Babe Ruth was an American original - perhaps no single word describes him better than "Ruthian," and maybe that says it all. Baseball's most celebrated slugger, his popularity saved baseball in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and he changed the way the game was played by adding dimension to offenses with the home run.
Fresh out of St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore, he debuted as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, winning 89 games over six seasons. He helped the Red Sox to three World Series titles, in 1915, 1916 and again in 1918, and at one point he posted 29 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play (a record that stood for 42 years). He led the AL with a 1.75 ERA and nine shutouts in 1916, going 23-12 for the World Champion Red Sox, and won a career-high 24 in 1917. In 1917, his .325 batting average (in 123 at-bats) trailed only superstars Cobb, Sisler, and Speaker.
He began playing some outfield in 1918 to get additional at-bats and led the AL in home runs in 1918 and 1919, with a major league record 29 in 1919. In 1920, he was sold to the Yankees for the then unheard-of sum of $100,000, and the Yankees converted one of the game's finest hurlers into an outfielder because of his power.
The Red Sox never won the World Series again; Ruth's Yankees went to the World Series in 1921-1923, 1926-1928, and 1932, and won in 1923, 1927-28, and 1932. Ruth led the league in home runs an astonishing 12 times (shattering his 1919 record of 29 with an astounding 54 in 1920), slugging percentage 13 times, on-base percentage 10 times, walks 11 times, runs batted in 6 times and runs scored 8 times. He is first all-time in slugging percentage and second all-time in on-base average. Even that doesn't do justice to his dominance - consider this: in 1920, he hit more home runs than any other team in major league baseball.
As America sank into the Great Depression, Ruth's muscle turned to fat and his legendary power began to fade - in 1933, heh it 34 HR and drove in 103 runs, numbers that for him were subpar. Realizing his playing days were nearly over, Ruth hoped to take over from Joe McCarthy at the helm of the team he had made famous - the New York Yankees. Loyalty to his team and his desire to still contribute on the field led him to turn down offers to manage the Red Sox in 1932 and 1933, but Yankee executive Ed Barrow - the man who had moved Ruth from the mound to the outfield in 1918 - had little confidence in the Bambino's ability to lead a team from the dugout. Instead, he offered Ruth a job as a minor-league player-manager with a Yankee affiliate in Newark. Ruth declined the offer, telling reporters, "I'm a big-leaguer."
Finally, Boston Braves owner Judge Emil Fuchs - after some lobbying by Boston politician and Ruth booster James Michael Curley - called Ruth and offered him a job. The offer was not to replace Braves manager Bill McKechnie, but to be a player for a year and have a chance to take over for McKechnie when his contract expired the following season. The Yankees refused to take anything for Ruth - they were happy to give him his release and wished him well in Boston.
Unfortunately, Fuchs had promised much more than he intended to deliver - Ruth eventually realized that the Braves had no intention of naming him player-coach the following season. But he still had one Ruthian day left in him - on May 25, 1935, against Pittsburgh, he went 4 for 4 with 3 home runs. The last one cleared the roof in Forbes Field, and victim-pitcher Guy Bush estimated that it went 600 feet.
Ruth completed the road trip, and then hung up his cleats - he finished the season hitting .181. Except for a very brief stint later as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball was done with Babe Ruth - in 1936, when he asked the New York Yankees for opening day tickets, the club said, "Sure, just send a check."
"I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands."
Picture from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc.
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