Monday, January 24, 2011

Babe Ruth: Baseball's Savior


How to hit home runs: I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball...The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.
 —Babe Ruth, in Words of Wisdom by William Safire

The greatest name in American sports history is Babe Ruth, a hitter.
Ted Williams

"There will never be another Babe Ruth. He was the greatest home run hitter who ever lived. They named a candy bar after him.
Reggie Jackson

Babe Ruth in 1921. In 1921 Ruth hit 59 home runs, batted .378, achieved a slugging percentage of .846 and led the Yankees to their first American League championship. Ruth's name became synonymous with the home run.
Photo Credit: George Grantham Bain. Source: United States Library of Congress
Even people who don't know baseball know the name Babe Ruth, a man emblematic of the Roaring Twenties in America. He was a larger-than-life figure who rescued major league baseball from the doldrums and established the New York Yankees as a team to watch. Between 1914 and 1935, all eyes were on Ruth, a commanding figure on the field, where he belted 714 home runs in a 22-year career, establishing many records along the way, including 60 homers in one season in 1927.

It would take decades to best both records and many others that he established during his long and illustrious career. Although he started off in Boston with the Red Sox and ended his playing days in Boston with the Braves, his 15 years with the New York Yankees, between 1920 and 1934, established his reputation as baseball's most exciting player, one who knew how to have fun and win.

For many baseball experts that distinction holds true. Ruth, the famed No. 3, ranks as the greatest baseball player in history, an honor that two respected baseball authorities have bestowed upon him: The Sporting News, and the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR.

He also changed baseball, not only rescuing it from the the dishonor brought about by the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, but also establishing it as a game that could suddenly change with one swing of the bat. In today's parlance, Ruth was a true game-changer:
Ruth is credited with changing baseball itself. The popularity of the game exploded in the 1920s, largely due to his influence. Ruth ushered in the "live-ball era, as his big swing led to escalating 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.
At the peak of his career, he earned an unprecedented $80,000 a season (1930 & 1931), twice what any other ballplayer was earning in the midst of the Great Depression. President Hoover earned $75,000 in 1931. When questioned on why he should make more than the president, Ruth responded in Ruthian fashion: "What the hell has Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did."

Of course, Ruth, who was six-foot-two and weighed 215 pounds, was a natural slugger. But sometimes forgotten was that Ruth was also an exceptional pitcher, which is how he started his career with the Boston Red Sox on July 11, 1914. He played only a few games that season, but won a spot on the starting rotation in 1915.   

He had the most wins as a 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. Despite such pitching stats, his hitting ability was too great for the team to ignore, and Ruth played the outfield between pitching starts. By 1919 he played solely in the outfield, in right field.

The Beginnings

Born George Herman Ruth, Jr. on February 6, 1895, in Baltimore, Maryland. Ruth was raised in a poor waterfront neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, where his parents, Kate Schamberger-Ruth and George Herman Ruth, Sr., owned a tavern. The parents, of German origin, raised their kids as typical Americans. Babe Ruth was one of eight children born to the couple, and one of only two that survived infancy.

His early life is well documented, a kid needing attention and love, and his parents unable to direct his energy and meet his needs. Ruth was wandering the streets, drinking and chewing tobacco and getting into mischief with the police. At age seven, his parents sent him to  St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a Catholic orphanage and reformatory that became Babe's home until he left at 19 to play professional ball.

The school's discipline was precisely what Ruth needed. In addition, there was baseball and Brother Mathias, a monk who became a father figure to the young Ruth. Brother Mathias likely saved Ruth's life, so to speak, and directed the young boy with the right loving touch. Baseball was the answer, and one could say that baseball owes some gratitude to the Baltimore monk for forming the Babe, baseball's eventual savior. As puts it:

Mathias, along with several other monks of the order, introduced Ruth to baseball, a game at which the boy excelled. By the time he was 15, Ruth showed exceptional skill both as a strong hitter and pitcher. It was his pitching that initially caught the attention of Jack Dunn, the owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. At the time, the Orioles groomed players for the major league team known as the Boston Red Sox, and Dunn saw promise in Ruth's athletic performance.
Only 19, the law at the time stated that Ruth had to have a legal guardian sign his baseball contract in order for him to play professionally. As a result, Dunn became Ruth's legal guardian, leading teammates to jokingly call Ruth "Dunn's new babe." The joke stuck, and Ruth quickly earned the nickname "Babe" Ruth.
So explains the origins of one of the most famous nicknames in baseball and sport. We can't mention Ruth and not mention one of the most ill-conceived trades in baseball history. On December 26, 1919, Harry Frazee, the Red Sox's owner, sold Ruth to the New York Yankees for what was essentially a cash deal. It was a great catch, however, for the Yankees. During Ruth's 15 years with the team, his exploits help lead the Yankees to seven World Series rings, solidifying his reputation as the game's greatest player.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig pay a visit to West Point Military Academy, May 6, 1927.
Photo Credit: United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA)
Source: US National Archives

The Called Shot of '32

One of the most famous stories, or myths about Ruth is the "called shot" during Game 3 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in 1932, Ruth's last World Series.. It was the top of the fifth inning, and Ruth was at bat. The count evened at 2 balls and 2 strikes. Ruth made a gesture that seemed to say he was going to hit the ball out of the park for a home run. And on the next pitch, a slow inside  curve from pitcher Charlie Root, Ruth belted a towering homer to the centerfield bleachers

Even so, it might not have happened just that way, although it persists in baseball lore. Here's what John P. Carmichael records Babe Ruth saying about the called shot in My Greatest Day in Baseball:

Aw, everybody knows that game, the day I hit the homer off ole Charlie Root there in Wrigley Field, the day October first, the third game of that thirty-two World Series. But right now I want to settle all arguments. I didn't exactly point to any spot, like the flagpole. Anyway, I didn't mean to, I just sorta waved at the whole fence, but that was foolish enough. All I wanted to do was give that thing a ride... outta the park... anywhere.
Yet, fans like the legend, chiefly since it makes Ruth, an already larger-than-life figure, even larger, a superhero of baseball. And in some fashion he is. His exploits on and off the field are the stuff of legends. Ruth loved kids, and he often acted like a bid kid himself. "Kids and me get along fine," he once said. Such might explain his popularity and fame.

Despite his amazing stats, Ruth might not be baseball's best all-around player (Willie Mays), or even the best natural hitter (Ted Williams), but he is precisely what professional baseball needed in the 1920s. He rescued baseball from the doldrums, and helped make it America's Pastime.

That reason alone makes Ruth baseball's most remembered and loved figure, and one of the greatest personalities in professional sports. "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."

He hit his last home run on May 25, 1935, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The Yankees had traded Ruth to the Boston Braves on February 26, 1935, a team that was then losing a lot of games. That May afternoon, he hit three home runs. The last one, no. 714, was a fitting career end to a great slugger; it was the first ball ever to be hit completely out of that park. "At that point in baseball history, no other player had ever hit even half that many," says"It was a record that would stand for nearly four decades."

Ruth retired from baseball a week later on May 30, 1935, at age 40. For many years after, he waited for a phone call from some team to secure a manager's position. That call never came, making him somewhat of a tragic figure. Ruth died from cancer of the nose and mouth on August 16, 1948, in New York City.  He was 53. The fans played homage to a great player, says
 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.
His funeral was two days later at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and Ruth was buried in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne in New York. Babe Ruth has been called many things, including the Sultan of Swat and the Bambino. To the list I humbly add the Savior of Baseball.

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