This baseball season commemorates the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s sale from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, a transaction which saddled the Sox with the quixotic “Curse of the Bambino.”
While the legend of the Babe and Yankees grew exponentially with every World Series championship and each of his 714 home runs, the Red Sox suffered through an 86-year championship drought that didn’t end until 2004.
Of course, that was then, this is now, and the Red Sox are again the defending World Series champion.
When we think about the now, Major League Baseball in 2019, you sometimes wonder how Babe Ruth’s personality and skill set would translate to the modern era. Would his power and temperament be as prodigious?
The Babe’s granddaughter, Linda Tosetti, the daughter of his only biological child, lives in Connecticut and has devoted her adult life to the caretaking of his legacy. And she thinks there’s no doubt he’d be just as successful.
“No doubt in my mind,” Tosetti told Tiebreaker.com.
There are those who believe Ruth’s transition would be seamless, that his baseline ability, adjusted to present time, would have resulted in power numbers just as staggering. And that performance would make him the game’s most beloved and top-paid star.
Others aren’t so sure, pointing to his incendiary lifestyle and general disdain for authoritarians, like managers and owners. His conflicts with Yankees manager Miller Huggins were often off-the-charts.
Just last month, reliever Adam Ottavino, freshly signed by the Yankees as a free agent, was asked about comments he’d made earlier in his career that given the chance he’d strike out Ruth with regularity. He said he was just joshing.
“I don’t think he was kidding, but when he came back [to New York], he said he was,” Tosetti said. “You know what, the Babe would have tested the kid and the pitcher would have lost. He [Ruth] would have said, ‘Ok, let’s take this to the plate and see what you got.’ That’s exactly what he would have done.
“You know, when I started doing research about my grandfather’s life, I wanted to know what he was thinking when he hit those home runs. I wanted to know the personal side from those who knew him. I know my grandfather would have said, ‘Oh, so you think you can [strike him out]. And she would have tested him. Definitely, in a dead second.”
Ottavino’s comments were the not the first from a pitcher Tosetti had heard doubting Ruth’s skill.
“You know, people have a tendency to forget that Pedro Martinez [the great Red Sox righthander] once said he’d drill my grandfather in the ass,” said Tosetti. “And there was no one to hold him accountable for that.”
Ruth was considered an above-average outfielder — he played right and left — with good speed and baserunning ability. He stole 123 bases in 22 seasons. But had he stayed in the American League all of his career, the time would eventually come when some managers felt he’d be better off as the designated hitter.
“The Babe didn’t care for the concept of the DH. There were some discussions about bringing the DH to the game while he was still alive and he was quite clear that he didn’t care for it,” Tosetti said. “He really didn’t give a reason, he just said he didn’t believe it belonged in the game.
“He played the freaking game. You go in and stay in until someone takes you out. Look at these roles they have now for pitchers; he’s a closer, he’s this or that. The Babe would have said, ‘Oh, for Pete’s sake already.’ But I mean, if he was playing today, I guess he’d have to go along with it.”
Ruth hit lefties and righties equally well and with his extraordinary power its unlikely he would have been platooned. For that reason, Tosetti believes his power numbers would even be greater than they were when he played.
“He wouldn’t have just hit 714 homers. You would be looking at 1,000,” Tosetti said. “And he’d probably still be using that bat he was swinging, the 54-ounce thing. Why wouldn’t he be able to use that now? There are no limits on what [a hitter can use].”
Tosetti said she was in Tampa one time at a clinic where she met someone billed as an expert in hitting home runs.
“He took each hitter and critiqued them and then he started on the Babe,” Tosetti said. “He was saying, ‘Well, when you hit a baseball, you need to step into it. Babe put his weight on the back foot, which was completely opposite from what everyone else was doing [at the time]. The guy said everything my grandfather did was wrong.
“I’m listening and I didn’t say anything in front of anyone, but then I caught him alone. I said, You really think he was wrong? The guy said yes I do. I said, well, before my grandfather came along, were there any home runs hit in the game? He said, oh no. So I said, would it be fair to say he developed the blueprint for home run hitting? And he said, I guess you could. I told him, and you think he was doing it wrong?”
What would Ruth have said about the science of hitting?
“Ah, the heck with all this science,” Tosetti said. “You get a better angle this way, you do this, you do that. Babe didn’t care about science. He just hit the ball.”
And because he hit so well – his career batting average was .342 – Tosetti doesn’t think Ruth would spend a lot of time working with hitting coaches on batting cages.
“Would he have had the patience to watch hitting videos? No,” she said. “He’d probably just say, ‘yah, yah, yah’ and go up to the plate and do what he usually did. You can’t change the stripes on a tiger. He knew what he had to do to get where he had to go.
“Plus, I think he was an intuitive hitter. He knew what he was going to do before he got there. Imagine having a ball and bat in your hands since you were six and doing it [playing] every day, and then growing up into a career, playing all year, even in the winter when they barnstormed. Don’t you think the bat would be like another appendage? Don’t you think he could have done anything he wanted with that?”
What’s certain is, considering his bigger-than-life personality, Ruth would have been an even bigger hit with the media than he was in 1920s when the press idolized him.
Of course, he’d also be hounded by social media urchins and the National Enquirers and TMZs of the world. His partying and womanizing, two things he never denied or apologized for during his career, would have made him a prime target for sensationalists.
“Even with these reporters now, as bad as some of them are now, the Babe would always be The Babe and he’d still have friends [in the media], “Tosetti said. “All the scrutiny would have been tougher for him, but he had this way about him. He was so generous with people. Would the reporters print what he did? I don’t know. I guess it depends how he came off on them.”
In the 1920s, baseball writers traveled with teams and there regularly would have been 10 to 12 beat writers with the Yankees at all times. Ruth regularly drank and play cards with the writers, forming relationships and friendships that certainly impacted what was written about him.
One of the most famous stories, perhaps exaggerated by time, had the Babe sprinting naked through a train car pursued by a woman with a knife.
“The reporters say to each other, it’s a good thing we didn’t see what we just saw,” Tosetti said.
One day Tosetti was at an event with former Yankees great Alex Rodriguez, who at the time was rumored to be dating Madonna.
“I said to Alex, ‘you’ve been a bad boy,” Tosetti said. “He looked at me and said, nah, they [the media] are making it up. I laughed. He said, it must have been easier for your grandfather.
“You know, most of the reporters that kept things quiet were pals of his. He was an awfully charming guy. He was buying them drinks, treating them nice. But not for the reason you might think [to influence]. That was just his way. He was nice. I don’t think the Babe would change, it would just be a question of whether they would rip him apart. I like to think it’s a glass half full. He would have had his friends, although I guess he would have had to toe the mark a little better than he did then.”
Tosetti also knows her grandfather would have been the richest man in baseball, signed to a contract in his 20s that would have likely been for 10 years and nearly $400 million. And he would have amply supplemented his salary with multiple more millions in product endorsements.
And she knows he’d be worth every penny, just like he was when he lived.
“He always said, the greatest game in the world deserves the best you can give it,” Tosetti said.