Geoff Miller

Babe Ruth: Sport Psychology Experiments in 1921

In Mental Game Info on December 17, 2009 at 8:04 pm

For my final post of the year, I am including the text, link, and citation to a great find for anyone who loves baseball…an article describing a psychology experiment with Babe Ruth as the subject.  In 1921 at Columbia University, Ruth took part in a battery of tests designed to understand why he was such a great hitter.  The tests included measures of the Babe’s coordination, dexterity, memory, cognitive processing, vision, reaction times, and intelligence.  There were a number of tests also done on his swing, his generation of power, whether or not he held his breath when making contact, and predictions of how far he could hit the ball.

The article’s original title was “Why Babe Ruth is Greatest Home Run Hitter” and was published by Hugh S. Fullerton in Popular Science Monthly in 1921.  The link itself will take you to the web site of Christopher D. Green, at York University in Toronto.  I’ve put a few excerpts on this post, but you have to click on the link to view the photos of Ruth participating in the experiments and read the original captions from Popular Science Monthly.  Beyond my amazement in reading such a treasure to baseball history and the history of sport psychology and sport science, I was amused by some of the language and descriptions of the time.  My brother and I always used to tease our Dad about how he would describe a good curveball by how much “English” the pitcher had put on it.  I see now that this was a common term in the 20’s and his own father must have taught him that phrase.  Same goes for the experimenter wanting to understand the likelihood of a player “pulling a boner”…which I’m sure might draw a laugh or two from my adolescent readers (regardless of your ages!) But anyone who knows their baseball history will recall that “Merkle’s Boner” cost the New York Giants a chance at the 1908 World Series and is still considered one of the worst mental mistakes in the history of the game.

Thank you for your continued interest in the blog. I won’t be posting anything new for the rest of the year, but will be ready in 2010 with more interviews, the rest of the mental skills manual, and more case studies that identify key mental factors and describe development approaches.  Wishing you and your families Happy Holidays.

Excerpts from “Why Babe Ruth is Greatest Home Run Hitter”

The game was over. Babe, who had made one of his famous drives that day, was tired and wanted to go home. “Not tonight, Babe,” I said. “Tonight you go to college with me. You’re going to take scientific tests which will reveal your secret.”

“Who wants to know it?” asked Babe.

“I want to know it,” I replied, “and so do several hundred thousand fans. We want to know why it is that one man has achieved a unique batting skill like yours — just why you can slam the ball as nobody else in the world can.”

So away we went. Babe in his baseball uniform, not home to his armchair, but out to Columbia University to take his first college examination.

Babe went at the test with the zeal of a schoolboy, and the tests revealed why his rise to fame followed suddenly after years of playing during which he was known as an erratic although a powerful hitter. How he abruptly gained his unparalleled skill has been one of baseball’s mysteries.

Albert Johanson, M.A., and Joseph Holmes, M.A., of the research laboratory of Columbia University’s psychological department, who, in all probability, never saw Ruth hit a baseball, and who neither know or care if his batting average is .007 or .450, are .500 hitters in the psychology game. They led Babe Ruth into the great laboratory of the university, figuratively took him apart, watched the wheels go round; analyzed his brain, his eye, his ear, his muscles; studied how these worked together; reassembled him, and announced the exact reasons for his supremacy as a batter and a ball-player.

Baseball employs scores of scouts to explore the country and discover baseball talent. These scouts are known as “Ivory hunters,” and if baseball-club owners take the hint from the Ruth experiments, they can organize a clinic, submit candidates to the comprehensive tests undergone by Ruth, and discover whether or not other Ruths exist. By these tests it would be possible for the club owners to discover — during the winter, perhaps — whether the ball-players are liable to be good, bad, or mediocre; and, to carry the [p. 20] practical results of the experiments to the limit, then may be able to eliminate the possibility, or probability, of some player “pulling a boner” in mid-season by discovering, before the season starts, how liable he is to do so.

The scientific ivory hunters of Columbia University discovered that the secret of Babe Ruth’s batting, reduced to non-scientific terms, is that his eyes and ears function more rapidly than those of other players; that his brain records sensations more quickly and transmits its orders to the muscles much faster than does that of the average man. The tests proved that the coordination of eye, brain, nerve system, and muscle is practically perfect, and that the reason he did not acquire his great batting power before the sudden burst at the beginning of the baseball season of 1920, was because, prior to that time, pitching and studying batters disturbed his almost perfect coordination.

Ruth the Superman

The tests revealed the fact that Ruth is 90 per cent efficient compared with a human average of 60 per cent.

That his eyes are about 12 per cent faster than those of the average human being.

That his ears function at least 10 per cent faster than those of the ordinary man. That his nerves are steadier than those of 499 out of 500 persons.

That in attention and quickness of perception he rated one and a half times above the human average.

That in intelligence, as demonstrated by the quickness and accuracy of understanding, he is approximately 10 per cent above normal.

The first test to discover the efficiency of his psychophysical organism was one designed to try his coordination; a simple little test. The scientists set up a triangular board, looking some thing like a ouija-board, with a small round hole at each angle. At the bottom of each hole was an electrified plate that registered every time it was touched. Ruth was presented with a little instrument that looked like a doll-sized curling iron, the end of which just fitted into the holes. Then he was told to take the instrument in his right hand and jab it into the holes successively, as often as he could in one minute, going around the board from left to right.

He grew interested at once. Here was something at which he could play. The professor “shushed” me, fearing that I would disturb Ruth or distract his attention as he started around the board, jabbing the curling-iron into the holes with great rapidity. He would put it into the holes twelve to sixteen times so perfectly that the instrument barely touched the sides. Then he would lose control and touch the sides, slowing down. Only twice did he pass the hole without getting the end of the iron into it. With his right hand he made a score of 122. Not unnaturally, his wrist was tired and Babe shook it and grinned ruefully.

Then he tried it with his left hand, scored 132 with it, proving himself a bit more left- than right-handed — at least in some activities. The significance of the experiment, however, lies in the fact that the average of hundreds of persons who have taken that test is 82 to the minute, which shows how much swifter in the coordination of hand, brain, and eye Ruth is than the average.

The scientific “ivory hunters” up at Columbia demonstrated that Babe Ruth would have been the “home-run king” in almost any line of activity he chose to follow; that his brain would have won equal success for him had he drilled it for as long a time on some line entirely foreign to the national game. They did it, just as they proved his speed and his steadiness — by simple laboratory tests.

For instance, they had an apparatus with a sort of a camera shutter arrangement that opened, winked, and closed at any desired speed. Cards with letters of the alphabet on them were placed behind this shutter and exposed to view for one fifty-thousandth of a second. Ruth read them as they flashed into view, calling almost instantly the units of groups of three, four, five, and six letters. With eight shown he got the first six, and was uncertain of the others. The average person can see four and one half letters on the same test.

When cards marked with black dots were used, Ruth was even faster. He called up the number of dots on every card up to twelve without one mistake, The average person can see eight.

To test him for quickness of perception and understanding, he was given a card showing five different symbols — a star, a cross, and three other shapes — many times repeated, and was told to select a number — one, two, three, four, or five — for each symbol, then to mark the selected number under each one as rapidly as he could go over the card. He scored 103 hits on that test, which his the average of all who have tried it. But when given a card covered with printed matter and told to cross out all the a’s, he made a score of sixty, which is one and a half times the average.

The secret of Babe Ruth’s ability to hit is clearly revealed in these tests, His eye, his ear, his brain, his nerves all function more rapidly than do those of the average person. Further the coordination between eye, ear, brain, and muscle is much nearer perfection than that of the normal healthy man.

Full Article:

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  1. […] que buscaba entender por qué Babe Ruth era tan buen jugador de béisbol. El estudio se basó en pruebas de coordinación y agilidad bastante sencillas. Babe Ruth tenía que colocar un aparato especial en unos agujeros sin tocar los […]

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