What if Babe Ruth had never been born?

Would baseball look any different today if the Great Bambino was never born? How would the World look if WWI never happened? Why are we asking these questions?

For a speculative historian, is Babe Ruth baseball's WWI?

New York Times Co. / Archive Photos

Nearly 100 years ago, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car took a wrong turn, which made it easy for a Serbian nationalist to assassinate Ferdinand and his wife, which was the spark that set Europe on fire for more than four years.

But what if that car’s driver had steered a correct course? Last week on NPR, some historians offered a long list of things that might have been different:

• Czarist Russia survives, as the October Revolution fails;

• because Germany isn’t bled dry by postwar privations, the Nazis never come to power; so

• there is no Holocaust, and thus no flood of refugees to Palestine, and thus no Israel. Which of course makes the modern history of the Middle East look quite a bit different.

All of those things are easily imaginable, even though one can’t reasonably assume the Great War wouldn’t have been ignited some other way. But here’s where things go off the rails:

Without World War I, there is no World War II and no Cold War. Science develops much slower — the U.S. doesn't put a man on the moon, there is no atomic bomb, and penicillin and antibiotics are slower to hit the market.

It’s often said that World War II and the Cold War accelerated the pace of science and industry ... but do we really know that’s true? I think it’s probably safe to suggest that World War II and the Cold War accelerated the development of methods for killing people, but a great deal of the intellectual and financial energies devoted to those methods was not otherwise productive. It’s not as if the developed world suddenly discovered science and industry and the impulse to explore new worlds under the threat of violence. Plus, how many potentially brilliant and productive people were killed during World War II? How many were simply sidetracked for years or forever?

Anyway, this story, as stories often do, set me to thinking about baseball. Does baseball have its own World War I moment, without which everything would have been different? The answer, I think, is that Major League Baseball would look substantially like it does like today, regardless of any particular event, because ultimately sports franchises tend to follow the money. It’s difficult to imagine two teams in St. Louis today, or just one team in New York, simply because of the demographics of those regions. Certainly, we can play around at the margins; there’s no compelling reason for the existence of franchises in Kansas City and Milwaukee, with only two in New York. To some degree, these were accidents of circumstance and politics.

And yes, it’s not difficult to identify inflection points in major-league history. You’ve got various rule changes in the 19th century, Ban Johnson and the creation of the American League, the suicide of National League President Harry Pulliam, the Black Sox scandal and the hiring of Commissioner Landis, and so on and so forth. It’s been said that Landis saved baseball. It’s also been said that Babe Ruth saved baseball, that Jackie Robinson saved baseball, that Cal Ripken saved baseball, and that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball. It’s often thought that Bud Selig saved baseball. Granted, that’s thought only inside Bud Selig’s head. But you get my point.

Coincidentally, just a day before that story aired on NPR, someone asked Bill James how baseball might have evolved differently if Babe Ruth had stuck to pitching. Bill’s answer is exactly what mine would have been, except better:

Well ... to answer it as best I can, generally I believe that almost everything that happens is an accident of history, rather than an inevitable consequence of its predicates.

I think the history of everything has small decisions which lead to far-reaching unforeseen consequences. Speculating on what those consequences might have been has the same problem: that the consequences might have been anything. If Ruth had remained on the mound, the consequence of that might have been, for example, that the Yankees might have built a park favoring a right-handed hitter, thus that they would have looked for right-handed hitters, thus might have signed (Hank) Greenberg. A million possible strands break forth from every historical thread, and there is just no way of imagining what tapestry they might have weaved.

What he said.

If Babe Ruth had never been born, or if he’d somehow remained a pitcher for his whole career, baseball generally would look almost exactly as it does today: a far-flung entertainment with venues in nearly all the biggest cities. But without Ruth, it’s quite possible that every World Series winner since around 1920 would have been different. Because while the Babe didn’t change everything, he certainly changed many things. As did Ban Johnson and Judge Landis and Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck and Bill James and so many others.

I won’t argue that speculating about alternate history is pointless (because it can be fun) or even fruitless (because it can be educational), but it’s overwhelmingly inaccurate. Too many threads, too many strands.

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