Babe RuthFebruary 18th, 2008
In 1936, Ruth became one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1969, he was named baseball's Greatest Player Ever in a ballot commemorating the 100th anniversary of professional baseball. In 1998, The Sporting News ranked Ruth Number 1 on the list of "Baseball's 100 Greatest Players." According to ESPN, he was the first true American sports celebrity superstar whose fame transcended baseball.
Although he spent most of his career as an outfielder with the New York Yankees, Ruth began his career as a successful starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. While Babe Ruth will always be remembered as one of the greatest hitters of all time, he was also an equally adept pitcher. In his first World Series game for the Red Sox in 1916, Babe set a record that still stands today, pitching 13 scoreless innings, thus producing the longest complete game in World Series history at 14 innings. He compiled an 89-46 win-loss record during his time with the Red Sox, pitching 29 2/3 scoreless World Series innings (a record which stood for 43 years). In 1918, Ruth started to play in the outfield and at first base so he could help the team on a day-to-day basis as a hitter. In 1919, appearing in 111 games as an outfielder, he hit 29 home runs to break Ned Williamson's record for a single season.
In 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees. In his next 15 seasons in New York, Ruth led the league or placed in the top ten in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, total bases, home runs, RBIs, and walks several times. Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927 was the single season home run record for 34 years until it was broken by Roger Maris. Ruth's lifetime total of 714 home runs was once considered one of Major League Baseball's "unbreakable" records, but Hank Aaron broke it in 1974, although it required Aaron 2500 more at bats. In contrast, after he was sold from the Red Sox, the Red Sox franchise floundered for decades after having been previously the most successful Major League team prior to the trade. This great disparity of success between the Yankees and Red Sox eventually led to a superstition that was dubbed the "Curse of the Bambino", a "curse" that effectively ended in 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series title in 86 years.
Beyond his unprecedented statistics, Ruth completely changed baseball itself. The popularity of the game exploded in the 1920s, largely due to him. Ruth ushered in the "live-ball era" as his big swing led to gargantuan home run totals that not only excited fans, but helped baseball evolve from a low-scoring, speed-dominated game to a high-scoring power game.
Off the field he was famous for his charity, but also was noted for his often reckless lifestyle that epitomized the hedonistic 1920s. Ruth became an American icon, and even though he died nearly 60 years ago his name is still one of the most famous in all of American sports. His participation in an all-star tour of Japan in 1934 sparked that country's rabid interest in professional baseball; a decade later, Japanese soldiers seeking the ultimate insult for American troops would sometimes shout, "To hell with Babe Ruth!"
In 1999, baseball fans named Ruth to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. In a 1999 ESPN poll, he was ranked as the third greatest US athlete of the century, behind Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali.
Ruth appeared in five games for the Red Sox in 1914, pitching in four of them. He picked up the victory in his Major League debut on July 11; ironically, Duffy Lewis scored the winning run after pinch-hitting for Ruth. The Red Sox had many star players in 1914, so Ruth was soon optioned to the minor league Providence Grays of Providence, Rhode Island for most of the remaining season. Behind Ruth and Carl Mays, the Grays won the International League pennant.
Shortly after the season, in which he'd finished with a 2-1 record, Ruth proposed to Helen Woodford, a waitress he met in Boston. They were married in Ellicott City, Maryland, on October 17, 1914.
During spring training in 1915, Ruth secured a spot in the starting rotation. He joined a pitching staff that included Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, and Smokey Joe Wood. Ruth won 18 games, lost eight, and helped himself by hitting .315. He also hit his first four home runs. The Red Sox won 101 games that year on their way to a victory in the World Series. Ruth was not a factor; he did not pitch in the series, and he grounded out in his only at-bat.
In 1916, after a slightly shaky spring, he went 23-12, with a 1.75 ERA and 9 shutouts. On June 27, he struck out 10 Philadelphia A's, a career high. On July 11, he started both games of a doubleheader, but the feat was not what it seemed; he only pitched a third of an inning in the opener because the scheduled starter Rube Foster was having trouble getting loose. Ruth then pitched a complete game victory in the nightcap. Ruth had unusual success against Washington Senators star pitcher Walter Johnson, beating him four times in 1916 alone, by scores of 5-1, 1-0, 1-0 in 13 innings, and 2-1. Johnson finally outlasted Ruth for an extra-inning 4-3 victory on September 12; in the years to come, Ruth would hit 10 home runs off Johnson, including the only two Johnson would allow in 1918-1919. Ruth had nine shutouts in 1916, an AL record for left-handers that was unmatched until Ron Guidry tied it in 1978.
Despite a weak offense and hurt by the sale of Tris Speaker to the Indians, the Red Sox still made it to the World Series. They defeated the Brooklyn Robins four games to one. This time Ruth made a major contribution, pitching a 14-inning complete-game victory in Game Two.
On December 26, 1919, Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees. Popular legend has it that Frazee sold Ruth and several other of his best players to finance a Broadway play, No, No, Nanette (which actually didn't debut until 1925). The truth is somewhat more nuanced.
After the 1919 season, Ruth demanded a raise to $20,000-double his previous salary. However, Frazee refused, and Ruth responded by letting it be known he wouldn't play until he got his raise. He'd actually jumped the team several times, including the last game of the 1919 season.
Frazee finally lost patience with Ruth, and decided to trade him. However, he was effectively limited to two trading partners--the Chicago White Sox and the then-moribund Yankees. The other five clubs rejected his deals out of hand under pressure from American League president Ban Johnson, who never liked Frazee and was actively trying to "Yank" the Red Sox out from under him. The White Sox offered Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000, but Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston offered an all-cash deal--$100,000.
Frazee, Ruppert and Huston quickly agreed to a deal. In exchange for Ruth, the Red Sox would get $125,000 in cash and three $25,000 notes payable every year at 6 percent interest. Ruppert and Huston also loaned Frazee $300,000, with the mortgage on Fenway Park as collateral. The deal was contingent on Ruth signing a new contract, which was quickly agreed to, and Ruth officially became property of the Yankees on December 26. The deal was announced ten days later.
In the January 6, 1920 edition of the Boston Globe, Frazee described the transaction:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I should have preferred to take players in exchange for Ruth, but no club could have given me the equivalent in men without wrecking itself, and so the deal had to be made on a cash basis. No other club could afford to give me the amount the Yankees have paid for him, and I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mind saying I think they are taking a gamble. With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us.Ã¢â‚¬Â However, the January 6, 1920 New York Times was more prescient:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The short right field wall at the Polo Grounds should prove an easy target for Ruth next season and, playing seventy-seven games at home, it would not be surprising if Ruth surpassed his home run record of twenty-nine circuit clouts next Summer.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ruth's impact on American culture still commands attention. Top performers in other sports are often referred to as "The Babe Ruth of ______." He is widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball players in history. Many polls place him as the number one player of all time.
His name comes up anytime home runs are discussed, including Barry Bonds' passing Ruth's career number in 2006. Films have been made featuring Ruth, or a Ruth-like figure ("The Whammer" in The Natural, for example). TV commercials are still made which feature caricatures of Ruth.
In addition to the Yankees dynasty itself, one living monument to Ruth is Yankee Stadium. That part of the legacy will be revised in a few years: Groundbreaking for a new Yankee Stadium, replacing the adjacent structure known as "The House That Ruth Built", took place on August 16, 2006, the 58th anniversary of Ruth's death.
As a sidelight to his prominent role in changing the game to the power game, the frequency and popularity of Ruth's home runs eventually led to a rule change pertaining to those hit in sudden-death mode (bottom of the ninth or later inning). Prior to 1931, as soon as the first necessary run to win the game scored, the play was over, and the batter was credited only with the number of bases needed to drive in the winning run. Thus, if the score was 3-2 with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, and the batter smacked an "over the fence home run", the game would end at 4-3, with the batter only allowed a double, and the runners officially stopped on 2nd and 3rd (since they weren't needed to win the game). The new rule allowed the entire play to complete, justified on the grounds that the ball was dead and that all runners could freely advance, thus granting the full allotment of HR and RBI to the batter, as we know it today. Several players lost home runs that way, including Ruth, whose career total would have been changed to 715 if historians during the 1960s had been successful in pursuing this matter. Major League Baseball elected not to retrofit the records to the modern rules, and Ruth's total stayed at 714.
Another rules change that affected Ruth was the method used by umpires to judge potential home runs when the batted ball left the field near a foul pole. Before 1931, i.e. through most of Ruth's most productive years, the umpire called the play based on the ball's final resting place "when last seen". Thus, if a ball went over the fence fair, and curved behind the foul pole, it was ruled foul. Beginning in 1931 and continuing to the present day, the rule was changed to require the umpire to judge based on the point where the ball cleared the fence. Jenkinson's book (p.374-375) lists 78 foul balls near the foul pole in Ruth's career, claiming that at least 50 of them were likely to have been home runs under the modern rule.
Ruth's 1919 contract that sent him from Boston to New York was sold at auction for $996,000 at Sotheby's on June 10, 2005. The most valuable memorabilia item relating to Ruth was his 1923 bat which he used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923. Ruth's heavy Louisville Slugger solid ash wood bat sold for $1.26 million at a Sotheby's auction in December 2004, making it the second most valuable baseball memorabilia item to date, just behind the famous 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card.