(Note: This is a slightly revised version of an article that was published in 2007 in the now defunt print periodical called "The Chicago Sports Weekly." I also had posted something like this at "Beyond the Boxscore" called How Would Integration Have Affected Ruth and Cobb?)
Maybe you have seen the images on TV of fans around the country holding up asterisk signs when Barry Bonds comes to the plate, hinting that his HR record is tainted, due to his alleged steroid use. But others counter that Babe Ruth might deserve an asterisk since he never faced blacks or dark-skinned Hispanics (there were a few players with Hispanic names before 1947 whose skin was generally pretty light).
But this raises the question of how many HRs would Ruth have hit had there not been a color barrier? I know the answer because Clio, the Greek muse of history, whispered it in my ear. You see, my Ph. D. thesis was in the field of economic history and its application of statistics is called “cliometrics.” What I am about to attempt here is something dangerous called a “counterfactual” in this field. So don’t try it at home. Leave it to the trained professionals.
Robert Fogel, economic historian at the University of Chicago, won a Noble Prize, partly for using counterfactuals. He supposed what if railroads had not been built. What other kind of transportation system (like canals) would have emerged? How would this have affected economic growth? He concluded that GDP in 1890 would have been about 5% lower than it actually was.
Not everyone was thrilled with this approach. The historian Fritz Redlich referred to counterfactuals as figments, probably of an imagination gone wild. So maybe you will think this analysis is a figment of my imagination. So. Maybe you’re a figment of my imagination. In any case, here it is.
First, we need an estimate of how many non-white pitchers there might have been. Since 1947, about 15% of all the IP by pitchers with 1,000+ IP in their careers have been by non-whites. All of the 1,000+ IP pitchers made up about 58% of all the IP since 1947, so it is a good sample. Therefore, I assume that in Ruth’s day 15% of the IP were by non-whites.
How good would those pitchers have been? Good enough to replace some white guys, who would be the worst pitchers in the league. You don’t add Satchel Paige to your team and then get rid of Lefty Grove. You dump Grover Lowdermilk (who really was not a bad pitcher but his name sounds funny, unlike mine). The non-whites with 1,000+ IP since 1947 actually had a collective ERA just about the same as the whites. So pre-1947, you dump the worst 15% of the pitchers by ERA and re-calculate the league HR rate using the remaining pitchers or the top 85%
After getting rid of the bottom 15% of the IP in each season from 1920 to 1934 (when Ruth played with the Yankees and had all of his great seasons) in the AL, I recalculated the HRs allowed per IP and found how much lower than the league average the new figures were. The average fall in HRs per IP for the years 1920-1934 was about 5%. That is, the best 85% of the pitchers had a HR per IP rate that was 5% lower than the league average (which includes all pitchers). So if you improve the pitching quality in a way that is consistent with integration, Ruth would hit 5% fewer HRs or hit about 678. Even if we cut him 10%, he still hits 643.
Some things I have not considered: when Aaron and Mays were hitting HRs in the 1950s, there still were not that many non-whites pitching. So their totals might need to be reduced. We also don’t know if all batters would be affected in the same way. The best HR hitters might have had their totals reduced more than the average hitter. Also, we don’t know what percentage of pitchers would have been non-white. Probably it is more than 15% today. Suppose it is 25%. I looked at the 1927 AL and if you only count the best 75% of the pitchers, the HR rate falls about 9%.
Suppose we only looked at the best 50% of the pitchers from 1927, HRs would fall about 18.3%. If that happened to Ruth over his whole career, he still hits 583 HRs. It is about 17% for 1921. For 1934, it would be 20%. Given that I am only counting the best 50% of the pitchers, we can safely say that integration would have reduced his HR’s by no more than 20% (the top 50% of pitchers in 2008 gave up about 20% fewer HRs than average as well). So he ends up with 571 HRs. That would have stood as a record for quite awhile. And remember that we would have to reduce Aaron and Mays since they played a good part of their careers when there were not as many non-white pitchers as today.