1918 Was Short Home Run Year

This article was written by Emil Rothe

This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal


Every baseball fan knows, or is vaguely conscious of the fact that the home run has become a dominant feature of baseball strategy today as compared with the status of the homer in the first two decades of this century. How many more home runs do modern day fans really see than those who sat in the stands a half century ago?

The 16 teams that comprised the major leagues in 1918 recorded a TOTAL of 239 home runs for the entire season. In contrast, a single team, the New York Yankees, clouted 240 roundtrippers in 1961.

It is true, of course, that the 1961 Yankees had a 162-game schedule in which to compile their total while the 1918 season, originally scheduled for 154 games, was curtailed by a “Work or Fight” edict issued by the then Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. By this order no games were permitted after September 2 of that war year with the exception of the World Series contests. The St. Louis Browns were able to play only 122 games that season while several clubs managed to squeeze in as many as 129. In total, 1006 major league games took place.

To place the homer-hitting contrast between 1918 and the Yankees of 1961 into proper perspective, those 1006 games represented two teams in each game. Thus, the Roger Mans, Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowron, Yogi Berra version of “murderer’s row” hit one more home run in 162 games than all 16 teams did in 1918 in twice 1006!

The first home run in 1918 was not hit until 18 major league games had already been logged. Doug Baird of the St. Louis Cardinals belted that initial fourbagger on April 18. In all of the 73 games that were played in April, only 14 homers were registered. In fact, no game in April ever had more than one except the Philadelphia-Boston (NL) game of April 19. Pitcher Tom Hughes of the Braves and Fred Luderus, the Philly first baseman, each hit for four bases. Oddly, by today’s scoring rules there would have been three. Emil “Irish” Meusel, a Philly rookie, hit into the left field bleachers to score Johnny Rawlings from first with the run that won the game in the last of the 10th inning. In those days, fair balls hit out of the park to score the winning run in the last inning were credited with only the number of bases needed to score the base runner; Meusel’s hit was scored a triple.

That April 1918 home run production amounted to slightly less than one homer in each five games played. Compare that with the April 1974 crop of 385 circuit clouts in 249 games, or almost eight in each five games. Leading the stampede in April 1974 was Craig Nettles of the Yankees, who garnered 11 fourbaggers n just 22 games. He tailed off bakely after that, which was somewhat analogous to a home run decline experienced in 1918.

The 11 home runs which Nettles hit in April 1974 would have been sufficient to lead the major leagues in 1918. Tilly Walker of the Athletics and Babe Ruth of Boston shared that honor. As a matter of fact, they were the only batters who reached double figures. Gavvy Cravath, outfielder of the Phillies, was next hight with eight and he led the National League.

Ruth’s 1918 home run sage makes an interesting and intriguing sidelight. It was in that season he gave his first indication of things to come when he hit 11 homers. For the four years preceding 1918, the Babe had been a top flight left-handed pitcher on the Red Sox staff, winning 67 and losing 34. He was also used as a pinch hitter. But, in 1918,, Manager Ed Barrow began to use him in the outfield and at first base between pitching assignments.

Strange as it seems, Babe Ruth hit all his homers in 1918 in the first 38 games in which he appeared (the record reveals that he played in 95 contests). During that span he pitched in nine games, played the outfield in 21, was at first base in six, and pinch hit three times. In one of those games he split duty between the garden and the mound. After his 11th homer on June 30, Ruth played 56 of the remaining 59 games that Boston played, 11 as a pitcher and the rest as an outfielder or first baseman. Despite the fact that he played in almost every game the last half of the season, he was unable to hit any more home runs, an add circumstance, to say the least.

One clarification is necessary, however. On July 8, Ruth broke up a 0-0 game between Sad Sam Jones and Stan Coveleski of Cleveland in the 10th inning with a tremendous drive high into the rightfield bleachers at Fenway Park. Because Amos Strunk was on first base and scored the winning run, Ruth was given a triple, which was the prevailing regulation.

Could it have been that Ruth hit no home runs in the second half of the season because of mid-season wartime changes in the ball as some authorities have suggested? That hypothesis would seem to be refuted, however, by fact that the 16 teams in the two leagues reached the mid-point of the 1918 season with almost one half of all homers hit that year, 115 of the total of 236. It seems safe to assume that the resiliency of the 1918 baseball was not diminished anytime during the season.

Ruth’s first homer of 1918 came in his seventh game, May 4, as he pitched and lost to the New York Yankees. The next two came on May 6 and 7 with the Babe playing first base for the first time in his career. In passing, while most fans think of Ruth as an outfielder, he actually did not play in the outfield until May 10, 1918, after four years as a pitcher and pinch hitter, and briefly as a first baseman.

On four successive days, starting June 2, Ruth hit a home run in each game. He was the pitcher of record (a loss to Detroit) on the first day and the center fielder the remaining three days. Home run #8 was recorded June 15 (Ruth – lf) and #9 on June 25 (Ruth – cf). Homers #10 and #11 were hit on June 28 and 30, with Ruth in center field in both contests. That was it in home runs, although Ruth hit well the rest of the season. The Red Sox hit only 16 roundtrippers all season, and the Babe had hit 11 of them.

In recalling his many great days as a hitter, one of Ruth’s most cherished memories must surely have been May 9, 1918. That day he was the starting pitcher against the Washington Senators and batted in the clean-up spot. Although he lost, 4-3, in 10 innings, he had a perfect 5 for 5 days at bat; 3 doubles, a triple, and a single. And, how many starting pitchers do you recall being installed in the number four spot in the batting order?

In the four seasons preceding 1918 Babe had been primarily a pitcher and had accumulated only 9 home runs in 166 games. Thereafter his towering, deep flies out of the confines of the ball parks established what was once thought to be an unapproachable 714 career homers (exclusive of those he hit in All Star and World Series games). Hank Aaron, of course, proved once again, that records, even “unapproachable” ones, are made to be broken.

BY ANY OTHER NAME…

A number of major league players have had names which are probably more recognizable in other fields of endeavor. For example, there was a pitcher for the Athletics a half century ago named John Paul Jones; another who pitched briefly for the Browns named Billy Graham; and another who labored longer on the mound named Walter Ruether, who was usually called Dutch. There was an outfielder, alas, without much punch, named John L. Sullivan and more recently two unrelated players named John and Robert Kennedy. That is not too surprising, because those are not unusual names. But would you believe there was an infielder for the St. Louis Browns 1908-11 named Albert Schweitzer? We mention that at this time because there are some centennial observances underway this year for “the other Albert Schweitzer,” who was born in 1875, and we didn’t want you to get confused. The ball player was born in Cleveland in 1882, and his career batting average was .238.

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