In research lab, Ruth was in a league by himself, too

John Steadman

April 20, 1992|By John Steadman

Through all the in-depth research, including seven biographies, five television specials, four movies, and probably more words written and spoken about him than any other American athlete, Babe Ruth remains, in death as in life, an intriguing figure of monumental proportions. Fortunately, there are continuing revelations, a nugget of information mined from the past that was overlooked, forgotten or discarded.

So it is that today a copy of Popular Science Monthly, dated October 1921, is examined to offer still a different focus on Ruth. In general terms, the article has been virtually bypassed by historians, authors and scriptwriters. We're indebted to C. R. Hook, a Salisbury radio announcer, for providing a printout of what is an extraordinary story.

Odd that a publication dealing exclusively with scientific data would want to measure the capabilities of a baseball player. Again, it was the appeal of Ruth. And also it underlines why Life magazine, via a select jury of educators, last year voted him one of "the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century."

Ruth was agreeable for all kinds of causes, a celebrity the public could touch, which is why he went to Columbia University and submitted to tests endeavoring to determine why he was endowed with more natural ability than any man in the history of baseball.

He was accompanied on the visit by one of the most respected sportswriters of the time, Hugh Fullerton, the same reporter who broke the story that the 1919 World Series had been fixed by gamblers in cooperation with cheating members of the Chicago White Sox.

Fullerton took Ruth to Columbia's research psychological laboratory for a three-hour examination by Albert Johnson, M.A., and Joseph Holmes, M.A., immediately after playing an afternoon game under a scorching sun and still wearing his New York Yankees uniform. Ruth went through the procedures, when a swing was required, with his customary 54-ounce bat -- 20 ounces heavier than the majority of bats used by contemporary players.

All types of machines, then considered complex but primitive by today's standards, were used to evaluate Ruth. The following results were forthcoming:

* He was 90 percent efficient compared to a human average of 60 percent.

* His eyes were 12 percent faster than the average.

* His ears allowed him to hear 10 percent more rapidly than the average.

* In attention and perception, he rated 1 1/2 times above average.

* His native intelligence, as demonstrated by quickness and accuracy of understanding, was approximately 10 percent above average.

The Popular Science story goes on to point out, "The scientists discovered exactly how quickly Ruth's eyes functioned by placing him in a dark cabinet, setting into operation a series of rapidly flashing bulbs and listening to the tick of an electric key by which he acknowledged the flashes. The average man responds to the stimulus of light in 180 one-thousandths of a second. Ruth needs only 160 one-thousandths of a second."

An apparatus similar to a camera shutter exposed letters of the alphabet at intervals of one 50-thousandths of a second. The average person could see 4 1/2 ; Ruth recognized six. In cards carrying a series of black dots, he called the number of marks up to 12 without a mistake. The average person could see only eight.

A strange aspect of the study, measured via a pneumatic tube strapped to his chest, showed the Babe "held his breath" as he went into his backswing and didn't exhale until after the swing -- which the Columbia doctors said was a negative in that it encouraged muscle tension and, consequently, a loss of striking power when bat met ball.

The professors, as part of their conclusions, insisted Ruth would have excelled in "almost any line of activity he chose to follow; that his brain would have won equal success for him had he drilled it for as long a time in some line entirely foreign to the national game."

Some amazing statistical records support Ruth's baseball achievements. He hit a home run every 8.5 trips to the plate; holds an unchallenged slugging average of .847 in 1920; and by slugging 54 home runs in 1920 and 60 in 1927 he hit more than every other team in the American League collectively produced.

Of significance, too, is he never struck out 100 times in any of 22 major-league seasons, despite being a free swinger and occasionally staying up late at night. He was, indeed, a one-of-a-kind individual, which Popular Science and Columbia University confirmed after the Babe submitted to this divergent series of physical and psychological tests.

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