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Baseball Analysis  John Holway / History


By John B. Holway

The home run maven, Bill Jenkinson, says Barry Bonds would have to hit 84 homers to equal Babe Ruth’s 60. One could say Bonds DID hit 82. If Barry had come to bat as often as Ruth, 540 times, he would have hit 82.

AB HR HR/540

476 73 82

We don’t give batting crowns to the man with the most total hits but to the man with the most hits per 1,000 at bats. Why don’t we apply the same principle to home runs?

Incidentally, Sadahu Oh got walked so much, he never came to bat 500 times officially, and sometimes it was under 400. If he had come up as often as Hank Aaron, Oh would have hit over 1,000 homers.

There’s no way to relate home runs or other baseball statistics between eras for many reasons. (That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try anyway.)

Since 1927 the world shot put record has gone up 50 percent, from 50 feet to 75. If hitting home runs were an Olympic event, we could expect the record to have grown to about 90 since 1927. The only reason home runs haven’t increased 50 percent is that batters must swing against other human beings, pitchers, who are getting bigger and better as fast as the batters are. If Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, and Bonds all swung against identical,unchanging pitching machines, Ruth’s record would have gone the way of Jan Stenerud’s 1924 marathon record. Even the girls have smashed that.

Relative averages don’t help.

Every year it gets relatively harder to be relatively better. Ty Cobb was 54% better than the average batter of 1911. Does that reflect how good Ty was or how bad the rest were? Since then, only one hitter has been 50% better than his peers -- Ted Williams with 53% in 1941 and 1958. That was 50 to 60 years ago. He couldn’t do it against today’s opponents. In 1941 Ted’s teammates came up to his shoulders. Today Ted would come up to Randy Johnson’s shoulders.

Babe was about 900% better than the other home run hitters of 1920. He couldn’t do that today. In 1920 he was the only guy TRYING to hit homers. Then youngsters like Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, and Hank Greenberg started trying too.

What about the dilution theory?

Every “major league” pitcher in 1927 represented the best of 75,000 white North American males. By 1960, that figure had grown to one out of about 275,000 males of all hues. That winter baseball let the bars down just a little, and Maris immediately vaulted over them. They called it “dilution” of talent. Heck, talent was diluted in Ruth’s day, not Roger’s.

Then, too, Babe had half a dozen “cousins” pitching in the American League in 1927. They served up about 15 gopher balls to him – giants of the mound named Slim Harriss, Tony Welzer, Ernie Nevers etc. If they had lost their jobs to the best black pitchers of their day – Bullet Joe Rogan, Big Bill Foster, Smoky Joe Williams, or the rookie Satchel Paige, Ruth might have smote 45 homers instead of 60. (“I’d have taken a few points off those high batting averages,” Satchel used to say.)

Babe might not even have led the league. How many could black stars Mule Suttles, John Beckwith, or Turkey Stearnes have hit in an integrated league? Was 46 possible? If Maris could hit 61, I don’t know why they couldn’t have hit 46. In fact, Mule and Josh often averaged 60 or 70 per 550 at bats.

How important is the park factor?

Here’s a game to play: Put Ruth, statistically, in Griffith Stadium, whose rightfield home run target was 30 feet deeper and 30 feet higher than Yankee Stadium. You do this by dividing his Yankee Stadium homers by seven and multiplying his Washington homers by seven. The result is something like 47 homers. (Of course, they would have put bleacher seats in front of the wall for Babe.)

Do the same thing in reverse for Washington’s Goose Goslin. (Goose WHO?) If Goose and Babe had switched parks, their home run totals would have been a lot closer.

I’ve plotted the dimensions of Brooklyn’s Ebbetts Field and the old Griffith Stadium. You could lift Ebbetts up with a giant crane and drop it inside Griffith, and it would fit neatly with about 20 feet to spare in all directions. Which is why Dodger batters hit so many homers and Senator batters hit so few. Josh Gibson’s leftfield target in Washington was 408 feet down the line, 388 to the power alley. Ebbetts was about 348 to the power alley. Imagine Josh in Brooklyn?!

Does size matter?

In the 1800s Hugh Duffy, 165 pounds could win two homer titles (and bat .440). But not in 1927.

Babe was the greatest home run hitter of his day because he was the biggest hitter of his day. His 215 encyclopedia pounds compares to Gehrig’s 200 pounds (Lou was the second biggest hitter in the league and, not coincidentally, the second-best home run hitter). Al Simmons and the rest of the field weighed about 190.

Today if you made accurate wax models of Babe, Barry, and Mark, people would gasp: “Who’s the little runt standing between Bonds and McGwire?”

Ditto pitchers. The top pitchers of 1927, Lefty Grove etc, weighed about 190. Walter Johnson had been the best of his day, and the biggest, at 200 pounds. Today Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens weigh about 230 or 240, if not more. If Bonds could bat against the 165-pounders of a century ago, how many could he hit?

The reason Mac beat Sosa is that he could lift Sammy off the ground in a bear hug, but Sammy couldn’t lift him. The only reason Sosa made it close was that he came to bat 100 times more than Mark.

Compare pictures of the skinny little kid on the U of Arizona team – Barry Bonds – with the NL home run champ last year. It’ll pop your eyes out. Or compare McGwire, the Oakland rookie (185 or so), with McGwire in ’98 (250, officially, probably more actually).

When beanpoles Luis Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez start bulking up, my god, what will the record be?

How big will home run champs be in the year 2100? I guess 300 pounds will be the floor, and 350, maybe even 400, pounds will not be unknown. And the record? I’d say 120 or more is possible if there is no change in the present rules.

We could have it this year, or any year, if commissioner Bud Selig wills it. Just tinker with the ball, the mound, the fences, the strike zone. How many homers do the fans want? Bud can easily give it to them. I thought he was going to, after the 1993 strike. It took him five years to think of it.

Pound for pound, the best home run hitter in major league history was Mickey Mantle. His longest reported blasts went 2’9” per pound. McGwire’s longest were about two feet. To equal Mick’s ratio, McGwire would have had to slug his homers 750 feet.

Jenkinson is adamant that it is scientifically impossible for a human being to hit a ball 600 feet. It turns out he is right. Bill and I were present at a symposium on Ruth when a Cuban professor described a legendary blast by Suttles on an unfenced Cuban field. It was so long that a tape measure was brought out. “How long did it measure?” I asked.

“598 feet,” he said.

At 210 pounds, that’s 2’10” per pound.

At that rate, our 350-pound champion a century from now could be smashing them about 1,000 feet.

What kind of parks will we have to build to hold them?

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