When I first came up in the Pacific Coast League, I’d hear stories about long home runs. They’d point to a house across the street, and say that’s where Lou Gehrig hit one. Or a wood pile, and say that’s where somebody else hit one. And then they’d point to a factory across another street farther from the house, and say that’s where Babe Ruth hit one. I’d hear stories like that everywhere I went.
Monday, September 3, 2018
TEDDY BALLGAME and THE BABE
Featuring a Never-Before-Disvovered-or-
Published Historical Connection Between The Kid and The Babe
TEDDY BALLGAME and THE BABE:
As the baseball world rightly celebrates the 100th birthday of Ted Williams (August 30), it is natural to think about his remarkable career. As a baseball historian, I had the privilege of interviewing Williams in 1986 at Winter Haven, Florida, and it was a powerful experience. Not surprisingly, therefore, I have thought hard in recent days about both that interview and what Ted told me during that magical time.
Two compelling truths immerged as we talked. First, despite his slender frame, Ted hit the ball astonishingly hard and far. Second, although often regarded as somewhat self-absorbed, Williams showed profound respect and even affection for many of his former colleagues.
The list of those for whom he spoke most glowingly was a “Who’s Who In Baseball History.” Admittedly, I was totally entranced. That august group included Rogers Hornsby, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Grove, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and many others. Yet, although that was very select company, two names stood out above all others. They were Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.
Ted teamed with Foxx for over three seasons, and spoke with such tenderness and warmth about the then, aging slugger that I became highly emotional myself. Yet, what about The Babe? Ted never even saw the man play. The explanation for that apparent conundrum came directly from Ted himself in that same memorable 1986 interview.
When the nineteen-year-old Williams toured up and down the West Coast’s Pacific Coast League in 1937, he left a trail of monstrous home runs nearly everywhere he played. He was that powerful with a bat in his hands. Yet, this is what Ted said to me about The Bambino:
In that context, is it any wonder why Ted Williams was still in awe of Babe Ruth a half century later?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about those two guys ever since then, and I still marvel at the synchronicity of their combined careers. Statistically, there is little doubt that those two left-handed bombers were the greatest batsmen in the history of their sport. In slugging percentage, Babe is still number one at .690, and Ted is second at .634. In on-base-percentage, Ted is the all-time leader at .482 with Babe right behind him at .474. When you combine those two crucial numerical categories (so-called OPS), there they sit at the top: Babe Ruth at 1.164 and Ted Williams at 1.116.
Most baseball fans know that Ted passionately wanted to be regarded as his sport’s greatest hitter. The numbers tell us that, if he didn’t succeed, there was only one man ahead of him. Those two iconic individualists are forever linked as the best who ever swung a bat. Okay then, what about pure power?
To answer that question, we again refer back to that serendipitous conversation in the spring of 1986. We talked about all of Ted’s longest homers, but, most of all, we discussed the one for which he is most famous: his so-called Straw Hat home run. Recorded at Boston’s Fenway Park on June 9, 1946, it is also referred to as his “Red Seat” homer. The derivations of those two titles are easy to explain.
Ted’s astounding drive (estimated here at 522 feet) actually struck a fan on his head, plunking through his straw hat. Sobriquet number two derives from the fact that, in 1984, the Red Sox painted a seat which corresponds to the spot in the former bench rows where the ball descended from the heavens. The Sox chose the color red to commemorate the 1946 event, and selected the 37th row as the level where this historic drive landed.
In this particular detail, I respectfully disagree with the Red Sox. I feel that the evidence tells us that the likely landing point was the 33rd row. However, that difference is minor in the overall context of this tale. Either way, both fans and players still gawk at the approximate landing spot in breathless admiration mixed with understandable skepticism. For example, when I spoke with Reggie Jackson (another of baseball’s all-time longest hitters) during batting practice at Fenway back in the mid-eighties, we rated Ted’s shot based on it landing in either row 33 or row 37. Reggie was dumbstruck either way.
Historians can tell the doubters not to bother with their cynicism. That blow has been researched to the point of overkill, and the available data holds up. Benefitting from a forcible wind at his back, Teddy Ballgame really did blast a ball well beyond the 30th row. He truly did. But, where does Babe Ruth fit into this part of the story?
The truth is that nobody compares with the Sultan of Swat in the matter of pure power. As strong as Williams was, not even Ted could challenge Ruth in this regard. Nobody could (or can). I have written three books on the topic of distance hitting, and have known for many years that The Babe smashed several drives at Fenway Park that rivaled Ted’s 1946 classic shot…the one that bonked a guy on his bean, right through his straw hat.
Yet, until I started thinking again about these two old warriors as a result of Ted’s forthcoming 100th birthday, it never occurred to me to link Babe and Ted in the matter of the “Straw Hat” home run. Recently, however, I began reviewing all my records on their combined mightiest homers in Boston. That brought me directly in touch with the twenty-fifth home run of Babe’s tremendous 1921 season. It was struck on June 23, and, predictably (at this stage of the story), was launched at Fenway Park.
According to multiple primary newspaper accounts (Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York World, New York Times, and various wire services), the ball landed two-thirds of the way up into the right field bleachers. Those bleachers stood exactly fifty rows above the playing field. Using fourth grade arithmetic, we can conclude that the ball descended into the 33rd row (or very close to it). What about the exact direction of Babe’s drive? For that we got a little lucky.
Sadly, despite the fact that most of the Boston newspapers of that era included sketches of game highlights, there were no such drawings the day after Ruth’s home run. Happily, however, when Babe had crushed a stupendous game-winner back on July 9, 1918 as a Red Sox player, the Boston Post had published a sketch of the exact landing point. Three years later, when Babe smacked his shot to the 33rd row as a New York Yankee, that New York World stated that it was virtually identical to his 1918 bomb. And guess what? That 1918 drive had taken what appears to have been the precise line of travel as Williams’ subsequent “Straw Hat” homer.
Taking that information to its logical conclusion, we know that both drives landed in virtually the same place. Somewhat of a coincidence? Well, hold on. There’s more to it than that, a lot more. When I recently reread the account of Babe’s 1921 drive in the Boston Herald, in part, this is what I saw:
The count was two and two when he (Ruth) caught the next one and lifted it high toward right, with Peckinpaugh on first base. Shauno Collins (right fielder) turned his back, took a step or two and then joined all the other spectators and the most vitally interested person was a gent wearing a straw hat who had to duck to get out of the way…
That narrative got my attention. I couldn’t help wondering about the odds of two 500-foot-plus home runs (they are extremely rare: only one so far in the 21st Century) landing in the same place and tracking directly at the straw hat of male attendee. One in a million? How about one in a trillion?
It’s true that Ruth hit his homer into the old wooden bleachers which were replaced in 1934 by the newer concrete and steel stands. Those updated seats were erected in the same position as their predecessors, and retained the same fifty row size. The modern bleachers are thirty inches wide. In Babe’s day, they were twenty-four inches in depth. However, the new rows have six inch risers whereas the old ones were about ten inches in height, one above the other.
I’ve asked a couple of physicists to figure out the spatial relationship between the two sets of bleachers, and I have been told that a batted ball into the 33rd row of both would have tracked in almost the same flight path (Ted’s in the new bleachers being, perhaps, a few feet farther). In other words, Babe and Ted’s homers, hit almost exactly a quarter century apart, landed in, basically, the same place.
There were some differences in the two men. Babe was a renowned partier while Ted was a widely recognized loner. Yet, their similarities were remarkable. Both men loved to hunt and fish. Williams played his entire MLB career in Boston, whereas Ruth began and ended his playing days in Beantown. Most importantly, they shared an absolute obsession for hitting a baseball. Williams famously thought about little else during the season. In Ruth’s case, he gave up a budding Hall of Fame pitching career because he simply couldn’t wait to bash a baseball.
In their own distinctive ways, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams became the two best batters in the long years that the National Pastime had been played. As we honor Ted on his 100th birthday, it’s fun for me to think about how their paths intertwined. That is never more apparent than when I close my eyes to watch those two leviathan drives fly toward hats made of straw.Bill Jenkinson, Baseball Historian-Copyright 2018