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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

What is history but a myth agreed upon?



By John B Holway

This April baseball will mark the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, honoring Branch Rickey as one of the saints of baseball, if not American, history. (See Baseball Guru, date)

This is one of the Five Great Myths of baseball, myths that have become so enshrined as facts that they are steadfastly believed more than the truth. They are now so encrusted in the re-telling that they may never be dislodged.

Today let’s explore Myth #1:

Babe Ruth’s homers led the game to new attendance records in the 1920s.

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 always plunges in a war and rebounds to new heights after it. It happened in both world wars, plus Korea, and Vietnam (though the rebounds after the last two were less dramatic). It also happened in the Great Depression.

Baseball is a summer game, to be savored when the world is balmy and the livin’ is easy, 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 turn on the TV and watch 22 big guys bang into each other and help us 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.

In 1920 Babe Ruth suddenly shot up from 29 homers in Boston to 54 in New York. That's mostly because he moved from Fenway, with the game’s longest right field target, to the Polo Grounds, with the shortest – 258 feet. In 1918 he had tied for the lead league in homers – but didn't hit a single one at home. Then in ’20 he suddenly had a target 70 feet closer to home plate. He also got to play full-time and pick up a few more at bats. We say the ball was “lively” also, but I wonder.

Anyway, these were lucky breaks for Ruth, not for baseball. His luckiest break was being born in 1896, which made him 25 in 1920, at the height of his the athletic powers. If he had been five or ten years earlier or later, he wouldn't have caught the wave right at its crest.

Remember: National League attendance also surged without any help from the Babe or from home runs.

Sure, Ruth hit more homers than entire teams. But that's not because he was better than entire teams – it’s because entire teams had not yet waked up to the revolutionary new game; they were still playing Cobbean baseball – winning games with a walk, steal, bunt, and error. Slowly others slowly saw the light – Gehrig, Hornsby, Cy Williams, Ken Williams. High school kids were also going for the long ball and would soon come into the league – Wilson, Foxx, Klein, and later Greenberg, Medwick, and DiMaggio. Then Babe couldn't out-hit whole teams any more.

The truth is: Babe didn't create the wave. He rode it.

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