An Insoluble Problem? What to Pitch to Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth's Formidable Bulk in the Batters' Box Is a Continual Challenge to the Nerve and Prowess of Opposing Pitchers. Incidentally, the Experts of the Diamond Differ Radically in Their Theories of how to Foil This Terrific Slugger
By F. C. LANE
BASEBALL MAGAZINE July 1928
WHAT THE BASEBALL EXPERTS SAY ABOUT BABE RUTH
Grover Alexander says, "I ever saw a batter yet that I was afraid to pitch to. Anytime a pitcher fears the man before him he might as well give away his glove and go back to farming."
Bob Shawkey says, "Half the time Babe doesn't know himself what he hits at. He couldn't tell you whether it was at fast ball or a curve. He doesn't really care."
Ray Schalk says, "Here are a few conclusions that careful observers have come to, and I can give them for what they are worth. First Babe is supposed to like speed pitching better than slow ball pitching. Second he is supposed to like a low ball better than a high one. Third in some parks it's considered dangerous to put the ball on the inside for Ruth."
Walter Johnson said "Most pitchers that I have talked to dislike giving Babe a ball on the inside. I'd figure just the other way."
Jim Bagby said "I think Babe has a weakness, for the simple reason that I believe every batter has a weakness. But I'm frank to confess I don't know what it is."
Herb Pennock said "Babe can hit a high ball but he can murder a low ball."
Wally Pipp said "Babe is smart at bat, and whether he admits it or not he's doping out what the pitcher will give him. The only possible thing to do in his case is to mix them up. Luck is on the side of the pitcher, anyway, if he's got sense enough to recognize it."
George Sisler said "It's a mistake to pitch outside to Babe or to any other slugger who can pull the ball around to right field."
Ty Cobb said "Babe call hit anything, but the best ball to give him is a slow curve high on the inside."
Catcher O'Neill said "I think a low curve on the outside is a good ball to give Babe."
Sherry Smith said "Maybe Babe can't hit a high ball as well as a low one, but he can hit it harder."
Dutch Reuther said "When Babe is hitting he can hit anything. When he's not hitting he can't hit anything. He's either a wonder or a bust."
How to pitch to Babe Ruth is a perennial problem. The wisest heads in baseball have worked upon that problem for years, but they are as far from its solution as ever. Perhaps it is like the age old effort to square the circle, a thing that simply can't be done.
To most American League pitchers, Babe Ruth is a perpetual hazard. At times he may appear harmless enough, but they realize too clearly the potential dynamite in his menacing bat to breathe freely when he is facing them. You can read their mental uneasiness by the ultra?cautious manner in which they pitch to Babe. They are slow, deliberate, weighing every ball with meticulous care, casting now and again a furtive glance toward their outfielders and toward the outfield fences. If confidence is the key of a pitcher's success, as most pitchers affirm, no wonder Babe enjoys the consternation he causes. For there are few hurlers who can face the burly slugger, when he has the fiery glint of a new home run record in his eye and feel other than a temporary weakness in the knees and the pit of the stomach. They may appear cool by an effort of will, but theirs is rather the do or die spirit than the confident assurance of a pitcher who feels that he has the situation well in hand.
American League managers also share their pitchers' presentiments of impending danger. Tris Speaker, when he was manager of the Cleveland club, forbade his hurlers to pitch to Babe when the tieing or winning run was on the bags. He would take no chances with that fearsome super-slugger.
It was because of Babe, that the pitchers, waiving as hopeless the problem of how to fool him, sidestepped the threat of his home run bat by giving him a record number of passes to first base. In this decision discretion may have been better than valor. But never was a pitching innovation more bitterly condemned. Even on alien territory where the crowds were rooting against the Yankees, they derided the local pitchers whenever they passed Babe. They recognized the problem that confronted the pitcher, they knew how serious that problem was but they wanted their pitcher to buckle down and at least try to solve the problem.
National League pitchers and managers have been inclined to belittle this oppressive mystery of what to pitch to Babe Ruth. They believe, or affect to believe, that the danger is greatly exaggerated. This impression has arisen because National League pitchers have been fairly successful in stopping Babe and also because National League pitchers face him infrequently. American League pitchers claim that one thing results from the other, that National League pitchers have been successful against Babe simply because he doesn't face them often enough to "get on" to their style. You can stop Babe for a little while, they say, but not for long.
Perhaps the most successful opposition Babe ever encountered was that of John McGraw in the World's Series of 1922. In that series McGraw called every pitched ball against Babe and Babe was the weak hitter of the entire Yankee club. In justice to him, however, it must be admitted that he wasn't himself in that series.
Grover Alexander, the dean of National League pitchers, says, "I never saw a batter yet that I was afraid to pitch to. Anytime a pitcher fears the man before him he might as well give away his glove and go back to farming." Big Alec has been quite successful in pitching to Babe. No doubt his perfect control, long experience and variety of pitching gifts would give Babe something to bother him, even though he faced Alec frequently. Be that as it may, the pitchers who know Babe best are the least certain of the proper way to pitch to him.
Has Babe himself any personal preference? Ask him and he will grunt and look non?committal. You might logically assume that he didn't care to discuss the point, that he wasn't giving away any secrets for the benefit of the opposition. Quite likely Babe might think he has a preference for a certain type of ball, but whether that is a mere mental imagining or an actual fact is a question.
Bob Shawkey, long a fellow teammate, once said of Ruth, "Half the time Babe doesn't know what he hits himself. He couldn't tell you if it was a fast ball or a curve. He doesn't really care. That's why he's such a good hitter. All he tries to do is to keep his eye on the ball."
Ray Schalk, doubtless the wisest catcher in the game, discussed this question, some years ago.
What is the best way to fool Babe?" he said. "Frankly, I refuse to answer that question. It isn't because I have trade secrets that I dislike to disclose. I only wish I had. I've discussed Babe's case with all my pitchers and most of my teammates. But after a lot of scheming and studying, I've come to the rather hopeless conclusion that there isn't any way to fool Babe. And I'll go on record now with the statement that there is absolutely no rule or set of rules which can be laid down as a guide for pitching to Babe Ruth.
"Here are a few conclusions that careful observers have come to and I can give them for what they're worth. First, Babe is supposed to like speed pitching better than slow ball pitching. Second, he is supposed to like a low ball better than a high ball. Third, at Comiskey Field, at least, it's considered dangerous to put the ball on the inside to Ruth.
"What do these conclusions amount to? There's some reason for all three. You may say that sluggers in general dislike slow balls. You may note that Ruth hits under the ball, which would suggest that he likes low balls. It's quite obvious that Ruth pulls the ball. Hence, you can reason that it's inadvisable to put the ball inside for him. So far so good. Ruth may dislike a slow ball, but when he broke his old home run record of twenty?nine, it was off a slow baII from Dicky Kerr. He may dislike a high ball, but I saw him drive a high ball over the outfieId fence in Chicago and that's a drive you don't see every day. It may be unwise to keep the ball inside, but what are you going to do with it? I saw him pull a ball at least a foot outside into the right field bleachers.
"Laying down rules on how to pitch to Babe in like rigging up a scheme to beat the races. Many an enterprising plunger has done this with some success for it while. But if he played his system consistently, he some day found himself walking home because he lacked carfare."
Walter Johnson, in discussing this problem, said, "I once saw Babe swing at a ball that struck the ground before it reached the plate. No doubt he'd made up his mind to go after that ball. The fact is, he can hit any kind of a ball that comes within his reach, and he can reach a foot and a half outside the plate. Most pitchers that I have talked to disike giving Ruth a ball on the inside. I'd figure just the other way, that if he hit the ball with the handle of his bat, he wouldn't drive it so far, even if it went safe. But I don't Iay down that rule for other pitchers any more than I'd lay down the rule that sluggers don't like slow balls Two of the first three homers Ruth hit off me were slow curves."
Jim Bagby, one wise pitcher in his day, tackled the Ruth problem while it was still fresh. "I think," said Bagby, "that Babe has a weakness, for the simple reason that I believe every batter has a weakness. But I'm frank to confess I don't know what it is. I figured that Babe would miss a slow curve, off side. But I gave him one just exactly where I wanted it and he turns it into a four?base hit."
The emery ball once long deemed unhittable. Hence, it was banished with all its brood of illegal deliveries. But even an emery baII is pie for Ruth, when the big slugger is feeling fit.
Luke Sewell, the Cleveland catcher, had an experience of this type. He said, "I saw Babe swing at a ball and miss it two feet. I was surprised, looked the ball over carefully and discovered that it had been roughed by contact with the ground. It was a true emery ball, made so by a happy accident. The information seemed too good to waste, so I strolled out and told the pitcher about it, He examined the ball, adjusted the spot to suit him, cut loose with all the stuff he had and the ball took a terrifie break. But Ruth hit it on a line into the bleachers."
Herb Pennock once remarked, "Babe can hit a high ball, but he can murder a low ball." Right there you have the seeds of a discussion. Ask a dozen American League pitchers and at least nine out of the dozen will claim that Babe prefers a high ball. Doubtless they speak from sad experience.
Perhaps Wally Pipp offered the true explanation when he said, "I think Babe Ruth used to be a low ball hitter by preference. But the pitchers gave him so many high balls that he can hit them now as well as any other kind. It seems like good dope to me, to get the ball inside to Ruth. But at that, I've seen him hit very few on the handle. Babe is smart at bat, and whether be admits it or not, he's doping out what the pitcher will give him. There are pitchers who have made a sucker of Ruth, but not for long. The only possible thing to do in his case is to mix them up. Put one inside, then outside, high and low. Then trust to luck. Luck's on the side of the pitcher, anyway, if he's got sense enough to recognize it."
George Sisler, when he was manager of the Browns, had some decided notions on pitching to Babe. "You must mix them up," he said, "but in general, keep the ball on the inside of the plate. It's a mistake to pitch outside to Babe or any other slugger who can pull the ball around to right field. Pitch inside and he's apt to hit on the handle and pop up. Even then he can hit for a single, but hardly for a home run."
The great trouble, however, in applying the logical deductions to Babe Ruth is the patent fact that they don't work. Garland Buckeye, the bulky Cleveland hurler, faced Babe last season in a certain game and Babe responded with two thriving homers. Buckeye, discussing the catastrophe afterwards, remarked, "That first ball was a knuckle ball that broke under Babe's knees. He hit it into the center field bleachers. The other ball was high, inside, up under his chin. It was the safest kind of ball I could think of to give him. And he hit it just as hard, into the right field bleachers."
Ty Cobb, who knows a little about batting and who plotted deeply against Babe while he was manager of the Detroit Tigers, said, "Babe can hit anything, but the best ball to give him is a slow curve, high, on the inside."
George Uhle, when right the best pitcher in the American League, remarked, "I would say in general the best thing to give Buth was a slow curve. I gave him a slow curve and he hit it into the bleachers. Then I struck him out three times with fast curves. You can draw your own conclusions from that."
Herb Pruett gained transient fame by striking Babe out three times in one game. He did this with slow curves that looked surprisingly easy from the stands.
Catcher O'Neill, who returned to the Browns last season, said, "It seems to me Ruth is standing a little further from the plate than he used to do. I think a low curve, on the outside, is a good ball to give him. A left hander's' curve should always be on the outside for Babe. But it's a good thing for a left hander to shoot a fast ball inside. Babe is a hard man to work on, but that's what the catcher and pitcher are for."
Elam Van Gilder, traded last winter to Detroit, said. "If you're laying down general rules, a slow ball is the best ball to pitch to Babe. But you're foolish to lay down any general rules. If a pitcher hasn't a slow ball, he ought to be allowed to use the particular ball he prefers. There's a lot of luck in pitching to Babe, anyway. He's inclined to miss easy ones and hit hard ones."
One feature of the case that makees Babe doubly troublesome is this. He's so big and strong and has such an enormous reach that he can nearly miss a ball and still hit it safe. Carl Mays said, "I've seen Babe swing with his full strength and top a ball so badly that he barely touched it. But it took two hops through the infield for it single."
Sherry Smith, who as a National League pitcher faced the best batters of that circuit, developed a wholesome respect for Ruth. "You can argue about best hitters all you like," said Sherry. "I don't know whether Babe's the best hitter who ever lived or not. But he's a mile and a half the most dangerous hitter. Maybe he can't hit a high ball as often as a low one, but he call hit it harder. When he does connect, he gets his weight behind it better."
Ted Lyons of the White Sox, who has had good ?success against Babe, says, "There are times when you can put one right through the center of the plate for Babe and he'll look foolish. That's when he isn't hitting. There are other times when you can't put the ball within two feet of the plate with any safety, if he wants to go after it. He waits out a lot of balls and gets his base, but he also goes after a lot of bad balls. He can do this easily enough for he can reach so far."
Dutch. Reuther, when he was a fellow teammate of Babe's on the Yankee club, said, "When Babe is hitting, be can hit anything. When he's not hitting, he can't hit anything. Babe does everything by extremes. He's either a wonder or a bust. It sounds strange, but he's about as impressive in one role as the other. He can hit harder than any other slugger who ever lived, but he can also strike out more impressively than any other slugger who ever lived. And the crowd seems to enjoy it, which ever he does.
Urban Shocker, when he was pitching for the St. Louis Browns, summed up the situation rather aptly when he said, "There's one thing Babe Ruth call always be counted on to supply. He gives the opposing pitcher a thrill, no matter what happens. I've struck Babe out *as many as three times in one game. That made me feel pretty good. Babe has also fattened up his home run average at my expense. That didn't make me feel so, good. The chronic dope they feed all sluggers is slow balls. Babe isn't supposed to like slow curves, but I'll say one thing. Feed him slow curves and sooner or later you'll watch one going over the fence, and there won't be anything slow about it either. You can fool Babe now and then, and when he's not going well he looks bad. But there's no pitcher or no pitching system that can fool him for long."
Babe is indeed a terror to pitchers. But save for one peculiarity of his batting style,he might be infinitely worse. Babe lofts the ball by habit and by preference, and he pulls the ball more than any batter in the game. Hence, rarely or never does be he shoot a straight line drive back through the pitcher's box. If he were a line drive hitter of this type, few pitchers would care to face him at all. And no wonder. For then Babe's terrific smashes would not only create havoc in the final score, they would carry to the opposing pitcher a grim threat of crippling injury and even death.