BRJ Archives: On Rainouts and Home Run Records

Editor’s note: As we wait another day for Game 6 of the 2011 World Series after inclement weather hit St. Louis on Wednesday, we were reminded of one of the more fascinating rainout what-ifs in baseball history. Jim Rygelski’s article “59 in ’21: What If The Babe Had One More Game?” first appeared in the “Baseball Research Journal” in 1998. Jim is the secretary of the Bob Broeg St. Louis Chapter.

59 in ’21: What if the Babe had one more game?

By Jim Rygelski

After Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire hit his 57th homer in the second-to-last game of 1997, a St. Louis television station showed a list of the best single-season totals. It ranked McGwire’s 57 as fifth-best behind Roger Maris’s 61 in 1961, Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927, and the 58 of both Hank Greenberg (1938) and Jimmie Foxx (1932). Absent from that home run list was Ruth’s 1921 total of 59.

Ruth’s 1921 season was probably his best overall, but since he hit only 59 homers, the accomplishments of his second season in Yankee pinstripes are largely overlooked in favor of the famous 1927.

In 1921, Ruth’s 59 homers (and career best 171 RBI and 177 runs scored, made possible by a .378 batting average, 44 doubles, 16 triples, and 144 walks) helped the Yankees win their first pennant and proved to any skeptics that his 54 homers the years before weren’t a fluke. That year also marked the third straight in which Ruth set the single-season home run record (including his 29 with the Red Sox in 1919).

But one other significant though rarely discussed fact emerged from Ruth’s 1921: The Babe became—and remains—the only person to bid for the single-season homer record (those who have hit 56 or more) whose team didn’t play a full schedule. A rainout never made up held the Yankees to 153 games.

“Iffy” history can be a dangerous thing if it gets out of hand (or so I remind my fellow Cardinals fans when they put too much weight on umpire Don Denkinger’s infamous call in the 6th game of the 1985 World Series). Yet it’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if that rained-out September 4 game had been made up.

The washout

The 1921 Yankees were involved in an exciting pennant race as they began their last scheduled game against the Senators in Washington on September 4. Ruth entered with 50 home runs, four behind his own record from the year before, which he would top eleven days later. He singled with two out in the first off southpaw Tom Zachary, the same hurler he would hit his 60th homer off in 1927. The Babe, who stole a career high 17 bases that year, was thrown out trying to swipe second. After the Senators went out in their half of the first, rain washed out the contest. Newspapers speculated that the game would be replayed, but it never was. The Yankees finished 4-1/2 games up on Cleveland, and there was no point to replaying the Nats.

A wire-service story in newspapers of October 3 quoted the Babe as saying he was disappointed he hadn’t reached the 60-homer mark he’d set for himself. “We’ll go gunning for that 60 mark next season,” he said. He didn’t lament the fact that the Yankees had played one fewer game than scheduled because of the rainout.

To demonstrate what Ruth might have lost with that rainout, consider that the first week of September was one of his more productive stretches in 1921, following his longest homerless drought (nine games) of the season. He hit home runs on September 2 and 3 (both against the Senators in New York), and went on to club them on September S in Boston; September 7 against the Red Sox in New York, and on September 8 and 9 against the A’s in Philadelphia.

Ruth in Griffith Stadium

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if the rainout had been made up. Ruth hit only three homers in Washington’s Griffith Stadium that year, tied for his lowest road total that season, and had hit none there after May. While it was only 320 feet down the right field line, the ballpark’s thirty-foot wall did provide a challenge.

But Ruth could hit them out of Griffith. His 34 career homers there is tops for any visiting player, according to the SABR publication Home Runs in the Old Ballparks (1995), edited by David Vincent. And, according to those same figures, Ruth’s career total was tied for fifth of all those—including Senators—who ever played there.

The Babe’s pace

Home run “averages” (usually stated as a home run for every so many times at bat) are deceiving since most sluggers hit theirs in clusters. Ruth in 1921 was no different. Yet his 1921 home-run-hitting pace was probably the most consistent of any of the single-season challengers.

Ruth’s 1921 pace also was vastly different from his 1927 assault on the record, in which he had to hit a major league record 17 in the final month to reach 60. In 1921, Ruth hit 10 or more home runs in each of five months, May through September; in 1927 he did so in only two. And in 1921 he hit home runs in 54 of his team’s games, a mark that only Maris has tied.

Ruth’s 1927 home run pace was never ahead of his pace of 1921. Going into the 154th game of 1927 he was tied with his 1921 output. (Ruth hit his final home run of 1927 in the Yankees’ 154th contest, which was the second-last played that year because of a tie earlier in the campaign. The batting records from the tie counted, but Ruth didn’t hit a homer in it.)

If the Yankees had replayed the 1921 game and Ruth had hit one out, the best he would have done was tie the mark in 1927. If he’d hit two, he’d still share the record. Which Ruthian “pace” would the media have chosen for his pursuers?

In 1961 much was made of the that when Maris hit his 40th home run in this team’s 95th game, he was 25 games ahead of Ruth’s 1927 pace. But Maris’s 1961 cadence was behind Ruth’s 1921 pace at most points, and Maris’s 40th would have put him only four games ahead of Ruth-his largest lead. By the time Maris hit his 41st he was five behind the Babe of 1921. Until he began a 15-homer-in-22-game surge that allowed him to pass both Ruth and Maris, McGwire in 1998 was one HR (47) behind Ruth in 1921 (48) after 123 games.

And had the Babe hit three, or four, in that 1921 game that could have been replayed? Ah, the what-ifs. But let’s remember that great season of 1921, when Babe Ruth hit more homers in a season one game short than anybody but he and Roger Maris had ever managed in a season of any length up to 1998.

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Originally published: October 26, 2011. Last Updated: October 26, 2011.