Time Capsule

In the baseball season of 1920, the number of people who came to see the New York Yankees play doubled from the previous high of 619,000 to 1,289,000, marking the first time attendance for a major league team had surpassed one million in a single season. The fans came to see Babe Ruth, whose outstanding hitting as a member of the Boston Red Sox led to his purchase by the New York Yankees just before the 1920 season.

In his first season as a Yankee, Ruth hit 54 home runs—more than the total number of home runs by 14 of the 16 major league teams—and drove in 137 runs. His slugging percentage (a measure of batting power) that season was 0.847, a major-league record even today. His home runs and extra-base hits in that and subsequent seasons transformed the game of baseball from the "dead ball" era of low-scoring games to the modern game that emphasizes power hitting. Ruth's numbers were so much greater than his peers that had steroids been part of the game in the 1920s, there would have seemed no other explanation for the Babe's extraordinary performance.

By the summer of 1921, Ruth was labeled the "Home Run King." His hitting prompted a celebrated sportswriter of the day, Hugh S. Fullerton, to escort him that summer to the Columbia University Psychological Laboratory. Subjecting Ruth to psychological tests was in keeping with Fullerton's interests in analyzing game play and skills. In the laboratory, Fullerton sought to discover the basis of Ruth's batting prowess.

The laboratory was established by James McKeen Cattell in 1891. In 1921, Robert S. Woodworth was in charge and Columbia graduate students Albert Johanson and Joseph Holmes conducted the tests. They assessed Ruth's sensory-motor and cognitive skills using standard laboratory procedures for studying attention, reaction time and sensory-motor coordination. (The tests were among those that Cattell had used in an early and unsuccessful attempt to measure intelligence.)

To assess Ruth's coordination, the researchers had him insert a stylus in sequence in each of three holes in a triangular board, left to right, as quickly as possible. His score, and thus his coordination, was judged to be superior to the average of a large, but unspecified, population of prior test-takers. Similarly, he was asked to tap a metal plate with a stylus to determine the number of taps made as rapidly as possible within one minute. Ruth made 193 taps with his right hand and 176 with his left, compared with an average of 180 taps for a comparison group. Again, Fullerton judged his performance to be superior.

Ruth's score on a steadiness test that required him to insert a narrow stylus in holes of different diameters to measure the frequency with which the stylus touched the sides of the holes surpassed 499 of 500 individuals for whom data were available. In a perceptual task that involved recognizing letters flashed briefly, Ruth identified an average of 6 letters from an array of 8, compared with 4.5 for an average individual. When arrays of dots were flashed, he correctly identified the number up to 12, compared with a score of 8 for the average person. Once again, Fullerton judged Ruth to have demonstrated his superior ability.

Perhaps most critical to batting success is reaction time, one of the earliest laboratory measures of mental and motor performance. The differences between Ruth's response time to light and sound were small, but superior, when compared with an "average person," but Fullerton argued that even small differences were critical in giving Ruth an advantage in hitting a baseball. In Fullerton's view, this test, taken together with Ruth's performance on the other laboratory tests, revealed the basis for Ruth's superiority in hitting. He believed that future baseball scouts could use these laboratory tests to predict who might become the next Babe Ruth.

One test administered to Ruth, designed to assess his batting power, was not part of the usual psychology laboratory tests. It consisted of a ball suspended at a height considered optimal for Ruth's swing; a bat connected by wires to a timer measured the speed with which Ruth swung the bat. Under test conditions, Fullerton concluded that Ruth could hit a pitched ball traveling at the rate of 60 feet per second for a distance of 450 to 500 feet, a distance that coincides with many of the estimates of Ruth's home runs and with that calculated by physicist Robert Adair in 1990 for the maximum distance a batted ball might travel. Had Ruth not held his breath as he swung, the estimate for distance might have been even greater.

Fullerton reported the results of Ruth's tests in Popular Science Monthly, and The New York Times summarized them in a Page One article; no report was published in a psychological journal.

In 1964, Hugh Fullerton was a posthumous recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for his distinguished career and contributions to sports writing. Babe Ruth, "The Sultan of Swat," set hitting records throughout his remarkable career.

Laboratory tests were not adopted as potential predictors of a future Babe Ruth, nor did Ruth's experience in the laboratory immediately initiate the field of sport psychology. In 2006, Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, an extraordinary hitter of the present era, performed some of the same psychological tests that had engaged Ruth, together with perceptual tasks from the modern laboratory. As reported in an article in GQ (Penn, 2006), Pujols, like Ruth, outperformed the average individual on tests similar to those of 1921. Pujols was also found to swing the bat with greater speed than Ruth, but there is a factor that negates that claim. Like most players today, Pujols swings a bat weighing 31.5 ounces. The bat that Ruth used in the tests weighed an incredible 54 ounces.

The psychological testing of Babe Ruth did not lead to the use of such tests as selection instruments in baseball's scouting system. But the tests at Columbia University that blended sport and psychology in 1921 were part of a long history of investigations of athletic skills that predated the rise of sport psychology in the 1960s, a psychological specialty that enjoys considerable success today (Green & Benjamin, 2009; LeUnes, 2009).

Alfred H. Fuchs, PhD, is professor emeritus at Bowdoin College. Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., PhD, is this month's historical editor for the "Time Capsule."

Suggested reading

  • Fuchs, A.H. (1998). Psychology and "The Babe." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 34, 153–165.

  • Fullerton, H. (1921). Why Babe Ruth is greatest home run hitter. Popular Science Monthly, 99, 19–21, 110.

  • Green, C.D., & Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (Eds.). (2009). Psychology gets in the game: Sport, mind, and behavior, 1880–1960. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

  • LeUnes, A.D. (2009). Sport psychology (4th ed.). New York: Francis and Taylor.

  • Penn, N. (2006, Sept). How to build the perfect batter. GQ, pp. 292–305.