PROF TAKES ONE DEEP: A painting of the author hitting a home run from league photo files.
PROF TAKES ONE DEEP: A painting of the author hitting a home run from league photo files.Courtesy PROFESSOR EMERITUS PETER BAGNOLO'S FILES
I won a Ford Foundation Fellowship in Physical Anthropology and come from a family of scholars and medical people, so I know a bit about human structure and about drugs like steroids. Steroids tend to interfere with eye-hand coordination eyesight and reflexes of many who take them and becoming muscle bound is a detriment to the lightening reflexes needed in hitting a baseball. As Ted Williams proved, eyesight and stellar reflexes along with incredible eye-hand coordination and pitch selectivity, are the secrets of hitting a baseball frequently. Hitting it far depends on one more thing the ability to hit the bottom half of the baseball, as Ruth pointed out. Muscularity and brute strength are neither a necessity nor a prerequisite, and, in fact are sometimes a determent.

There are several factors which caused the phenomenal rise in home run production. But was it really phenomenal? Not according to historical data, which reveals that technological discoveries often lead to an increase in that which is favored among human endeavors. Below are some examples of the gradual and sometimes herky-jerky rise in home run hitting.

In Babe Ruth's era the average distance from home plate to the center field fence was 450 feet, today it is 405 feet. Back then the alleys were, on average 400-415 feet, today they are 368-385 feet. The balls were livelier in 1991 and again in 1998. The mounds are now ten inches high, in Ruth's time and mine, they were 15"-18" (reg's said 15" but most teams cheated to 18"). Ruth’s home production in 1920/1921 was phenomenal, because at the Polo Grounds, which at the time was the Highlander’s/Yankees home park shared with the Giants, the center field fence was 490 feet from home plate . I suggest reading Bill Jenkinson’s book, THE YEAR BABE RUTH HIT 104 HOME RUNS. In it he displays charts showing doubles, triples and sacrifice flies as well as fly outs which today would all have been home runs. I did a similar computer study/chart based on ball park size, which over his career, were it played out in the era from 1986-2009 and played all of it as an outfielder, he would have hit more than 1500-1650 home runs. Bill Jenkinson shows Ruth, if he simply had the same career, pitching included, in the modern era, would have hit about 1150 home runs. My totals give him a few more years in the outfield and exclude the pitching. When I added the pitching as did Jenkinson, I showed Ruth hitting 1250-1400 home runs.

Many great hitters like Ted Williams increased their home run per times at bat as they grew older, as did Ruth in 1927-1928. In Ruth's youth both leagues hit about 400 HR's per year, the average to lead the league by a player was 9.5 HR's from 1901-1918, both leagues gradually increased HR production in starts and jumps and now both leagues hit 13 times that figure or over 5100 HR's per season. That increase has nothing to do with drugs, the people who are ignorant of the realities of such data and the natural evolution of sports records, viciously cling to accusatory slanders. Basketball and Football have seen records expand as well. Human beings are bigger, faster and have better health than they had in 1920. It is the natural evolution of human events.

When Ruth hit 54 in 1920/59 in 1921, he hit more HRs, than 14 of the 16 entire teams. When I was a kid very few guys hit 25 HR's in a season now many do every season. Barry Bonds and others, if they took steroids, hit HR's, in spite of Medicines and drugs containing steroids. By the way, at age 32, in a game, I hit a brand new Spaulding baseball 436 feet. In my prime the farthest I ever hit a ball was 420 feet. I was NOT stronger at age 32 than at age 18/19/20.

Perhaps some senate committee ought to investigate if Baseball executives lied about the increased liveliness of the baseballs and is so put the commissioner on trial. Did they liven the baseballs to avert the strike in 1991/1994 and again in 1998 onward? They wanted to fill the ball parks and make enough money to hold them in a short season. They also hoped that the players hitting so many home runs would deter them from striking, they were wrong and never forgave the union for that. Take a look at the short season stats and the year Bagwell had. Superballs were flying out of ball fields like Geese in a park. If most players took steroids how come they all didn’t hit as many HR’s as Bonds, Sosa, ARod and McGwire? Why did everyone’s HR production gradually rise to 13 times what the leagues hit before 1920?

Maybe the non-scientific accusatory naysayer’s can understand one thing. It is not news if everyone can do it. When Ruth made his run or 12 home run championships, that was tremendous, that was genius, that was miraculous. When Hank Aaron, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, ARod, Ken Griffy Junior and those who followed were blasting 50 home runs with ease, they were surrounded by a huge number of other hitters who were hitting 25. 30, 35, 40 and 45 home runs. The leader of that parade is not really a very special one because it was not as difficult as it was in 1920/1921, 1927/1928.

In 1920 all of the players in Major League Baseball combined hit a total of 630 home runs, Ruth hit 54 of them, or 8.6% of the total. In the year 2000 all of the players in Major League Baseball combined hit a total of 5,693 home runs or more than nine times as many as were hit in 1920. Jeff Bagwell led the NL with 47 not quite 1% of the total. Was every one on steroids? No, shorter fences, lower mounds, and much livelier baseballs made the records, not drugs.