Red Sox and Yankees
1919 - 1934
Hall of Fame: 1936
"He was a circus, a play and a movie, all rolled into one," said teammate Lefty Gomez. "Kids adored him, Men idolized him. Women loved him. There was something about him that made him great." Babe Ruth was more than a great baseball player, he was an American hero who became a legend and an icon. Long after his last home run, his name has come to signify greatness and strength.
Early in life it was not evident that George Herman "Babe" Ruth would be a slugger of legendary proportions. He was an awkward-looking young man from the streets of Baltimore, where he grew up in the care of his father, a saloon-kepper, and later in a boys home, after his parents gave up trying to keep him out of trouble. It was in the boys home that Ruth learned to harness his great energy and play the game of baseball. He signed with the mionor league Baltimore Orioles in 1912 and by 1914 he was in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox, as a pitcher.
The Red Sox were the best team in the American League, and a perfect place for Ruth to learn to be a major leaguer. In 1916 he got his first chance to pitch in a World Series and made the most of his one appearance. After giving up a run in the first inning, he drove in the tying run himself, then held the Brooklyn Dodgers scoreless for the next eleven innings until his team could score the winning run. In the 1918 World Series he continued his pitching heroics, running his series record to 29 2/3 scoreless innings, a mark that stood for forty-three years.
With the talented Sox, Ruth went 18-8 in 1915, 23-12 (with a league-leading 1.75 ERA and nine shutouts) in 1916, 24-13 (2.01 ERA) in 1917, and 13-7 in 1918. He was the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball from 1915-1917. The Red Sox won the World Series in 1915, 1916 and 1918. Ruth's pitching mark was 89-46 with the Sox, but his booming bat was too loud to be heard only every four days. Red Sox manager Ed Barrow, at the suggestion of outfielder Harry Hooper, began playing the Babe in the outfield in-between his starts.
In 1918, Ruth led the American League with 11 home runs, despite playing just 59 games as an outfielder. The next season he started just 15 games on the mound and led the loop in homers again, with an unheard of total of 29. He was gaining attention with his home run trot, rounding the bases with what one observer noted were tiny "debutante" ankles. In 1919, he played 130 games and was now an everyday player. He seemed poised to lead the Red Sox to the top of the league for years to come. But, despite Ruth's obvious value as a slugger, he was dealt to the New York Yankees prior to the 1920 season, in a deal that haunted Boston owner Harry Frazee for years to come. Over the next 15 years, Ruth would hit hundreds of homers while helping the Yankees to the World Series seven times. The Red Sox are still waiting to win another World Series title.
Crushed by his sale to the Yankees, Ruth was unsure of his future in New York. But his doubts failed to affect his performance in 1920. Ruth's 54 homers surpassed every other team in the majors except one. That same season, Ruth slugged an astonishing .847, a record that stood for more than 80 years. In 1920, the Yankees, coincidentally, became the first team to draw more than one million fans to a ballpark, more than double the attendance of any other club. As Yankee manager Miller Huggins said, "They all flock to see him," because the American fan "likes the fellow who carries the wallop."
As an encore in 1921, Ruth outdid himself, setting major league records with his totals of 59 homers, 457 total bases, 171 RBI and 177 runs scored. He had at this point in his career already hit more homers than anyone in baseball history. And he was only 26 years old. Off the field he was a superstar, the first real sports icon in American history. He did everything in a big way - he ate, he drank, he chased women, and he had a great time being "The Babe."
In 1922, Ruth's raucous ways began to catch up with him. He ignored Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis's ban on barnstorming in the off-season and traveled with his own All-Star team. For his transgression, he was suspended for 39 days, missing the start of the regular season. In May, he threw dirt in an umpire's eyes, took off after a heckler in the stands, and when the crowd booed him, he stood on the dugout roof shaking his fist and yelling, "You're all yellow!" Once again he was suspended. In September he had another run-in with a fan, and was suspended again. He sat out nearly a third of the 1922 season and still hit 25 home runs, but he wasn't himself. In the World Series, the Yankees lost to the Giants and Ruth hit just .118.
Despite the terrible 1922 campaign, Ruth's arrival in New York signaled an era of success for the Yankees. After winning 95 games in 1920, the Yankees won the pennant in 1921 and 1922. After losing the World Series twice to the Giants, the Yanks finally won their first championship in 1923 - with new Yankee Stadium as the backdrop. Fittingly, it was dubbed "The House That Ruth Built," and the Babe blasted the first homer in the new stadium. The Yankees won the pennant again in 1926, and back-to-back World Series titles in 1927-1928. Ruth was a monster in the post-season, and he hit .516 with five homers, 11 RBI, 13 runs, and a 1.097 slugging percentage in the '27 and '28 Series combined.
With the Yankees, Ruth teamed with first baseman Lou Gehrig to launch a dynasty that would dominate baseball. Starting with their first flag in 1921, the Yanks won 29 pennants in 44 years from 1921-1964. It all started with the acquisition of Ruth from the Red Sox.
Ruth reached his apex of stardom in 1927. Ruth belted a record 60 homers and established a mark that sluggers would aim at for years to come. The rotund slugger continued to knock the ball out of the park over the next few seasons, winning his sixth straight home run title in 1931. In 1932, the Yankees won their final title with Ruth, defeating the Cubs in the World Series, which featured Babe's famous "Called Shot." For the Babe it was his seventh World Series ring.
At the tail end of his career, Babe Ruth's determination to become a major league manager prompted him to turn down an offer from the Yankees to manage their top minor league team, the Newark Bears. Instead, in the spring of 1935 he joined the worst team in the National League, the Boston Braves, as an "assistant manager" and active player, lured by unsubstantiated overtures that he might become their manager the next season. As a player he was all but finished. He reported to the team grossly overweight, which threw his timing off at the plate and made him appear a buffoon in the outfield. There was a slanting terrace in left field in Cincinnati that acted as a warning track near the concrete left-field fence. When Ruth chased fly balls near it, he would stumble, fall, or catch balls in what appeared to be self defense.
On May 25, 1935, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ruth flashed his greatness one final, glorious time. That afternoon, he hit three home runs; the last one, the first ball ever to be hit completely out of that park! He crushed the ball so convincingly that the Pirate players simply stood and watched it disappear behind the stands. The crowd of 10,000 let loose a mighty roar as the old slugger hobbled around the bases. When he rounded third, the pitcher, Guy Bush, tipped his cap to the Babe, who smiled and saluted back. It was the last home run he would ever hit, number 714. At that point in baseball history, no other player had ever hit even half that many. It was a record that would stand for nearly four decades.
A week later, Ruth announced his retirement from baseball. From that time until the day he died, he waited and waited for a call from some team, any team, to become a major league manager. A call that would never come.
Ruth's achievements were remarkable. Thirteen times he drove in over 100 runs, with a high of 171 in 1921. He hit over .300 seventeen times, topping out at .393 in 1923. Twelve times he led the majors in home runs and thirteen times he led the majors in slugging. His .690 career slugging average remains the highest in history. When he retired, his 714 home runs, 2,174 runs, 2,211 RBI and his 2,056 walks ranked at the top of the all-time list.
June 13, 1948, was chosen to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Yankee Stadium. Babe Ruth, the man who had hit the first home run in that stadium was ill with throat cancer, but was determined to be on hand. His wife and doctors kept the mortal diagnosis from him, but he knew the end was near. "The termites have got me," he told Connie Mack when Mack visited him. Surgery had stemmed the disease for a short time, but had damaged his larynx, shrinking his exuberant voice to an old man's rasp.
The clubhouse was lined with his old teammates and survivors of the 1923 team. They played a two inning exhibition game against veterans from other years. Ruth was too exhausted to take part. Friends helped him into his old uniform, which hung on his frail, thin body like a tent. It was raining that day and someone put a camel's hair coat over his shoulders. One by one, his old teammates were introduced, to booming cheers from the adoring crowd. Finally, announcer Mel Allen's voice called him to home plate. He shuddered out of his topcoat and using a bat (Bob Feller's) as a cane, walked out to home plate on the wave of a tumultuous ovation. When it subsided, he managed to croak a few words into the microphones, expressing his pride at hitting the first home run there and acknowledging the presence of some of his friends.
Soon he was back in the hospital, where he signed autographs, watched baseball on television, listened to his wife read him some of the hundreds of letters he got every day, and did his best to keep up a jovial front when visitors came to call.
Babe Ruth died of cancer at 8:01 p.m., August 16, 1948. He was only fifty-three years old. Over 100,000 fans paid their respects at Yankee Stadium, where he lay in rest. Grieving fathers held up their sons for a final look at the face of the greatest player in baseball history. Ruth's old teammates volunteered as pallbearers and the flag at Yankee Stadium flew at half-mast.
Many of Babe Ruth's records have been broken in the years since his playing days ended. But no one has ever come close to diminishing his legacy. His tremendous achievements and larger than life personality changed the face of the sport forever. There will never be another Babe Ruth.