Sunday, March 26, 2023


Today is my late Dad's birthday, and he was just old enough to have had the opportunity to see Babe Ruth play in person. He saw him several times: the first was on a barnstorming tour through the Midwest just a couple weeks after the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. Ruth took the mound that day for an inning or two, and my Dad remembers him as still being rather spry. He did not hit a homer during the exhibition game, but he put on a good show in batting practice.

Stats were not kept at the obsessive level of detail that is now the case, so it's likely that neither my Dad nor Babe Ruth knew just how thoroughly he was going to dominate a future compilation of hitters' "half-season stats. As we've been demonstrating here, it's relatively easy to assemble such data now, and (as you might expect), the Bambino has the most "half-seasons" in the Top 300 on either side (1st half/2nd half). Take a look:

In case you don't want to count these up by hand, there are 25 "half-season entries" in the Top 600 (or, rather, Top 300 for each half) that have Ruth's name attached to them. Notice that his season-long dominance in so many seasons results in eleven years showing up in both 1st half and 2nd half leaders lists. (Those years are: 1919, 1920, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1931, 1932, and 1933.)

The Babe was (of course) the first hitter to slug 30+ HRs in a half-season (that happened in the first half of 1921). He would do that again in the second half of 1927, the first half of 1928, and the first half of 1930.

Ruth has seven seasons in the Top 10 of "half-season" hitting achievement (as measured by OPS+). His #1 and #2 half-seasons occurred in the same year (1920), when what he was doing was still radically innovative. He had another six seasons in the 11-through-20 slots, the first of these coming in his final half-season with the Boston Red Sox in 1919; the final one occurred in the second half of 1932.

The Babe finally started to show his age in 1933--he was 38 years old, after all, and he just wasn't able to lay off the type of food that had laid him low back in 1925 (the infamous "year of the tummy ache"). 1933 was the year in which my Dad saw Ruth in an official major league game: the date was June 30th, the place was Cleveland.

He remembered it vividly even seventy years later, and when you look at the box score at Forman et fils (OK...Baseball Reference) you'll see why. The Yankees were defending World Series champions, but they were in a dog fight at that point of the '33 season with the Washington Senators, who would ultimately march to the AL pennant that year thanks in large part to a 13-game winning streak in August. It didn't help the Yankees that their second-line pitching was less than mediocre that year--which contributed to their 1-9 record in extra-inning games. 

Ruth had three hits (all singles) in that game, driving in three runs, but my Dad recalls that he had much less mobility at this point that had been the case four years earlier. Old and out of shape, Ruth in the second half of 1933 saw his batting average slip below .300 for the first time ever. (He'd hit below .300 for the entire '34 campaign, his last full year in MLB.) Thanks to his batting eye and still relatively prodigious slugging, he still wound up in the outer reaches of the Top 300 for both halves...but, save for that legendary three-homer game against the Pirates in '35, it was the last hurrah.

We'll be anthologizing more of our "wraparound seasons" (the full year's worth of data soldered together from the second half of year A and the first half of year B) in an upcoming post, so of course we're going to show you the ones that belong to the Babe. As with everything Ruthian, they are fascinating:

What tends to happen here is that many of Ruth's iconic early seasons with the Yankees (1920 and 1921 in particular) get a bit flattened out when they are given the "wraparound" treatment. He gets a tad closer to a .400 BA season in the 1923-24 wraparound (he hit .393 in '23), and he's very consistent in the 1926-27 wraparound, with a little more SLG in the '27 portion.

What's really noteworthy, though, is the uptick in power that Ruth demonstrates in his next two wraparound seasons that both crack the Top 600. Note that after he hits 31 HRs in the second half of '27 to reach that still-magic number of 60, he then hits 32 HRs in the first half of '28 to fashion a wraparound season where he actually hits 63 HRs! (Aaron Judge will get a shot at breaking that record in the first half of 2023; it will be an uphill climb.)

And note that the Babe hit 60 HRs again in the wraparound season of 1929-30.

One of the last conversations my Dad and I had centered around Ruth. He allowed as how a player like Willie Mays was possibly more "exciting" because of his defense and speed, but he remembered how the hush came over the crowd in Cleveland Stadium in 1933 when the aging Ruth came to the plate. "People couldn't take their eyes off him," he said. "They didn't want him to do damage to their home team, but they really wanted to see him get hold of one." 

But while Ruth hit .372 with 46 HRs at Cleveland's League Park from 1915-32, he didn't hit a single HR in Cleveland's new park, debuting in the first year of the New Deal. (My Dad took solace in recalling that three years earlier, while visiting his grandparents in Cleveland, he'd been in attendance when the Indians' Earl Averill had hit three homers, with a chance for a fourth in the seventh inning. Averill didn't get it, but he won over my Dad, who became a devoted fan and was overjoyed when his first "big league crush" was inducted into the Hall of Fame.)

Happy birthday, Dad: I miss you and think of you often. And long live Babe Ruth--as in...forever.