Thursday, August 16, 2007

Baseball's Greatest Player of All-Time: Babe Ruth

Today is the 59th anniversary of the death of Babe Ruth, who I consider to be the greatest baseball player of all-time. For many years, I always thought of Ruth as "that Yankee who held the home run record." But as the years have progressed, I have come to appreciate more and more what The Babe meant not only to baseball, but to American sports in general, no matter what Chris Rock says. (I originally wrote this article for the fine web site, "The Top 100 Red Sox." I have previously written articles about Red Sox greats Johnny Damon, Bill Monbouquette, Tex Hughson, Mike Greenwell and Bill Mueller there. It has not been published there yet, but on this day I wanted to honor his legacy, so I am publishing this article here.) This article is also written more about his time with the Red Sox than that other team he was later sold to.

There are names in the annals of American sports that simply transcend time and history. Lou Gehrig. Jackie Robinson. Jesse Owens. Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali. Names just about every American knows, whether they know the first thing about the sport they played in or not. But no one is bigger, or made more of an impact on the sport they played, than one George Herman Ruth.

You know the nicknames. The Sultan of Swat. The Bambino. The Babe. He was a circus unto himself. He was also a savior. He came along at a time when the sport, under incredible scrutiny after the worst scandal in American sports history, needed someone to save it from itself.

And it all began for him at Fenway Park in Boston in 1914.

George Herman Ruth was born in Baltimore on February 6, 1895. At the age of 7 he was sent to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, which was a reformatory and orphanage. A man named Brother Matthias took Ruth under his wing, and taught him the finer points of baseball. By 1914, he came under the eye of Jack Dunn, the owner and manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. He signed Ruth to a contract, and also became his legal guardian. Players on that Orioles team referred to Dunn's newest find as "Jack's newest babe." It is believed that it was there that Ruth got his famous nickname. On July 9, 1914, Dunn sold Ruth's contract to Joe Lannin of the Boston Red Sox and he played his first game two days later. It has been disputed as to exactly how much the Red Sox bought him for, but it is believed to be around $3,000.

Ruth, of course, began his major league career as a pitcher, and went 2-1 in four games for the Red Sox in 1914. Ruth got a spot in a deep Red Sox rotation in 1915 that included Smokey Joe Wood, Dutch Leonard and Rube Foster. Ruth went 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA in 217 innings, and also hit 4 home runs with 21 RBI and a .315 batting average in leading the Red Sox to their third World Series championship, over the Philadelphia Phillies in 5 games.

1916 and 1917 would be Ruth's best years as a pitcher, as he won 23 games in '16 with an amazing 1.75 ERA in 323 innings. The Red Sox had a weaker offensive club, having sold Tris Speaker to the Cleveland Indians, but the Sox' pitching carried them to another American League pennant. They faced the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, and in Game 2, Ruth pitched a complete-game 14-inning victory. The Red Sox went on to win the Series in five games.

In 1917, Ruth had another stellar year on the mound, going 24-13 in 327 innings with a 2.01 ERA. But an incident on June 23rd against the Washington Senators that year at Fenway would long be remembered in baseball history, and not in a positive way for The Babe.

Ruth started the game, walking the first batter, Ray Morgan. As newspaper accounts of the time tell it, the short-fused Ruth then engaged in a heated argument with apparently equally short-fused home plate umpire Brick Owens. Owens tossed Ruth out of the game, and the even-more-enraged Ruth then slugged the ump a glancing blow before being taken off the field. Ernie Shore was recruited to pitch, and came in with no warmup pitches. The catcher was also ejected. With a new pitcher and catcher, runner Morgan tried to steal but was thrown out. Shore then proceeded to retire the remaining 26 Senators for a perfect game(which has since been changed in the history books), and a 4-0 Red Sox win. Ruth subsequently paid a $100 fine, was suspended for 10 games, and issued a public apology for his behavior.

The Red Sox lost the 1917 pennant to the Chicago White Sox, and many cited this incident as the reason the Red Sox didn't take the flag. It was also an example of self-discipline problems that plagued Ruth throughout his career and is regarded as one of the reasons (other than financial) that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was willing to sell him to the Yankees two years later.

Ruth also continued his prowess with the bat, and played games in the outfield when he was not pitching. He pitched in just 20 games in 1918, and 17 in 1919. He wanted to pitch less and play the outfield and hit more, and his popularity among the fans grew more and more. He hit 11 home runs in 1918, and led the Red Sox to their fifth world championship, winning two games in the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, and extended his World Series scoreless streak to a record 29 2/3 innings, which would stand until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.

But Ruth's disciplinary problems continued to be a huge problem for the Red Sox. He jumped the team in July 1918 after being fined by manager Ed Barrow for missing a take sign. He would eventually return to the club, but his problems with Barrow continued. Barrow still wanted to use him on the mound, but Ruth's hitting was just too good and gaining lots of attention. And Ruth knew it, too.

In 1919, Ruth played 130 games and hit an astounding 29 home runs, a record for the time, for a Red Sox team that crashed into sixth place. But Ruth continued to be a clubhouse cancer, and his teammates had turned on him as he once again jumped the club in 1919. He had simply become impossible to keep in check. He was enamored with wine, women and song, and owner Harry Frazee, after the 1919 season, reached a decision on Ruth that would go down in baseball history, and in many circles, infamy.

New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert was enamored with The Babe for many years, and every offer he made to the Red Sox was refused. But as 1920 was approaching, Frazee had simply had enough of Babe Ruth and his inability to control his outlandish ways. On January 5, 1920, a deal to send the biggest home run hitter baseball to the New York Yankees was announced: it was for $125,000 and a $350,000 mortgage on Fenway Park.

At the time there was a mixed reaction to the deal. It was not universally applauded or reviled. But there is a legend that grew out of the deal that is simply wrong.

Babe Ruth was not sold to the Yankees because Harry Frazee was going broke. He was in fact in good financial health at the time of the deal, and he also did not make the deal to finance a play called "No, No Nanette." (The play did not come out on Broadway until 1925, five years later.) When Ruth had all his success in New York, the Boston media needed a fall guy, and Frazee was it. Frazee took all the blame for the trade and the decline of the Red Sox, who would not have another winning record until the mid-1930s, when Tom Yawkey bought the club. Frazee would die in 1929, but he was a wealthy man, and records indicate he was never near any kind of financial ruin.

Babe Ruth would of course go on to play 15 years in New York with the Yankees and become the greatest name the American sports world has ever known. (ESPN, in the early 2000s, would claim that Michael Jordan was, but Jordan was still nowhere near The Babe in terms of the popularity he had in the 1920s.) Ruth would shatter home run and other baseball records, and lead the Yankees to their first four world titles. He also came along at a time when baseball needed him the most, as the Black Sox scandal of 1919 threatened baseball's very existence and its popularity with the public. His home run record of 60 would last until Roger Maris broke it in 1961, and Ruth would enter baseball lore for his "called shot" in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs, where he supposedly pointed to the centerfield bleachers and hit the next pitch there. He was among the first players elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1936.

Babe Ruth died in 1948 at the age of 53, of cancer. The years of fast living finally caught up with him. His legacy would live on, and for Red Sox fans, it would be a painful one.

In 1990, Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy would write a book called "The Curse of the Bambino," in which he argued that the Red Sox' inability to win a World Series since 1918 can all be explained because of the Red Sox sale of Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. It would be a bestseller and make Shaughnessy a lot of money, but it would revile most Red Sox fans. The so-called "curse" would be a way to excuse every Red Sox mistake and explain that the Red Sox were forever bring doomed from above by the ghost of Babe Ruth.

It simply went against all logic. Why would Babe Ruth want to "curse" his former team? Sending him to New York made him the most famous athlete in American history. If anything, Ruth should have been sending Harry Frazee Christmas cards every year. Babe's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, always said that he never had any grudge against the Red Sox.

But somehow, this "curse" took hold. It became a taunting device more than anything, used especially by the denizens of Yankee Stadium. Finally, in 2004, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, and finally put the stupid idea of a "curse" to rest once and for all. The Babe could finally rest easy, as no longer would his name be linked to ridiculous nonsense like "curses."

The New York Daily News, on the day after the Red Sox amazing, historic comeback from being down 0-3 to the Yankees in the ALCS was completed, had a picture on page 3 of the paper of Babe Ruth with a tear in his eye. They believed he was crying in the afterlife that his New York team had blown such a big lead to the team he began his MLB career with.

Talk about ridiculous. Let's be honest here. Which of the teams would Babe Ruth have fit in more with? "The Idiots," the World Champion Red Sox of 2004, or the "corporate, stuffed-shirted" Yankees?

Maybe it was a tear of joy instead.

I could picture The Babe cracking open a beer with Kevin Millar, David Ortiz and Johnny Damon and talk baseball with them. And I'm sure on the night of October 27, 2004, wherever he was, The Babe had a cold one in honor of his former club, the Boston Red Sox, the newly-crowned champions of the world. The team he took his first steps to stardom with.


Michael Leggett said...

In my view, Ruth was the consumate partyer. Why would he cry over the Yankees. The "Idiots" are more Ruthian.

MattySox said...

Ruth's numbers are simply staggering. The batting average, homers, RBI's, walks; it's really amazing. I can't imagining anyone ever equaling his 1921 season, with 177 runs, 171 rbi's, .378avg, 59 homers, 204 hits, 145 walks and 1.358 OBPS. Simply mind boggling; there was an article today by Jim Caple on about how A-rod could have 150 runs and 150 RBIs and how that was damn amazing. Ruth went 150-150 twice, and came damn close about three more times. I appreciate how you highlight how bogus Frazee's financial troubles are. CHB was dead wrong about that in his book. I think "Red Sox Century" finally put that little tale to rest...

The Omnipotent Q said...

"Red Sox Century" is the best Red Sox history book I've ever read, Matty. Should be required reading for anyone who calls themself a Red Sox fan.