Will Pujols Accomplish a Ruthian Feat?

Baseball historian and "19 to 21" author John Shiffert ponders the parallel between arguably the greatest slugger of all time, George Herman Ruth and the greatest young slugger in the game today, Jose Alberto Pujols.

News Item: May 30, 1935 – George Herman Ruth plays his final major league game at Philadelphia's Shibe Park as a member of the horrid 1935 Boston Braves.

It is still the gold standard among baseball batting adjectives. Do something really spectacular, something mind-bending, something outside the box, and you have accomplished a Ruthian feat. Seventy-one years after he retired, 58 years after he died, George Herman Ruth is still the one to whom all legit or otherwise sluggers are ultimately compared.

On May 29, 2006, a gentleman (literally) named Jose Alberto Pujols hit his 25th home run of the season in the 51st game of the season of the team fortunate enough to employ his rather remarkable services – the Cardinals of St. Louis. For all we know, given his level of ability, the Cardinals of the Vatican may come calling on young (he turned 26 in January 2006) Mr. Pujols one of these days. The math on this particular feat is easy enough to do. He is hitting basically one home run for every other game played by the Cards. The current season will run 162 games. The record for home runs in a season is, until some corrective action is taken, 73. Perhaps equally remarkably, Pujols also has acquired 64 RBIs in those same 51 games (actually, in 49 games, he's sat out two contests so far this year). Should you care to believe that Pujols can maintain this pace for the rest of the 2006 season, and assuming he plays all of the remaining 111 games on the schedule, we would be looking at a truly Ruthian accomplishment…

2006 (projected)
82 209 .314 .444 .791

Now, everyone knows that the Babe first collected the single season home run mark in 1919, when he hit 29 for the Boston Red Sox, just edging past Philadelphian Ed Williamson's 27 home runs for the 1884 Chicago White Stockings. (A fluke season brought about by the short fences in Chicago's Lake Front Park… prior to and after 1884, balls hit over said fences were doubles.) The next year, after being sold off to the Yankees, and at the age of 25, Ruth pulled off his first truly Ruthian feat, sending 54 home runs out of various ballparks throughout the American League. Baseball, and the science of hitting, would never be the same again. He advanced the record for a third straight year (let's see anyone else do that) in 1921 (with 59) and then bumped the record up one more to 60 in 1927. After another 54 home run year in 1928, the then-33 year old Ruth was done setting records (expect for his career marks.) Not surprisingly, since even Ruth himself could only advance the mark incrementally after his 54 home run season, no one else got to 60 for 34 years, when expansion paved the way for Roger Maris to similarly just barely move the mark up to 61. Everybody knows all that, right?

What you may not know is that, while Ruth may have peaked in home runs 1927 at the fairly advanced age of 32, he still was THE home run hitter for the next four years. Note his yearly home runs and games played from 1928 to 1931…

Age Year Games HR HR*
33 1928 154 54 54
34 1929 135 46 52
35 1930 145 49 52
36 1931 145 46 49

That last column is the number of home runs the Babe would have hit if, as in 1928, he played 154 games in each of the seasons in question. In other words, he would have hit 267 home runs, powered only by beer and hot dogs, in five years. As it was, 255 wasn't too shabby, and you get the feeling that, by this time, the record wasn't all that important to the Babe. Maybe his body was beginning to wear out some, but it's hard to get over the thought that the Babe wasn't always that focused on records. Take another game at Shibe Park, this one on May 21, 1930. Going into the ninth inning, and facing ancient spitballer Jack Quinn, the Babe had already hit three home runs. In 1930, four home runs in a game had yet to be accomplished in the American League. In fact, it had only been done once in the 20th Century, by Chuck Klein the year before. Other than Klein's four home runs in cozy Baker Bowl, it hadn't been done since Ed Delahanty hit four in a game, also for the Phillies, in July 1896. So, what did the Babe do, facing the right-handed Quinn in the ninth? He turned around and batted right-handed. After two strikes, he went back to his normal left side, but still struck out, having effectively killed his chances for even further immortality (not that he needed it at that point.)

These Ruthian feats have been dredged up in light of one of the metrics being applied to Pujols' current tear – Most Home Runs After XX Games. Or, to put it another way, Fewest Team Games to 25 Home Runs. Using this second measure, we find (courtesy of ESPN demon researcher Mark Simon) that the Babe's hottest home run start (at least for getting to 25) wasn't 1920, or 1921 or 1927. No, it was 1928, when he hit 25 in the Yankees' first 55 games. In other words, for the first 55 games of the 1928 season, the Babe was ahead of his 1927 home run pace. On June 17, 1928, the Babe hit his 25th home run of that season, helping the 43-12 Yankees to a 6-2 win over the Browns. Which just goes to prove that making mid-season projections is a dicey business. For instance, it is doubtful that anyone on September 1, 1927 thought the Babe was going to break his 1921 record. He had 43 home runs at that point, and the Yankees had played 126 games. That's pace that would have produced 53 home runs by the time the Bronx Bombers finished cleaning up on the AL on October 1, 1927. However, the Babe went berserk during that last month of the season, hitting 17 home runs, including his 60th on the last day, October 1, 1927. It probably didn't hurt that the Yanks' final 21 games were all in The House That Ruth Built, with its short right field porch.

Still, no matter what advantages the Babe might have had, he still had to hit the home runs… as does Albert Pujols. Remember the 1969 Sports Illustrated with a shirtless Reggie Jackson on the cover? "Move Over, Maris and the Babe" it said. At that point, Reggie was ahead of both of them. He finished with 49. Or, recall that, with five games to go in the 1938 season, Hank Greenberg had 58 home runs. And he didn't hit another. In 1932, Jimmie Foxx also hit 58, despite losing four home runs to the new screen that was put up that year in Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. (At least, that was the story Foxx told.)

So, it's far from a sure thing. Nonetheless, Pujols has thus far, on the field of play, managed to eclipse every other home run hitter in 2006. The leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year is on top of the American League in home runs… but Jim Thome "only" has 20. The 2005 NL Rookie of the Year, Ryan Howard, who in effect replaced Thome at first for the Phillies, well, he's "only" hit 18. Howard and the controversial Alfonso Soriano are tied for second in the National League with 18 home runs apiece, and they're not even close. If you want a home run story you can really sink your teeth into (as opposed to sinking a needle into) for the rest of 2006, it's Albert Pujols. Maybe he is on his way to a Ruthian feat.

A native Philadelphian who moved to Georgia in 1994, John Shiffert has had two baseball history books published, "Baseball: 1862 to 2003" and "Baseball… Then and Now." Both are derived from his now four-year old baseball history e-zine, "19 to 21" and compare past players and events in the game with current players and events. His third book, a history of baseball in Philadelphia in the 19th Century, will be published by McFarland & Company later this year. The 2004 and 2005 versions of "19 to 21" are still awaiting a publisher, and he is also partway through writing a history of the Philadelphia Athletics' first dynasty from 1901 to 1914.

A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Shiffert's background includes serving as a sportswriter, as sports information director for Earlham College and Drexel University, and as publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File. He's been director of University Relations at Clayton State University since August 1995.

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