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Permission To Fail:

Leadership Lessons From


Babe Ruth's Bat
I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.

Babe Ruth

A bat that the legendary George Herman Babe Ruth swung nearly a
century ago went on the online auction block yesterday, where the
winning bid is expected to be in the neighborhood of $500,000.
So how did a hunk of wood come to be valued at a half-million dollars?
We need to take a look at how Ruth shook up a tradition-bound game.

Every strike brings me closer to the next home run, Ruth once
quipped. But few people today appreciate how radical that notion
seemed in its dayhow reckless, how irresponsible, how
counter-productive.

A strikeout heretofore had been something of a disgrace, biographer


Robert Creamer wrote. Ruth willed his way past the disgrace.
While inside baseball is today a term for shop-talk within a
profession, it first referred to a cautious, risk-averse style that
characterized baseball for decades. This small ball counted on a
succession of intricate, chess-like movesbunts, base-stealing and so
onthat could over the course of the game supply victory.

The Original Disrupter: How Ruth Redefined Success


Into this tradition, Ruth injected a brash new style. His innovation was
the home run. The lightning strike. The ability to suddenly turn the
game, to topple in one swing what the opposition had meticulously and
methodically built over several innings.

He was the original disruptive force.


Others had hit home runs before him, but not with much frequency and
rarely with even a trace of glory. The home run was seen as an outlier, a
freak accident. It was even seen as a failure of sorts, since the perfect
hit would be a line drive.

Statistician Henry Chadwick, who invented the box score and batting
average and other stats, argued decades before Ruth that the home run
represented a corrosion of the game, one that needed to be discouraged.

All this changed after the [first world] war, after Ruths breakthrough
in 1919, Creamer wrote. It was not a gradual evolution, but sudden
and cataclysmic.

By the time Ruth stepped away from the game in 1935, his 714 had
home runs had redefined the national pastimeagainst the wishes and
better judgment of the purists.

How Ruth Redefined Failure


As Ruth went about redefining the means of success in baseball, he also
redefined failure.

With his reputation as the King of Home Runs came the title of the
King of Strikeouts. Alongside his 714 career home runs stood a legacy
of 1,330 strikeoutsa figure a purist of the time would find appalling.

A batter was supposed to protect the plate, get a piece of the ball, as in
the cognate game of cricket, Creamer wrote. In Ruths case, however,
a strikeout was only a momentary, if melodramatic, setback. Protecting
the plate declined in importance, along with the sacrifice and the steal.

As a result, Creamer noted, Ruth changed the entire sport. Lou Gehrig
and the other icons who came in Ruths wake would approach the game
in the aggressive way that Ruth did. Small ball would never have the
same influence again.

Ruths strikeout record would stand for almost three decades, until
Mickey Mantle exceeded it. Since then, it has been exceeded usually
by Hall of Fame legends, not by anyone who could be considered a
failure. In other words, its quite literally true that the batters who fail
the most spectacularly also tend to be among the most spectacular
successes.

Ruth struck out a record 94 times in one season. Today, more than a
hundred major-league players reach that total, writer Gary
Kauffmanhas noted.

This isnt because baseball players are getting worse. Its because Ruth
gave those who came after him permission to fail in bigger ways than
before and to succeed in bigger ways than before.

Rob Asghar is the author of Leadership Is Hell: How to Manage Well


and Escape with Your Soul (2014, Figueroa Press).

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