Thursday, May 23, 2024

Ruth and Aaron: Nearer Perfection

Amidst all the death Americans had to endure this winter, the passing of baseball great Henry “Hank” Aaron seemed to garner but a mere footnote in the back of the book. Hardly fitting for arguably the best ball player to ever play. “Hold on,” you say, “what about Babe Ruth?” Not close, since numbers rarely lie. Aaron played 21 seasons and belted 755 homeruns – which was 41 more than Ruth – amassed nearly 1,500 extra base hits and knocked in 2,297 teammates over his career, played mostly for the Milwaukee and then expansion Atlanta Braves.

This humble Mobile, Alabama, native grew up in the Depression Era and Jim Crow segregated South, when African Americans were wise not to seek the bright lights of fame. Young Hank used to toss balls up on their sharecropper shanty and run to the other side to make a diving catch. He was an extraordinary athlete in high school and began his career in the Negro Leagues before ascending to professional baseball in his early 20s.

When Aaron eclipsed Ruth’s homerun record on April 8, 1974, it is not surprising that Aaron received more than a million letters of hate calling him every vile, racist troupe that Americans have been known to religiously spew. He handled death threats quietly and gracefully, never using the media to strike back at detractors.

Exactly a century ago, Babe Ruth was a 26-year-old phenom with the New York Yankees. In 1921, he slugged 59 homers – a record – knocked in 168 runs and walked 145 times while also ripping 119 extra base hits. It remains one of baseball’s greatest offensive seasons. It was the “Roaring Twenties” and the golden age of attending live sporting events. World War I was a few years in the past, and the great Spanish Flu Pandemic was now over. People were eager for heroes and Ruth fit the bill perfectly in New York City, where the Yankees were the talk of the town. Twelve newspapers competed daily for the eyes of millions, and the man who dominated the news cycle every day was the young Ruth – who rose from the deepest pits of poverty to the riches of fame with a boyish grin and unmistakable enthusiasm for life.

Ruth was born into an immigrant German Catholic family in a rundown row home in central Baltimore. He spoke German throughout his childhood, and by the time he was a mere seven years old he began to sneak and consume whiskey and beer from his father’s saloon. Fed up with his only surviving child being “incorrigible,” dad sent him off to Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School, run by the Xaverian Brothers, whose strict discipline was enforced daily. The only time Brother Matthias, whom Ruth respected and admired, allowed Ruth to leave the orphanage in his 12-year stay was to attend his mother’s funeral Mass when he was 12.

He was a media sensation soon after he began his career in the major leagues – Never did Ruth dodge a reporter’s question, which made him a media darling from the start. The New York limelight suited the childlike, orphanage-sent Catholic perfectly. Having twice survived the Spanish Flu in 1918-19, his near-death story made him even more the folk hero to the everyday working American.

Hank Aaron’s Baseball Hall of Fame plaque. He was elected in 1982 with a 97.8 percent vote – second only to Ty Cobb’s 98.2 percent.
The 1921 cover illustration of the Popular Science Monthly magazine that featured the scientific story on Ruth’s hitting abilities.

In the fall of 1921, Ruth visited Columbia University’s psychology department to determine what might be the secret to his amazing abilities. Two professors at the university wanted to do research on this hero to many, and the media latched on to the story with zeal. The news ran on the front page of the New York Times above the fold. Popular Science Monthly ran the story on their cover, jacking the price to 25 cents with the headline “Babe Ruth’s Home Run Secrets Solved by Science.” The author of the story was Hugh Fullerton, arguably the most famous sports editor in the country at that time and one of baseball’s most decorated writers.

After a day game at the Polo Grounds – the Yankees’ home stadium before Yankee Stadium was built in the Bronx – Ruth traveled over to Columbia, still in uniform for the experiments. Professors Holmes and Johansen hooked him up to sensory machines that gauged his reflexes and motor skills. Undoubtedly primitive by modern standards, the tests were cutting edge technology in 1920s academia. One test hung a ball connected to electrical charges that timed his quickness and the power of his swing.

What the scientists figured, and what was told to millions by Fullerton, was that Ruth was 30 percent more proficient than the normal human being – his eyes were 12 percent faster, his ears were 10 percent faster and his nerves were steadier than 500 other tested samples.

Perhaps the most amazing discovery in the study was that the researchers determined Ruth’s favorite pitch to hit was the fastball located on the outside corner at the knees. The lefty seemed to be able to use his acute sense to barrel up that pitch more than any other. Fullerton reported this in his Popular Science piece, giving the Major League pitchers at the time a free scouting report as to where not to pitch Ruth.

As baseball junkies know, the place to foil hitters is usually to pitch away and nibble at the outside corner to lessen a slugger’s clout by forcing him to reach to hit the ball on the meat of the bat.

“The secret of Babe Ruth’s ability to hit is clearly revealed in these tests,” Fullerton wrote. “His eye, his ear, his brain, his nerves all function more rapidly than do those of the average person. Further the coordination between eye, ear, brain and muscle is much nearer perfection than that of the normal healthy man…. Ruth’s batting prowess reduced to non-scientific terms is that his eyes and ears function more rapidly than those of other players, period.” Fullerton concluded.

One wonders how Hank Aaron would have done on these same tests. No matter, as it would have been more footnote anyway. That his passing was without much headline was perfectly fitting, also. Number-wise there’s no lie; Aaron remains the greatest American ball player to ever swing a bat.

By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness

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