Would Babe Ruth Be as Good Today?
The Roarin’ Twenties were a remarkable time. America had emerged from World War I as a world military power and a force to be reckoned with. Henry Ford was revolutionizing the way we travel, Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, women got the vote, and morals and attitudes began to change. With millions of immigrants working in factories and mills, we were becoming an industrial and economic giant.
America was on the rise. We were big! Our national pastime was no different. Onto this stage stepped a hulking man from the streets of Baltimore who did everything big. Eating, drinking, playing, chasing women—it didn’t matter. He did everything with gusto. Oh yeah, and he could hit a baseball a mile!
Babe Ruth Revolutionizes Baseball
Arguably the greatest hitter to play the game, Ruth revolutionized baseball. When the decade started, baseball was a game of speed and strategy. Teams would use stolen bases, walks, and sacrifices to eke out one or two runs an inning. By the time the decade was over, the home run was king! This was due to Ruth’s immense power and presence. The game has not been the same since.
One can argue that Ruth is not the greatest hitter ever. Guys with names like Williams, Musial, Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Bonds and others may have had more natural talent, and they may have broken many of Babe's hitting records. But they all had one thing in common: They played in the game Ruth invented.
The Greatest Hitter of His Era
But one thing that cannot be argued, statistically he was the greatest hitter of his era. The competition is not even close. Leaving out the partial seasons of 1914–1917 and 1935, Ruth’s numbers are phenomenal. In those 17 seasons, he averaged 41 home runs, 130 RBI, and hit .345. Between 1918 and 1933, he led the American League in home runs 11 times. In six of those seasons, he hit twice as many homers as the player who finished second! (In 1927, he hit 60, and teammate Lou Gehrig hit 47. Another teammate, Tony Lazzari, was third with only 18.)
But What If He Played Today?
I’ve often wondered if The Babe would be as good if he played in the today. Certainly there are things he would have to deal with that he didn’t in the Twenties and vice versa. And it would not make sense to take the Babe Ruth of the 1920s and send him in a time machine to the present day. The “Babe Ruth” of the current day may have grown up on the streets of Baltimore, but he would have been a different, more savvy person.
How He'd Be Different on the Field
Ruth likely would have displayed much of the talent on the field. He would have been in much better shape. His nutrition and health would have been much better. Ballparks tend to be built to cater to the hitters now.
Would He Still Be an Incredible Hitter?
There is really no way to tell whether the pitchers are different now than they were in Babe’s time. However, because there were only seven other teams in the league, the ones he faced were better. But, they often went the entire game, throwing 150–200 pitches. In the Twenties, Babe’s third and fourth at bat were often against tired pitchers.
Today, a starting pitcher rarely throws more than 115 pitches. For most of their later at bats, players are facing fresh, but less talented pitchers. In terms of career stats, I believe the pitching situation would be a wash. Ruth would still be a prodigious hitter.
Ruth came up with the Red Sox in 1914, and he was sold to the Yankees in 1920. He, like every other player in his time, had a “reserve clause” in every contract he signed. The “reserve clause” tied a player to the team he had been signed to even after the contract had expired. A player had the option of signing again with his old team (if they wanted him) or not playing at all.
The “reserve clause” was abolished in baseball in 1975. Now when a player has six seasons or more in MLB, and he is no longer under contract with any team, he can become a “free agent” and negotiate for the best deal he can for himself with his old team or with another team. In essence, Ruth was the property of the Boston Red Sox until he was sold to the New York Yankees and (with the exception of a few games with the Boston Braves in 1935), he was their “property“ for the rest of his career. He never had a chance to file for free agency and negotiate the best contract for himself.
Who Would He Play for Today?
Free agency has changed the way teams deal with players. For argument's sake, let's say our modern day Ruth came up with the Red Sox. With the current heated rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees, there is no way he would be dealt to New York. But it is likely he would file for free agency after his sixth season and may end up with another team.
Ruth is most remembered for being a Yankee. But a modern day player can play for several teams in his career. Given the Yankees’ talent in signing high price free agents, it’s possible Ruth would spend at least a portion of his career with them.
How He'd Be Different off the Field
The real challenge for Ruth would be dealing with the situations off the field. For one thing, Ruth would be an enormously wealthy man. The most he ever made in a season was $80,000 (about $850,000 in modern terms). Nowadays a player of Ruth’s caliber would make $20 million. Would that motivate him or make him lazy? Would that make him just another rich, out of touch superstar?
Ruth was known for the gusto in which he approached life. He partied hard. In 1925, he was sidelined early in the season for “the bellyache heard around the world.” A writer at the time said that Ruth’s ailment was caused by too many hot dogs and sodas before a game. A likely reason may have been alcohol poisoning (common in the age of prohibition) and venereal disease.
What Kind of Press Coverage Would He Get Today?
Back then, a person’s transgressions, especially those of an American icon, were not reported. At that time, the press traveled on the team trains and saw first-hand Ruth’s eating, drinking, and debauchery. There are stories (told years later) of Babe chasing woman through the train and drinking to excess. His appetite for sex was huge. How many of the women he caught were unwilling participants? We will never know because he was surrounded by a sympathetic and enabling press corps.
Babe today would be dealing with a much less enabling press corp. His off-the-field antics would be reported. Many would be dismissed by the public as just “Babe being the Babe.” But issues of sexual assault are taken very seriously today (just ask Ben Roethlisberger). It is possible that the league and legal authorities may take action leading to a loss of games (which would lessen his stats) and a tarnishing of his reputation. It is also possible, the Babe of the 1920s knew he could get away with this kind of behavior. Modern-day Ruth may be much more careful and discreet.
Babe Ruth put up those amazing numbers without help of any kind. He, like many of his era, showed up for spring training and worked himself into shape after a long winter. Today, staying in shape is a 365-day endeavor. Many of the MLB players today are physical specimens. In Ruth’s age, it was thought that too much muscle would hinder, not help, a baseball player.
Would He Use PEDs?
In their pursuit of the perfect body and strength (which conceivably would lead to more home runs and more money), a few modern baseball players have turned to illegal steroids to aid and improve their workouts. Given his addictive behavior, it is conceivable that the modern day Babe would indulge in them also. His statistics would be disregarded by fans as being a product of the “steroids era.”
Would Babe Ruth Be Famous Today?
So, would Babe Ruth be the same today as he was in his era? After careful consideration, I have to say no. Given the fact that no one has been that good for that long a time since, it leads me to believe that—while there have been great players since—nobody will ever put up numbers like Ruth (OK, Barry Bonds, but we all know he was on the juice).
What is the reason? Has the game changed? Are the pitchers better now? Has the strategy and scouting of opposing hitters improved? Or is it the off-the-field issues like free agency? Have the huge salaries lessened the motivation of the modern player? Do they reach a point where they are satisfied and don’t go past it? Is the 24/7 scrutiny modern players get, affecting them on the field? Or was The Babe that great? I believe it is a combination of all these factors.
Famous, But Not an Icon
But the modern day Babe would not be an icon like he was in the 1920s. Back then, the media was limited to newspapers (radio was still in its infancy). Ruth was in a few silent movies then. But his reputation and legend were formed by a few sportswriters. Today, we have information overload. With cable, broadcast TV, and the internet, as well as newspapers and magazines, the media can report on many other people, especially in sports, politics, and entertainment. Sadly, Ruth, today would not be an icon. He would be just another famous American.