- Batting Around
Some years ago, as part of a pregame feature before baseball's annual All-Star game, a bat that had once been used by Babe Ruth was brought into the National League dugout and shown to some of the players. As seen on television, this sidebar served to reinforce the near-mythic position Ruth holds in baseball history. Players of the stature of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose regarded the old piece of lumber with obvious awe.
"Babe Ruth's, eh?" Schmidt asked as he hefted the stick that had once upon a time swirled in Ruth's mighty hands. "It's heavy, isn't it?" Schmidt said, making unspoken comparison with today's much lighter bats.
When shown to Rose, the relic was gazed upon, untouched until it was offered to him. Then he clenched his fingers around the handle and laid the bat on his shoulder and took a few gentle half swings with it, than handed it back, smiling appreciatively.
For these two eminent players, as well as for whoever else touched it, the bat evoked a certain magic. It had belonged to the most spectacular of all baseball players, the man whose name is synonymous with baseball. If it had been a baseball once held in the hand of Christy Mathewson or a glove worn by Honus Wagner, the magic would not have been the same, for it is the bat, more than anything else, that symbolizes baseball; it is the totemic image. A fastball may make a resounding thud in the catcher's mitt, but it is "the crack of the bat" that is baseball's call to excitement, its most captivating sound.
When it was wedded to the lively ball in 1920, the baseball bat became a truly thunderous instrument, with Ruth the peerless exponent of the new dynamite, setting new home run records in three consecutive seasons, beginning with twenty-nine in 1919, the last year of the "dead" ball, mounting to fifty-one in 1920 and then fifty-four in 1921. It wasn't simply numbers with Ruth, it was also the prodigious distances into which the ball carried. Despite his being a notorious pull hitter, many pitchers preferred to work Ruth inside, willing to risk the home run rather than, as Cleveland ace Wes Ferrell put it, "decapitation." "You [End Page 284] can't believe," Ferrell said, "how fast he could move that bat. I've seen him hit line drives that the first baseman went up for and the ball would end up in the seats. Can you imagine one of those things hit straight back at you?"
When asked to account for his remarkable long-distance slugging, Ruth said, "My theory is that the bigger the bat, the faster the ball will travel. It's the weight of the bat that drives the ball. Some of my bats weight as much as fifty-two ounces."
By contemporary standards, fifty-two ounces is an astonishingly heavy bat; many of today's top sluggers use bats that are a good twenty ounces lighter, a considerable differential.
Not everyone, however, agreed with Ruth's theory about the heavier the bat the more lethal. One man whose opinion was worth listening to was the St. Louis Cardinals' Rogers Horns by, Ruth's exact contemporary and a man regarded by many as the finest right-handed hitter ever (Horns by's .424 batting average in 1924 was the highest recorded in the twentieth century, while his career mark of .358 is second only to Cobb's .367).
"It's bat speed that drives the ball," Hornsby said. "The faster you get your stick to the ball the harder you're going to hit it, and the lighter the stick the faster you're going to move it. To me," the always bluntly opinionated Hornsby said, "it makes perfect sense." (And continues to make perfect sense to this day, with the trend having turned to the lighter bat.)
By nature, or maybe by preference, Hornsby was a loner. Not only did he have few close friends, he seemed to go out of his way to offend people, often speaking with a...