WHO was the greatest baseball player? Honus Wagner? Managers Branch Rickey and Ed Barrow both thought so. Ty Cobb? Burt Shotton and many, many others thought so.
Babe Ruth? Pitcher Waite Hoyt and all the Yankees who played with Ruth testify that he was so great and so feared that he intimidated other teams even before games were played.
The greatest player is a never-ending argument.
But there is no discussion as to who changed the entire game of baseball the most. Branch Rickey often said that Ruth changed the game on one word: power!
The single, the base on balls, the stolen base, taking the extra base, hitting for percentage, close defensive games, a dead ball that was allowed to remain in play no matter how soiled it got, no matter how much spit and other foreign substances were applied to it - all these were hallmarks of baseball until 1920. Wee Willie Keeler's dictum ''hit 'em where they ain't'' governed batting philosophy.
From 1900 through 1919 there were few home runs. Fourteen home run leaders in this period had fewer than 10 a season, 6 had exactly 10, and only three times did a batter hit 20 or more: Schulte with 21 in 1911, Gavvy Cravath with 24 in 1915 - and a pitcher/part-time wildfire outfielder named Babe Ruth with 29 in 1919.
Ruth came to the Boston Red Sox as a rookie pitcher in 1914. He was in 4 games and won 2, lost 1. The next year he won 18, lost 8, but belted 4 home runs. His manager, Ed Barrow, took notice of how far the home runs went, dead ball or not. Despite Ruth's winning 23 and 24 games the next two years, Barrow began playing Ruth increasingly in the outfield. In 1918 Ruth led the American League in home runs with 11. His pitching days were coming to an end.
In 1919, when Ruth powered an unheard-of 29 home runs, and those shots were blasts the likes of which no one had seen, the baseball world took note - especially Jake Ruppert, who owned the Yankees, and who had the money to buy Ruth from Harry Frazee of Boston. Frazee was deep into Broadway show business, deep in debt, and in Ruth he had the all-time best Broadway show but didn't know it.
The period 1919-20 was baseball's darkest hour. It came out in 1920 that the highly favored Chicago White Sox, in losing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, had eight players who were involved with gamblers for the purpose of throwing certain games. Baseball was desperate. It had to regain public confidence in the honesty of its competition, and it turned its affairs over to a tough federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As baseball's first commissioner, Landis banned the Chicago players for life, began ruling baseball with an iron hand, made gambling in baseball the cardinal sin, and quickly regained integrity for the game .
Babe Ruth? His first year as a Yankee - 1920 - Ruth hit the fantastic total of 54 home runs. He hit some out of sight. Ruth gave baseball a new excitement. He set in motion the biggest crowds in its history until then. People wanted to see Babe Ruth. He was colorful, dynamic, powerful. He was a fine all-around player. He did far more than just swing that big bat - and muscle it from the end with a ferocious all-out swing. He became a national idol. He became the highest-paid player and so raised the salaries of the other players - they loved him and they thanked him.
The owners, seeing the crowds that jammed the parks to see Ruth hit home runs , quickly made the ball livelier, banned foreign substances except rosin from being applied to the ball, and ordered fresh balls to be used frequently. The owners figured if the fans loved home runs, they would give them more home runs.
This changed all strategy. Batters no longer went for singles, no longer wanted high percentages. All the hitters started swinging from the end of the bat. Ruth's natural power was responsible for making baseball what it has been ever since - a power game. Some managers, notably Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles, almost completely discarded the sacrifice. Why give up a precious out when all you needed was a blast into the stands with a couple of runners on base?
After Ruth changed the batting philosophy, and even the bats themselves, this made the pitching philosophy change. No longer could a pitcher work along with a dead, dirty ball and bear down only when he got in a jam. The pitcher now had to worry about every batter and every pitch. The pitchers soon learned that their first objective was to ''keep the ball in the park.'' Bear down on every pitch, go as far as you could, and then the bullpen would take over. The current use of relief specialists stems strictly from the change brought about by Ruth.
Ruth changed the dimensions of ballparks as the owners brought in fences, lowered fences, or moved home plate out toward the fences, all in an effort to get more home runs. The White Sox did this last year, and the Reds this year. It's like the Civil War in the Deep South - it ain't over yet.
Ruth caused Yankee Stadium to be built, and made it possible to more than pay for it. When Ruth came to the Yankees in 1920 the Yankees were tenants of the Giants, managed by John McGraw, at the Polo Grounds. McGraw and the Giants were the big people. The Yankees had never come close to a pennant. Ruth hit 59 home runs in 1921, and New York went crazy over Ruth and the Yankees right in McGraw's own ballpark.
McGraw ordered the Yankees out - he thought they couldn't find a place to play closer than somewhere out in Long Island. Ruppert and Barrow found a place right across the Harlem River. Yankee Stadium was built in a year, it opened in 1923, and Ruth hit a home run that beat the Red Sox on Opening Day. Ruth then led the Yankees to the first of their flags. Ruth founded the Yankee dynasty, and his hand today is on every aspect and facet of baseball.
Henry Aaron broke Ruth's total of 714 home runs. Aaron wound up with 755. But Aaron wasn't Ruth, didn't draw the crowds as did Ruth or Jackie Robinson for that matter, didn't create a dynasty that threw off World Champions after World Champions - and baseball hasn't changed since Aaron hit his first or his 755th home run.
I wonder what baseball would be like today if Babe Ruth hadn't come along.