George Herman Ruth, (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948), better
known as Babe Ruth and also commonly known by the nicknames The Bambino
and The Sultan of Swat, was an American baseball player and United
States national icon. He was one of the first five players elected
to the Baseball Hall of Fame and he was the first player to hit over
30, 40 and 50 home runs in one season. His record of 60 home runs in
the 1927 season stood for 34 years until it was broken by Roger Maris
in 1961. He also was a member of the original American League All-Star
team in 1933. In 1998, The Sporting News named Ruth as Number One in
its list of "Baseball's 100 Greatest Players."
As discussed in the 1988 book, The Babe: A Life in Pictures, by Lawrence
Ritter and Mark Rucker, it is more than mere statistical records that
make Babe Ruth unequivocally the greatest baseball player of all time.
In several ways, he changed the nature of the game itself. His exploitation
of the "power game" compelled other teams to follow suit,
breaking the monopoly of the "inside game" that had been
the primary strategy for decades. Ruth was the focal point of the start
of what has become statistically the greatest sports dynasty in history,
the New York Yankees. His international fame helped fuel the rising
interest in sports during the Roaring Twenties as the fan base expanded
significantly and triggered major expansion of nearly all the ballparks
in the major leagues.
Ruth was born at 216 Emory Street in south Baltimore, Maryland. The house was
rented by his maternal grandfather, Pius Schamberger, a German immigrant who
eked out a living as an upholsterer. Babe's parents, Kate and George Sr., lived
above the saloon they owned and operated on Camden Street. Kate would walk
to her father's home each time she gave birth to a child, eight in all. Only
Babe and his sister, Mary, survived infancy. [Some sources give her name as
Young George was known for mischievous behavior. He skipped school,
ran the streets, and committed petty crime. By age seven, he was drinking,
chewing tobacco, and had become difficult for his parents to control.
Mary recalled how their father would beat Babe in a desperate attempt
to bring the boy into line, but to no avail. He was finally sent to
St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a school run by Catholic brothers.
Brother Matthias, a Roman Catholic priest, and the school's disciplinarian,
became the major influence on his life, the one man Babe respected
above all others. It was Brother Matthias who taught him baseball,
working with him for countless hours on hitting, fielding and later,
Because of his "toughness", George became the team's catcher.
He liked the position because he was involved in every play. One day,
as his team was getting pounded, Babe started mocking his own pitcher.
Brother Matthias promptly switched George from catcher to pitcher to
teach him a lesson. But, instead of getting his comeuppance, Babe shut
the other team down.
Brother Matthias brought Babe to the attention of Jack Dunn, owner
and manager of the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, and the man often
credited with discovering him. In 1914 Dunn signed 19-year-old Ruth
to pitch for his club, and took him to spring training in Florida,
where a strong performance with bat and ball saw him make the club,
while his precocious talent and childlike personality saw him nicknamed "Dunn's
Babe". On April 22, 1914 "The Babe" pitched his first
professional game, a six-hit, 6-0 victory over the Buffalo Bisons,
also of the International League. By July 4, the Orioles had a record
of 47 wins and 22 losses, 25 games over .500; but their finances were
not in such good shape. In 1914 the breakaway Federal League, a rebel
major league which would last only 2 years, placed a team in Baltimore,
across the street from minor league Orioles, and the competition hit
Orioles' attendance significantly. To make ends meet, Dunn was obliged
to dispose of his stars for cash, and sold Ruth's contract, with two
other players to Joseph Lannin, owner of the Boston Red Sox, for a
sum rumored to be between $20,000 and $35,000, although some sources
say it was closer to $3000.
The Red Sox years
Ruth the pitcher
Though Ruth was a skillful pitcher, the Red Sox's starting rotation was already
stacked with lefties, so they initially made little use of him. With a 1-1
record, he sat on the bench for several weeks before being sent to the International
League with the Providence Grays of Providence, Rhode Island. Pitching in combination
with the young Carl Mays, Ruth helped the Grays win the pennant. At the end
of the season the Red Sox recalled him, and he was in the majors permanently.
Shortly afterwards, Ruth proposed to Helen Woodford, a waitress he met in Boston,
and they were married in Baltimore on October 14, 1914.
During spring training the next season, Ruth secured a spot as a starter.
Ruth joined a fine pitching staff that included Rube Foster, Dutch
Leonard, and a rejuvenated Smokey Joe Wood, and their pitching carried
the Red Sox to the pennant. Ruth won 18 games and lost 8, and helped
himself with the bat, hitting .315 and slugging his first four major
league home runs. The Red Sox won the 1915 World Series, defeating
the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 1, but because manager Bill Carrigan
preferred right-handers, Ruth did not pitch and grounded out in his
only at bat.
In 1916 he returned to the rotation, although the team's offense had
been weakened by the sale of Tris Speaker to the Cleveland Indians. After
a slightly shaky spring, he would make a case as the best pitcher in
the American League. He went 23-12, with a 1.75 ERA and 9 shutouts, the
shutout mark is still tied for the best mark for an A.L. left hander,
as well as the current Red Sox record for shutouts in a season. Pitching
again took the light-hitting Sox to the World Series, where they met
the Brooklyn Robins. In game 2 of the series, Ruth pitched a 14-inning
complete game victory, helping the Red Sox to another World Series title,
a 4-1 series win over the Robins. He repeated his strong performance
in 1917, going 24-13, but the Red Sox could not keep pace with the Chicago
White Sox and their 100 wins, and they missed out on a third straight
Emergence as a hitter
After the 1917 season, in which he hit .325, albeit with limited
at bats, it was suggested Ruth might be more valuable in the lineup
as an everyday player. In 1918, he began playing in the outfield more
and pitching less. His contemporaries thought this was ridiculous;
former teammate Tris Speaker speculated the move would shorten Ruth's
career, but Ruth himself wanted to hit more and pitch less. In 1918,
Ruth batted .300 and led the A.L. in home runs with 11, despite having
only 317 at bats, well below the total for an everyday player. He also
pitched well, going 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA., but now his emerging role
as an everday player limited to him to half the innings of the previous
year. Ruth had excelled at the double duty work, and he could make
a case as the best player in the 1918 season. Additionally, he led
the Red Sox to another World Series, where they met the Chicago Cubs.
The 1918 baseball season is noted as the only time a war directly
shortened the season. World War 1 dominated the news, and baseball,
which escaped sacrifice in 1917, was not as fortunate in 1918. A number
of ballplayers were drafted into the armed forces in 1918, and some
players dropped their bats and gloves and went to work in war production
facilities to escape the draft. Since he was married, Ruth was exempt
from the draft. After U.S. Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder issued
his famous "Work or Fight" order in June of 1918, baseball,
qualified by the government as nonessential, was forced to end the
season in the middle of August. A two-week grace period was allowed
for the World Series, but the series was played in the heat of early
September, the earliest the series has ever been played. The 1918 World
Series would be marred by not only the specter of World War 1, but
by abysmal attendance and such low revenue sharing that players threatened
to strike before game 5 of the series.
In the series, Ruth the pitcher went 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA, helping
the Red Sox to a 4-2 series victory over the Cubs. During the series,
Ruth extended his World Series consecutive scoreless inning streak
to 29 2/3 innings (a record that lasted until Whitey Ford broke it
in 1961). Since the Cubs top left handers James Vaughn and Lefty Tyler
pitched nearly all the innings, Ruth's left hand bat was kept him from
the regular lineup, and he batted just 5 times. The Red Sox had won
their fourth World Series in seven years, and fifth overall, and Ruth
had played a major part in three of series titles. Since the 1903 inception
of the World Series to 1918, the Boston Red Sox were the most successful
franchise in major league baseball.
By 1919, Ruth was basically a fulltime outfielder, pitching in only
17 of the 130 games in which he appeared. He set his first single-season
home run record that year, hitting 29 home runs, breaking the previous
record of 27 set by Ned Williamson in 1884, in addition to batting
.322 and driving in 114 runs. News of his batting feats spread rapidly,
and wherever he played large crowds turned out to see him. As his fame
spread, so did his waistline. Since his time as an Oriole, teammates
had marveled at Ruth's capacity for food, and by 1919 his physique
had changed from the tall athletic frame to more of a rotund shape,
although Ruth's weight would have wide flucuations until the mid-1920's.
Beneath his barrel shaped body, his powerful muscular legs seemed strangely
thin, but he was still a capable base-runner and outfielder. His contemporary
Ty Cobb, noted for his cruel bench jockeying of Ruth, would later remark
that Ruth "ran okay for a fat man."
Sold to New York
Despite the box office appeal of Ruth, the Red Sox were
in a perilous financial position. After he took over the club in
1916, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had paid large salaries to attract
the best players (some even accused him of trying to buy the pennant).
But due to World War I, the Red Sox attendance, as in every other
major league city, fell off badly in 1917 and 1918. Revenue was down,
and the financial failure of the 1918 World Series did not help Frazee
either. Frazee, whose true passion was the theater, owned his own
theaters and financed his own shows, but recently his shows were
also losing money. Having overextended himself financially, Frazee
was desperate for cash, and his players were his only source of money.
After the Red Sox championship run from 1912 to 1918 ended with a
crash-the 1919 team finished 66-71, Frazee began selling off his
best players. Frazee sold many of these players to the New York Yankees,
until then, a perennial second division club. After his record setting
season in 1919, Ruth made it clear he wanted his salary doubled from
$10,000 to $20,000 a year. Knowing he could never meet Ruth's demands,
Frazee worked out a deal with Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. For a
sum of $125,000 and a loan of more than $300,000 (secured on Fenway
Park itself), Ruth was sold to the Yankees on January 3.
There was an uneasiness in the Boston sports world just after the
sale was announced, although a number of sportswriters supported the
sale. On January 5, 1920, Frazee faced the press and answered his critics
with calmness and assuredness. He justified his actions with these
"It would be impossible to start next season with Ruth and have
a smooth-working machine. Ruth had become simply impossible, and the
Boston club could no longer put up with his eccentricities. I think
the Yankees are taking a gamble. While Ruth is undoubtedly the greatest
hitter the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish
and inconsiderate men ever to put on a baseball uniform."
From 1920 to 1934, Ruth's tenure as a Yankee, the Boston Red Sox were
the worst team in the American League. During this span they finished
last 10 times, never finished above 5th place, and they had no winning
season until 1935. After they sold Ruth, the Red Sox struggled to win
even a single World Series until 2004, contrasted with the Yankees
overwhelming success in that venue, led to a superstition that was
dubbed the "Curse of the Bambino."
Ruth the Yankee
Almost immediately, Ruth began to pay off on his investment. He trained extensively
over the winter, and in 1920 turned up at spring training in fine condition.
When the season started, it was clear that the more hitter-friendly Polo Grounds
suited him, and Ruth's 1920 season turned into one that no one had ever come
close to seeing before in baseball. He hit 54 home runs, smashing his year-old
record, batted .376, and led the league in runs (158), RBI's (137), walks (148),
and his slugging average of 847 was a major league record for over 80 years
(Barry Bonds eclipsed it with a .863 mark in 2001). Ruth's season was so dominating
it led to one of the most amazing statistics in baseball history. In 1920,
Ruth out-homered all but one team in baseball, as only the Philadelphia Phillies
with 64 hit more home runs than Ruth.
Ruth's remarkable season had the Yankees in a serious pennant chase
for the first time since 1904 (the year a famous wild pitch by Jack
Chesbro cost them the pennant). The Yankees battled the entire season
with the Cleveland Indians, player-managed by Tris Speaker, Ruth's
old Red Sox teammate, and the Chicago White Sox, the same infamous "Black
Sox scandal" team, but in the end, the Indians won the pennant
and eventually the World Series.
Impact on Baseball
Ruth's impact on baseball went well beyond his statistics. Attendance, which
had stagnated in the 1910's, greatly increased due to the attention Ruth brought
to the game, and he was at the forefront of the new live ball era that revolutionized
how the game was played. A few baseball people even gave Ruth credit for "saving" baseball
after the Black Sox scandal broke in the fall of 1920, and although this was
not true, Ruth's exploits on the field likely won back some fans who had been
soured by the scandal.
Ruth of course was not the only reason more fans were coming to the ballpark.
Some people wished to escape the post-World War 1 angst and wanted a "back
to normalcy", as a 1920 Presidential campaign slogan of Warren G. Harding
put it. The dramatic increase in home runs and scoring was also getting fans
attention. These and other reasons were factors, but it is no coincidence that
the 1920 Yankees, Ruth's first year as a Yankee, shattered the major league
attendance mark. The Yankees drew nearly 1.3 million fans, breaking the old
mark of the 1908 New York Giants by nearly 400,000 fans. Attendance dramatically
increased in every major league city in 1920, and seven teams set their own
attendance records. The attention Ruth generated for the game, with all his
home runs, playing in New York, his personality, and even his off the field
activities (some not always positive) was bringing an unprecended spotlight
to baseball. Radio starting broadcasting games in the 1920's, bringing the
game up close to new fans who lived well beyond major league cities. Baseball
still had its problems: a segregated game, competitive imbalance, and owners
with complete control over the players, but the popularity of the game increased
so much that the 1920's has often been called baseball's first Golden Age,
and Babe Ruth can justifiably be given a large share of the credit.
Beginning of the live ball era
Ruth' home runs were at the epicenter of an explosion of offense in baseball.
In 1918, the major league batting average was .254, in 1921 it was .291; the
league ERA went from 2.77 to 4.02, runs increased 25% and home runs increased
300% over the same time span. Almost overnight, baseball had gone from the
most anemic hitting era in baseball history (the dead-ball era) to what would
be the greatest hitting era, the 1920's.
A few factors have been cited for the dramatic increase in offense.
One major reason was baseball outlawed (with some exceptions) the spitball
pitch in 1920, and the next year it banned the emery (scuffed) pitch.
The spitball was a devestating pitch to the batter, as it gave a pitcher
great movement on the ball, especially downward. Another factor was
the league mandate to regularly replace the baseball during a game.
Previously, the same discolored, tobacco stained ball was used over
and over until it was literally falling apart. The overused ball would
lose its resiliency making it much more difficult to hit home runs.
The impetus for this change was the death of Ray Chapman in 1920, who
was killed when he was hit on the head with a dirty, darkened pitched
ball that he apparently lost in the background on an overcast day.
Another reason given for the increase in home runs was that more players
were emulating Ruth's full free swing. Before, batters were largely
content to choke up on the bat and protect the plate. With his swing,
Ruth had shown it was possible to hit a prodigious amount of home runs,
and more players started to swing for fences. With the home run now
a weapon, more managers lessened their previous absolute control of
the offense, and they started to play for the big inning by giving
players more freedom to swing away. By 1921, stolen bases were half
the total from just a few years earlier, and the use of the sacrifice
and hit and run, additional overused strategies during the dead-ball
era, also decreased.
Skeptical of the new offensive in the game, some baseball writers
of the time claimed the baseball was livened (usually done by winding
it tighter, or changing the cork center, or both). This assertion even
became accepted as a fact over time, even though there was no scientific
evidence the ball was changed. One study in in August of 1920 confirmed
the ball was the same as previous years, and early in 1921, also hearing
rumors about the juiced ball, National League President John Heydler
launched his own investigation and also concluded the ball was no different.
Heydler's findings stated the outlawing of the spitball was the predominant
factor for the increased scoring. Those who claimed the ball was livened
may have not had hard evidence, but they may have had history and statistics
on their side, as never in baseball history had there been such a quantum
jump in offense over such a short time.