Why Was Babe Ruth So Good At Hitting Home Runs?

People have been using science on the Great Bambino since the 1920s

Babe Ruth's first major-league team was the Boston Red Sox, where he was a star player. When he was sold to the New York Yankees in 1919, the "Curse of the Bambino" began and the Red Sox didn't win another World Series until 2004. George Grantham Bain/Wikimedia Commons

There’s a saying in baseball: watch out for the heavy batter. They never have to run.  That saying may as well have started with Babe Ruth.

Born on this day in 1895, George Herman Ruth first made his name as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. But what made him really famous was his work for the New York Yankees as a batter. His career there has become one of Major League Baseball’s founding legends, and his nicknames—the Great Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, the Big Fellow, etc.—reflect that status.

Ruth was widely acknowledged to be an excellent baseball player, both in terms of his pitching and his hitting. His massive popularity helped to cement his legacy as a baseball legend, writes Cliff Corcoran for Sports Illustrated, but it helped that he was genuinely an excellent player. Some of the records that he set continue to stand even today.

Ruth’s signature move was the home run. Before he came along, home runs were relatively unusual in baseball. But Ruth’s career, which stretched for 22 seasons between 1914 and 1935, was the beginning of the home run era.

His skill combined with his popularity as a cultural figure meant that people asked what his secret was. Baseball was always a sport attractive to scientists: Baseball had stats as early as the 1880s, and the rules of the game are fairly simple. So it's not surprising that the search for Ruth's secret sauce involved a lot of science.

In 1921, for example, a Popular Science journalist went to find out. Hugh S. Fullerton took Ruth, after a game, to Columbia University’s “physiological department,” where two researchers awaited him.  “They led Babe Ruth into the great laboratory of the university,” Fullerton wrote, “figuratively took him apart, watched the wheels go round.” After a surely exhaustive study, he wrote:

The secret of Babe Ruth’s batting, reduced to non-scientific terms, is that his eyes and ears function more rapidly than those of other players; that his brain records sensations more quickly and transmits its orders to the muscles much faster than does that of the average man.

In other words, these researchers found, Babe Ruth was basically a hitting superman. And research since has borne out the idea that he was actually really good.

This wasn’t the only time in the 1920s that people attempted to figure out Ruth’s home runs. A physicist named A.L. Hodges was the very first, writes Bill Felber in his book on a 1920 American League competition. “In the search for an explanation of Ruth’s power was born one of the first occasions for the application of scientific principles to baseball,” he writes. The Chicago Herald and Examiner commissioned him to explain Ruth’s prowess to the baseball-following public—many of whom probably hadn’t finished high school, Felber notes.

Hodges, like Fullerton’s Columbia scientists, did arrive at an explanation, which wasn’t really all that dissimiliar from the one the Columbians came to. The figure that gave him a deceptive “baby” appearance actually helped him hit harder, Hodges wrote, because it gave him more stopping power and kept the bat from bouncing backwards when it hit the ball.

And it wasn’t just the Babe Ruth legend that made him seem great. A 2011 study used statistical physics to “detrend,” or remove mitigating factors, from the stats of historical baseball players, effectively making it as if they were all playing under the same conditions at the same time in baseball history.
While modern players hit far more homers than Ruth, he was better than others of his era by a larger margin, the study said. That placed him, once again, at number one.

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