Adam Ottavino is an excellent relief pitcher who’s just turned two out of three splendid seasons including a marvelous 2018 (2.43 earned run average; 2.74 fielding-independent pitching rate) into a three-year, $27 million contract, joining a Yankee bullpen already thought to be the bulls in the American League’s china shop. And he charmed further by asking for and receiving uniform number 0, the absolute final single digit the Yankees could offer with 1 through 9 retired.
But Ottavino has also raised temperatures thanks to the exhuming of, shall we say, a less than worshipful observation involving a Yankee icon.
By his own admission on a December podcast Ottavino committed heresy when, pitching some years earlier in Triple-A and talking to a coach, he observed almost offhand that Babe Ruth in today’s game might not post quite the jaw-dropping batting performances he posted in his actual time. Ottavino went far enough to suggest he just might strike Ruth out as often as not, and he does have the kind of slider and sinker to suggest that’s not a fanciful flub.
In some places you might have thought Ottavino committed the rough equivalent of John Lennon’s ancient observation, in an offhand remark made months before its American revelation, that the Beatles in 1966 were more popular than Jesus Christ.
Lennon’s republished-out-of-context remark finally compelled him to clarify, at a sober Chicago press conference, that he’d forgotten in that earlier moment that he was himself one of the Beatles and, memorably, “If I’d have said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have gotten away with it.” When the Yankees introduced Ottavino formally last week the righthander felt just as obliged to clarify.
“I probably used a bad example of the point I was trying to make: the evolution of the pitching in baseball over baseball history,” Ottavino said. “And Babe Ruth’s probably a name that I shouldn’t have used in this example. But I’ve got a lot of flak for it, mostly funny stuff, like my uncle telling me that he can’t go anywhere without hearing about it, things like that. But I meant no disrespect. I’m a huge baseball historian and love the game, and it’s not even something that can be proven anyway, so I find it a little funny.”
The genuine problem with Lennon’s ancient controversy is that there were moments indeed during the Beatles’ extraterrestrial international fame and achievement where you might well have believed them to be more popular than Christ; indeed, at least one clergyman responded to the uproar, “To many people the golf course is more popular than Jesus.” A deeper look indicated that Lennon himself didn’t exactly believe that that possibility was a good thing.
But Ottavino in a couple of ways was quite right. Even amidst the evolution of baseball analysis in my lifetime, you can still find a considerable community that refuses to allow anything other than the image of Ruth as the single greatest baseball player who ever lived without the deviant consigned to the rack.
During the mid-to-late 1990s a Village Voice writer named Allen St. John isolated the point: “Ask someone who the greatest basketball player of all time is. They’ll say Michael Jordan. Ask him who the greatest quarterback is. They’ll say Joe Montana. Ask them to name the greatest heavyweight champion. It’ll be Muhammad Ali. The greatest hockey payer? Of course, Wayne Gretzky. Now ask them the greatest baseball player of all time? And the answer will be Babe Ruth. Now, look over that list of names and ask yourself what’s different about the last one?”
I’m not conversant enough with their sports to suggest possible successors to Ali or Gretzky and have no wish to be, but one suspects LeBron James may have succeeded Jordan and Tom Brady, Montana. May. And they won’t erode the places in their sports’ histories of, say, Bill Russell or Bart Starr.
Writing in Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century in 2002, Allen Barra answered St. John: “Every other sport gets to choose a current or modern player as its greatest, but a baseball fan always has to look at the past . . . A couple of years ago I proposed that Wilt Chamberlain and not Michael Jordan was the most dominant player in basketball history . . . I was scoffed at; how could I say that when the conditions of the game have changed so greatly from the early 60s to now? And yet, when it came time to pick the greatest player in baseball history, four of five picked Babe Ruth without batting an eyelash (the other picked Willie Mays, the player people usually pick who don’t pick Ruth). Apparently, the conditions of basketball had changed radically over the last thirty-five years but in baseball, over seventy years, not at all.”
Barra cited St. John in his book’s leadoff chapter, provocatively titled “Getting Tough with Babe Ruth.” Essentially, he set out to prove a sacred cow’s genuine worth—steak—and he did a splendid job, particularly when he lanced one of the key boils of the Ruthian myths, that being he was the great all-around player who could Do It All better than anyone else could Do It All, and did.
As a full-time pitcher Ruth was good and occasionally great (especially in the 1916 World Series), but a full-time ERA only a few points below his league average in a low-scoring era isn’t exactly Randy Johnson being almost two full runs below his league average in a high-scoring era. And throwing short range as a pitcher throws is an entity unto itself; a right fielder throws considerably different, and with a considerably different eye and aim.
Ruth was a league-average defensive right fielder whose throwing arm was passable but not exactly the model for Roberto Clemente. He was a mediocre baserunner with no speed as a full-time position player, the evidence for which exists above and beyond his colossal blunder in ending the 1926 World Series in the Cardinals’ favour. (With Bob Meusel at the plate and Lou Gehrig on deck, a pair of hitters not exactly renowned for being pushovers, Ruth took off for second base entirely on his own thought and was out by a enough space for a car to pass through.)
Those who do argue Mays over Ruth have power/speed combination evidence on their side, too: remove Barry Bonds if you must because of his involvement with actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, and Mays is the number two power/speed combination of all time, right behind fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. The Babe? How does number 84 strike you? Might strike you out, actually.
Despite the image of Ruth having thunderous power all over the place, period descriptions (Barra’s phrase) show him the classic pull hitter who probably picked up a lot of non-home run extra base hits going the other way into cavernous left center fields like his own home parks, distance enough that even a leadfoot like himself could leg out a triple.
If today’s fan frets over the obsession with “launch angles,” over hitters obsessed enough with them to neglect other facets of run-creating hitting while pitchers learn to tie them up in their launch obsessions, how on earth does the parabolic Ruthian blast named for a batter whose power swing was itself a body-twisting uppercut not become the very great-great-grandfather of the very launch angle obsession today’s baseball fan and analyst abhors?
Ruth still has as well a concurrent reputation as the most dominant team player of the 20th Century until you look a lot closer. As a full-time pitcher, he was on Red Sox teams good enough to win without him, one of which won a World Series the year before he joined the fun. As a Yankee full-time position player, he went to three World Series as the team’s best player and they won one out of the three; he went to four more with a player of equal ability as his teammate, Lou Gehrig, and won three out of four; he had a thirteen-year stretch of seven Yankee pennants and four World Series rings.
That’s not Gehrig’s thirteen-year stretch of seven Yankee pennants and six World Series rings. That’s not Joe DiMaggio’s ten pennants and nine World Series rings. That’s not Yogi Berra’s fourteen pennants and ten Series rings (and Yogi had maybe the single most important job in the field, guiding his pitching staffs); it’s not Mickey Mantle’s twelve pennants and seven Series rings. On Yankee terms that evidence suggests Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle being better and more dominant team players.
What’s absolutely fair to Babe Ruth is to call him the greatest player of the pre-World War II/pre-integration era, playing in a time when major league baseball limited its talent pool by design and, for all manner of perverse reasons, refused to let Ruth play against the best black, Latino, and further international talent. (Ruth himself would have welcomed that chance; he thought nothing of off-season barnstorming baseball tours that included games against Negro Leagues players he admired.)
But then we add to pre-World War II/pre-integration a third condition—the pre-night ball era. Between the limited talent pool he was allowed to face, and the strictly day game he was allowed to play, it’s to wonder whether Ruth’s batting statistics would have become as platinum looking as they are to the naked, un-inquiring eye if he’d played half or more of the time at night. (It’s also to wonder how much gaudier Henry Aaron’s, Willie Mays’s, and Ken Griffey, Jr.’s batting statistics would look if they never had to play at night.)
I’ve yet to read Jane Leavy’s The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, and you may rest assured it’s prime on my to-read list, but the reviews I’ve seen indicate she plumbed as deep as a human could plumb into everything that made Ruth Ruth, from his grotesque childhood and its legacy of insecurities to the baseball fame manufactured six parts Ruth himself and half a dozen parts his era’s pliant sporting press and the randy adolescence of the public relations industry.
“With the help of his shameless business manager, Christy Walsh, Ruth cultivated and grew his celebrity and cashed in on it big-league,” writes one of the best reviewers, Nicholas Frankovich in National Review. “It was extraordinary, of a magnitude unprecedented for an American athlete. Ruth was shameless too, so blush not for him, and more amoral than immoral, so temper your head-shaking at his Rabelaisian overindulgence in food and sex.” Temper it, we presume, without a concurrent thought about all the athletes of the past two decades whose Rabelaisian appetites and thuggish behaviours receive condemnation instead of, pardon the expression, Ruthian indulgence. (If you don’t think the Babe could be thuggish, you don’t know about the time he hung manager Miller Huggins over the end of a moving train to try convincing Huggins to rescind a disciplinary fine.)
Placing Ruth in context and beyond mythology is entirely do-able without writing him out of his own legend or that of the Yankees and the game itself. “The Babe gets a free ride from the modern historians and documentary makers,” Barra wrote, “and his name is often evoked by people who in practise seem to abhor the very kind of big power-big strikeout, low emphasis on speed and defense game that Ruth was most associated with in his own time. Nobody ever gets tough with Babe Ruth . . . The Babe is tough enough to take a few knocks from me. Or anyone. Maybe even tough enough to put up with a modern reassessment and still stay a hero.”
Maybe even tough enough to withstand Adam Ottavino’s gaffe, for which Ottavino beyond a momentary lapse of rhetorical temperance should have owed not one degree of penance.