From SABR member Rob Neyer at FoxSports.com on June 29, 2015:
Among the latest in “Ask Bill” …
I recently read a biography of Babe Ruth. When he was a pitcher, he’d hit the occasional home run, and he and the fans clearly got a charge from it. Basically, he wanted to play every day so he’d have even more opportunities to hit taters, and the team obliged. You know the rest — he hit more homers than many teams, yadda yadda. Did it not occur to anyone else in baseball at the time that Babe’s approach was a much more desired way to score runs and put fans in the seats? Was baseball so hamstrung with traditions from the deadball era that the home-run approach was overlooked? If the Babe had stuck with pitching, would another Babe-like hitter have emerged? Or was he such an outlier, a similar scenario would have been unlikely?
Asked by: rwarn17588
Well … you’ve asked such a complex question, embodying so many false assumptions, that you’ve made your question almost impossible to answer. But to answer just one little portion of it … people remember that Ruth hit more home runs than entire teams, but what people often miss is that the period when this was true was very brief, just two or three years. It was a universal belief of baseball men that hitting long fly balls was a fool’s effort, because for every long fly ball that became a home run, there would be 100 that would be caught. Because of that belief, young hitters were taught not to do that, not to uppercut the ball, but to chop down on the ball. Ruth was able to break through that shibboleth because a) he was exceptionally stubborn, and b) he was a pitcher, and thus no one cared what he did as a hitter, so he wasn’t “trained” or instructed to hit RIGHT as he would have been had he been an outfielder. The larger point is — like me – Ruth Ruth was very stubborn, and, like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, Babe Ruth thought that the rules did not apply to Babe Ruth. But once Ruth had proven that the prevailing wisdom was wrong (ie, that one COULD, in fact, hit enough long fly balls to make it pay off) then other people switched and began doing so very quickly, so that within a few years there were power hitters on almost every team.
Well … I hate to say that Bill James is wrong about something.
But he’s wrong about this. Factually wrong.
Originally published: July 1, 2015. Last Updated: July 1, 2015.