Babe Ruth and the Appreciation of the Dinger
Many baseball fanatics point to Babe Ruth as the God of power hitting when it comes to major league baseball history. They usually cite his ability to hit as many home runs as entire teams early in the 1920s. What fans rarely realize, however, is that the Great Bambino was merely a singular aspect to the growth of power hitting and home runs in the 1920s. While Ruth certainly did much to showcase the allure of the long ball, it’s worth digging a little deeper to explore just how it all came to be that the 1920s and 1930s saw an explosion of power that was nearly unimaginable in the decades prior.
Babe Ruth and Park Factors
The first thing to make note of is that Ruth struggled in Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox as it was not advantageous to power hitting lefties even up through Ted Williams and David Ortiz. While Ruth started getting time at the plate in 1918 and 1919, the effects of Fenway were very pronounced in large part because of the fence dimensions.
While the 302 feet down the right field line seems immediately helpful to left handed hitters, it’s smoke and mirrors. Due to the curvature of the fence, it nearly immediately shifts to a straight line that is a long 380 feet away from home plate in comparison to the Green Monster’s 310 feet down the line and just 335 in left center field. In 1918, Babe Ruth did not hit any home runs at Fenway but ended up with 11 all on the road. The next year Ruth slugged 9 home runs at Fenway but slaughtered the rest of the ballparks with 20 home runs on the road.
Then came the trade where The Babe feasted on the Polo Grounds. Many think of the ballpark for its infamous long center field and horse shoe shape. What’s not realized is that the right field line was a scant 258 feet away (and 279 down the left field line) and even as the fence went upwards, the distance was still well short of Fenway Park.
That very first season, Ruth jumped from 9 home runs at Fenway Park to a crazy 29 in just 272 plate appearances at the Polo Grounds. In 1921, he slugged 32 home runs at the Polo Grounds in 339 plate appearances. Keep in mind that he was still doing relatively normal by hitting 25 and 27 home runs on the road. The big difference were the home park dimensions and how favorable they were to Ruth’s power hitting ability. Between just those 2 seasons he only hit 9 home runs at Fenway Park combined.
The initial creation of Yankee Stadium largely kept the same dimensions of the Polo Grounds in 1923 with 258 feet down the right and left field lines while extending to 296 feet in right field. In 1928 the fences were pushed back slightly to 295 down the right field line and 301 down the left field line which ironically short changed right handed hitters through the years including Joe DiMaggio. One of the infamous “what-ifs” of baseball history is how Joe and Ted would have fared career wise playing their home games in the other’s stadium.
Changing the venue slightly hurt as Ruth hit 19 at the new Yankee Stadium in 1923 and just 22 home runs on the road. The next year, he adapted slightly better with 24 at home and 22 again on the road. In 1928 with the dimensions changed, Ruth hit 29 at Yankee Stadium and 25 on the road. The next year saw him hit just 21 at home yet he slugged out 25 on the road.
Babe Ruth Wasn’t the Only Player Spiking in Power
Tillie Walker was a hitter for the Philadelphia Athletics and saw a similar surge in power: 17 in 1920, 23 in 1921, and 37 home runs in 1922 at age 34. Walker was a right handed hitter who took advantage of the 12 foot wall in left field along with the roughly 340 foot fence down the line.
In 1920, Walker slugged 12 home runs at home but just 5 on the road. He then followed it up with an even more extreme split in 1921 with 18 home runs at Shibe Park and just 5 on the road. His biggest season in 1922 saw Tillie whack 26 home runs at Shibe Park and just 11 on the road. The three year split showcased how the extreme park dimensions could benefit a player: 56 Home Runs at Home vs. 21 Home Runs on the Road.
A right handed hitter, Gavvy Cravath made his name known as an early pioneer of power hitting thanks to the Baker Bowl where the Philadelphia Phillies played. He would lead MLB with 19, 19, and 24 home runs from 1913-1915 in large part thanks to a 335 foot line down left field and just a 12 foot wall compared to a 60 foot wall in right field. Much like the aforementioned Tillie Walker, Cravath showed extreme splits with 14 vs. 5, 19 vs. 0, and 19 vs. 5 in terms of home runs at home compared to the road.
Ken Williams capitalized on Sportman’s Park in the early 1920s thanks to a 310 foot line, 335 feet to right center field, and just 12 foot tall fences. Ken actually led the major leagues with 39 home runs in 1922 hitting an astonishing 32 at home and just 7 on the road. On the road he slugged 5 of those 7 at the previously mentioned Polo Grounds and Shibe Park. Despite being in his 30s by the time he started playing, Ken had solid numbers for the early 1920s from 1921 through 1925: 24, 39, 29, 18, and 25 home runs. He would still hit a combined 34 home runs at ages 36 and 37 for the St. Louis Browns too.
Even by the late 1920s as Babe was putting up staggering numbers in the 40s and 50s, other players were also putting up then unseen numbers in terms of home run power.
1924: Joe Hauser and Jack Fornier hit 27. Rogers Hornsby hit 25.
1925: Rogers Hornsby led MLB with 39 while Stan Meusel hit 33.
1926: Hack Wilson hit 21.
1927: Lou Gehrig hit 47. Hack Wilson and Cy Williams hit 30. Rogers Hornsby hit 26.
1928: Jim Bottomley and Hack Wilson hit 31. Chick Hafey and Lou Gehrig hit 27. Del Bissonette hit 25.
1929: 10 players hit more than 31 home runs including Chuck Klein at 43 and Mel Ott at 42. Rogers Hornsby and Hack Wilson just missed at 39.
1930: Hack Wilson led MLB with 56. Lou Gehrig hit 41 and Chuck Klein hit 40. Wally Berger hit 38 while Goose Goslin, Jimmie Foxx, and Gabby Hartnett hit 37.
Stadiums Were Being Erected to Favor Hitters
The rule of most ballparks in the 1900s and 1910s was to have deep fences or very tall walls to offset potential home runs and cater more towards pitching. It was not uncommon to see center field fences as far back as 440 or 450 feet from home plate with some ballparks going even further. As a result of these deep center fields, it also effected the right and left field fences often pushing them back to 380 or 385 feet at the closest.
By 1937, the Chicago White Sox had moved Comiskey Park’s fences in by 13 feet down the lines and in left and right center field compared to ten years prior. The White Sox had hit just 6 home runs at home in 1927 but just ten years later that number jumped up to 39 home runs compared to just 28 on the road.
The home ballpark of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Forbes Field saw right field shorten from a 376 feet line in 1909 to just 300 feet with a 375 foot right center field in 1925 again enabling more power for the slugging left handed hitters in the lineup. Glenn Wright and Kiki Cuyler, right handed hitters, teamed up to hit 36 home runs in 1925. Left handed Catcher Earl Smith slugged half of his 8 home runs at the altered Forbes Field.
Players Changing Teams Took Advantage
As mentioned, ballparks made a massive difference for a variety of players in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result of changing teams, some players saw immediate dividends pay off in terms of power thanks to shortened fences and lower walls.
Nap Lajoie only played one season with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901 but he slugged a career high 14 home runs along with near career highs in doubles and triples. He ended back with the team at 40 and 41 years old and still managed to hit 3 home runs combined along with a .280 batting average at age 40.
Despite being 36 years old in 1933, Lefty O’Doul had been a hitter capable of 20+ home runs despite bouncing around with various teams during his career. Playing at the Polo Grounds for his final two years he still managed 18 home runs in just 458 plate appearances including 7 at age 37 at home compared to just 2 on the road.
While Babe Ruth deserves a lot of credit for popularizing the home run in baseball history, he sometimes gets unworthy credit for his feats. Other players were taking advantage of not only the era but also the alterations in ballparks much like Ruth had done himself. As ballparks were closing fences in and lowering walls, home runs continued to rise as ballparks started catering more towards offense than pitching and defense.
Credit to Getty Images for feature image