Stan Hochman | Going to great lengths to study the Babe

Posted: May 08, 2007

BABE RUTH hit one over the 40-foot scoreboard in Griffith Stadium in early May 1921. When it plopped to earth, near a house across a street, it had been airborne for 490 feet. After the game, Ruth paid an overnight visit to Mount Saint Mary's School, near Baltimore.

Gave a speech that night, put on a hitting exhibition the next morning until he ran out of baseballs. Drove back to Washington to face Walter Johnson, who was nicknamed "Big Train," because his pitches rumbled toward home plate shrieking like a runaway locomotive. Ruth broke his 1-day-old ballpark record by about 30 feet. Uh-huh, hit one over the 30-foot centerfield wall at a point 450 feet from home plate.

Hit one 535 feet into the bleachers in St. Louis, hit one out of Fenway Park that banged into a garage across the street, 500 feet away.

Hit one in Detroit, out of the ballyard in deepest centerfield that went 575 feet. Hit 59 that year. Would have hit one out of Yellowstone Park if the Yankees had scheduled an exhibition game there instead of Toronto, Akron, Cincinnati and Columbus.

And if he'd been playing in today's cozier ballparks, under today's rules, how many homers would George Herman Ruth have hit?

"I'm confident," says Bill Jenkinson, "the number exceeds 100. And, for his career, the number would exceed 1,100."

Jenkinson did not just fall off a turnip truck, damaging his skull. The Willow Grove resident has been studying tape-measure home runs for almost 30 years. When he decided to assign a distance to every one of Ruth's 714 homers, he wasn't sure the Babe would stack up against Reggie Jackson or Dave Kingman or Dick Allen for length.

"At work," Jenkinson said, "I'm an insurance investigator. I have to come up with facts or my kids don't eat. By 1990, I had become convinced that Babe Ruth was the longest hitter in the history of baseball. He transcended the sport."

Jenkinson was smart enough to know the world did not need another Ruth biography, and stubborn enough to transform the thousands of hours spent in musty libraries into a fascinating book called "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs."

It's not all posies and it's not all warts. Nor is it all numbers.

"Ruth wasn't perfect," Jenkinson writes. "No human being ever is. He was crude and vulgar, especially as a young man. Although reasonably intelligent, he was not educated, and remained uininterested in many important matters . . . But he somehow overcame his liabilities and became the best in his field of endeavor. Along the way, he enriched the lives of millions of people by entertaining them and infusing them with optimism and hope. And that is an extraordinary legacy."

In slogging through all those game stories in the florid prose of the '20s, did Jenkinson come up with conclusive proof that Ruth called the shot on his 1932 World Series homer against the Cubs?

"There doesn't need to be proof," Jenkinson countered. "In the crucible of an intensely competitive World Series, in front of 50,000 fans, he took a called strike. Took a second called strike and then made a defiant gesture with his bat that said, 'I'm Babe Ruth and you're not.' And then he hit a 500-foot home run to centerfield, the longest homer ever in Wrigley Field."

Westbrook Pegler wrote that everyone present "came away with a spiritual memento of the most gorgeous display of humor, athletic art and championship class any performer in any of the games has ever presented."

The book is crammed with wonderful anecdotes, how charismatic Ruth was with kids; how greedy the Yankees were in filling open dates with exhibition games; Ruth's feud with Ty Cobb; Ruth's mended friendship with Lou Gehrig.

And then, there is the magic moment when Jenkinson seeks and finds proof of a 600-foot homer, in Wilkes-Barre, of all places.

"I had heard of supposed 600-foot homers," Jenkinson said, "one in Detroit, one in South Bend. But this is the only one that has 600-feet credentials after I investigated it.

"Hit it out of Kirby Park, which was part of Artillery Field. There was a running track beyond the stadium. And this homer went over to the far side of the track. When I got there, in 2003, a flood had washed out the track. And, from aerial photos, you could see that home plate had been moved 15 feet.

"And then I found Joe Gibbons, who was 10 at the time of the homer. He saw the whole thing happen. He later was a prisoner of war in World War II. But he was still lucid when I met him, playing golf every day.

"He walked me out there and said, 'Here, this is where the ball landed.' I added it all up and it never came out less than 600 feet."

The game was played in '26. After the third inning, a pack of boys scuttled out of the rightfield stands to swarm Ruth. The stampede knocked him to the ground. When they sorted through the pile of humanity, Babe popped up grinning and holding on to a 4-year-old boy.

Ruth had kept the kid from being trampled. His name was Frank Lavery, and there's a classic photo of Ruth cradling the kid in his right arm while older boys in newsboy caps cluster around him.

There are photographs of the old ballyards, and spray charts of Ruth's homers and a homer-by-homer list that includes preseason exhibitions and postseason barnstorming. Ruth's incredible career ended in 1935.

Jenkinson can't help wondering whether Ruth couldn't have played longer if the Yankees hadn't foolishly given him two ultimatums.

"They forbade him from running in spring training," he said bitterly. "They said they were 'saving his legs.'

"Other than the year he was sick, his biggest drop-off was between '31 and '32. Overnight, he was transformed into an old man."

Well, he had been playing golf every chance he got from the mid-20s.

And now, early in the '32 season, the Yankees forbade him from playing golf.

"Those 36 holes he used to walk, that's what was holding him together. They took that away, his leg strength vanished, his hitting suffered."

Maybe if he had eaten a breakfast lighter than a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, a loaf of bread, he might have lasted longer. Maybe if he got more sleep, bedded fewer women, drank fewer beers. Maybe if boxing trainer Artie McGovern had befriended Babe sooner.

Questions, questions, questions, the lifeblood of baseball.

Jenkinson answers some, asks others in this terrific book about the Sultan of Swat, Big Bambino, King of Clout, Monarch of Maulers, Titan of Thump, Wazir of Wham. Hey, they didn't have better nicknames back in the day, just more of them. *

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@verizon.net.

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