George Herman Ruth was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 6, 1895. Ruth made his Major League debut on July 11, 1914, 100 years ago. He became the savior of the National Pastime anrestored public confidence in the game of baseball. “I think I could hit the first time I picked up a bat,” said Ruth. His Father was a saloon keeper and his mother died when he was six. His Father sent him to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, for discipline. Ruth was there for 12 years where he learned how to pitch and play baseball, but remained undisciplined.
In 1914, Jack Dunn, manager of the Orioles, a Minor League team from Baltimore purchased Ruth’s services at the age 19, for $600 from St. Mary’s industrial School for Boys. It is here that the newspapers refer to him as Jack Dunn’s new “Babe” for the first time. The name Babe stuck. Ruth’s first contract paid him $250.00. He proceeded to pitch and win ten games in a row for the Orioles and was purchased by the Boston Red Sox.
Most think that Ruth begins and ends with a 52-ounce bat, but he was signed as a pitcher. In the next two years, Ruth pitched and won 46 games for Boston.
Power baseball was about to be invented. Ruth hit his first home run May 6, 1915, against The New York Yankees. This new Babe Ruth hit well for a pitcher and by 1919, Red Sox Manager Ed Barrow placed Ruth in right field so he could get his bat in the lineup every game. Ruth was blessed with incredible vision and reaction time. In 1919, within six days of Ruth being placed in the lineup everyday, he led the entire American League in hitting. He also set a new record for home runs with 29 for that season.
From 1917 to 1921, several things changed our nation and it’s National Pastime. World War I ended and millions of men came home from Europe; the attendance at every Major League Park doubled and some tripled. Bootleg liquor was sold at speakeasies and movies were invented; the Roaring Twenties had a full head of steam. It was the time of Tom Mix, Jack Dempsey, Knute Rockne, and Bobby Jones.
Then the Chicago Black Sox scandal was discovered in 1920 and baseball went to trial, claiming that Arnold Rothstein and the gamblers interfered with the game. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox, including the great “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Ban Johnson, the American League President, was shoved aside by the owners, and a Judge known as “Kennesaw Mountain” Landis became the final word concerning baseball matters. The eight White Sox were found not guilty, but Landis banned all eight from ever playing again, even though some of them were not involved in the fix nor had they accepted any money, thus ending Joe Jackson’s bid for the Hall of Fame. The eight banned White Sox players were as follows: “Buck” Weaver, “Chick” Gandil, “Lefty” Williams, “Swede” Risberg, Fred McMullan, Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte and “Happy” Felsch.
Ruth loved living large. “I swing big and I miss big,” he was quoted as saying. He also saved baseball in 1920 by inventing the home run as an offensive weapon. In 1920, Harry Frazee, owner of the Red Sox, was broke and sold Babe Ruth to Jacob Rupert, owner of the New York Yankees, for $125,000 and a $350.000 loan. At that time, New York had never won a pennant, much less a World Series. After Halas injured his ankle sliding into second base, Ruth would take George Halas’s place in right field. Halas would go on to play tight end for ten years with the Chicago Bears and then to become their head coach. Halas would help organize and create what we now call the National Football League.
Ruth’s salary was $20,000 that year and he earned it by hitting 54 home runs, while the rest of the team hit 61. Ruth’s 54 home runs were more than all the other 15 teams but one (Philadelphia Phillies hit 64). Ruth played all his home games in the Pologrounds, home of the New York Giants, while waiting for Yankee Stadium to be built. The Yankees became the first team to draw one million fans.
The game of baseball was changing, also. In 1910, a new livelier cork-centered ball was put into play. From 1917-1921, team batting averages went from .250 to .285. Increased hitting meant more scoring. ERA’s went from 2.85 to over 4.00 and stayed there. Before 1917, only two or three players a year recorded 100 RBI”s or more; but in 1921, 15 players accomplished that feat.
There is no doubt that Ruth’s home run excited the crowds and the owners loved it. Players followed Ruth with heavier bats with smaller handles. The papers began to create nicknames: “Sultan of Swat,” the “Big Bam,” the Great “Bambino” (Italian for baby), “Colossus of Clout,” “King of Crash.” When Ruth came to the plate, people stood up and began to applaud before he had taken a practice swing.
In 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs and drove in 171 RBI’s. In 1922, he hit 35 home runs. In 1923, Yankee Stadium “The House that Ruth Built” opened its doors on April 18th at the cost of 2.5 million. One hundred thousand fans showed up for 62,000 seats. In the third inning with two men on base, Ruth hit the first of his 41 home runs to right centerfield. He batted .393 for the year and almost single-handedly won the first World Series for the New York Yankees. Boston fans dubbed the sale “The Curse of the Bambino.” Lou Gehrig joined the Yankees. Ruth became the first athlete to earn $50,000 a year.
In 1924, Ruth hit 46 home runs while batting .378. In 1925, he reported to spring training out of shape. He became very sick from over-eating and drinking. He only played in 98 games. The media called it “The year of the Big Bellyache.” In 1926, he worked out playing golf and boxing to lose weight. He was making $52,000 a year and he hit 47 home runs.
The 1927 New York Yankees have been considered the best baseball team ever assembled. Ruth hit 60 home runs, not including the four he hit in the World Series win. His feats made the front page of the newspapers. His salary was raised to $70,000. Teammate Lou Gehrig hit 47 home runs.
In 1928 Ruth hit 54 home runs. On January 11, 1929, tragedy struck as Helen Ruth died in a house fire. They had been separated for three years. Ruth married Claire Hodgson later that spring and he had two daughters, one from each marriage. At Claire’s insistence, Ruth hired Christi Walsh to manage his finances. Walsh gave him $35.00 a week for spending money. On September 29th, Yankee Manager Miller Huggins passed away, and Ruth wanted to manage the Yankees. Ruth was told “no” to managing, but his salary was raised to $80,000 and guaranteed for two years. Jack Shawkey was hired to manage the Yanks. When asked by reporters why he should make more than President Herbert Hoover, Ruth responded, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.” Ruth passed 500 home runs in 1929.
From 1930-1934, his fast-paced life started catching up. He hit 49 home runs in 1930, 46 in 1931 and 41 in 1932. In 1931, Ruth hit his 600th home run on August 21, 1931. In 1933, his legs hurt; he used heating pads and gained weight easily. He barnstormed and starred in movies, spoke on the radio, drove fast, and spent money like it was water. In his first eleven years, Babe had earned over $500,000 dollars and had nothing to show for it. No one wanted him as a manager, so by 1935 at the age of 40, he quit. He was the only player inducted into the inaugural Hall-of-Fame class of 1936 that did not get to manage.
Then he was persuaded to join the Boston Braves with a promise to manage the following year. Babe realized he was being used to fill seats. On May 25, 1935, he hit three consecutive home runs at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The last home run (#714) cleared the right-field stands. It was the first time anyone had ever hit three home runs in one game, and he also became the first to hit a home run completely out of Forbes Field. Five days later, he retired for good.
Ruth posted a 94-46 win-loss record as a pitcher for his career, with an ERA of 2.28. Ruth is still second to only Mickey Mantle in home runs hit during a World Series, with 15; Mantle hit 18. When Ruth hit his 500th home run, the second closest player was Roger Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals, with 236. Willie Mays and Babe Ruth never hit for the cycle. Jimmy Foxx became the second player to reach 500 home runs on September 24, 1940; five years after Ruth quit playing.
In 1939, Ruth had a heart attack but survived. Then he developed headaches and cancer of the throat. In June of 1948, Ruth came to Yankee Stadium for the last time. He addressed the crowd and ended his speech with these words: “The only real game, I think, is baseball.” The ovation still echoes in New York. Eight weeks later, he would be dead. Ruth died at the age of 52, on August 16, 1948.
At the time of his death, he held or had tied 61 Major League records. Twenty-eight of those were World Series records and the other 33 were Major League records. Sixty-four years after his death, Babe Ruth still matters, and there is still no one like him. Ruth finished his career with a .342 batting average, 714 home runs, 2,874 hits, 2,217 RBI’s, and an ERA of 2.28.
The one thing Babe Ruth was afraid of was being forgotten. Fat chance!
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.