The Greatest Sports Figure Ever.
Ruth was born at 216 Emory Street in south Baltimore, Maryland. The house, which was only a block from where Oriole Park at Camden Yards stands now, was rented by his maternal grandfather, Pius Schamberger, a German immigrant who eked out a living as an upholsterer. Babe's parents, Kate and George, Sr., lived above the saloon they owned and operated on Camden Street. Kate would walk to her father's home each time she gave birth to a child, eight in all. Only Babe and his sister, Mary (some sources give her name as Marnie), survived infancy.
Young George was known for mischievous behavior. He skipped school, ran the streets, and committed petty crimes. By age seven, he was drinking, chewing tobacco, and had become difficult for his parents to control. Mary recalled how their father would beat Babe in a desperate attempt to bring the boy into line, but to no avail. He was finally sent to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a school run by Catholic brothers. Brother Matthias, a Roman Catholic brother and the school's disciplinarian, became the major influence on his life, the one man Babe respected above all others. It was Brother Matthias who taught him baseball, working with him for countless hours on hitting, fielding and, later, pitching.
Because of his "toughness", George became the team's catcher. He liked the position because he was involved in every play. One day as his team was getting pounded, George started mocking his own pitcher. Brother Matthias promptly switched him from catcher to pitcher to teach him a lesson, but instead of getting his comeuppance, George shut the other team down.
Brother Gilbert brought Ruth to the attention of Jack Dunn, owner and manager of the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, and the man often credited with discovering him. In 1914 Dunn signed 19-year-old Ruth to pitch for his club, and took him to spring training in Florida, where a strong performance with bat and ball saw him make the club, while his precocious talent and childlike personality saw him nicknamed "Dunn's Babe." On April 22, 1914, "The Babe" pitched his first professional game, a six-hit, 6-0 victory over the Buffalo Bisons, also of the International League.
On July 4 the Orioles had a record of 47?22, but their finances were in poor condition. In 1914 the breakaway Federal League, a rebel major league which would last only two years, placed a team in Baltimore, just across the street from the minor league Orioles, and the competition hit Orioles' attendance significantly. To make ends meet, Dunn was obliged to dispose of his stars for cash, and he sold Ruth's contract with two other players to Joseph Lannin, owner of the Boston Red Sox, for a sum rumored to be between $20,000 and $35,000.
Ruth was a skillful pitcher, but the Red Sox's starting rotation was already stacked with lefties, so they initially made little use of him. With a 1?1 record, he sat on the bench for several weeks before being sent to the International League with the Providence Grays of Providence, Rhode Island. Pitching in combination with the young Carl Mays, Ruth helped the Grays win the pennant. At the end of the season, the Red Sox called him back to the majors, and Ruth would stay in the majors permanently. Shortly after the season, Ruth proposed to Helen Woodford, a waitress he met in Boston, and they were married in Baltimore on October 14, 1914.
During spring training in 1915, Ruth secured a spot as a starter. He joined a fine pitching staff that included Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, and a rejuvenated Smokey Joe Wood, and their pitching carried the Red Sox to the pennant. Ruth won 18 games and lost 8, and helped himself with the bat by hitting .315 and hitting his first four major league home runs. The Red Sox won the 1915 World Series, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 1, but because manager Bill Carrigan preferred right-handers, Ruth did not pitch and grounded out in his only at bat.
Ruth continued to improve in 1916. After a slightly shaky spring, he would make a case as the best pitcher in the American League. He went 23?12, with a 1.75 ERA and 9 shutouts; the shutout mark is still tied for the best mark for an A.L. left hander. The Red Sox offense had been weakened by the sale of Tris Speaker to the Cleveland Indians, but their strong pitching again took them to the World Series, where they met the Brooklyn Robins. In game 2 of the series, Ruth pitched a 14-inning complete game victory, helping the Red Sox to another World Series title, a 4?1 series win over the Robins. He repeated his strong performance in 1917, going 24?13, but the Red Sox could not keep pace with the Chicago White Sox and their 100 wins, and they missed out on a third straight postseason appearance.
After the 1917 season in which he hit .325, albeit with limited at bats, teammate Harry Hooper suggested that Ruth might be more valuable in the lineup as an everyday player. In 1918, he began playing in the outfield more and pitching less. His contemporaries thought this was ridiculous; former teammate Tris Speaker speculated the move would shorten Ruth's career, but Ruth himself wanted to hit more and pitch less. In 1918, Ruth batted .300 and led the A.L. in home runs with 11 despite having only 317 at bats, well below the total for an everyday player. He also pitched well, going 13?7 with a 2.22 ERA, and Ruth's excellence as hitter and pitcher could have him make a strong case as the best player in baseball during the 1918 season. He also led the Red Sox to another World Series, where they met the Chicago Cubs.
The 1918 World Series would be marred by not only the specter of World War I, but by abysmal attendance and such low revenue sharing that players threatened to strike before game 5. In the series, Ruth the pitcher went 2?0 with a 1.06 ERA, helping the Red Sox to a 4?2 series victory over the Cubs. During the series, Ruth extended his World Series consecutive scoreless inning streak to 29 2/3 innings (a record that lasted until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961). Since the Cubs top left-handers Hippo Vaughn and Lefty Tyler pitched nearly all the innings, Ruth's left-hand batting kept him from the regular lineup, and he batted just five times. The Red Sox had won their fourth World Series in seven years and fifth overall, and Ruth had played a major part in three of the series titles. From the 1903 inception of the World Series to 1918, the Boston Red Sox were the most successful franchise in major league baseball.
By 1919, Ruth was basically a fulltime outfielder, pitching in only 17 of the 130 games in which he appeared. He set his first single-season home run record that year, hitting 29 home runs, breaking the previous record of 27 set by Ned Williamson in 1884, in addition to batting .322 and driving in 114 runs. News of his batting feats spread rapidly, and wherever he played large crowds turned out to see him. As his fame spread, so did his waistline. Since his time as an Oriole, teammates had marveled at Ruth's capacity for food, and by 1919 his physique had changed from the tall athletic frame to more of a rotund shape, although Ruth's weight would have wide fluctuations until the mid-1920s. Beneath his barrel-shaped body, his powerful muscular legs seemed strangely thin, but he was still a capable base runner and outfielder. His contemporary Ty Cobb, noted for his cruel bench jockeying of Ruth, would later remark that Ruth "ran okay for a fat man."
Despite his success on the field, Ruth had started to become a headache for the Red Sox. In July 1918, Ruth ignored a sign from manager Ed Barrow during an at bat that led to a heated verbal spat when Ruth reached the dugout, and Barrow fined Ruth $500 when Ruth threatened to punch him in the nose. Ruth threw a tantrum and quit the team for a few days, and it was reported he had signed a new contract with the Chester Shipyards, a Pennsylvania-based pro team. It was also during the 1918 season that he started to refuse his pitching turns in the starting rotation, often citing injuries that Barrow though would question. By this time, Ruth considered himself an everyday outfielder and had no more desire to pitch. "I'll win more games playing everyday in the outfield than I will pitching every fourth day," Ruth remarked. After his 1918 season, Ruth had the leverage of knowing he had become baseball's biggest star, and before the 1919 season, he was blunt with the Red Sox?he wanted to play everyday and not pitch at all. Initially, Barrow and the Red Sox acquiesced, but injuries to the Red Sox pitching staff in 1919 forced a balking Ruth back into the rotation for spot starts.
There were also Ruth's off-the-field indiscretions. His late nights of partying and boozing were further sources of irritation to the franchise, and he had numerous fights with Barrow over curfew violations. Eventually Ruth was forced to write Barrow notes on what time he came in each night (notes Barrow never further verified). He signed a new 3-year contract in 1919 for $10,000 a year, but at the end of the 1919 season, he was demanding $20,000 a year and threatened to sit out the 1920 season if he did not receive a new contract. Ruth's demand for more money after his 1919 season was justified, but he also needed more money to finance his high-level spending on fast automobiles, fine clothes, and entertaining his many women "friends." Red Sox owner Harry Frazee commented, "If Ruth doesn't want to work for the Red Sox, we can work out an advantageous trade." To some people, Ruth had become an enfant terrible, although after his 1919 season, it seemed almost inconceivable that anyone would seriously recommend trading him.
Despite Ruth's box office appeal, the Red Sox were in a perilous financial position. After he took over the club in 1916, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee paid large salaries to attract the best players (some even accused him of trying to buy the pennant). But because of World War I, Red Sox attendance, as in every other major league city, fell off badly in 1917 and 1918. Revenue was down, and the financial failure of the 1918 World Series did not help Frazee either. Frazee, whose true passion was the theater, owned his own theaters and financed his own shows, but recently his shows were also losing money. Having overextended himself financially, Frazee was desperate for cash, and his players were his only source of money. When the Red Sox championship run from 1912 to 1918 ended with a crash?the 1919 team finished 66?71?Frazee began selling off his best players. He sold many of these players to the New York Yankees, until then, a perennial losing club. Ruth had a record-setting season in 1919, and he made it clear he wanted his salary doubled. Knowing he could never meet Ruth's salary demands, and coupled with the other problems Frazee believed Ruth brought, Frazee worked out a deal with Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. For a sum of $125,000 and a loan of more than $300,000 (secured on Fenway Park itself), Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees on January 3.
There was an uneasiness in the Boston sports world just after the sale was announced, although a number of sportswriters supported the sale. On January 5, 1920, Frazee faced the press and answered his critics with calmness and assuredness. He justified his actions with these comments:
"It would be impossible to start next season with Ruth and have a smooth-working machine. Ruth had become simply impossible, and the Boston club could no longer put up with his eccentricities. I think the Yankees are taking a gamble. While Ruth is undoubtedly the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men ever to put on a baseball uniform."
The trading of Ruth sent the Red Sox franchise into a downward spiral. From 1920 to 1934, Ruth's tenure as a Yankee, the Boston Red Sox were the worst team in the American League. During this span they finished last 10 times, never finished above 5th place, and they did not have a winning season until 1935. After they sold Ruth, Boston's failure to win even a single World Series until 2004, contrasted with the Yankees' overwhelming success, led to a superstition that was dubbed the "Curse of the Bambino."
Almost immediately, Ruth began to pay off on his investment. He trained extensively over the winter, and in 1920 turned up at spring training physically fit. When the season started, it was clear that the more hitter-friendly Polo Grounds suited him, and Ruth's 1920 season turned into one that no one had ever come close to seeing before. He hit 54 home runs, smashing his year-old record, batted .376, and led the league in runs (158), RBIs (137), bases on balls (148), and his slugging average of .847 was a major league record for over 80 years (Barry Bonds eclipsed it with a .863 mark in 2001). Ruth's season was so dominating it led to one of the most amazing statistics in baseball history. In 1920, Ruth out-homered all but one team in baseball, as only the Philadelphia Phillies with 64 hit more home runs than Ruth.
Ruth's remarkable season had the Yankees in a serious pennant chase for the first time since 1904 (the year a famous wild pitch by Jack Chesbro cost them the pennant). The Yankees battled the entire season with the Cleveland Indians, player-managed by Tris Speaker, Ruth's old Red Sox teammate, and the Chicago White Sox, the same infamous "Black Sox scandal" team, but in the end, the Indians won the pennant and eventually the World Series.
Ruth was a natural fit in New York City?the biggest star in the game needed the largest stage, the largest crowds, the largest media coverage. His flamboyance, vitality, and obvious flaws symbolized New York. His persona transcended baseball, and he was one of the enduring emblems in the carefree spirit of the roaring '20s. The large immigrant communities of New York City were drawn to him, and the Italian enclave of New York gave him the nickname bambino ("babe", "baby"). Even the black community adopted him as one of their own, as a reported story (that was untrue) was that Ruth had a "secret" black heritage, a story propagated with pride among players in the Negro Leagues. To some people, Ruth was more than a baseball player, he was a national icon. He became the dominant name in the storied New York Yankees franchise, whose winning tradition he inaugurated. As a few people in history seemed to be an exact fit in place and time, such the case was with Babe Ruth going to New York in 1920.
As historic as Ruth's 1920 season was, his 1921 season was even better. Ruth's 1921 season is statistically the greatest season by any batter in major league history. This season merits a mention of most of his numbers, with how some of them rank all-time for a single season. In 152 games, Ruth batted .378, had 204 hits, 44 doubles, 16 triples, 59 home runs (8th all-time), scored 177 runs (2nd all-time), had 171 RBIs (7th all-time), 144 bases on balls, with 119 extra base hits (1st all-time), an .846 slugging average (3rd all-time), and amassed 457 total bases (1st all-time).
Even some of the best present-day baseball statistical researchers, using advanced statistical methods to measure a player's value, show Ruth's season is unmatched. The Stats Major League Baseball Handbook, a massive baseball encyclopedic work, compiled by noted baseball researchers Bill James, Neil Munro, Don Zminda, and John Dewan, developed a runs created formula to value how many runs a player produces. Using their formula, the 208 runs created by Ruth in 1921 is the highest total for any player in any season.
Ruth's season was monumental, but the Yankees had many quality players who helped lead the team to its first-ever pennant. Bob Meusel, Frank Baker, and Wally Pipp were part of a lineup that batted .300 and scored 948 runs. The pitching was led by Carl Mays, who won 27 games, with fine seasons by Waite Hoyt and Bob Shawkey.
The Yankees met the New York Giants in the World Series, managed by John McGraw. The Giants excelled at McGraw's time-tested strategy of use of the hit-and-run, stolen base, and bunt, and despite hitting only 75 home runs, they led the N.L. in runs scored. Their star was slick-fielding Frankie Frisch, who batted .341 and led the league in stolen bases with 49. The everyday lineup included solid players such as George Kelly, Ross Youngs, and Dave Bancroft.
The Yankees were up 3?2 in the series, but Ruth had badly scraped his elbow in game 2 when sliding into third. He continued to play, but his arm eventually became swollen and infected, and was told by the team physician not to play the rest of the series (although he would pinch hit in game 8). Without Ruth, the Yankees seemed mentally beaten, and they lost the last 3 games of the series. Ruth had a respectable series, going 5?16, a .316 average, drove in 5 runs and hit his first World Series home run, but he struck out 8 times. The Giants had a measure of revenge on the Yankees, who were also using the Polo Grounds as their home and had further embarrassed the Giants by outdrawing them.
It was during 1921 that Ruth was invited to Columbia University for a battery of tests. The findings were illuminating. Doctors discovered that the pitch he could hit hardest was just above the knees on the outside corner. And when he hit perfectly, in still air, with the bat moving at 110 ft/s (34 m/s), the ball would carry 450 to 500 feet (140 to 150 m). In a test of steadiness, inserting a charged rod successively into small holes of different sizes, Ruth proved to be the best of 500 volunteers. His eyes responded to flashing bulbs in a darkened chamber 20 ms quicker than the average person. Science corroborated what baseball fans already knew: Babe Ruth was born with preternatural gifts. Perhaps teammate Joe Dugan put it best: "Born? Hell, Babe Ruth wasn't born! The son of a **** fell from a tree!"
The 1921 World Series appearance would indirectly lead to problems for Ruth. Seeking to avoid diminishing the meaning of the fall classic, organized baseball instituted a rule in 1911 that prohibited World Series players from playing in exhibition games during the off-season. Ruth, typically, decided this rule did not apply to him, and even though Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had warned Ruth about the trip, Ruth went ahead and embarked on his usual lucrative barnstorming tour with two teammates. Landis came down hard on the recalcitrant players, and he suspended Ruth and teammate Bob Meusel for the first six weeks of what was to be a turbulent 1922 season for Ruth. When he returned to the Yankees on May 20, Yankee management named Ruth their first on-field captain, but just five days after his return, he was ejected for arguing an umpire's call at third, and exacerbated the situation by climbing into the seats to confront a heckling fan. The captaincy was stripped, and Ruth's temper would see him suspended three more times in 1922 for arguing with umpires.
While Ruth suffered his first professional setback, his personal life was in a worse state. His wife Helen disliked the celebrity lifestyle to which the Babe was drawn, and she lived on their farm near Boston with their adopted daughter, Dorothy. Free from the eyes of his wife, Ruth embraced the lifestyle even more fully. His love of fine food, undiminished over the years, was matched only by his appetites for alcohol, the nightlife, and casual sex. Helen and Babe's marital problems compromised Helen's delicate health. She was frequently ill with numerous ailments, which reportedly included several nervous breakdowns.
The suspension at the beginning of the season affected Ruth at the plate. He struggled all year, and his batting, on-base and slugging averages fell dramatically (.315/.434/.672). He hit 35 home runs with 99 runs batted in, but the suspensions and some injuries limited his playing time to just 110 games. All his time missed on the field hurt the Yankees, but they barely had enough to get past the .420-hitting George Sisler and the rest of the heavy-hitting St. Louis Browns for the pennant.
Ruth's struggles during the season continued into the World Series. Giants manager John McGraw had instructed his pitchers to throw Ruth nothing but curve balls, and Ruth never adjusted. He went just 2?17, a .118 average, and the Yankees were defeated by the New York Giants (4?0, with one tie) in the World Series for the second straight year. Compared to his first two incredible seasons as a Yankee, the 1922 season was a major disappointment for Ruth.
Ruth regrouped from his troubled 1922 season. He worked out hard in the off-season, came into the 1923 season in good shape, and it showed in his play. He batted .393 (it would be the highest of his career, although he lost the batting title to Harry Heilmann, who hit .403), and his home run total of 41 (a modest total for him) led the majors. Ruth also led the A.L. in walks (170, a single-season record not broken until Barry Bonds walked 177 times in 2001), runs (131), RBIs (151), extra-base hits (99), and slugging average (.764). He also missed only two games, having missed over 40 games the previous season. Ruth had returned to his dominant form, and the Yankees easily returned to the World Series.
The 1923 season also saw the opening of Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had been sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants since 1913, but since Ruth arrived, the Yankees had badly been outdrawing the Giants. With increased revenue and team success, as well as a threat of eviction from the Polo Grounds by the Giants, the Yankees needed a new home. In 1921, Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert bought a small piece of land in the Bronx for $600,000 from the Astor estate. After a year of construction and a cost of $2.5 million (a huge sum at the time), the 62,000-seat Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923. In the first game played there, Ruth, fittingly, hit the stadium's first home run, and it was sportswriter Fred Lieb who soon nicknamed Yankee Stadium "The House That Ruth Built."
Detractors of the stadium would call it "The House Built for Ruth", and "Ruthville", as the short 295-foot distance to right field seemed tailor-made for some "cheap" home runs for the left-handed, pull-hitting Ruth. In time, this argument would have little statistical support. From 1923 to 1932, in his prime home-run-hitting years at Yankee Stadium, Ruth hit more home runs on the road, and in his 60 home run season of 1927, he hit 32 of those on the road.
For the third straight year the Yankees faced the Giants in the World Series. Injured during the 1921 World Series, and completely ineffective in the 1922 series, Ruth was the best player on the field in the 1923 World Series. He went 7 for 19, a .368 average, slugged 1.000, walked 8 times, scored 8 runs, hit 3 home runs, and led the Yankees to a 4?2 series victory. The Yankees had their first World Series title, and the start of what became the most successful major sports team in North America. From 1923 to the present, the Yankees have appeared in 37 World Series, winning 26 of those series.
During spring training in 1925, Ruth began suffering severe stomach cramps and a fever. His condition gradually became worse, and on April 7 while the Yankees were staying in Asheville, North Carolina, a weakened Ruth completely collapsed in a bathroom. It was agreed Ruth needed to return to New York to recover, and he was accompanied by Paul Krichell, a noted Yankees scout. Ruth's collapse was not newsworthy until one London newspaper ran a headline that Ruth was dead, a story Krichell quickly quelled when Ruth's train reached Washington, D.C. By the time their train reached Pennsylvania Station in New York, Ruth was wrapped in blankets and unconscious, and his body had to be lifted out of a train window. During the wait for an ambulance, Ruth briefly opened his eyes and saw his wife Helen and Ed Barrow, his former Red Sox manager and now the Yankees general manager. Shortly later, Ruth became delirious and flailed his arms and legs uncontrollably, and needed to be held down by those around him. On the ambulance ride to St. Vincent's hospital, Ruth again suffered a couple more convulsive attacks that were so violent it took six assistants to hold him down. He was given a sedative, and by the time the ambulance reached the hospital Ruth was calm.
Examined by Dr. Edward King, Ruth's personal physician, Dr. King diagnosed Ruth as having a touch of the flu and an intestinal attack. Dr. King agreed to let Ruth rejoin the team, but after another week, Ruth's fever became worse, and after another examination, Dr. King now diagnosed Ruth as having an "intestinal abscess," and he would need surgery. The surgery, performed on April 17, took only 20 minutes and was called a complete success.
Dr. King stated Ruth's diet was the problem, as Ruth had not watched how much he ate and drank. Ruth's weight was high at this time, up to about 256 pounds. It was writer W.O. McGeehan who invented the story that Ruth's collapse was caused by overindulging on hot dogs and soda pop before a game, a fanciful story which led to Ruth's illness being dubbed "the bellyache heard around the world." This story was not that far-fetched, as Ruth, noted for episodes of gluttony, frequently did eat hot dogs before games, and he would wash them down with bicarbonate of soda to keep from feeling bloated.
Some newspaper reporters whispered that Ruth actually had a bad case of gonorrhea, but no one seemed to be willing to put this assertion in print. An old teammate of Ruth's vouched for the venereal disease story, saying it was the entire reason for Ruth's problems. A case of gonorrhea would have not been out of the question for the promiscuous Ruth, and some of his symptoms of chills, fever, and general pain are associated with some more complicated symptoms of gonorrhea. Still, abdominal surgery is a very unusual treatment for venereal disease, even during this medical age, and Ruth did have a clear visible scar running from just under his rib cage to his left lower abdomen. Evidence would suggest Ruth's illness was what physicians had stated, but it is possible Ruth may have had both problems, with physicians intentionally not mentioning the venereal problems.
After six weeks of recovery, Ruth rejoined the Yankees on May 26. He had lost 30 pounds (14 kg), was weak and out of condition, but he was insistent on being back in the lineup. He clearly came back too soon. In July, he was only hitting about .250 as he struggled miserably trying to find his swing. Eventually he regained some of his strength and managed to get somewhat on track, but he finished with a .290 average and 25 home runs in 98 games. Except for the last couple years at the end of his career, the 1925 season was easily Ruth's worst season in the majors.
The Yankees 1925 season went as badly as Ruth's season. Some injuries, age, and poor play had them at the bottom of the standings all year, and they finished next to last in the A.L. with a 69?85 mark. Later in the season, Ruth had a well-publicized fight with manager Miller Huggins, who fined Ruth $5,000 and suspended him nine days for numerous curfew violations. Only after an apology to Huggins and the team was he allowed to play again, and Ruth would never again question Huggins's authority. One bright spot of the season was first baseman Wally Pipp being benched for a game on June 2 that put a young Lou Gehrig in the lineup, a lineup Gehrig stayed in for the next 2,130 consecutive games.
After his poor 1925 season, Ruth dedicated himself to improving his physical condition, and he worked out hard each off-season. Ruth's weight would stabilize at about 230?235 pounds, and over the years he replaced body fat with muscle. He had turned 30 in 1925, and he went on to have some of his best seasons after this age, a time in sports when the great majority of ball players were past their prime (or out of the game) by the time they reached 30. Ruth remained a highly productive player until age 38, a testament that Ruth was a far better athlete than often given credit for.
The 1925 season proved to be an aberration, as in 1926 he rebounded to being the best player in baseball. Ruth led the league in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, bases on balls, and slugging average. He finished second in batting average with a .372 average, and with .006 extra points he would have won the triple crown (a feat Ruth would never accomplish). The Yankees also bounced back, going from a 7th place finish in 1925 all the way back to the World Series, where they met the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals were led by star player-manager Rogers Hornsby, who, for him, had a bad year at the plate, hitting just .317 (he had averaged .401 the previous five seasons). The Cardinals had other good players, including Jesse Haines, Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey, and Grover Alexander, now a 39-year-old epileptic and alcoholic who a decade earlier (with Walter Johnson) was one of the two best pitchers in baseball.
The Yankees had been heavy favorites in the series, but the Cardinals pushed the series to a 7th game. The highlights of the series up to this point had been Ruth's 3-home-run game in game 4 (the first time a player hit 3 home runs in a World Series game), and Alexander's clutch pitching that won games 2 and 6.
In game 7, the Cardinals clung to a 3?2 lead in the 7th inning, when the Yankees loaded the bases with two outs. The stage was now set for one of the classic moments in baseball history. Hornsby removed starting pitcher Haines, who had developed a blister on his finger, and summoned Alexander from the bullpen. Alexander was napping in the bullpen at the time and, according to some accounts, may have been suffering the effects of a hangover from the previous night's celebration of his game 6 win. Facing rookie star Tony Lazzeri, Alexander's first pitch was a ball. The next pitch was a low fastball that was called a strike. The next pitch sailed near Lazzeri's head for ball two. Lazzeri almost assured himself baseball immortality on the next pitch, which he lined to left field that just went foul, missing a home run by a couple of feet. With the count now 2?2, Alexander struck out Lazzeri swinging on a letter-high fastball, ending the Yankees rally.
Alexander retired the side in the 8th and the first two men in the 9th, when Ruth came up to bat. Pitching carefully to him, Alexander walked Ruth. With Bob Meusel at bat, and Lou Gehrig in the on-deck circle, Ruth pulled the most notable on-the-field gaffe of his career. He inexplicably took off trying to steal second base, and was easily thrown out by catcher Bob O'Farrell, ending the game and giving the Cardinals the World Series. Alexander's strikeout of Lazzeri would go down in baseball lore, and Ruth, despite an outstanding series, was perceived as a goat by some. In Ruth's defense, some would say the way Alexander was pitching, the Yankees were not likely going to start a rally anyway, and a steal of second might have upset Alexander, in which then a single could have tied the game. Ruth did not dwell on the play much, as his baseball mentality throughout his entire career was such that he was never afraid of looking bad or failing.
Ruth's superb 1926 season ended on a bittersweet note, but he had silenced many of his critics who said his career was on the decline after the 1925 season. Nevertheless, Ruth had put up some amazing statistics in his first seven years as a Yankee, but he had led the Yankees to just one World Series title, and they lost three others. From this point, though, he would enjoy greater World Series success, and in fact, Ruth played in three more series and never again even lost a single World Series game.
In 1927, the Ruthian Yankees reached a peak that few teams in baseball history have ever equaled. They went 110?44, winning the A.L. pennant by 19 games, and then proceeded to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. Only four teams have won more games: the 1906 Chicago Cubs, who won 116; the 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won 111; the 1998 Yankees, who won 114; and the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games (although the latter two played in 162-game seasons). The Cubs and Indians, however, both lost in the World Series, and the Mariners were defeated before even reaching the World Series, effectively removing these teams from a debate of the greatest team ever for a single season.
The '27 Yankees batted .307, slugged .489, scored 975 runs, and outscored their opponents by a record 376 runs. The Yankees did not just beat teams, they demoralized them, and the powerful lineup was again being called "Murderers' Row" (a term first used by a sportswriter to describe the 1919 pre-Ruth Yankee lineup). Centerfielder Earle Combs had a career year, batting .356 with 231 hits, leftfielder Bob Meusel batted .337 with 103 RBIs, and second baseman Tony Lazzeri drove in 102 runs. The pitching staff led the league in ERA at 3.20, and included Waite Hoyt, who went 22?7, and Herb Pennock, who went 19?8. It was Lou Gehrig, though, who broke through and established himself as a great player. Gehrig had one of the greatest seasons of any hitter. He batted .373, with 218 hits, 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, 175 RBIs, slugged at .765, and was voted A.L. MVP. In time, the 1927 Yankees would send six players to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was also a magical year for Ruth. As late as August 10, Gehrig had the home run lead over him, 38?35. Gehrig hit only 9 the rest of the season, but Ruth went on a home run tear. By the next to last game of the season, he was at 59 homers. On September 30, he lined a shot down the line into the right-field stands for number 60 off Washington Senators pitcher Tom Zachary. Zachary argued to umpire Bill Dinneen the ball was foul, but Dinneen upheld the home run. Ruth had set his home run record of 59 in 1921, but had been unable to even approach it until this season. After his 60th, an elated Ruth shouted in the clubhouse, "Sixty, count 'em sixty! Let's see some son of a **** top that!" In addition to the home runs, Ruth batted .356 and drove in 164 runs.
The Yankees met the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, a team that was just two years removed from a World Series title. Since their last title the Pirates had added brothers Paul Waner and Lloyd Waner to a good-hitting lineup that included Pie Traynor and Glenn Wright. Before game 1, it was said the Yankees smashing balls over the walls in spacious Forbes Field during batting practice had the Pirate players awestruck and beaten before the series even started. The series, however, was not a Yankee offensive onslaught. Two of the games were decided by one run, the Yankees batted just .279 with 2 home runs (both by Ruth), and they averaged fewer runs per game than their season average. It would be the Yankees pitching that actually dominated the series. Their team ERA was 2.00, and the Pirates batted just .223 and scored only 10 runs in the 4 games.
The 1927 Yankees, as every team in history, had their weaknesses. They were just average defensively, with mediocre players at third base, shortstop and catcher, and they also had a weak bench. The pitching staff was good, but not dominating. Nevertheless, many present-day baseball historians cite the 1927 Yankees as the greatest baseball team of all-time. Ruth's play in 1928 mirrored his team's play. He got off to a hot start, and on August 1, had 42 home runs, well ahead of the pace of his record 60 home run season set the previous season. But Ruth's power waned, and he hit just 12 home runs in the last two months of the regular season. Still, he ended the season with an impressive 54, the fourth (and last) time he passed 50 home runs in a season.
The Yankees had a World Series rematch with the St. Louis Cardinals, who had upset them in the 1926 series. The Cardinals had the same core players as the 1926 team, except Frankie Frisch was now playing second base instead of Rogers Hornsby, as the two had been traded for one another after the 1926 season.
The series was no contest. The Yankees swept the Cardinals, no game was close, and Ruth and Gehrig demolished Cardinal pitching. Ruth went 10?16, a .625 average (still a record for average in World Series play), and hit 3 home runs, all hit in game 4, and the second time he had hit 3 homers in a World Series game. Gehrig was just as great, going 5?11, a .545 average, with 4 home runs, and 9 RBIs. The Yankees also extracted some revenge on Grover Alexander, who went 0?1, with and ERA of 19.80 in 5 innings pitched. The Yankees had their second straight title, and the 4 game sweeps in back-to-back World Series has been only accomplished one other time, by the 1938 and 1939 Yankees.
In 1929, the Yankees World Series run ended, and the three-year period from 1929 to 1931 would be the longest stretch (excluding his ending years of 1933?35) that a Ruth team did not win a pennant. The offense was still highly productive, and in fact the 1930 and 1931 teams outscored the great 1927 team, but the pitching fell off badly. The Philadelphia Athletics overtook the Yankees, and for the next three years won the A.L. pennant. Manager Connie Mack had rebuilt the A's into one of the best teams ever, and they won the World Series in 1929 and 1930 but were upset in the 1931 series in seven games. The powerful lineup was led by Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and the pitching was anchored by Lefty Grove, who undoubtedly was the best pitcher of his era (not to mention one of the greatest pitchers of all-time). Although the Yankees slipped, Ruth continued to put up stellar numbers, and led or tied for the league lead in home runs all three of these years. It was during the 1929 season that another tragedy struck close to Ruth. Yankee manager Miller Huggins developed an ugly looking carbuncle on his face that turned out to be a symptom of erysipelas, a streptococcal infection of the skin. The bacterial infection had been left untreated for too long, and sepsis developed, which proved fatal for Huggins in September. Huggins had been the only manager Ruth had as a Yankee, and despite many run-ins with the feisty Huggins, Ruth had great admiration and respect for him. After hearing of his death, Ruth and several Yankee players cried, and the league paid its respect by canceling all games the day after his death.
Despite his heroics in the 1932 World Series, Ruth was informed in 1933 by Ed Barrow that his salary would be cut 33%, from $75,000 to $50,000 a year. Ruth's salary had been cut before the 1932 season, but it was only a $5,000 cut. It was the Great Depression, and teams were losing money, although the Yankees themselves were still making a profit. Cutting Ruth's pay was also part of Barrow and Ruppert's plan to phase Ruth out from the Yankees. With baseball's reserve clause firmly in place, Ruth, even with all his stature, had little negotiating power at this stage in his career. Ruth eventually settled to play for $52,000, although he was still the highest paid player in the game. Ruth was unhappy with the pay cut, but in these bad economic times, few people felt sorry for him.
Ruth remained productive in 1933, batting .301, with 34 home runs, 103 RBIs, and led the league in walks with 114. Although most major league players could only dream about these types of numbers, they were well below Ruth's previous standards. His batting average and slugging average were down over 40 points and 100 points, respectively, from his career averages, and he was also slow in the field. It was clear Father Time was eroding Ruth's skills. The Yankees did finish second to the Washington Senators, but they never seriously threatened to win the pennant. At least to Barrow and Ruppert, Ruth and the Yankees' season justified his pay cut, and the next year, Ruth took another big pay cut down to $25,000 a year.
One highlight for Ruth during the season was when he hit the very first home run in the very first All-Star game, held July 6, 1933, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. His 2-run shot off Bill Hallahan helped the A.L. to a 4?2 win over the N.L., and he also made a fine defensive catch in the game.
After the season Ruth continued to press Barrow for a chance to manage the Yankees, but Barrow had no intentions of getting rid of manager Joe McCarthy. Ruth never liked the disciplinarian style of McCarthy, and had even stated he could do a better job managing the team, but the Yankees never gave him the chance. The most they offered him was a chance to manage the Yankees farm team in Newark, New Jersey, an offer Ruth scoffed at with justification. Players such as Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and a 26-year-old Joe Cronin had been given big league managerial jobs with no previous managing experience. At one point Frank Navin, owner of the Detroit Tigers, seemed serious about hiring Ruth to player-manage the Tigers. Ruth, however, put off a meeting with Navin to take a trip to Hawaii, and Navin, never a particularly congenial man anyway, essentially retracted any meeting with Ruth. Ruth never received a chance to manage, as owners apparently took to heart a statement Barrow had made about Ruth when he said, "How can he manage other men when he can't even manage himself?"
Ruth's play continued downward in 1934, and he finished the year with a .288 average and 22 home runs. It was understood during the season that it would be Ruth's last season in a Yankee uniform, and Ruth himself stated it might be the last year he played. He made the 1934 All-Star team, but certainly this was more an honorary selection than anything he was doing on the field. During the game, he was the first of the five consecutive strikeout victims (with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) of Carl Hubbell, one of the most famous moments in All-Star game history. As he made his last appearances around various cities, it was accepted as his farewell tour, and a fairly large crowd turned out to see his last game at Yankee Stadium.
After the 1934 season, Ruth went on a baseball barnstorming tour in the Far East. Players such as Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, and Lou Gehrig were among 14 players who played a series of 22 games. Seventeen of the games were played in Japan, and the reception there was completely enthusiastic. Ruth was by far the most popular American player in Japan, and over a half a million Japanese greeted him on his arrival. Baseball had been big in Japan for decades, so many Japanese baseball fans were well aware of Ruth. Riding in a car in Tokyo, Ruth waved the American and Japanese flags, and a crowd of Japanese waved American flags back at him. The games were played in two different stadiums: Tokyo's Meiji-Jingu Stadium which held over 60,000 fans and Koshien Stadium near Kobe which held over 80,000. Both sites had been sold out for weeks, and Ruth would excite the huge crowds with 13 home runs in the 17 games. The tour in Japan was a complete success, and in just a couple of years, Japan organized its first professional baseball league, the Japan Professional Baseball Association.
In 1935, Boston Braves owner Emil **** was looking to jumpstart the Braves franchise. A perennial cellar-dwelling team, the Braves had improved somewhat, but the Depression killed off attendance, and **** was desperate to revive fan interest and revenue. **** was very interested in Ruth and he worked out a complex deal with Barrow and Ruppert to get Ruth. The deal was finalized in February 1935, an offer which **** promised Ruth a share in the team's profits, an assistant managerial job to Braves manager Bill Mckechnie (with a good chance to succeed him next year), and Ruth could play whenever he wanted. All parties seemed happy with the deal, and with much media hoopla, Ruth returned to the city that gave him his major league start.
On opening day before a home capacity crowd of over 25,000, Ruth was responsible for all the Braves runs in a 4?2 win over Carl Hubbell and the New York Giants. It was just one game, but fan excitement for the Braves was as high as it had ever been. The euphoria quickly died away. Ruth completely stopped hitting, was clumsy in the field, and soon missed a dozen or so games. The Braves were as bad as they had ever been, and the few fans that showed up booed the team. Ruth was also miffed that Mckechnie ignored any of his managerial advice. Seeing a franchise in disarray, Ruth soon realized that ****'s promise of a stake in the Braves profits was a lot of hot air, as who would want to invest in a losing team that had little fan support.
On May 25, 1935, at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, Ruth gave one last glimpse of how great a player he was. He went 4?4, drove in 6 runs, and hit 3 home runs in an 11?7 loss to the Pirates. The last home run was said to be the longest ball ever hit at Forbes Field. It was his 714th and last home run, and last hit. He hung on another few days, and on May 30 in Philadelphia, played in his last major league game. He struck out in the first inning and, playing the field the same inning, hurt his knee and left the game. Ruth would never play another big league game.
**** and Ruth's relationship soured badly. **** blamed Ruth for the Braves' failures, and Ruth believed **** had lied to him about the Braves franchise. On June 1, after having had another argument with ****, Ruth stated to reporters, "I'm quitting." The experiment with ****, Ruth and the Braves was a complete failure for all parties. ****, who had borrowed much money, saw revenue and attendance continue to fall, and soon lost ownership control of the team. Ruth played in only 28 games and batted a dismal .181 in 72 at-bats (striking out 24 times) in his last season as a player. The season for the Braves was a complete disaster, as they finished 38?115, a .248 winning percentage, the third worst percentage in major league history.
When Ruth retired in 1935, many of his major batting records seemed almost untouchable. He held the records for career bases on balls (2,062), bases on balls in a season (170), on-base percentage (.474, although a statistic not yet created during Ruth's era), career RBIs (2,213), career slugging average (.690), slugging average in a season (.847), home runs in a season (60), home run ratio (1 every 11.76 at bats), and career home runs (714). His career home run total at his retirement was twice that of the next nearest player, Lou Gehrig. It often took many decades, but all of these major records fell (except the career slugging average), including the fabled 60 and 714 home run marks. Over the years, Ruth's image, and even his 60 and 714 numbers, grew into an almost sacred status among some fans, so much so that when Roger Maris and Hank Aaron both approached, and eventually surpassed both these records, respectively, both men were deluged with hate mail (much of Aaron's hate mail was also for him being a black man).
Although many of his batting records have been surpassed, a strong case can be made that Ruth still owns the greatest career batting numbers of any player in baseball history, and a major reason why Ruth's name grew into an almost legendary and iconic figure.
In 1936, Ruth was one of the first five players elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Retirement was often unsettling for Ruth. He had more than enough money, but he missed the game. He spent much time on the golf course, dabbled in a few other things, but his heart was set on managing a big league club. He would never be given the chance. The closest Ruth ever came to managing was when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail offered him a first base coaching job in June 1938. The Dodgers attendance was lagging, and MacPhail hired Ruth for the sole purpose of getting people to the ballpark. Ruth took the job, perhaps thinking he would have a chance to manage the Dodgers in the future, but MacPhail had clearly stated to Ruth that Leo Durocher was being groomed to take over the managerial reigns of the Dodgers for next season. Ruth never got along with Durocher, and he quit at the end of the season. The coaching position was the last time Ruth would have a job in major league baseball.
In 1939, all the previous years of fast living began to show signs of catching up with Ruth. During a round of golf with his playing partner Ben Curry, Ruth said to him, "I feel terrible." He was taken to the clubhouse where a doctor observed his condition. It was not diagnosed then, but Ruth probably suffered a mild heart attack, and about a year later, he suffered another similar attack. By this time Ruth's weight had ballooned to over 270 pounds (122 kg).
In 1942 Ruth was asked to play a part (as himself, in his athletic prime) in the film The Pride of the Yankees, a film biography of Lou Gehrig, who had passed away from ALS in June 1941. Ruth would need to lose a great deal of weight to play the role, and a vigorous workout schedule had him losing 40 pounds (18 kg). He did a respectable job of acting in a bit part, but the strict hours of filming did not suit his night life. He caught a bad cold (he caught frequent colds his whole life), which developed into pneumonia. At one point, a report circulated that he was near death, but he recovered in a couple of weeks and finished the film part.
During World War II, Ruth did some charity work for the Red Cross, and bought over $100,000 in war bonds himself. He even organized a charity golf game with his old rival Ty Cobb (the two had despised each other in their playing days). Ruth appeared at many benefits during the war, and a few times donned his old baseball uniform. During one benefit at Yankee Stadium, he batted against the former great pitcher Walter Johnson, and another time, pinch hit in a game made up of teams from the armed forces. Later in 1943 in another charity game at Yankee Stadium, he pinch hit and drew a walk, but tore cartilage in his knee while running the bases. This would be the last time he would play in a formal game.
After the war, Ruth continued to look for a chance to manage in the big leagues. While times before he had essentially been blackballed by owners, who for various reasons did not trust him, this time it was his health that would prevent the opportunity. In 1946, he began experiencing severe pain over his left eye. He was not concerned, thinking it was sinus problems, but this situation would be much more grave than his health problems of the past. In November 1946, a visit to French Hospital in New York revealed Ruth had a malignant tumor in his neck that had encircled his left carotid artery, and physicians told him he would need surgery to have the cancerous growth removed. During the surgery, part of the nerves that led to the larynx had to be cut, and as a result his voice was reduced to a whisper. He would be unable to swallow foods and had to be fed with feeding tubes. Since physicians could not remove all the cancer, Ruth was given radiation therapy to treat the cancer that remained.
Released from the hospital in February 1947, Ruth was now 80 pounds (36 kg) lighter. Although he regained some of his strength to play golf, hunt, and do other activities he had enjoyed, it was obvious to all those who saw him that his health was not good. The tumor continued to grow, and he was in so much pain he required morphine. He did manage to attend Babe Ruth Day, an appreciation of what Ruth had done for the game, held April 27, 1947 at Yankee Stadium. It was on this occasion where Ruth spoke in a disheartening croaking voice to a capacity crowd of more than 60,000. He made a speech which included the line, "The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball."
In June 1947, Ruth was in so much pain physicians tried an experimental new drug on him, a drug that was a synthetic form of folate. The ongoing treatments seemingly improved Ruth so much that his case was cited at an International Cancer Congress held in St. Louis. He seemed to have recovered some of his health and, with renewed energy, started the Babe Ruth Foundation, a charity for disadvantaged children. Another Babe Ruth Day held at Yankee Stadium in September helped raise money for his newest charity.
Unfortunately, the apparent recovery was only a brief remission of the cancer. His health gradually declined, and he became sick and in as much pain as he had ever been. On June 13, 1948, a weak Ruth was barely able to attend the Yankees 25th anniversary celebration of the opening of Yankee Stadium. He met old teammates from the 1923 Yankee team and later stood for photographs. The highlight of the day was when his name was announced over the loudspeaker, and the crowd erupted into a loud roar. Ruth walked slowly to the microphone using a baseball bat as a cane, and his old Yankees uniform he wore appeared several sizes too large on his now frail body. Ruth spoke a few words at the microphone, saying how much he enjoyed seeing his old teammates and being a Yankee. After a 2-inning game played by the old players, Ruth left Yankee Stadium for the last time. Shortly before, he had a conversation with former teammate Joe Dugan. Ruth told Dugan, "Joe, I'm gone. I'm done Joe," a confession which had Ruth breaking down and crying, and Dugan crying with him.
There can be little doubt that the cause of Ruth's throat cancer was a lifelong habit of tobacco use. He began chewing tobacco at the age of seven, and in his teens began smoking cigarettes and cigars regularly, sometimes smoking up to a dozen cigars a day. He also used snuff in such large amounts that the dust would clog his nasal passages. Ruth's lifelong problems with colds and other respiratory problems can also likely be tied to this habit. The direct link between tobacco use and cancer seemed to be medically conclusive in the 1920s (medical evidence of the link even goes back to the 18th century), but due to various reasons, the public was largely unaware of the risks of tobacco use until several decades later. This evidence, even if known during Ruth's lifetime, probably would have not influenced its use by Ruth or other ballplayers, as the baseball culture of tobacco use had been ingrained since baseball's beginnings.
Shortly after he had attended the Yankee Stadium anniversary event, Ruth was again back in the hospital. By now he knew it was cancer even if no one had told him, which apparently no one had since his cancer was diagnosed back in 1946. He received hundreds of well-wishing letters daily, many requesting autographs and photos, and with his wife Claire's help, made sure he answered every one. He was still able to walk and get out even nearing his end, and on July 26, 1948, he attended the premiere of the film about his life, The Babe Ruth Story, which starred William Bendix (ironically Bendix had been a Yankee bat boy in the early 1920's). Feeling very ill while watching the film, Ruth left well before the film was finished.
Ruth returned to the hospital, and this time he would never leave. The cancer had eaten away at his body (cachexia) leaving him with an emaciated appearance, and he was barely able to speak. Only a few visitors were allowed to see him, one of whom was the then National League President and future Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick. Frick had been a good friend of Ruth's since Ruth's early days as a Yankee and the ghostwriter for various articles supposedly written by Ruth. In Ruth's last days, scores of reporters hovered around the hospital, almost anticipating the end. On August 16, the day after Frick's visit, Babe Ruth died at 8:01 p.m. at the age of 53. His body lay in state in Yankee Stadium for two days; more than 200,000 people filed past the casket. Three days later 9,500 mourners crammed into the area around St. Patrick's Cathedral for his funeral. Tens of thousands more lined the streets as his funeral cortege drove by. The outpouring of grief from so many thousands of Americans was in marked contrast to the few dozen people who would later attend the services for his great rival Ty Cobb in 1961. Ruth was buried in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York (about 25 miles north of New York City). His wife Claire was buried next to him upon her death in 1976.
Ruth's birthplace has been preserved as a combination Babe Ruth museum and Baltimore Orioles museum, and is just a short walk from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.