Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #1 – “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs” by Bill Jenkinson

10 05 2015

To wrap up Babe Ruth week, I’m doing my first post about a book I read.  If you’ve read any of these – you know I love alliteration, and I’ve decided I’ll call these “Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs”.  The first “Sunday Stories” is a book that looked into the amazing exploits of Babe Ruth.  I’ve read quite a few baseball books in my day, but I’d always wanted to read this one when it came out.

The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs

Title/Author/Publisher: “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Re-crowning Baseball’s Greatest Slugger” by Bill Jenkinson (Carrol & Graf, 2007, 432 pages)

Description:  There have been quite a few Babe Ruth biographies – books that delve as much into the Babe’s personal life as his baseball career.  This isn’t one of those.  The book is written to delve deeply into the home run exploits of the Bambino, and then consider how he might fare in today’s baseball world.  Jenkinson takes a look at Babe’s career on a season-by-season basis, noting every competitive home run he hit.  This obviously includes the 730 official MLB homers (714 regular season, 15 World Series, 1 All-Star game).  But Jenkinson also delves deeply into what he calls Babe Ruth’s “hidden career”, which consists of games played as part of spring training, pre-season MLB touring, in-season exhibition games and post-season barnstorming.

The book is the culmination of 30 years of the author’s research, and in the latter half he considers factors about how Ruth would do in today’s game.  Despite the fact that his records have all been broken, Ruth is widely considered the greatest slugger of all-time.  But Jenkinson hypothesizes that, if Ruth played in today’s game, his deeds would be significantly more impressive.  He does a comparison of the difficulties Ruth faced against the difficulties faced by today’s hitters.  He then combines that with a lifetime’s amount of research on the career of the Sultan of Swat.  He also adds a detailed “what-if” analysis of how many homers Ruth would have hit in today’s modern ballparks.  He credits Ruth with over 1,100 homers if his fly balls had come in today’s game, and a whopping 104 in Ruth’s incredible 1921 season.

My review:  I’ll give my “review” portion by walking through the author’s organization of the book.  I’m not sure if I’ll do this on future reads, but it works for this book.  First off, I’ll point out that this book isn’t for everyone – it’s definitely geared for baseball history nuts like me.

“The Career.”  Jenkinson starts off by covering each and ever season of Ruth’s career in a good amount of detail; this takes over one-third of the book.  He does this from a “home run perspective” – pointing out when Ruth hit home runs or long drives, where he hit them.  He tells stories along the way – but those stories focus less on where Ruth went and more on the details behind his ball-playing.  I found this interesting, but this part of the book is anything but a quick read.

“Analysis”.  The book’s second section starts off looking at Ruth’s “hidden career” I mentioned above.  This was probably my favorite part of the book.  I knew Ruth tended to barnstorm after each season – he was famously suspended in 1922 for doing so.  But I didn’t know the extent of his “off-the-grid” games.  If the Yankees had an off-day, they scheduled an exhibition game.  So while Ruth played in days where MLB scheduled 8 less regular season games than they do today, he would play as many as 180 games in between April and September.  This book does a phenomenal job walking you through this and discussing the impact it may have had on Ruth.

The next chapter (Power Incarnate) talks through why Ruth was so powerful.  And though he doesn’t really come up with any conclusions, Jenkinson brings forth a very interesting theory.  Basically, he thinks that Ruth’s “human nature” was the biggest factor of differentiating him from other baseball greats.  I think he’s probably right – and he points to two World Series as being indicative of this.  The first is in 1926, when Ruth was caught stealing for the last out of the series; the second is in 1932, when Ruth allegedly “called his shot”.

Ruth Hornsby 1926 series

Next, Jenkinson goes into lengthy detail comparing the difficulty in hitting home runs in today’s game versus doing so in the 1920’s and 30’s.  He discusses caliber of competition, ballpark size, logistics (travel, exhibition games, etc.), equipment, training & medical care, pitching strategy, and rule changes.  Jenkinson concludes that competition was about equal for Ruth, but in every instance, he concludes that things were harder for Ruth.  I think a bias he exhibits throughout the book shows most strongly here.  I just don’t agree with his conclusions on the caliber of competition and pitching strategy based on what I know about the evolution of baseball.  That said, this book did enlighten me on some of the other areas, such as how much bigger the ballparks of Ruth’s time were.  Yes, Yankee Stadium was tiny down the right field line – but it and just about every other park were cavernous everywhere else.  Also, this book walks through how poor training and medical care was for Ruth’s – and how it probably cost him a few good years toward the end of his career.

Ultimately, the book concludes that you could drop Ruth into today’s baseball world and he wouldn’t only be as good as he was in the 1920’s – he’d be much better.  As I mentioned, there are a few conclusions above I don’t agree with, and while I’m not completely on board with him on this, the book did a good job of convincing me.

“The Facts” Last, the book gives a number of details about Ruth’s home runs and Jenkinson’s “what-if” projections.  There are two really cool areas here.  First, there is a section with Ruth’s “spray charts”.  This shows the approximate landing spot of every home run or long fly ball that Ruth hit, with a comparison line for the “average modern park”.  Again, this shows the meticulous nature of Jenkinson’s research.  The second is an aerial picture of the 10 parks Ruth played in the most during his career (Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Fenway, Braves Field, and the 6 other American League parks), along with arrows depicting the Sultan’s most prodigious swats.

2014 Stadium Club Ruth

Other Notable nuggets:  This book is filled with them.  It’s probably the best part about the book, and there are many worthy of mentioning.  I picked 5.

  • In June, 1928, Ruth hit a drive into the deepest part of Yankee Stadium that landed 460 feet away just outside of Goose Goslin’s reach.  Leo Durocher had been on first base, and after 3 relay throws, Durocher had scored but Ruth was tagged out trying to stretch a triple into a home run.  This highlights the difference between the parks of Ruth’s day and those of today – that type of play just wouldn’t exist in today’s game.
  • The book doesn’t have anything in terms of off-field anecdotes regarding Ruth’s personality.  But it does have quite a few on the field, like in the 1928 World Series when Cardinals fans were upset when a call didn’t go their way and Ruth blasted the next pitch with a homer.  When Ruth went out to his spot in left field, the fans were throwing soda bottles and other trash at him.  Ruth turned the other cheek, grabbing one and taking a swig as if he was getting refreshment.  It diffused the situation, and highlighted Ruth’s quick thinking and affable demeanor.
  • Jenkinson believes (and given his expertise – I’d tend to believe him), that the longest homer in MLB history came off Ruth’s bat on July 18, 1921.  The blast came off the Tigers’ Bert Cole at Navin Field, and he estimates it at 575 feet.
  • Jenkinson also thinks there’s a good amount of evidence that Ruth hit a 600-foot homer in an exhibition game at Kirby Park in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in October 1926.  He spends a good amount of time discussing his research on this homer; this particular section is indicative of the exhaustive effort that went in to writing this book.
  • In 1942, Ruth participated in a batting exhibition against Walter Johnson.  This was 15 years after the Big Train had retired and 8 years after Ruth had left the Yankees.  But the Babe still smashed a few of Johnson’s pitches into the Yankee Stadium bleachers.  I’d never heard about this – but you can find it on YouTube.

Overall, this was a good book to read.  It’s not a page turner, (it took me about a month to finish), so it’s not the most fun I’ve had reading a book.  That’s mostly the nature of what the author is trying to accomplish, however.  And like I said, I’m a baseball history nerd, and there are things I loved about this book and will probably go back and look up next time I’m trying to remember something interesting about baseball’s biggest icon.

One card I thought went well with this book is the Moonshots card from 2012 Gypsy Queen.  It’s the one card I know of that details a specific blast from Ruth’s career – the Tiger Stadium blast outlined above.

2012 Gypsy Moonshots Ruth

 

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