In this piece from 1921, PopSci subjects the Sultan of Swat to a battery of scientific tests hoping to discover the secret behind his superhuman swing.
As it turns out, our pre-war study might have been ahead of its time. For more on similar tests done with modern technology on Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, click here.
The game was over. Babe, who had made one of his famous drives that day, was tired and wanted to go home. “Not tonight, Babe,” I said. “Tonight you go to college with me. You’re going to take scientific tests which will reveal your secret.”
“Who wants to know it?” asked Babe.
“I want to know it,” I replied, “and so do several hundred thousand fans. We want to know why it is that one man has achieved a unique batting skill like yours — just why you can slam the ball as nobody else in the world can.”
So away we went. Babe in his baseball uniform, not home to his armchair, but out to Columbia University to take his first college examination.
Babe went at the test with the zeal of a schoolboy, and the tests revealed why his rise to fame followed suddenly after years of playing during which he was known as an erratic although a powerful hitter. How he abruptly gained his unparalleled skill has been one of baseball’s mysteries.
Albert Johanson, M.A., and Joseph Holmes, M.A., of the research laboratory of Columbia University’s psychological department, who, in all probability, never saw Ruth hit a baseball, and who neither know or care if his batting average is .007 or .450, are .500 hitters in the psychology game. They led Babe Ruth into the great laboratory of the university, figuratively took him apart, watched the wheels go round; analyzed his brain, his eye, his ear, his muscles; studied how these worked together; reassembled him, and announced the exact reasons for his supremacy as a batter and a ball-player.
Baseball employs scores of scouts to explore the country and discover baseball talent. These scouts are known as “Ivory hunters,” and if baseball-club owners take the hint from the Ruth experiments, they can organize a clinic, submit candidates to the comprehensive tests undergone by Ruth, and discover whether or not other Ruths exist. By these tests it would be possible for the club owners to discover — during the winter, perhaps — whether the ball-players are liable to be good, bad, or mediocre; and, to carry the [p. 20] practical results of the experiments to the limit, then may be able to eliminate the possibility, or probability, of some player “pulling a boner” in mid-season by discovering, before the season starts, how liable he is to do so.
The scientific ivory hunters of Columbia University discovered that the secret of Babe Ruth’s batting, reduced to non-scientific terms, is that his eyes and ears function more rapidly than those of other players; that his brain records sensations more quickly and transmits its orders to the muscles much faster than does that of the average man. The tests proved that the coordination of eye, brain, nerve system, and muscle is practically perfect, and that the reason he did not acquire his great batting power before the sudden burst at the beginning of the baseball season of 1920, was because, prior to that time, pitching and studying batters disturbed his almost perfect coordination.
**Ruth the Superman
**The tests revealed the fact that Ruth is 90 per cent efficient compared with a human average of 60 per cent.
That his eyes are about 12 per cent faster than those of the average human being.
That his ears function at least 10 per cent faster than those of the ordinary man. That his nerves are steadier than those of 499 out of 500 persons.
That in attention and quickness of perception he rated one and a half times above the human average.
That in intelligence, as demonstrated by the quickness and accuracy of understanding, he is approximately 10 per cent above normal.
It must not be forgotten that the night on which the tests were made was an extremely warm one, and that in the afternoon he had played a hard, exhausting game of baseball before a large crowd, in the course of which he had made one of those home-run hits which we at Columbia were so eager to understand and account for. Under such circumstances, one would think that some signs of nerve exhaustion would be revealed. The instigation lasted more than three hours, during which Ruth stood for most of the time, walked up and down stairs five times, and underwent the tests in a close warm room. At the end of that time I was tired and nervous, and, although Ruth showed no symptoms of weariness, it is probable that under more favorable conditions his showing would have been even better.
The tests used were ones that primarily test motor functions and give a measure of the integrity of the psychophysical organism. Babe Ruth was posed first in an apparatus created to determine the strength, quickness, and approximate power of the swing of his bat against his ball. A plane covered with electrically charges wires, strung horizontally, was placed behind him and a ball was hung over the theoretical plate, so that it could be suspended at any desired height.
I learned something then which, perhaps, will interest the American League pitchers more than it will the scientists. This was that the ball Ruth likes best to hit, and can hit hardest, is a low ball pitched just above his knees on the outside corner of the plate. The scientists did not consider this of extreme importance in their calculations, but the pitchers will probably find it of great scientific interest.
**Science Discovers the Secret
**The ball was adjusted at the right height, and, taking up a bat that was electrically wired, Ruth was told to get into position and to swing his bat exactly as if striking the ball for a home run, to make the end of it touch one of the transverse wires on the plate behind him, then swing it through its natural arc and hit the ball lightly. The bat, weighing fifty-four ounces (exactly the weight of the bats Ruth uses on the diamond), was swung as directed, touched the ball, and the secret of his power — or, rather, the amount of force with which the strikes the ball — was calculated. At least, the basis of the problem was secured: The bat, weighing fifty-four ounces, swinging at a rate of 110 feet a second, hits a ball travelling at the rate of, say, sixty feet a second, the ball weighing four and a quarter ounces, and striking the bat at a point four inches from the end. How far will it travel? There are other elements [p. 21] entering into the problem, such as the resilience of the ball, the “English” placed on it by the pitcher’s hand, and a few minor details. But the answer, as proved by the measurements, is somewhere between 450 and 500 feet. This problem cannot be worked down to exact figures because of the unknown quantities.
The experimenters, however, were not so much interested in the problem in physics as they were in the problems in psychology. The thing they wanted to know was what made Ruth superior to all other ball-players in hitting power, rather than to measure that power.
Babe Could Beat His own Record!
Before proceeding to the psychological tests, however, we tried another in physics to satisfy my curiosity. A harness composed of rubber tubing was strapped around Ruth’s chest and shoulders and attached by hollow tubes to a recording cylinder. By this means his breathing was recorded on a revolving disk. He was then placed in position to bat, an imaginary pitcher pitched an imaginary ball, and he went through the motions of hitting a home run. The test proved that, as a ball is pitched to him, Babe draws in his breath sharply as he makes the back-swing with his bat, and really “holds his breath” or suspends the operation of his breathing until after the ball is hit. But for that fact, he would hit the ball much harder and more effectively than he now does. It has been discovered that the act of drawing in the breath and holding it results in a sharp tension of the muscles and a consequent loss of striking power. If Ruth expelled his breath before striking the ball, the muscles would not become tense and his swing would have greater strength and rhythm.
The first test to discover the efficiency of his psychophysical organism was one designed to try his coordination; a simple little test. The scientists set up a triangular board, looking some thing like a ouija-board, with a small round hole at each angle. At the bottom of each hole was an electrified plate that registered every time it was touched. Ruth was presented with a little instrument that looked like a doll-sized curling iron, the end of which just fitted into the holes. Then he was told to take the instrument in his right hand and jab it into the holes successively, as often as he could in one minute, going around the board from left to right.
He grew interested at once. Here was something at which he could play. The professor “shushed” me, fearing that I would disturb Ruth or distract his attention as he started around the board, jabbing the curling-iron into the holes with great rapidity. He would put it into the holes twelve to sixteen times so perfectly that the instrument barely touched the sides. Then he would lose control and touch the sides, slowing down. Only twice did he pass the hole without getting the end of the iron into it. With his right hand he made a score of 122. Not unnaturally, his wrist was tired and Babe shook it and grinned ruefully.
Then he tried it with his left hand, scored 132 with it, proving himself a bit more left- than right-handed — at least in some activities. The significance of the experiment, however, lies in the fact that the average of hundreds of persons who have taken that test is 82 to the minute, which shows how much swifter in the coordination of hand, brain, and eye Ruth is than the average.
**Every Test but Another Triumph
**In a sequel to this test that followed, Babe tapped an electrified plate with an electrically charged stylus with the speed of a drum-roll, scoring 193 taps per minute with his right hand and 176 with his left hand. The average score for right-handed persons undergoing this wrist-wracking experiment is 180, and, while there is no data covering right-handed persons using the left hand, it is certain that Ruth’s record is much above the average, as he is highly efficient with the left hand.
But steadiness must accompany speed and so they tested the home-run king for his steadiness of nerve and muscle by having [p. 110] him thrust the useful little curling-iron stylus in different-sized holes pierced through an electrified plate which registered contacts between the stylus and the side of the hole. These measured respectively sixteen, eleven, nine, eight, and seven sixty-fourths of an inch; small enough, but not too small for Babe, for he made a score that showed him better than 499 persons out of 500.
The tests that interested me most were those to determine how quickly Ruth’s eye acts and how quickly its signals are flashed through the brain to the muscles. Showing an amazingly quick reaction time, they interpreted what happens on the ball-field when the stands rock under the cheering that greets another of Ruth’s smashes to the fence, proved an eye so quick that it sees the ball make an erratic curve and guides the bat to follow.
The scientists discovered exactly how quickly Ruth’s eye functions 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 the light in 180 one thousandths of a second. Babe Ruth needs only 160 one thousandths of a second. There is the same significance in the fact that Babe’s response to the stimulus of sound comes 140 one thousandths of a second as against the averages man’s 150 thousandths.
Human beings differ very slightly in these sight and sound tests, or rather the fractions are so small that they seem inexpressive; yet a difference of 20 or 10 one thousandths of a second indicates a superiority of the highest importance.
Translate the findings of the sight test into baseball if you want to see what they mean in Babe Ruth’s case. They mean that a pitcher must throw a ball 20 one thousandths of a second faster to “fool” Babe than to “fool” the average person.
If the results of these tests at Columbia are a revelation to us, who know Ruth as a fast thinking player, they must be infinitely more amazing to the person who only comes into contact with the big fellow off the diamond and finds him unresponsive and even slow when some non-professional topic in under discussion.
The scientific “ivory hunters” up at Columbia demonstrated that Babe Ruth would have been the “home-run king” 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 on some line entirely foreign to the national game. They did it, just as they proved his speed and his steadiness — by simple laboratory tests.
For instance, they had an apparatus with a sort of a camera shutter arrangement that opened, winked, and closed at any desired speed. Cards with letters of the alphabet on them were placed behind this shutter and exposed to view for one fifty-thousandth of a second. Ruth read them as they flashed into view, calling almost instantly the units of groups of three, four, five, and six letters. With eight shown he got the first six, and was uncertain of the others. The average person can see four and one half letters on the same test.
When cards marked with black dots were used, Ruth was even faster. He called up the number of dots on every card up to twelve without one mistake, The average person can see eight.
To test him for quickness of perception and understanding, he was given a card showing five different symbols — a star, a cross, and three other shapes — many times repeated, and was told to select a number — one, two, three, four, or five — for each symbol, then to mark the selected number under each one as rapidly as he could go over the card. He scored 103 hits on that test, which his the average of all who have tried it. But when given a card covered with printed matter and told to cross out all the a’s, he made a score of sixty, which is one and a half times the average.
The secret of Babe Ruth’s ability to hit is clearly revealed in these tests, His eye, his ear, his brain, his nerves all function more rapidly than do those of the average person. Further the coordination between eye, ear, brain, and muscle is much nearer perfection than that of the normal healthy man.
The scientific “ivory hunters” dissecting the “home-run king” discovered brain instead of bone, and showed how little mere luck, or even mere hitting strength, has to do with Ruth’s phenomenal record.