Friday, June 22, 2007

Great Baseball Players . . . and Success in Life

I was perusing some old articles I've written and found this one, from about two years ago, about a book by a guy named Frank Bettger: How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling.

Bettger was an associate for several years of Dale Carnegie (of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame).

Bettger’s book was written in 1947, so it’s a bit dated in language. But its principles seem valid for today as well.

I thought Bettger’s next-to-last chapter had something very useful for just about any of us to consider as we think about our lives: what we’re doing, what we hope our kids will do, and how we may want to encourage them.

See what you think.

On pp. 179-184, Bettger recounts how he watched the great Babe Ruth at a game in 1927. He then draws a lesson from what he saw.

Thirty-five thousand wildly excited baseball fans . . . were giving Babe Ruth the "razzberry"--and good! Bob Grove, one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, had just struck Babe Ruth out on three pitched balls for the second successive time. Two runners were on the bases.

As the great slugger returned to the bench amidst wild and abusive jeering, he looked up into the stands with an unruffled smile, just as he did the first time, gave his cap a polite little tip from his perspiring brow, stepped down into the dugout, and calmly took his drink of water.

In the eighth inning when he came up for his third turn at bat, the situation was critical. The Athletics were leading the Yankees [Ruth’s team], 3 to 1. The bases were full, and two were out. . . .

[The count went oh and two (no balls, two strikes) when] Babe took that magnificent swing, . . . missed, . . . staggered--and went down. He had literally swung himself off his feet. . . . Finally, regaining his feet, the Bambino brushed the dust off his trousers, dried his hands, and got set for the next pitch. Grove delivered the ball so fast, none of the fans saw it. Babe swung—but this time he connected! It was only a split second before everybody seemed to realize what had happened. That ball was never coming back again!

It disappeared over the scoreboard and cleared the houses across the street--one of the longest hits ever made in baseball.

As Babe Ruth trotted around the bases and across the plate behind the other runners--with what proved to be the winning run--he received a wild ovation from the crowd. . . .

Later in the season, . . . Grantland Rice interviewed Ruth. "Babe," he asked, "what do you do when you get in a batting slump?"

Babe replied: "I just keep goin' up there and keep swingin' at 'em. I know the old law of averages will hold good for me the same as it does for anybody else. . . . If I strike out two or three times in a game, or fail to get a hit for a week, why should I worry? Let the pitchers worry; they’re the guys who’re gonna suffer later on."

This unshakable faith in making the law of averages work for him enabled Babe Ruth to accept his bad breaks and failures with a smile. This simple philosophy had much to do with making him baseball’s greatest slugger. . . .

[W]e now read of the amazing record of the immortal Babe Ruth, with his unapproached total of 714 home runs;1 but another unapproached world’s record of his is carefully buried in the records, never to be mentioned--striking out more times than any other player in history. He failed 1,330 times!2 One thousand three hundred and thirty times he suffered the humiliation of walking back to the bench amidst jeers and ridicule. But he never allowed fear of failure to slow him down or weaken his effort. When he struck out he didn’t count that failure--that was effort! . . .

Study this average: In 1915, Ty Cobb set up the astonishing all-time [modern baseball] record of stealing 96 bases.3 In 1922, seven years later, Max Carey of the Pittsburgh Pirates set the second-best record, 51 stolen bases.4 Does this mean that Cobb was twice as good as Carey, his closest rival? I’ll let you decide.

Here are the facts:


We find that Carey’s average was much better than Cobb’s, but Cobb tried 81 more times than Carey. His 81 tries produced 44 more stolen bases. He risked failure 81 more times in one season than his closest rival. Cobb goes down in history as the greatest base-runner of all time. He is generally regarded as the greatest player of all time.5

Ty Cobb refused to fear failure. Did it pay him? . . .

Do you believe in yourself and the things you want to do? Are you prepared for many setbacks and failures? Whatever your calling may be, each error, each failure, is like a strike-out. Your greatest asset is the number of strike outs you have had since your last hit. The greater the number, the nearer you are to your next hit. . . .

When you try too hard and become overanxious, you look bad. You are bad. Yes, keep going, but don’t be afraid to lose today. Today is not going to make or break you. You can’t bat .300 every day. The crowd loves a good loser; everybody despises a quitter. . . .

Nobody will remember the times you struck out in the early innings if you hit a home run with the bases full in the ninth. . . .

It was Shakespeare who wrote: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."
So why do I quote this section from Bettger’s book?

Besides providing a bit of entertainment, I think most of us could probably use a bit of encouragement to take risks, "go where [we have] never gone before."

Clearly, we should always seek to IMPROVE our averages if we can. BUT . . . I think we need to keep in mind that sometimes we need to take the risks, and lower our averages, so that we can achieve what we want. Carey isn’t remembered or applauded for his astonishingly high success RATE in stealing bases; Cobb is remembered for his astonishing PRODUCTION of stolen bases.

Ruth isn’t remembered for his relatively high strikeout percentage. He is remembered for his record-setting homerun production.

What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want your kids to be remembered for?

1 Of course, The Babe has been surpassed by one person, so far (Hank Aaron; 755 career home runs), and Barry Bonds--not yet retired--is very close behind (748 at this moment).

2 The Babe has also been surpassed by 70 other men since Bettger’s book was written! Indeed, according to an All-Star spreadsheet I consulted, Reggie Jackson holds the career strikeout record: 2,597--almost twice Babe Ruth’s and some 661 more than his next closest All-Star rival, Willie Stargell. Indeed, among the All-Stars, Bobby Bonds, Lou Brock, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Rank Robinson, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski, and Hank Aaron also have all produced more strikeouts than did Babe Ruth. But I don’t think many of us remember these men for their strikeouts. It was other aspects of their game--most of them, in fact, their remarkable hitting ability--for which we remember them. (See also for the "complete" Strikeout story.)

3 Cobb’s modern baseball record has since been surpassed nine times: by Maury Wills (104 bases in 1962), Lou Brock (118 bases in 1974), Ron LeFlore (97 in 1980), Rickey Henderson (100, 1980; 130, 1982 [current modern baseball record]; 108, 1983), and Vince Coleman (110, 1985; 107, 1986; 109, 1987).

4 I don’t know how or why Bettger makes this claim about Carey. There are many people who have stolen more than 51 bases in a season.

5 No question he was a great and exciting player. But there are others who would press him hard for the title. --Just one astonishing Cobb statistic, however: he stole home 54 times during his career! And he stole second base, third base, and home plate during the same inning four times during his career!
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