The New Game
NEW YORK – Sportswriter Paul Gallico once wrote that “It was impossible to watch Ruth swing his bat without experiencing a powerful emotion.” The excitement generated by the offensive power of the ‘Caliph of Clout’ virtually saved baseball from the crippling black Sox scandal of 1919, the result of which brought public confidence in the game to an all-time low.
Supposedly modeled after the great Chicago White Sox player, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, Ruth’s swing was graceful, almost corkscrew-like. Using what he described as a golf swing, The Babe generated his power by the twisting of his tiny ankles, and with a stroke that had a slightly upwards movement towards the heavens, smashing homeruns that had more air under them than ever seen at that time in the game. When answering Shirley Povich’s question about which major leaguer hit the ball the furthest, the great pitcher for the Washington Senators, Walter Johnson, playfully responded that the balls that Ruth hit “got smaller quicker than anybody else’s.”
Although a prolific hitter, Ruth’s penchant for striking out dwarfed all others, as he lead the league in said category for five seasons. However, his whiffs were a thing of beauty. The finish of his swing was accompanied by a dynamic whirl of the body that held its own fascination. Shown is such a scene, as we see Ruth’s mighty follow-through during batting practice at a game in New York’s Polo Grounds during the 1922 season, his first as a Yankee. Certainly, it is by no means less attractive than a shot of his record-setting homerun form.
Such form was a sign of the changing times in the sport. In a game once dominated by speed and strategy, no longer would pitchers pace themselves throughout the game and save their good stuff only for when an opposing player was on base. Hurlers would now bear down for an entire contest for the fear that a run was capable of being scored instantly and at any point.
Such changes in the game can be attributed to the baseball itself. Traditionally, whole games were played with one or two balls, as long as they stayed in the park. The sphere was often lopsided, deliberately stained with tobacco juice and scuffed mercilessly, much to the fault and delight of the pitchers of the day. Spitballs and emery balls were more than common. The ball was considered ‘dead’, as it was nearly impossible to hit it out of the park. Jumping off of the bat and rolling around the field like a Mexican jumping bean, the only way for a player to get a homeruns was if an outfielder tripped and fell. With the death of Cleveland’s Ray Chapman in August of 1920, umpires had new instructions to produce a spotless new ball whenever a ball got dirty. The ball itself had been made livelier by wounding more tightly the yarn within it.
With this change and the advent of Babe Ruth in the early 1920s, the balance shifted from the pitcher’s mound to the batters box. Ushering in the era of the homerun ball, Ruth’s swing completely changed baseball. Needless to say, it has never been the same since.