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The Land of Lost Homers: The old Yankee Stadium hampered power more than its reputation

Of the greatest Yankees, who among them watched the most would-be homers die in the original Yankee Stadium’s so-called “graveyard.”

Babe Ruth Practicing

Yankee Stadium, as currently constructed, is well known for its home run-inducing effects, especially for hitters capable of driving the ball beyond the shorter-than-most right-field fence. In 2019, Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner, and DJ LeMahieu accounted for three of the top six batters in the greatest differential between homers and expected homers according to Statcast’s projection systems. They gained nine homers apiece for a total of 27 more bombs than they would have had if they’d played at a league-average ballpark.

However, Yankee Stadium, in its original form, was far less hitter-friendly than the name, “The House that Ruth Built,” might suggest. The moniker, it seems, had more to do with Ruth’s superstar personage capable of filling seats with posteriors than the ballpark’s performance-enhancing effects on Ruth’s production.

When the original Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923, the dimensions were as extreme as one could imagine. They measured a mere 280 and 294 down the left and right-field foul lines, respectively, but according to Baseball Almanac, shot out into a 500-foot deep-left field, 487 feet to center, and 429 feet to the wall in deep-right field. The extremes were somewhat lightened in the subsequent years and Clem’s Baseball has these measurements as a few feet shallower, but not so much as to make a substantive difference for any ball batted by a mere mortal. By comparison to the Yankee Stadium of today’s measurements, the original park was absolutely massive. While it may be shorter to the poles by a couple of dozen feet, it dwarfs all modern-day parks by about a hundred feet into the deepest part of the parks.

Clem’s site includes recreations of every incarnation of every big league ballpark, including this one of Yankee Stadium in 1928:

This season, no one has hit a ball further than Yermín Mercedes did on this nuclear blast into deep left-center field. According to Statcast, Mercedes hit that 113.3-mph missile a whopping 485 feet and off the scoreboard of the White Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field, a ballpark barely able to contain this moonshot. In the original — slightly larger than the above — Yankee Stadium, this ball might have failed to clear the fence.

To think that a blast like this wouldn’t merit an easy trot around the bases boggles the mind on its own, but such was the norm for every Yankee great in the first half-century of the franchise’s existence. Until 1976, the fence was as deep as 471 feet from the dish in dead-center, leaving the trio of red stone monuments for Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins that now reside beyond the wall in Monument Park in play. Occasionally, a centerfielder would have to contend with a wild carom off of a monolith in order to make a play on a ball hit long over their head.

Among the Yankees’ greatest players, only one, Joe DiMaggio, batted exclusively from the right side, and therefore suffered the steepest penalty to his power production of any of them. In this very interesting counterfactual exploration of what DiMaggio’s career could have been, simply titled, “Joe,” Bill James estimated that DiMaggio lost more homers to Yankee Stadium’s cavernous confines than any player in baseball history. In his book, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, statistician Bill Jenkinson pegged DiMaggio’s lost tally at 77 long balls under park neutral conditions.

In that book, Jenkinson compiled game logs, box scores, gamers, and anecdotes to assemble what he considers to be about 98 percent of Babe Ruth’s approximately 1,100 official and unofficial home runs. Among them include numerous blasts recorded as having cleared the deepest part of Yankee Stadium, and some even are listed as having been hit as far as 560 feet, scores of feet farther than any ball measured in the Statcast era. (Although naturally, these estimations are much less precise.)

Using a modern counterexample to prove Yankee Stadium’s detrimental park effects, Jenkinson argued that if Barry Bonds had played his 2004 season in which he slugged 45 homers in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium, he would have finished the season with a paltry 27 dingers after losing 22 and gaining an extra four. In his entire career, Ruth hit 57 homers to the left of center field, but just one of those — a 525-foot mammoth jack — occurred at Yankee Stadium.

Jenkinson also recreated spray charts of the balls that would and would not have been homers within a modern park’s construction. To account for the disparity between Ruth’s power and modern sluggers, Jenkinson suggests that it had something to do with his upper-forties-ounce bat, a significantly more massive piece of lumber than any modern batsman might take to the plate. In a slight deviation from Jenkinson’s own suggestions, my guess is if his purported power is true, Ruth was able to swing his log as fast as modern men do lighter sticks, therefore generating more force, but might not have been capable of maintaining his unmatched level of success with such an unwieldy load against the more biomechanically challenging movement and velocity of modern pitching — thus, explaining the disparity between his deepest shots and today’s biggest sluggers.

Nevertheless, Yankee Stadium had a massively detrimental effect on Ruth’s power outcomes, even with his unparalleled ability to clear 500-foot homers with semi-regularity. As is referenced in the title of the book, Jenkinson estimated this of Ruth’s 60-homer season, “In 1921, Babe Ruth hit at least forty triples, doubles, and fly outs in various American League parks that would easily soar over twenty-first-century fences” (287). With an extra forty in a single season, it seems reasonable to assume that Ruth lost more than DiMaggio’s 77.

Given the fact that Ruth was the greatest of the Yankees’ sluggers, it stands to reason that since he ended his career the most homers, he probably lost the most too.