Changing the Game
The move from science to slugging
     When Babe Ruth burst onto the national spotlight in 1920 with a 54 homer season, he knocked the baseball world flat on its back. During the 1900s and 1910s, pitchers dominated the game. Some of the greatest moundsmen graced the stage in the early twentieth century. Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander scuffed, sandpapered and spiked the baseball to enhance the movement on the ball. They smeared dirt, licorice and tobacco juice onto the ball so that hitters would have a difficult time seeing it as it approached the plate. A single ball was used for the entire game and it became progressively darker and softer as the contest wore on.

     In a pitcher-friendly era, hitters studied the game intensely. Baseball became a science. There was a science to hitting, a science to base running and a science to winning.
Ty Cobb steals a base Ty Cobb steals another base.
Players used "small ball" to score runs. Hits moved baserunners up one at a time. Sacrifice bunts were common. Teams coveted the fleet-footed because every stolen base moved the runner that much closer to scoring. Runs did not come in bunches. According to Ty Cobb, baseball was a "game of hit-and-run, the steal and double steal, the bunt in all its wonderful varieties, the squeeze, the ball hit to the opposite field and the ball punched through openings in the defense for a single" (Smith, p. 76).

     The game of baseball was a game of brains, where skill can be acquired through intense study. Cobb was an exemplary figure in this era. According to Grantland Rice and other sportswriters, Cobb’s hard work and dedication was as important to his success as his raw skill. "Ty Cobb … the greatest offensive player of the game … saw that he was only a fair base-runner, so he went forth alone, to slide and practice by himself, hours at a time," Rice wrote. "He kept plugging at this art until he knew that he could handle himself around the bases" (Smith, p. 77).

     Once Cobb set foot on the diamond, the mind was the key to his success. Players and managers needed to outthink their opponents in order to outscore them. Cobb believed that he played with "fine, scientific nuances" and that the most important thing during a game was to "scheme, scheme and keep scheming" (Smith, p. 76-77). Through all of his hard work, dedication and study of baseball, Cobb walked away from the game with the highest batting average of all time and embodied all the baseball values in the era of scientific baseball.

     When Ray Chapman died following a Carl Mays beanball on August 16, 1920, the stage was set for Ruth’s arrival. New rules dictated that the umpire replace the ball once it showed signs of dirt or marks. Scuffing, spitting on and marking the ball in any way became illegal. Combined with a new ball manufacturing process that wound the yarn within the ball tighter, the batters began to gain the upper hand. Players could more easily see the ball and the it was less prone to erratic movement in the air. Once a player made contact, the tighter core bounced off the bat more potently. The "dead ball" era had ended.

     Although the mechanics and physics of baseball may have changed, teams still focused on scoring one run at a time. The strength of the Babe, however, shocked the science of baseball at its foundations. Never had the game ever seen a players who could belt homers at such an alarming rate. Ruth’s 54 home runs in 1920 bested the home run total of all but one team that year. He followed that season up with 59 homers in 1921. The response from baseball scientists during those years was overwhelmingly negative. Traditionalists in Cobb’s mode thought Ruth was an aberration, a mere sideshow. He was not a good baseball player.

     "As a batter, Ruth is an accident," an article in The Sporting News said. "He never plays inside baseball at the plate. He goes up trying to take a swing on every strike, a style that would cause any other player to be benched. He either knocks home runs or strikes out. Any man who strikes out as many times as Ruth did last year [1921] can never be classified as a great hitter" (Smith, p. 79).

     Though critics did not want to admit it, Ruth was a great hitter. There was no denying that Ruth’s brute strength made him a threat to score every time he stepped up to the plate. Cobb hated Ruth because Ruth broke from the science of baseball.
Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb Babe Ruth (left) and Ty Cobb (right) symbolized the two different approaches to Baseball in the 1910s and 1920s: Science and natural ability.
He did not need the scheme and study. All he did when he went up to bat was try to hit the ball as hard as he could. Ruth did not need scientific baseball.

     "To our mind, Ty is the greatest batter who ever lived," Baseball Magazine wrote in 1921. "He was the supreme exponent of scientific hitting and science has a surpassing value in baseball just as in everything else. But every so often some superman appears who follows no set rule, who flouts accepted theories, who throws science itself into the winds and hews out a rough path for himself by the sheer weight of his own unequalled talents. Such a man is Babe Ruth in the batting world and his influence on the whole system of batting employed in the Major Leagues is clear as crystal" (Smith, p. 75).

     As fans flocked to the stadiums to see Ruth’s untraditional style of play, people began to wonder whether slugging itself constituted a new strategy in the game of baseball. Home runs were no longer thought of as freak occurrences because other players followed Ruth and became home run hitters. Nonetheless, pitching great Christy Mathewson and the older players doubted whether slugging could replace scientific baseball as a winning baseball strategy. Mathewson believed that sluggers were too slow to make a difference on the base paths and were no threat to score if they did not hit a home run. Therefore, the pitcher was more at ease when a slugger was on base than a player with a reputation for stealing bases. Indeed, home run hitters decreased the importance of steals and strategic base running: "There cannot be any sort of sense in breaking a leg to steal a base when the giant at the bat is liable to make a four-base hit and chase the runner home ahead of him" (Smith, p. 76).

     Others, however, began to find value in what Ruth was doing. Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton speculated that although slugging itself may not lead to wins, "the real baseball is the middle ground, the judicious mixture of real baseball and slugging, with the manager deciding when an how the batters shall hit" (Smith, p. 81). His language suggests a shift in "real" baseball strategy from pure science to a mixture of science and strength. Slugging was becoming a legitimate tactic rather than an aberration.

     Ruth’s impact on the game of baseball can be best summarized by a passage from a 1921 Baseball Magazine article entitled "The Home Run Epidemic": "Babe has not only smashed all records, he has smashed the long-accepted system of things in the batting world and on the ruins of the system has erected another system or rather lack of system whose dominant quality is brute force" (Smith, p. 79). With one mighty swing of his bat, Babe Ruth changed the way baseball was played. Cobb could only shake his head in disgust as his own star waned. "Given the proper physical equipment—which consists solely in the strength to knock a ball 40 feet farther than the average man can do it—anybody can play big league baseball today," Cobb said. "In other words, science is out the window" (Ward, p. 159).

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