Barry and the Babe revisited

In the course of arguing that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig should attend Giants games as Barry Bonds makes his final assault on Hank Aaron’s home run record, King Kaufman makes the following assertion:

Hank Aaron, by the way, can turn his back on Bonds. He has said he won’t be there when Bonds breaks his record. If I were Aaron’s friend I’d say, Either go to the games and shake Bonds’ hand or come out and say you believe Bonds is a cheater, rather than hinting at it by claiming to have a golf date on whatever day Bonds hits No. 756. But Aaron’s not the commissioner of baseball. He can stay away just to pout over his record falling for all I care.

Every record comes with mitigating circumstances, a context that could call its legitimacy into question. It might be the quality of the opposition, the helpful or hindering effects of a home park, the run-scoring environment of the era or a hundred other things, including, now, the prevalence of drugs, including steroids but also including the amphetamines that were eaten like candy by ballplayers during the career of Hank Aaron.

For all the Jackie Robinson Days and Negro League Throwback Uniform Days baseball plays host to, it’s very rare for anyone around the game to say, “Sure, Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he never had to face Satchel Paige or Bullet Joe Rogan or Nip Winters, he never had Oscar Charleston race into the gap and turn even one of his 506 doubles into an out.” And don’t forget how the New York Yankees built a ballpark specifically designed for Ruth to hit home runs in.

While I can’t ever recall anyone claiming that Babe Ruth hit a disproportionate number of his home runs at Yankee Stadium, the perception that he must have done so is easy to understand. They do call it “The House That Ruth Built”, after all, and it was a pretty cozy 295 feet down the right field line back in the day. Of course, it quickly ballooned out to 350 feet in “shallow” right field, and 429 feet in deepest right field, a fact that often gets overlooked in this kind of discussion.

But never mind. Did Babe Ruth take advantage of the dimensions at Yankee Stadium, like the way Mel Ott made the even shallower right-field porch at the Polo Grounds his personal launching pad? As it happens, Jay Jaffe answered that question three years ago, and he took Hank Aaron’s stadium situation into account as well.

The Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. According to, Milwaukee County Stadium’s fences at the time they left were (left to right) 320′- 362′-402′-362′-315′, standing at 8’4″ to 10′ tall. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s fences were further back to begin with (325′-385′-402′-385′-325′) but they stood only 6′ tall. The park underwent some rejiggering in the team’s first few years and stood at 330′-375′-400′-375′-330′ by 1969. While those dimensions made the field larger than Milwaukee’s, the Atlanta stadium’s altitude of 1,000 feet above sea level placed it as the highest park in the majors until the Colorado Rockies came along, and its impact on homer totals gave it the nickname “The Launching Pad.”

In his nine years in Atlanta, Aaron hit 192 homers at home, 145 on the road. But besides the home runs, the park wasn’t especially a hitter’s park, at least until a few new NL ballparks came into play midway through that string.

Hmmm. What about The Babe?

Despite the “House That Ruth Built” tag applied to Yankee Stadium, he actually had more homers on the road than at home. Here’s a quick breakdown of the Bambino’s career by phase:

Years Park HHR RHR 1914-19 Fenway 11 38 1920-22 Polo 75 73 1923-34 Yankee 259 252 1935 Braves 2 4 TOT 347 367

In other words, Ruth lost a few home runs early on when he played at Fenway, and was basically the same player on the road as he was at home while he was with the Yankees. So much for that.

Kaufman’s right: Every record has a context to it, and you can’t say how a player in one era and set of circumstances might have done in someone else’s shoes. I happen to think Babe Ruth would have been Babe Ruth whenever he played, but all I have to back that up is my own personal feelings. But if we are going to talk about contexts and circumstances, let’s take all of them into consideration. It makes for a more productive discussion that way.

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2 Responses to Barry and the Babe revisited

  1. The Dud says:

    What everyone says about the home run record is valid. One question; let’s suppose that the Babe didn’t drink, smoke, overeat or dissipate himself; how many home runs would he have had if if didn’t use ability diminishing drugs?

  2. Kent from Waco says:

    You can what-if this stuff forever.

    There is a legitimate argument that due to segregation, Ruth did not face the best pitching of his day. On the other hand, I think one could easily argue that a fully integrated league in 1920 could have had many more teams to accommodate both the increased fan base due to integration and increased number of players. Hence, in the end, Ruth might have faced the same number of mediocre pitchers even with integration if the talent was spread out on more teams. Ruth also didn’t face any west coast teams because they were still in the Pacific Coast League not the American League. So the talent base was also more concentrated within the few eastern and midwest teams that were in the American League.

    It’s fun stuff but in the end, you have to just let the records stand. Circumstances are always evolving. Clearly athletes perform at a higher level today than they did 80 or 100 years ago. Anyone following track or swimming records can see that. In those sports the record holders of 80 years ago are mostly long forgotten. Baseball is pretty unique in that we still talk all the time about Ruth, Cobb, Maris, Gehrig, Mayes, etc. I think it makes the sport richer that way.

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