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Babe Herman: The Worst Outfielder That Ever Lived?

by Benjamin Sabin | June 28, 2024

 



It’s easy to confuse Babe Herman with Babe Ruth. For starters, there’s the “Babe” nickname. As any baseball fan is apt to do, when you hear “Babe” you will most likely think that the person being referred to is the Sultan of Swat. Secondly, Babe Herman’s last name, Herman, is also Babe Ruth’s middle name. So, there’s that too. Also, both were in the major leagues at roughly the same time from 1926 through 1935, although by 1926, Ruth was a twelve-year veteran and Babe Herman played three more seasons following Ruth’s retirement in 1935.


That being said, Babe Herman is NOT Babe Ruth. Although Herman was a great hitter with, arguably, Hall of Fame numbers. There is no doubt that they are two different ballplayers. Now that that’s settled, let’s move on to the question at hand: was Babe Herman the worst outfielder that ever lived?


Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?


Briefly, I’ll back up to how this idea came about. I was enjoying the initial pages of Jimmy Breslin’s classic about the “worst major league baseball team ever to take the field” the 1962 Mets. The book, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” is 117 pages of sheer comedic laugh-out-loud brilliance and should be read by anyone who calls themselves a baseball fan. 


Now that you’ve added one more book to your reading list, let’s turn to the initial pages of  “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” and the idea that Babe Herman was the worst outfielder that ever lived. A few pages into the first chapter, Breslin discusses how the ‘62 Mets were “the first team worthy of being a legend in several decades.” He then states that most stories about ballplayers and teams are “vastly embellished or simply not true at all.” As an example of this, he points to stories about Babe Herman. Breslin writes, “He was the worst outfielder ever to live, they tell you, and fly balls fell on his head and nearly killed him as a matter of course.” But then he writes that “two or three guys we know who watched the old Dodgers…never saw Herman get hit any place by a baseball.” And one of the “guys…insists” that “he [Herman] was as good as they ever came.”


So what’s true? Was Herman the “worst” or “as good as they ever came”? Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine. So what are we left with? The numbers and the newspapers.


The Numbers


First up to bat, the numbers. We’ll start with fielding percentage for those old-school stats people. According to Baseball Reference, over 13 seasons, Herman’s fielding percentage was .961 in the outfield (he also played 236 games at first base) and .971 overall, which isn’t that great. He led all National League outfielders in errors in 1928 and ‘29 with 16. He also finished in the top five in errors three more times in ‘31, ‘32, and ‘33. 


But the problem with judging a player’s defensive capabilities based on errors and ultimately fielding percentage is that errors are one person’s, the scorekeeper’s, opinion of what they think should be happening. What one scorekeeper thinks is an error another may think is a base hit. So, based on Herman’s errors and fielding percentage, was he good or bad, or average in the outfield? The answer is who knows, maybe the scorekeeper didn’t like him or was having a bad day and gave him an error for no reason other than spite. 


Advanced Numbers


Up next, more numbers. Let’s call them advanced numbers. For these advanced numbers, we’re going to look at FanGraphs and a stat called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). UZR, without getting into specifics, and if you want to here’s a link, is a more well-rounded defensive stat that considers everything a player does on defense and the impact they have on preventing the other team from scoring runs. Unfortunately for Herman, his UZR scores are not good. 


We’ll start with the positive first. In 1932, Herman’s first year with the Cincinnati Reds, he had a UZR of 12. That’s a great season in the field. But, unfortunately for Herman, his ‘32 season was an anomaly. His next best UZR was 1 in 1927, which is slightly above average. He then has two more seasons, 1933 and 1937, with a UZR of 0. 0 is average. So, this is the positive: one great season and three average. 



Herman making the grab!

Now the negative. In 1935 and 1945, Herman had a UZR of -1. And in 1928 and 1936, he had a UZR of -2. The slope continued downward with a UZR of -4 in his rookie season with the Brooklyn Robins in 1926. These ratings are all considered below average, but not awful. Don’t worry, that’s coming. He had two seasons, 1930 and 1934, with -6 UZRs and a -8 UZR in 1931. Then in 1929, he had an all-time low UZR of -14. -6, -8, and -14 UZRs will get you booed off of the field regularly and could mean that you took a few on the head. Was he bad in the outfield? According to his UZR numbers, he wasn’t the best the majority of the time.  


Here’s the breakdown. Herman played a total of 13 seasons. But in two of those seasons, 1937 with the Detroit Tigers and 1945 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, in which his UZR was exactly average or slightly less than average, he played only 17 games (1937) and 37 games (1945). These two seasons we will throw out because 17 games and 37 games are poor sample size out of a possible 154 games per season and are not a good reflection of what he would have done throughout an entire season. 


So taking away those two seasons leaves us with 11 seasons in which he was a full-time player. During those 11 seasons, Herman was a good fielder 9% of the time. He was an average fielder 18% of the time. He was below average 36% of the time and he was terrible 36% of the time. So, according to the archaic and advanced numbers, Herman was pretty bad and could be considered on anyone’s Top Five Worst Outfielders list.


The Newspapers


But did he have balls fall on his head and nearly kill him? Let me start by saying, I hope not. I’ve taken a curveball to the face and it didn’t feel all that great. I can only imagine what a soaring fly ball would feel like. Sadly, though, after exhaustive newspaper research, it looks like the answer is yes, at least that’s what everyone seems to think. 


What I mean by “at least that’s what everyone seems to think” is that there are no game summary newspaper articles that describe a specific incident. For example, I didn’t find something like, “And in the third, Rogers Hornsby hit a towering fly ball to right. It should have been an easy out, but Herman caught the ball with his head instead of his glove.”


What I did find were many articles, both during and following his playing days, which discussed him being hit on the head by fly balls. There is an article in The Herald Statesman from January 13, 1931, stating that “the Brooklyn fans obtained a plethora of entertainment from watching Babe Herman getting hit on the head by fly balls.”


Another newspaper article, written by Henry Farrell in his well-known “Hooks and Slides” column discusses Herman’s head-bonking follies. In the article, Farrell writes that when Lefty O’Doul, new to the Brooklyn Robins in 1931, was asked about a new ball used during that season. O’Doul said that the ball “has had much of the old life extracted from it,” and that “line drives don’t sail the way they used to, but have a marked tendency to sink to the ground.” From O’Doul’s observations about the new baseball, Farrell deduced that “it stands to reason that Babe Herman will not be hit on the head nearly so often.”



Lefty O'Doul

Finally, in the February 2, 1933 issue of the Pasadena Post, the then Chicago Cubs president, Bill Veeck, when asked if he was worried about Herman “being hit on the head by a fly ball,” replied that “I really don’t believe he’ll need a helmet.” While these are not the only articles discussing Herman being hit on the head by fly balls, they are perfect examples of what was being written about Herman’s less-than-stellar play in the outfield.


Babe Herman: Embellishment or Truth?


Due to the overwhelming evidence, it appears that Babe Herman was as bad in the outfield as they say. Contrary to the “two or three guys” that Breslin states said “they never saw Herman get hit any place by a baseball” there are countless numbers of articles that strongly suggest he did. And surely the one guy who “insists” that “he was as good as they ever came” is possibly in need of a pair of spectacles. One thing is for sure, Herman’s unexceptional defensive abilities were not of an embellished nature.

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