How would Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other famous ballplayers of bygone eras fare if put on the diamond today? Variations on that question tend to come up in conversation among enthusiasts of baseball and its history, and different people bring different kinds of evidence to bear in search of an answer: statistics, eyewitness accounts, analogies between particular historical players and current ones. But the fact remains that none of us have ever actually seen the likes of Ruth, who played his last professional game in 1935, and Gehrig, who did so in 1939, in their prime. But now we can at least get a little closer by watching the film clip above, which shows both of the titanic Yankees at batting practice on April 11, 1931.
What's more, it shows them moving at real-life speed. "Fox Movietone sound cameras made slow-motion captures of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at batting practice during an exhibition practice in Brooklyn, New York," writes uploader Guy Jones (whose other baseball videos include Ruth hitting a home run on opening day the same year and Ruth's last appearance at bat a decade later). "With modern technology, we can witness this footage adjusted to a normal speed which results in a very high framerate."
In other words, the film shows Ruth and Gehrig not just moving in the very same way they did in real life, but captured with a smoothness uncommon in newsreel footage from the 1930s. For comparison, Jones includes at the end of the video "more footage of the practice (shot at typical fps) and the original un-edited slow-mo captures."
Unfortunately, what this film reveals doesn't impress observers of modern baseball. "Ruth and Gehrig in no way look like a modern ballplayer," writes The Big Lead's Kyle Koster. "Ruth is off-balance, falling into his swing. Gehrig routinely lifts his back foot off the ground. Again, it’s batting practice so the competitive juices weren’t flowing. But even by that standard, the whole exercise looks sloppy and inefficient." Cut4's Jake Mintz gets harsher, as well as more technical: "Tell me Ruth's cockamamie swing mechanics would enable him to hit a 98-mph heater." As for the Iron Horse, his "hack is a little better," but still "absurdly low" by today's standards. It goes to show, Mintz writes, that "these two legends, while undeniably transcendent in their time, would be good Double-A hitters at best if they played today." We evolve, our technologies evolve, and so, it seems, do the games we play.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.