Roman Around

combating liberalism and other childish notions


Posted by Andrew Roman on February 7, 2009


Once upon a time, when radio was still paying my bills, I took the calculated risk of veering away from all of the easy Monica Lewinsky chatter and dedicated an hour of airtime to the idea of retiring the number “3” throughout Major League Baseball in honor of the game’s most important – and arguably greatest – player of all, Babe Ruth. Jackie Robinson’s “42” had recently been retired – something that seemed perfectly fine to me – but it occurred to me that if Robinson was being honored by such an unprecedented move, it made at least as much sense to retire the Babe’s number the same way.

That was eleven years ago. I stand by it today.

Baseball was America’s game in the 1940s. It wasn’t even close. That Robinson broke the twentieth-century color barrier in Major League Baseball had more of an impact on the desegregation of America than anything could have at the time. It cannot be overstated. It is hardly deniable.

Yet, Robinson’s tribute – rightly deserved – was based on his skin color. That doesn’t belittle it. I don’t begrudge it. It is what it is. I applaude it.

Indeed, in purely baseball terms, he did have some very good years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the very first Rookie of the Year in 1947. Between 1948 and 1954 he never finished with a batting average below .308. In 1949 – his best year – he was the league’s most valuable player, hitting .342, knocking in 124 runs and scoring 122 times. He was the catalyst for six pennant-winning teams, including the Dodgers’ only world title in Brooklyn in 1955. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. Perhaps most significant to the game itself is the fact that Robinson brought a faster, sleeker, more dynamic style of play to Major League Baseball – a style imported from the Negro Leagues. He was one of the most exciting players ever to put on spikes.

Let’s be clear, I love Jackie Robinson. I have a shrine to him and the Brooklyn Dodgers here in my office (baseball geek that I am). He ushered the way for the best black baseball players to finally take their rightful place along the game’s best white ball players in the Major Leagues.

Still, it was his societal imprint – as important, profound and influential as any during the “Civil Rights” era – that prompted the retirement of his number “42.”

With that in mind, I’d like, for a moment, to talk about the game itself.

Two decades before Robinson crossed the color-line in baseball, the country was Bambino crazy.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s impact on both the game of baseball and the American culture is unparalleled in all of sports history. Think of Michael Jordan at the height of his fame and multiply it ten fold. (More on the “fame” aspect of Ruth in a moment).

My argument for the retirement of Ruth’s number is founded on how he impacted the game. It is impossible to overstate what Babe Ruth did.

Babe Ruth owned the game of baseball like no other ever has. He was so dominant that rules were actually changed because of him. He, in fact, single-handedly revitalized the game after the dark days of “Black Sox” scandal threatened to bring baseball down for good. He put up numbers that put entire teams to shame. To this day, he is the benchmark of excellence, the gauge by which all others are measured, and is synonymous with being the best. “That guy is the Babe Ruth of ________________________”

Seventy-four years after he retired, he still holds many records.

Twelve times, Ruth led the American League in home runs (Eleven of those times, he tied or led both leagues). His dominance was such that in 1920, when he hit 54 home runs, he had more dingers than every other team in the majors, except for the Philadelphia Phillies, who cracked 64. To further put his accomplishments in perspective, through Ruth’s first six seasons, he had only 49 career home runs (He predominantly pitched in those years). Over the next 15 years, he would average 44 home runs a year.

Ruth led the American League in slugging 13 times (12 of those years leading the majors). Between 1920 and 1924, Ruth’s slugging average was an unheard of .774. Ruth’s lifetime slugging percentage is .690 – still the best of all time. Eight times he led the league in runs scored and six times in RBIs. He led the league in walks 11 times, OPS 13 times and still holds the record for highest career OPS at 1.164. He has an amazing career on-base percentage of .474, number two all-time behind Ted Williams.

When Ruth called it a career, his total of 714 home runs was not only the all-time record, it was almost twice as much as the next person on that list, Lou Gehrig, who had 378 at the time.

He still sits in the top five of many all-time offensive categories. (Remember that he really didn’t start batting with any significant regularity until his fifth season – and in his last season, he had only 72 at bats).

He is fourth in all-time runs scored (2174), Third in home runs (714), Second in RBIs (2217), Third in walks (2062), Fourth in extra-base hits (1356).

Arguably the most impressive statistic considering all of the Babe’s accomplishments is the one that probably gets the least amount of play – his batting average. He wasn’t just good – he was phenomenal. He was simply one of the greatest average hitters of all-time. Only eight players in all of baseball history have higher lifetime batting averages than Ruth’s amazing .342.

That’s right … .342!

That’s four points better than Tony Gwynn (.338), and fourteen better than Wade Boggs (.328).

During a seven year stretch between 1920 and 1926, Ruth hit .357 – including one year where he hit a painfully “average” .290 and another where hit “only” .315.

Debatably, the greatest single season in baseball history is Ruth’s 1921 showing.

In 152 games, Ruth hit .378 with 59 home runs and 171 RBIs. He scored 177 runs, walked 145 times, had 44 doubles and – yes – 16 triples! (You go, big guy!) His slugging percentage that year was an astronomical .846. He even stole 17 bases. His 457 total bases that year is still a single-season record.

Unbelievably, Ruth only ever won one batting title – in 1924 when he hit .378. He had the great “misfortune” of playing at the same time as George Sisler, Al Simmons and Harry Heilmann.

In 1923, Ruth hit .393 and did not win the batting title. In fact, seven times Ruth hit .356 or higher and did not snag the batting crown.

He is still the only player to have a season with at least 200 hits and 150 walks.

From Wikipedia :

In 1969, he was named baseball’s Greatest Player Ever in a ballot commemorating the 100th anniversary of professional baseball. In 1998, The Sporting News ranked Ruth Number 1 on the list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players.” In 1999, baseball fans named Ruth to the Major League Baseball.

ruth-retired-numberTo this day, towering homeruns are still referred to as “Ruthian.”

At a time when the game’s future was, at best, uncertain, he saved the game of baseball.

By himself saved it. Gave it new life. Brought it into the game’s golden age.

That alone makes this discussion legitimate.

In terms of celebrity, Ruth was, indeed, “the Beatles” of his time, and then some. He was the first real American sports hero – and he rewrote not only the record books, but he changed the nature of “fame” itself. People from all walks of life wanted to be seen with him. Every schoolboy wanted to be like him. He was a larger-than-life attraction, drawing crowds wherever he went. He was a star of the highest order. His fame far transcended the game he played.

He is firmly woven into the rug of American culture.

Retiring Babe Ruth’s number “3” is something that will almost certainly never happen – and maybe it shouldn’t. Who knows? It certainly makes for a lively discussion.

But if there is any number that deserves to be retired, in my most humble opinion, it’s the man from Baltimore who changed America’s game forever.

Yesterday was the Babe’s birthday. Happy belated birthday, Babe.


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