This is a Joe Jackson post, but I’m not going to talk about that. No sir. That has been done to death. There are a thousand posts about that all over the Web, and I’m not going to add to them.
Instead, I want to look at the oft-told tale that Babe Ruth patterned his uppercut swing after Jackson’s, the implication being that Joe Jackson and his natural style were the seed of the offensive revolution of the 1920s.
I first heard the claim on Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary, sagely intoned by newsman John Chancellor. “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball,” by Harvey Frommer has the definitive Ruth quote: “I copied Shoeless Joe Jackson’s style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He’s the guy who made me a hitter.”
I don’t doubt that Ruth said this. But is it true?
Here’s what we know about Ruth: raised in a reformatory, he learned his baseball cloistered away under the tutelage of the monks at St. Mary’s Industrial School, where, by the Bambino’s own account, he would hit 60-70 home runs a year. When the (minor league) Baltimore Orioles manager Jack Dunn came to sign him, Ruth didn’t know who he was. I have a hard time believing Ruth saw any major-league baseball before pitching an exhibition against the A’s, and it’s doubtful he ever saw Joe Jackson play before facing him as a pitcher in 1914.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Jackson’s RBI in the seventh inning knocked Ruth out of the game, his first game ever in the majors. Is it any wonder Shoeless left an impression on him?
That said, it seems to me that Ruth’s swing was fully formed at that point and one good at-bat from Shoeless wasn’t going to change anything. Ruth didn’t hit any home runs that year, but he had 4 as a pitcher in 1915, or one less than Jackson did as a full-time outfielder. Because, of course, Shoeless was no great power threat.
Before 1920, he never hit more than 7 round-trippers, which was OK for the dead-ball era, but the American League leader was usually between 10 and 12, and Gavvy Cravath once hit 24 in the Baker Bowl. Jackson was a great all-round hitter, but let’s not pretend he had discovered a revolutionary power stroke.
And in 1920? With the live ball, before that final suspension, Jackson exploded for 12 homers as power numbers went up league-wide. Ruth, meanwhile, finally playing as a full-time outfielder in New York, had 54. Because the Bambino was on another level.
One thing I noticed looking at all this stuff was a change in Jackson’s defensive numbers. Playing in Cleveland, between 1911 and 1914, he averaged about 240 putouts and 30 assists a year. In Chicago, he never had less than 290 putouts in a full season and never more than 18 assists. In 1915, the year he moved, he went from 68 putouts in Cleveland to 84 with Chicago, in half as many games.
It seems obvious he played deeper in Chicago, catching more fly balls but not being close enough to the bags to throw out as many runners. Or maybe that reflected a change in the game. Maybe hitters all over the league were driving the ball more, even before the live-ball era, and the White Sox brain trust was ahead of the curve.
Anyway, that’s the sort of fun thing you come up with, digging into the numbers.
(Oh, and … he did it. He confessed. Make your peace with it.)
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