59*
1922 6,300 8,000 525* 35
1923 6,700 7,000 441 41
1924 7,000 8,600* 397 46
1925 7,100 8,400 533* 25
1926 8,000 8,000 424 47
1927 8,600* 7,500 439 60*
1928 8,000 6,800 483 54
1929 8,000 7,600 595* 46
1930 8,800* 7,600 673* 49

*record

In 1921, when Ruth blasted a record 59 homers, league attendance plunged by 800 per game. In ’22 Babe’s homers fell by 24, yet American League attendance went up. The next year Ruth’s homers went up, but AL attendance went down. In ’26 he added 22 homers, and the league lost 400 customers per game. Most dramatically, in 1927, when Ruth smacked a record 60 into the seats, there were actually 500 less fannies per game in those seats to see him do it.

(In ’22 and ’25, conditions had never been better from home run hitters. American Leaguers broke all previous records for home runs, but Ruth chose those years to get himself suspended and to develop a severe tummy ache; otherwise he probably could have reached 60 or more in both seasons.)

Meanwhile, the Ruth-less National League, which had been growing steadily, surpassed the American in attendance.

Historians also claim Babe created the “lively ball” era. This too is fallacious.

And the ball was definitely livelier in 1919, when Babe set his first record of 29. Total homers almost tripled to a new record, and Babe’s total also almost tripled, from 11 to 29. The lively ball didn't follow Babe’s records; it created them.

Ray Chapman’s bean-ball death in 1920 led to rules that gave batters even more advantages. Pitchers could no longer load the ball with tobacco juice and spit, and umpires could not leave balls in the game until their covers were scuffed and loosened. Home run totals shot up again, including Babe’s.

Ruth partisans boast that the Babe hit more homers than entire teams.

That's not unusual. In 1915 Gavvy Cravath, who also had a short porch at home, personally hit more home runs than six of the seven other National League clubs. In 1942 Ted Williams, who didn't, still out-homered one team and tied another.

What the historians also don’t tell us is that in Ruth’s case, everyone else was still playing Cobbean baseball -- winning by one run on a walk, sacrifice, steal, and error. Hitters could have hit more homers, they just weren't trying.

Then slowly others began catching the home run fever: Rogers Hornsby, Ken and Cy Williams, Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, Hack Wilson, and Jimmie Foxx. They were also bulking up. Ruth is listed at 212 pounds in the encyclopedia. In 1918 Tilly Walker tied him for the home run lead, though Walker weighed only 165. Ken Williams was 170, Hornsby 175, Cy Williams and Klein 185, Wilson 190, Foxx 195, and Gehrig 200. In 1927 Lou, who was second to the Babe in pounds, was also second to him in home runs.

In 1920 Ruth’s homers represented one out of every seven hit in the American League; by 1930 they were only 1/15th of the league total. The Bambino was hitting about the same number, but the rest of the league was hitting twice as many. Ruth could win or share 12 home run crowns. No one has ever come close to that since, because competition is much tighter: Hank Aaron could win only four, Barry Bonds two, and one of those was with steroids.

Ruth was lucky. He the largest slugger of his day, and he was born at the right time, 1895, which put him at his athletic peak at precisely the right moment in history.

Babe was a great hitter and a great personality, but he didn't create the wave. He rode it.

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