"Greatest drawing card in history of baseball. Holder of many home run and other batting records. Gathered 714 home runs in addition to fifteen in World Series." -- Babe Ruth's plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame
For a week in late April and early May 1969, Babe Ruth actually had 715 home runs. It was a sports scandal. This is the remarkable thing about Ruth's magic number of 714. Even the most minor adjustment will cause a scandal.
In the mid-1960s, as the possibilities of computing power became more vibrant, a man named David Neft came up with the idea of creating the first database of baseball statistics. It was a glorious idea, one that Major League Baseball immediately celebrated and looked to connect to the upcoming baseball centennial.
It also was a ridiculous, daunting, virtually impossible task. There is no way now to fully appreciate just what a mess baseball statistics -- particularly old-time baseball statistics -- were. We love now to glance at the records on Retrosheet or Baseball Reference or FanGraphs and think of baseball stats as this timeless and continuous thing. Look, King Kelly hit .388 in 1886, just like Rod Carew did in 1977! The game is eternal!
Yeah, except nobody knew what King Kelly hit because the game was entirely different. Six balls constituted a walk (and in 1887, for one season, walks were counted as hits). Bats could have a flat side on them. If a hitter was hit by a pitch, he stayed at the plate. Batters were actually allowed by the rules to request pitches to be thrown high or low.
So Neft and his merry band not only had to chase down precise day-by-day accounts for every player out of the statistical morass that had been passed down, they also had to determine how to count various statistics when the rules were different. For instance, during the dead-ball period, there were at least 11 methods for calculating the pitcher win. Eleven. What do you do with that?
It should be added that Neft and his company, Information Concepts Inc., were working with early computers that used punch cards; this wasn't like typing all of the numbers into Google Sheets. This was a Herculean effort, and in late 1969 they released a Herculean book, a 2,338-page, 6 1/2-pound marvel that they called, simply, "The Baseball Encyclopedia."
"Large for a book," one reviewer wrote. "Small for an amusement park."
The Baseball Encyclopedia changed baseball forever in many ways. For one thing, simply listing of the names and numbers of every player ever opened up the nostalgia floodgates across America.
"Go to the pages with the Rs on them," Jimmy Breslin wrote in his glowing review. "Pete Reiser. Now I am on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, running down the hill to Ebbets Field. Right on the corner, there is a gate in the right-field fence. There is a space between the bottom of the gate and the sidewalk. I stop running and I flop onto the sidewalk and look under the gate and here, only a few feet away, is the grass of deep center field. One of the pairs of legs moving around the grass in the pregame practice belongs to Pete Reiser, Pistol Pete!"
For another, The Baseball Encyclopedia had the ultimate answer to every baseball question imaginable. According to Alan Schwarz's superb "The Numbers Game," The MacMillan Company, which published the book, originally intended to market a lock and chain to latch the book to bar tops across America -- so the Encyclopedia would be the last stop for every baseball bar argument.
More than that, it was a little bit of heaven for those baseball people who had much deeper questions, baseball people who wanted to dive deep into the numbers to understand the game's greatest mysteries. A young Kansan named Bill James, right out of college and the army, spent hours and hours going through the pages and looking up every pitcher in baseball history who had won 20 games and also hit .300.
"Player by player, yeah," he said.
"That takes a while," I suggested.
"It takes a while," he agreed.
But that was later. First, Neft and his researchers had to figure out how to create such a book, and that meant they had to figure out what to do with all of the mistakes and inconsistencies in the statistical record. Consider, for instance, the saga of Cap Anson. He's most often brought up now for his role in segregating the game, but he was a singular star of 19th-century baseball. More to the point, Anson was the first player to reach 3,000 hits in a career. He didn't just barely get to 3,000 either. He was generally credited with almost 3,500 hits in his career.
But the Baseball Encyclopedia people actually counted. First, they found that 423 of Anson's hits were before 1876, before the National League had been founded. Those couldn't count for a Major League Baseball record book. That dropped him to 3,055 hits, which was a lot fewer but still good enough to keep him in the 3,000-hit club.
Except for this … remember above how I mentioned that in 1887, walks were recorded as hits? Well, Anson walked 60 times that year. Those were 60 "hits" that weren't hits at all, not by The Baseball Encyclopedia standards.
That reduction dropped Anson to 2,995 hits, knocking him out of the club everyone thought he had founded.
There were a lot of statistical renovations like that. Christy Mathewson, who was considered the NL's all-time leader in wins with 373 (tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander), suddenly lost six of those wins. Walter Johnson got dinged a couple of wins. Ty Cobb was given a 4,192nd hit. Honus Wagner lost 15 hits.
None of these things sparked much more than curiosity, though. There were those who thought the record books should be left alone and others who were thrilled that the mistakes of the past were being fixed. But it was hardly a national outrage.
Then they tried to give Babe Ruth one more home run.
In 1969, there was no number in American sports more cherished than Ruth's 714. Every red-blooded American baseball fan knew it by heart. In that year, the number seemed as unreachable as Mars. Willie Mays hit his 600th home run in '69, but he was 38 and clearly fading -- he only managed 13 homers the entire season. It seemed pretty clear that he wasn't going to get to Ruth.
And Henry Aaron? Well, Hammerin' Hank was only 35 and by season's end he had 554 homers, but he made it absolutely clear he had no interest whatsoever in going after any homer record.
"It gets a little bit harder every year," he told reporters. "I'd like to get to 3,000 hits, and then I might retire."
No, Ruth was alone at the top, exactly where baseball fans wanted him. This is where baseball fans still want him. He has become more folk hero than ballplayer, and while the greatest ever in other sports tends to be a moving target, Ruth has maintained his place at the top of baseball for more than 75 years.
Seven hundred and fourteen was the number that symbolized the legend.
But Ruth actually hit 715 home runs. Of this there is no dispute (well, there's a small dispute, which we will get into).
On July 8, 1918, when Ruth was still with the Red Sox, he came to the plate in the 10th inning of a scoreless tie against Cleveland. He faced future Hall of Fame pitcher Stan Coveleski. Ruth's teammate, Amos Strunk, was on first base. Ruth crushed the ball over the right-field wall to win the game. This is now called a walk-off home run.
Ah, but in 1918 … it was ruled a triple, and the final score of the game was 1-0. The thinking then was the game ended the instant Strunk touched home plate. As umpire Hank O'Day said, "There is no way you can score a run after a game is over." This was before anyone knew that counting home runs hit in a season and in a career would become a thing. In 1918, being credited with a triple was just as good as being credited with a home run, maybe even better.
(Side note: If Strunk had been at third when Ruth homered, it would have been ruled a single. The rule was changed in 1920.)
In any case, The Baseball Encyclopedia folks found 37 of these home runs that were not counted as home runs. They thought it would make sense to fix those. Major League Baseball had put together a special records committee to go over such things, and the committee agreed unanimously that, yes, this was an error worth fixing.
Babe Ruth had 715 home runs!
Baseball fans went absolutely bananas.
See, it was one thing to knock Anson out of the 3,000-hit club; nobody much liked him anyway. But you didn't go messing with Ruth. The newspaper columnists screamed murder -- literally in some cases. Dick Young compared giving Ruth a home run to digging up executed murderer Ruth Snyder because capital punishment had been abolished in New York State. Robert Lipsyte called the number-changers "Revisionist Police," and argued that revising the statistics is only "a phase in the historical revisionism of baseball. One day, all the plaques, busts and memorabilia of, say, Cobb, will disappear. Cooperstown, replying to queries, will say, 'Georgia Peach, you say? You have a wrong number, this is the Baseball Hall of Fame.'"
If these arguments seem a bit over the top, well, nobody was more outraged than a man named Joe Reichler, who worked in the Commissioner's Office. Reichler was part of that five-man special records committee, but he had missed the Ruth vote because he was in Japan on business. When he got back, he was a hornets' nest of fury.
"The mission of the computer people, as authorized by baseball's special records committee, was to research all data, correct obvious errors, uncover missing material and clear up gray areas," he griped. "It should not be the function of the committee to tamper with rules which cover baseball records at the time."
Reichler demanded a revote … and he undoubtedly twisted at least a couple of arms because suddenly the NL's Dave Grote and Baseball Writers' Association of America secretary Jack Lang changed their tunes and their votes. That made it 3-2 against adding the home run.
And, like that, after just one week of glory, Ruth was back to 714 home runs.
"Records that were made under the rules of the time should stand," Lang said without explaining why, if he believed that, he voted to change Ruth's homer total in the first place. Grote was more expressive in his explanation.
"A woman has the prerogative of changing her mind, and so do I," he said.
There were and are two compelling arguments against changing Ruth's home-run total. One is that once you start trying to clean up outdated rules, where do you stop?
I mentioned that 714 homers is somewhat in dispute, and this is because before 1930, balls that bounced over the fence were ruled to be home runs. Nobody seems to know how many of these ground-rule homers Ruth hit; best I can tell, nobody has actually found any. But that's out there. It's also true that there used to be a rule that a home run had to land in fair ground. It's also true that balls that hit the foul pole were for a long time recorded as doubles (in "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs," author Bill Jenkinson wrote that Ruth hit 12 apparent foul home runs in 1921 alone).
There is a difference, though, between those home runs and No. 715. You certainly can't go back in time and turn those foul balls into homers because they were not home runs during the game. The games went on, Ruth stayed at the plate, no runs were put on the scoreboard. But in the case of the game-ending home run, it's a simple counting decision on a scorekeeping rule that was changed shortly after Ruth hit it. I don't think that's the same thing at all.
The second argument is that sports records are more than just numbers. They are living pieces of history. This is the argument that has won the day. As the years have gone on, Mathewson was given back his wins -- he's back up to an NL-record 373. Anson is back in the 3,000-hit club. Cobb lost his 4,192nd hit (and two more that were double counted).
And Ruth has 714 home runs. Maybe he hit one more than that. But everybody just seemed happier with 714.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.