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  No Stepping on Ruth's Feats

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, September 26, 1997; Page D05

So it came down to Ken Griffey needing six home runs to tie the late Roger Maris's famous 61, and three games left to bring it off. Rest in peace, Mr. Maris. Griffey isn't going to do it. The odds, and history, are high-stacked against both him and Mark McGwire, who also needs six home runs with three games remaining. Nice try, but no fame.

In the 70 years since Babe Ruth whacked that 60th homer to put a new number in the books, the last few home runs have been hard to come by for the brawny challengers who had the record in their sights.

For all but one man the late September games have been a frustrating, ugly tease. The only achiever was Maris, who crowned himself the new home run king with his photo-finish heroics in the last game in 1961.

For reference, recall Hank Greenberg in his bid to tie Ruth's mark in 1938, six years after Jimmie Foxx fell two short with his 58 total. Now, Greenberg also had 58 homers, and five games left to become co-champ with the Babe. And you know what, not a single homer flew off his bat in those five games, what with the pressure building.

There were reports of anti-semitism being a factor in Greenberg's failure to get some hitable pitches, but Hank denied this. He had a big 12-homer September, second only to Ruth's 17 in 1927.

The lords of baseball don't like to hear it, but there is plenty of evidence that the home run has been cheapened in recent years, thanks to several factors. The profusion of opposite-field homers says the ball has been juiced up, but some of the parks have been inviting.

The new parks in Cleveland and Baltimore, cute and homey, are nevertheless more homer-pregnant than the old ones. And in St. Louis they pulled in the fences five years ago. Yankee Stadium's dimensions have been downsized three times since 1976 and the new Comiskey Park is a comparative homer haven. It is no coincidence that the record for team homers set by the Orioles has been shattered by Seattle this season.

Seymour Siwoff, boss of the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician for both major league baseball and the National Football League, offers the fact that, for the past four years, two home runs per game has been the average. This is a contrast with a 1.4 average as late as 1992.

Don't blame it all on the parks and the pitching. Point a finger at the bigger, beefier swingers who dote on the new Nautilus equipment in the locker rooms to acquire all that poundage for the puissant pokes that send the ball out of the lot. They know that down on the end of the bat -- the Cadillac end -- is where the money is. You can look it up.

There is one big trouble with all this fuss about going after Maris's record. It obscures the overwhelming heroics and fame of the greatest home run hitter who ever lived -- Babe Ruth, whose numbers make comparative pygmies of all the others.

When Ruth hit those 60 in 1927, whose record did he break? His own (59). When asked how it felt to be the new champion, he said, "There ain't no new champion. I'm the same champion." The guys going for a new record in a year when the league average is two homers per game are riding a crest. The league average when Ruth got his 60 was seven-tenths of one homer per game.

Lou Gehrig, who hit 47 homers the year Ruth hit 60, was doomed as a challenger because of the nature of his clout. Unlike the Babe, who was a fly-ball hitter, Gehrig was a line drive specialist. He rattled the fences, but his swat lacked Ruth's trajectory. It was strictly Ruth and Gehrig who put on the home run show. The third man, Tony Lazzeri, hit only 18 homers the year Babe broke his own mark.

It is not to be forgotten how the Babe towered over everybody. In 12 different years, he led the league in home runs, hitting 54 (twice) and 59 before he got 60. Among the most notable of his seasons was 1918 when he tied for the league lead by hitting 11 homers. Of course he was a pitcher for the Red Sox that season.

It also is misleading to regard Hank Aaron, who broke Ruth's total home run record, as in a class with the Babe. Fact is, Aaron had 3,000-plus more at-bats than the Babe before he could surpass Ruth. That's the equivalent of almost six seasons more playing time.

How far did Babe hit the ball? The question came up in later years when the muscular Greenberg and Foxx came on the scene and powered the ball out of all the parks. Years ago, I put the question to Walter Johnson: "Who hit the ball the farthest?" Johnson's reply was, "All I know is that those balls Ruth hit got smaller quicker than anybody else's." 'Nuff said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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