The Yankees and Red Sox were playing the first game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in May of 1929 when the skies opened and a sudden deluge soaked the fans in attendance. So alarmed were they by this sudden change in the weather that the fans began a “human stampede” for the exit, killing two people and injuring 70 others, including 14 young boys.
Babe Ruth heard about the incident and did what he did best: Promised to hit home runs. One for each of those boys, he swore, to help their bumped heads and bruised sternums ache a little less.
“Now there’s a real boy’s hero,” wrote one newspaper in a glowing review of the gesture.1
It took Ruth until July 17 to fulfill that promise, but he likely made it with the confidence that he was Babe Ruth, and in most seasons, he was going to hit a ton of home runs anyway. With it being only May, he still had a few dozen in him, so why not dedicate the next 14 to a couple of fellows who’d almost been trampled to death?
For anyone other than Ruth in May, promising home runs can be a gamble. Aaron Judge took the risk on August 25, though with much less on the line; his home run promise was made to an unflattened adult man sitting in Dodger Stadium’s most expensive seats. Playing in Los Angeles, Judge shared a moment with John Brown, the father of Yankees catching coach Jason Brown, and, according to Judge, with a twinkle in his eye, “I told him I’d get one [that night].”
Judge was facing Clayton Kershaw, who is not the face you want to see staring back at you with a promise of this nature specifically on the line. Kershaw is allowing 1.3 HR/9 this season, which at the moment is a career high for the ace. But the wind was blowing in the right direction, and Kershaw left a curveball where Judge could find it, and it left the stadium at almost 105 mph — the second-hardest clobbering Kershaw’s curveball has ever received (in the Statcast era). It helps that Judge is hitting 32.7% of his fly balls for home runs this season, which somehow isn’t a career high (35.6% in 2017). On the other side, 16.4% of the fly balls Kershaw allows leave the stadium, making Judge’s called shot slightly less plausible, but clearly not hopeless.
It’s an odd thing, the home run promise. No player can match the confidence of Ruth that he’ll come through for any fan, but no one wants to let anyone down who may be in the most sympathetic of circumstances. In most stories, the promise comes to a sick little boy, who no one wants to run the risk of letting down—not until a big, meaty slugger steps through the quarantine tape and says he’ll smash a home run that’ll suck the disease right out of his blood.
And according to the 1948 movie The Babe Ruth Story, Ruth’s home runs could do just that.
The true story of the gape-mouthed miracle child you can see in the footage above is that his name was Johnny Sylvester, and instead of lying bedridden next to a field where Ruth was playing, he’d been kicked in the head by a horse and become stricken with an infection.
“I wish I could see Babe Ruth wallop a homer before I die,” he told his father; which, as far as things little boys say, has to be one of the all-time worst.
But Ruth hit three home runs in response to Johnny’s request, which raises a question for us here in the present, where Judge has become, apparently, capable of similar magic: How do you hit a home run just because you want to?
Any psychological breakdown of hitting will tell you that thinking about what you want to do is the least likely way to do it. Books and manuals are full of documentation by mental skills coaches and first-hand accounts from the game’s preeminent players who talk about how it wasn’t until a position change or a shift in focus that they were able to string together much success at the plate. Crushing a thought like “hit a home run, or someone will be personally let down” while already in the batters box seems like a huge added challenge for someone whose goal is to bleach their own mind.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that home runs are something you don’t try to hit,” said Marlins catcher Charles Johnson in The Mental Keys to Hitting by H. A. Dorfman. “When I try to lift the ball, it doesn’t do anything. I ground out. So my mentality is just put the ball in play hard and take what the pitcher gives me.”
Any fan, young or old, may not know much about how home runs work: how hard they are to hit, and how anything from a gust of wind to a split-second swing adjustment can be the difference in whether or not they leave the park — but every fan knows that they love to see their favorite player hit them. So the request is made — or in Judge’s case, offered as a gift — without any of that in mind.
And plenty of players have done it: From Miguel Tejada to B.J. Upton, from Mookie Betts to Mike Trout. It may put them in a dicy area, as posited by an ethics blog earlier this season when Betts had promised a kid from the Make a Wish Foundation that he’d pull it off (he did, three times): Should players, you know, be doing that? But the lifespan of a home run promise is never more than a few moments, anyway, and even shorter when they’re broken.
There aren’t a lot of stories out there about the countless times guys have fallen short, because the story about a kid who succumbs to a head wound after suffering a broken heart isn’t anything anybody wants to read. One incident in 1977 saw Bobby Murcer of the Cubs rushing to clear up a story that he’d promised a young boy with bone cancer that he’d hit a home run for him — he hit two, actually, but Murcer still felt obligated to tell reporters that all he’d said was that he’d try.2
Our own FanGraphs glossary refers to home runs as a “relatively rare event,” which has obviously changed a bit in recent seasons as the ball is injected with more and more helium. If an average HR/FB rate for pitchers is 10%, the best pitcher to be facing in 2019 for one of your three or four chances to homer off him in a game is… Yu Darvish?!? This guy?? Darvish has a 24% HR/FB rate in 152.1 IP, so statistically you should feel better about telling Billy he’ll get his moonshot if you see Darvish on the mound, but… hmmm. I sure wouldn’t.
At the end of the day, as long as everyone is reasonable about it, promising a fan a home run is just a cool way to let somebody think that something happened for them. Hitting one doesn’t have any proven medical implications, despite what movies tell us, and not hitting one hasn’t directly killed anybody (yet). If you’re a slugger who knows you’re more likely to lay into one, why not say something to your coach’s dad in the on-deck circle, because chances are pretty okay that you’ll run into one even by accident, thanks to other factors like what park you’re playing in, what the wind speeds are that day, and whether or not the foreman at the baseball factory fell asleep on the “helium” lever.
In baseball, the challenge is always to do anything on purpose. Home runs will come, but rarely on command. “Childlike wonder” has few statistical applications, though it does add an element to the game that every sport requires: The potential for unforgettable moments that produce lifelong fandom. All we can do is marvel at Judge’s ability to tell somebody he’s going to hit a home run, and then, moments later, do it off one of the greatest pitchers the sport has ever seen.
But mostly, the best time to promise to hit anybody a home run is when you’re Babe Ruth. On September 27, 1927, he promised on a radio broadcast that he would break a new home run record, even though he’d have to hit one home run in each of the Yankees’ last three games to do it.
He failed to do so. But he did hit two in one of the games. So they gave him the record anyway.3
- Alton Evening Telegraph, May 29, 1929
- Raleigh Register, August 9, 1977
- The Tampa Tribune, September 28, 1927
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs, a writer and editor for The Good Phight, and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an offseason tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.