Sizing Up

Baseball And The Men Who Play It

April 01, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | By Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Babe Ruth still stands as one of the legendary giants of baseball, but if he were alive today, he would stand taller than only 48 percent of the players who were on major-league 40-man rosters at the start of spring training.

The Bambino was listed at 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds before his weight became a major problem during the second half of his career. He is remembered as a much larger man because most newsreel footage of him was taken during his last few seasons -- and because he was always much bigger than the average player of his time.

But if the young, strapping Ruth were magically transported into the 21st century, he would not stand out in the team picture of any major-league club. His wonderful baseball skills aside, he would be -- in terms of vital statistics -- a very average guy.

Though accurate height and weight figures from the first quarter of the 20th century are sketchy, most players stood between 5-8 and 5-11 and weighed between 150 and 180 pounds. Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, considered one of baseball's "little" shortstops, would be near the top end of that range, which illustrates how much the baseball athlete has evolved in a relatively short span of history.

The 1927 "Murderers' Row" New York Yankees were one of the most dominating, intimidating teams in history, yet the average height and weight of a member of that storied group, even with such big bruisers as Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bob Meusel at the heart of the lineup, was just 5-11 and 176 pounds.

The 1975 world champion Cincinnati Reds -- immortalized as "The Big Red Machine" -- illustrated what a difference a half-century can make. The players on that Reds club averaged 6-1 and 188 pounds.

The 2001 three-time defending world champion Yankees are not really known as one of the most physically imposing teams on the planet, but they weigh in with an average height and weight of 6-2 and 204 pounds.

What does all this prove?

Nothing that isn't already apparent to anyone who has been watching sports for any length of time. Professional athletes always have been bigger than life. But anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that baseball players are much bigger in relation to the general population than they have ever been -- and the gap continues to trend upward.

"Bigger, stronger, faster ... I think all athletes are," said longtime Orioles star Cal Ripken, who at 6-4 and 220 remains the biggest man ever to be a full-time major-league shortstop. "I think you can make the same assumption in baseball as the other sports, though it's not as noticeable as in sports like basketball and football, where height and weight are emphasized."

Ripken has no doubt that the players of the early 1900s were much smaller than today. He realized that the first time he had to duck to get into the dugout at the since-replaced Tiger Stadium, which was opened in 1912. There was barely 6 feet of clearance in the tunnel that led from the visitors' clubhouse to the dugout -- something most 6-foot-plus players found out the hard way.

"My dad used to say that only a couple of players would hit their heads," Ripken said, "but it got to the point where almost everybody did. You could also tell by the height of the showerheads at the old parks like Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park."

Demographic information about the average height and weight of American males during baseball's golden age is not available. Precise national statistical information about height and weight dates only to about 1960 and shows a relatively modest increase in the average height of adult men during the past 40 years.

So how do you explain why the 20 pitchers on the St. Louis Cardinals' 40-man roster a year ago averaged 6-4 when the average American male is barely 5-11? Or why only 15 of the 280 pitchers on American League rosters at the start of spring training were under 6 feet?

Raising questions

Surely, there has to be some Darwinian justification for all this ... some kind of theory of baseball evolution to explain the accelerated upsurge in the size of players.

"I haven't done a scientific study on it," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, "but I think people in general are taller somewhat, and baseball players are somewhat taller than people in general."

Bordick, at 5-11 and 175 pounds, is small compared with the new generation of shortstops, but he would be roughly equal in stature to home run kings Willie Mays (5-11, 180) and Hank Aaron (6-0, 180) if you could turn back the clock and drop him into a 1950s lineup.

"It does seem like there are a lot of big guys in the league," Bordick said, "and there are more guys 6-2, 6-3 who are able to play specialized positions."

It isn't necessary to go all the way back to the 1950s or beyond to see that it isn't just baseball salaries that have gotten drastically larger.

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