Bill Nowlin and Glen Sparks, with Carl Reichers and Len Levine
The publishing info:
Society for American Baseball Research
Released October, 2019
The review in 90 feet or less
When one decides it’s time to research the life, times and impact of the most important player in the 100-plus years of Major League Baseball, it becomes a Ruthian project.
For a long time, the two most revered hikes to the top of Mount Babe were by Leigh Montville (2006, “The Big Bam”) and Robert Creamer (1974, “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life”). Then came, for our enjoyment, a most creative sidetrack into how starpower created the image, led by Jane Leavy. She received the 2018 SABR Seymour Medal for “The Big Fella” best-seller (which we reviewed for the L.A. Times and also posted more Q&A, plus created a piece about it for the Long Beach Post). We’re also memorized at how the book cover ended up appearing — above left — versus how the photo may have been originally taken and presented. And the “NY” remained the game, eh?
These are examples of how the paragraphs woven together with research, purpose and prose end up as the foundation for fantastic reads, like documentaries on pages with new discoveries and redefining what we’ve heard and remembered.
But back at the quip and quotation quarry, the Society of American Baseball Research is where all the heavy steam shovel work happens. Sentences and paragraphs, numbers and nuances are mined, inspected, weighed and then categorized for future research use.
With this arrival of “The Babe,” which Leavy generously lends her appreciation of it in the forward, SABR’s fact-diggers display an archive of natural history, a wonderful starting place for anyone who wants to go to any point in the timeline of events in Ruth’s life, playing career, and early death at age 53 in 1948, and lay a foundation for what could be next.
Considering how much out there is based on mythology and third-hand stories, SABR is all about getting it right. Movies and children-based bios no doubt contort the Bunyan-esque nature of everything Ruth did, and are often just for entertainment purposes. Truths and verified facts are the SABR way.
As such, a SABR project with 81 chapters that are topic-specific have recruited the input of 54 different folks — including Father Gabriel B. Costa, a Catholic priest on academic leave from Seton Hall and now a math professor at the U.S. Military Academy and has written about sabermetrics. Bless him.
This isn’t intended to be classified as a classic literary work by the dozens of contributors, but instead a collective team of like-minded purists who take on all sorts of elements of Ruth’s life and go into further examination.
SABR legend Bill Nowlin, who may be known more as a record producer, takes the lead – he also edited the 2018 SABR researched piece, “When Boston Still Had The Babe: The 1918 World Champion Red Sox” — so the journey starts with the right scoutmaster.
But knotted together as a tapestry of Ruth’s documented force of nature, it’s surprising in how much more we find out by those who can put perspective and context into what they discover, like an archeologist at an ancient Egyptian site who comes across an odd fact that leads us down another tunnel.
== From the collection of stories divided up to where the first 30 focus on all aspects of his existence, and the last 51 span his life from his 1914 debut to his 1948 last visit to Yankee Stadium, we stopped at story No. 30 by Allen Wood entitled “715.”
When The Baseball Encyclopedia came out in 1969, we helped celebrate its 50th anniversary with a story in the Los Angeles Times, after visiting with editor in chief David Neft, now 82, during a SABR convention in San Diego.
Of all the stories Neft told us about what went into it, what future Hall of Famers it justified for entrance based on their recalculated career stats, and what impact it made on the future of stat-driven companies, he left out a really interesting story:
Babe Ruth had a “forgotten” home run in the summer of 1918. Thus, he really hit 715 home runs, not 714.
We interrupt this review for an important #OTD
April 8, 1974: Hank Aaron hits No. 715 in Atlanta to surpass Babe Ruth on the career home-run list. Where were you on this date? We were playing in a Pony League game and from the dugout could hear the murmurs in the grandstands from the parents that this happened. We couldn’t watch the game. No DVR. How did they know without Internet? The transistor radio of the Dodgers-Braves broadcast.
Take it away, play-by–play guy who we recognize:
You can also read more about the history of that moment with the latest Bob Nightengale piece for USA Today just posted.
Also, #OTD 1987:
We now resume our regularly scheduled book review …
The pre-1920 rules of baseball, at a time when record keeping wasn’t all that strict, included that if a player hit a ball over the fence that won a ball game, the winning team could only be credited with a one-run victory, and that hit otherwise credited as a home run would be marked down as a single, double or triple – whatever was necessary to push across the winning run. Only if the bases were empty would he be given full home-run credit.
Neft’s team unearthed the fact that on July 8, 1918 at Fenway Park, the Red Sox were the 10th inning of a scoreless tie with Cleveland. Amos Strunk reached first base. Ruth, still a star pitcher at that time at age 23 (13-7 in 20 games with a 2.22 ERA), followed with a home run. By the rules, he was only given a triple.
And this just wasn’t just any normal homer, as Wood finds in the Boston Herald from July 9, 1918. It’s described as if the broadcaster in “The Natural” is bellowing it out:
The Colossus of Clouters came up swinging his two heavy, new bats. The crowd yelled loudly and long for a home run. Babe took his stance, made his bid on the very first pitch (from Stan Coveleski), a curve ball, and zowee how it traveled … up into the realm of eagles, high and higher, far and farther … When it landed three quarters up in the right field bleachers, it was easily the longest hit to that section ever seen.
Wood then points out, based on an interview he researched for another project in 2014, when Neft heard of this discovery, he was “roaring all day long. He was so over the top about it. He was thrilled. But he kept saying, ‘We can’t change that statistic. People have gone to their graves thinking Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. How could we possibly do this?’”
Interviewed decades later by Wood, Neft maintained Ruth should have been credited with 715, because “you have to be consistent. You have to use the same logic for everyone.”
Leonard Koppett of the New York Times even wrote a piece in April, 1969, about the discovery by the “computer.”
But nearly a year after the discovery, the Special Baseball Records Committee met. By a 3-2 vote, they denied Ruth’s 715th homer. Argued Jack Lang, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America: “It just doesn’t make sense to go back 50 years and alter rules that were in force then.”
Yet, Lang and others were OK with altering other players’ stats based on new research. Baseball historian John Thorn added: “The decision to rescind Ruth’s homer was a result of pressures to leave hallowed numbers alone.”
(In a 2015 post for OurGame.MLBBlogs.com, Thorn expands more on what new research did to adjust some previous records based on decisions by the Special Baseball Records Committee some 50 years ago… see Decision No. 17 in this post on “Sudden Death Home Runs”).
It’s further fascinating that Wood also extracts a story from the Boston Globe a day after Ruth’s feat, by Melville Webb Jr., under the headline: “Rules Should Be Fixed to Cover Hits Like Ruth’s.”
And W.C. Spargo of the Boston Traveler wrote a few days later: “Ruth’s Clout Starts Talk of New Rule,” plus Billy Evan’s story months later for the Boston Post: “Bleachers Hit Real Home Run.”
The rule was changed after the 1919 season. But research shows that prior to that, there were 37 instances, starting in 1884, when a home run was not credited when hit in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings. That includes balls swatted by Jimmy Collins (twice), King Kelly, Roger Bresnahan, Joe Tinker, Ping Bodie and Frank “Home Run” Baker.
Ruth’s triple stands. It was the 11th he hit that year, matching his league-leading 11 home runs collected in just 382 plate appearances. This was the first time he was allowed to play left field, center field and first base when he wasn’t throwing. But his season was also interrupted by the Spanish flu (see below).
How it goes in the scorebook
Multiply, divide and conquer: It’s a colossal clout, no matter whatever obstacle is placed in front of it.
As the SABR folks state in their explanation of this project: “In no way is this an exhaustive last word on Babe Ruth. That might be an impossible chore. We do believe this book will help readers get a fuller picture of baseball’s most fabled figure, a man still famous today and still revered in the game he loved.”
Good. Then there might be more.
It then lists all the contributors: Josh Berk, Nathan Bierma, Mark Blaeuer, Thomas J. Brown Jr., Frederick “Rick” Bush, Alan Cohen, Fr. Gabriel Costa, Herb Crehan, Reynaldo Cruz Díaz, Richard Cuicchi, Paul E. Doutrich, Mike Dugan, Don Duren, Rob Edelman, Rob Fitts, T.S. Flynn, James Forr, Carolyn R. Fuchs, John Gabcik, Ed Gruver, Mike Haupert, Leslie Heaphy, Rock Hoffman, Paul Hofmann, Mike Huber, Bill Jenkinson, Jimmy Keenan, Tara Krieger, Kevin Larkin, Jane Leavy, Len Levin, Mike Lynch, Brian “Chip” Martin, David McDonald, Skip Nipper, Bill Nowlin, Chad Osborne, Pete Palmer, Tim Rask, Tim Reid, Carl Riechers, Harry Rothgerber, Gary Sarnoff, Tom Schott, Joe Schuster, Curt Smith, Steve Smith, Wayne Soini, Glen Sparks, Lyle Spatz, Mark S. Sternman, Cecilia Tan, Stew Thornley, Saul Wisnia, Gregory H. Wolf, Allan Wood, and Jack Zerby.
We joyously raise a glass of Red Rock Cola to give them all the credit for this absurdly prolific reference guide.
More Ruth-related topics in 2020
== “War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America in the Shadow of the Great War” by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (Basic Books, $30, 368 pages, released March 24) manages to tie Ruth, during his Red Sox days, into the year 1918, when there wasn’t just World War I in full force, leading to him going from a pitcher to a full-time outfielder, but it’s also when the deadly influenza pandemic infected the globe (sound familiar?) Still the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs had a World Series to play, and the cover shot of Fenway Park is somewhat ominous about social distancing.
One of the reviews by Leigh Montville, author of “The Big Bam,” includes: “With in-depth research and absorbing storytelling, Roberts and Smith bring to life a tumultuous chapter of American history. A Brahmin becomes a reluctant hero. A famous German conductor sits in an internment camp. A darn good pitcher turns out to be the best hitter of baseballs the world ever has seen. This will be the best few stay-at-home nights you’ll have in some time.” A review of “War Fever” in the Boston Globe. A piece about it also in Slate.com.
== “The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, The Chicago Cubs & The Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932,” by Thomas Wolf (University of Nebraska Press, $36.95, 408 pages, to be released May 1) seems to take the 2014 book by Ed Sherman called “Babe Ruth’s Called Shot: The Myth and Mystery of Baseball’s Greatest Home Run” and squeeze more out of it in reference to how the rest of that 1932 season played out. Thomas Wolf (not to be confused with the late New Journalism leader Tom Wolfe or the late novelist Thomas Wolfe) has done many baseball history stories and co-wrote “Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland.”
== If you’re looking for more Ruth-related literature for these sequestered times, it’s not a stretch that we recall the time when President Barack Obama visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014 and gave an endorsement of the fiction novel “Saving Babe Ruth” by Tom Swyers. Which really has nothing to do with Ruth — it’s about a Babe Ruth League field that is trying to be taken over by a travel-ball team. But in a foreword, Babe Ruth’s grandson, Tom Stevens, calls “Saving Babe Ruth” a “great story.”