Like perhaps no other Hall of Famer except Joe Morgan a generation later, Ruffing's career was made by a change of scenery. In fact, like Morgan, Ruffing had two careers - one was characterized by mediocrity and in the other he ascended to historic heights of excellence to achieve immortality.
As a youngster, he overcame adversity - he lost four toes on his left foot in a mine accident, which hastened a transition from the outfield to the mound. He began his career with the hapless Boston Red Sox in 1924, at the age of 20. From 1925 to 1929, his record was 39-96: he went 9-18 in 1925, 6-15 in 1926, 5-13 in 1927, 10-25 in 1928, and 9-22 in 1929 - in those years, leading the AL in losses in 1928 and 1929. His ERA was always around or slightly above the league average, and his team was always last in batting and averaged a meager 35 HR annually.
But Yankee manager Miller Huggins was interested in him, and in 1930 the cash-strapped Boston ownership, badly in need of money, sold Ruffing to New York for backup outfielder Cedric Durst and $50,000. His career blossomed when he was traded to the Yankees - in the 15 seasons that followed, Ruffing went 231-124, threw 42 shutouts (he had 6 for Boston), and had four straight 20-win seasons from 1936 to 1939 to become the ace of the great Yankee dynasty that may be the greatest of all time. He led the AL in wins in 1938 (with 21 wins). He played on 7 pennant winners (1932, 1936-1939, 1941-1942) and 6 World Champions, and went 7-2 in World Series competition, placing him second behind Whitey Ford all time in World Series wins.
Ruffing's success didn't come all at once. He went 15-5 in his first year with the Yankees, and went 15-8 and then 16-14 in 1931 and 1932. His ERA remained high in those years, but he benefited from strong run support - while he was with the Yankees, his team averaged .276 and 146 homers a year.
Ruffing then had his first truly great season in 1932, going 18-7 and finishing second to Lefty Grove in the ERA race. This was the first that he had finished in the top ten in ERA, but it would not be the last - he would do so every year from 1934 to 1940. He had his first 20-win season in 1936, at the age of 32 (his 13th season in the majors), and repeated the feat in 1937, 1938 and 1939.
Along with Lefty Gómez, the great left-handed fireballer who won ERA titles in 1934 and 1937, Ruffing formed one-half of one of the best left-righty duo of all time. In the 1960s, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were just as good, and Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in the 1990s probably were just as god also; maybe Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain in the late 1940s were close.
Ruffing was also one of the best-hitting pitchers of all time, with lifetime marks of .269 (10th among pitchers with 500 at-bats), 36 HR (3rd), 273 RBI, and 58 hits in 228 pinch-hitting appearances. He batted over .300 eight times, his .364 (40-for-110) in 1930 standing as the second-best single-season average for a pitcher (Walter Johnson hit .433 in 1925).
He spent three years in the army in WWII, but lasted for only three injury-plagued seasons upon his return. After retiring at age 43, he managed in the minors, scouted, and in 1962 became the Mets' first pitching coach. He was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 1967 by the BBWAA in his last year of eligibility.
Picture from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc.
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