With the Yankees' fly-catching corps depleted by the loss of Chick Fewster and Frank "Ping" Bodie just prior to the beginning of the 1920 baseball season, Babe Ruth asked manager Miller Huggins if he could play center field and not "get myself all smashed up going after a fly ball" in the short left and right field walls of the Polo Grounds.
Huggins obliged by putting Babe in center for opening day in Philadelphia, and Ruth promptly dropped a fly ball in the eighth that allowed the last-place Athletics to score twice and capture the game. He was soon back in right, where he remained virtually the rest of his career.
Struggling to Get Started
It was an embarrassing debut, but Babe handled both the incident and its aftermath well. The day following the miscue, A's third baseman Joe Dugan had a little trick to play on his future teammate: A messenger was sent out to home plate with a package while Ruth was at bat, and when Babe opened it he found a brown derby inside.
In those days, such a hat was a symbol of ineptitude. Umpires and fellow players laughed at Babe's gift. Everyone present awaited a Ruth-like outburst, but what came instead was a grin, wave, and tip of the derby to adoring fans. The Babe was continuing to learn what the public wanted from him and seemed to know just how to respond.
The games themselves were once again proving a struggle. Ruth had two weak singles in the opener at Philadelphia, struck out three times the following day, and did little of note as the Yanks were swept three straight by the Red Sox in Boston. It was hoped a return to the Polo Grounds would do the Babe good, but he pulled a muscle in his rib cage during batting practice and then again after striking out in the first inning.
He left the game to the loud displeasure of a packed home crowd and didn't return for several days. Through all of April (11 games), he failed to hit a home run. Huggins's prediction of 35 homers was beginning to look like a joke.
Appropriately, the Red Sox were at the center of the action when Babe finally gave his manager and New Yorkers what they had been anxiously awaiting. Boston was a surprising 10-2 and in first place when they came to town May 1, but in the second game of the series Ruth hit a tremendous home run off Herb Pennock over the Polo Grounds roof -- even farther than his record-breaking 28th homer had traveled in the same park the previous September.
The Babe on Fire
The moment marked the beginning of New York's march out of the second division and the start of Frazee's fabulous flops toward it. The Yankees swept the series (Babe homering the next day as well), and Ruth was on his way to the most fantastic season in modern baseball history.
Babe made up for his homerless April with 12 in May, including a stretch late in the month when he hit six in six days -- three of them against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The crowds at the Polo Grounds continued to grow, and some 15,000 were turned away on Sunday, May 16, when a record 38,600 packed the place and forced police to shut down ticket windows.
June brought another 12 homers -- including three in a doubleheader versus Washington on June 2 -- and Babe began a consecutive-game hitting streak that eventually reached 26 games before being snapped in mid-July. On July 11, his average stood at .385.
Here was an example of another aspect of Ruth's game that has been eroded somewhat -- his ability to hit for a consistently high average. For some, the image comes to mind of the Babe as an all-or-nothing free swinger at the plate. While this is how he has been depicted in some less-than-accurate film versions of his life story, it just isn't true.
The Babe at Bat
He did swing mightier than most, but his .342 lifetime batting average (including a high of .393) indicates he was far from undisciplined at the plate. His stance seemed to resemble that of fellow left-handed batter Joe Jackson.
There was obviously something in the stance that worked for both sluggers. Jackson, as one may recall, was the great left fielder whose involvement in the "Black Sox" scandal would lead to his banishment from baseball. Joe's .356 career average remains the third-highest of all time, and Ruth called him "the greatest natural hitter I have ever seen."
Jackson's success came from a stance in which he stood with his feet 20 inches apart, put the bulk of his weight on his rear left foot, and aimed his right shoulder at the pitcher -- resulting in an almost propeller-like motion as he swung.
Babe altered things somewhat by keeping his feet just eight to nine inches apart, which gave him even a quicker pivot to work from, but it also made it nearly impossible to check a swing. Beginning his upward cut with his back almost to the pitcher, he would twist around as the ball came in, giving his wrist an extra twist just as he made contact.
Of course, that was providing he made contact. The result of his unorthodox stance was that many Ruth at bats ended with a cross-legged Babe curled up pretzel-like and the victim of another strikeout, but even the mighty misses thrilled fans.
"Throughout his career of twenty years, Ruth never changed the basics of that gorgeous, gargantuan arc -- a swing that fascinated the crowd as much as the personality of the man behind it," wrote legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. "To watch Ruth go down swinging, often sprawling from the violence of his cut, was almost as exciting as seeing him blast one out of the park."
Ruth seemed to play up the all-or-nothing image himself. "Once my swing starts, I can't change it or pull up on it," he said. "It's all or nothing." Despite its appearances, this was a precise swing that had taken hard work to master. Ruth's great eyesight, timing, and coordination (again, despite the stereotypes) enabled him to alter his grip or stance however much was necessary to hit the ball at full force.
He could bunt and hit to the opposite field when the need arose, and nobody could remember another hitter who chose not to choke up on the bat with two strikes. It didn't matter whether the pitch was at his knees or armpits; Babe seemed to find a way to power it on a long, arching drive out of the park.
Other batters may have hit the ball harder (a perfect example being future teammate Lou Gehrig), but nobody hit it as far or as high. Of the first 16 homers Ruth hit at the Polo Grounds in 1920, all reached the second deck or left the park completely. It was said that Babe hit infield pops so high he was often at second base before they were caught. The prodigious power was helped by a 42- to 46-ounce bat, at least a pound heavier than the average stick used by major leaguers.
"Home runs executed by Babe Ruth are not mere home runs," wrote W.O. McGeehan of the New York Herald-Tribune. "Each home run seems to possess an individuality and eccentricities of its own. After the game the multitudes linger in the lot to trace the path taken by the ball."
Perhaps equally amazing were the people Babe Ruth met and the troubles he got himself into off the field. Learn more on the next page.
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