My father and the Jewish Babe Ruth

My father, once a skinny Jewish kid growing up in Peekskill, NY, was a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan. That’s because when he was a boy the Tigers had a big, slugging first baseman named Hank Greenberg. Greenberg was a large, powerful Jew who hit home runs like Babe Ruth, one season almost breaking Ruth’s record. Jews reportedly went into shock when the 6’3″ athlete ducked into Yom Kippur services in Detroit — nobody had ever seen a Jew that big. I was surprised to see, after my father died, that his 1941 Peekskill High School yearbook, under a picture of my father’s thin, bespectacled face, had printed his name as Irving “Hank” Widem. I always knew he’d idolized Greenberg, I never knew he’d gone by that name in High School.

Babe Ruth was by far the greatest Major League baseball player ever. As a pitcher he was among the best to ever play the game, though he is famous for his batting. Before switching to full-time right fielder and setter of mind boggling home run records (he famously hit more home runs by himself, a couple of seasons, than other full teams hit), he also set pitching records that stood for decades.

As a home run hitter, there was really nobody to compare to him. If he’d been up as many times as Hank Aaron, who decades later broke Ruth’s career home run record in four thousand more at bats than Ruth had, he’d have hit hundreds more home runs. The current record holder, asterisk Barry Bonds, batted 1,448 more times (about three seasons for the Babe) and hit 48 more home runs. Plus, Babe Ruth hit .342 for his career (tied for sixth highest lifetime batting average among modern players).

When my father was fourteen, a decade after Ruth set the 60 home runs in a season record that would last 34 years, Hank Greenberg hit 58 in a season. I suspect anti-semitism probably played a role in Greenberg getting nothing to hit the last few weeks of that season, when he could have hit home runs 59 and 60, but, if so, that is not something that should be taught in American classrooms (as it would only serve to undermine American Exceptionalism and make beleaguered white Christian patriots feel bad…).

Maybe the most impressive number Babe Ruth left behind was his lifetime slugging percentage of .690. Slugging percentage measures how well a player hits for power, how many extra base hits (doubles, triples and home runs) he gets. Ruth averaged that gaudy number, over his long career. For comparison, superstars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, two great Hall of Fame sluggers, 20 and 21 on the all-time list, had career slugging percentages of .5575 and .5568.

When a current player is red hot, hitting home runs in bunches, his slugging percentage may soar to approach Ruth’s lifetime average for a short time, but by the end of the season it will almost always be below .600. Many modern-day sluggers in the Hall of Fame never approached Ruth’s .690 average slugging percentage in even a single season.

Here is the top of the all-time slugging percentage list. Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles and Oscar Charleston, belated (posthumous) Hall of Famers, superstars of the Negro Leagues and victims of the racial segregation of baseball until after their careers were over, have recently been added to the list, as I learned last night after a few minutes of computer querying [1]. Check out where Hank Greenberg winds up on the very short list of baseball power hitters who have slugged at least .600 for their careers. And what company he is in!

To put that in perspective, five “white” major league Hall of Famers, Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg have had lifetime slugging percentages of .600 or more. (Eight, if you include the other three Hall of Famers, which you should, it’s an American sin that they were forbidden play with the other greatest players of their time by a hallowed racist tradition, see FN 1; nine if you include Barry Bonds, who is creeping toward induction into the Hall of Fame after an amazing career).

* Barry Bonds, is the sixth major league player to slug over .600 for his major league career, and he had some out of the world slugging percentages in his older years .863 when he was 36 (higher than Ruth’s best one season slugging percentage), .799 when he was 37, .749 at 38 and .812 at 39, after he went on his special, controversial asterisk fitness regime. Without those final few superhuman seasons, including the 73 home run season, at an age when most baseball players are slowing down, he would havie been under .600 for his career. For those who like eye-popping stats, here are the remarkable numbers Bonds put up for his career.

[1]

Suttles, Stearnes and Charleston were three superstars of the Negro Leagues, from the openly racist decades before Major League Baseball became racially integrated. All three are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted decades after each of their deaths, posthumously honored among baseball’s immortals, as they say.

Mule Suttles was a power-hitting first baseman in the Negro Leagues from 1923-1944.

Turkey Stearnes was a five-tool centerfielder who played in the Negro Leagues from 1923-40.

Oscar Charleston, another slugging centerfielder from the Negro Leagues played from 1915-1941.

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