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Arguably the most storied athlete of all time, Babe Ruth compiled a career so enormous in scope that it nurtured, grew, and even transcended baseball. In a relatively short period of time, America witnessed a story that made the “Bambino” an enduring legend.
Long before there was something known as pop culture, Ruth’s emergence with the New York Yankees as a once-in-a-lifetime star made his face recognizable in numerous news images, advertisements, and even in Hollywood.
Though left baseball fields in 1935, Ruth’s compilation of records and accomplishments continues to boggle the mind. While some of his records have finally been broken, a close examination of his statistics reveal seasons unparalleled compared against today’s players.
Babe Ruth became more than his home runs, more than the game he saved, more than the fabled New York Yankees, and all the championships. Babe Ruth born the style of baseball that endures to this day, over a century after he began swatting homers at a prodigious rate.
It’s a name well-recognized in the United States and most of the world. But do people really know the story about Babe Ruth?
- 1 Who Was Babe Ruth?
- 2 Early Years of Babe Ruth (Pre-Professional Baseball)
- 3 Beginning of Professional Baseball for Babe Ruth
- 4 Fabled Trade of Babe Ruth
- 4.1 New York Yankees and Babe Ruth
- 5 Babe Ruth in Retirement
- 6 The Babe Ruth Legacy
- 7 Babe Ruth’s Nickname
- 8 Babe Ruth Awards, Honors, and Accomplishments
Who Was Babe Ruth?
Babe Ruth is best known as the most famous player in baseball history. His prominence expanded beyond Major League Baseball in the United States, and applied to baseball broadly around the world.
Ruth’s exploits on and off the field attached his name to new adjectives in American lexicon, including the word “Ruthian,” used to describe superb performances or significant singular accomplishments.
Some equate the word “Ruth” with sizable. However, Ruth stood at 6-feet, 2-inches tall at 215 pounds ~ big for his era, but just about average in size in today’s top-level baseball.
His legend is about as large as his accomplishments. While media reports may indicate a life of luxury during his career, Ruth’s early life was anything but opulence.
George Herman Ruth Jr. was born on Feb. 6, 1895, in Baltimore, a descendant of a family with origins in Germany. (As a child, Ruth spoke German). The family was working-class and Ruth Sr. eventually worked the counter of a family-owned store that was part grocery store, part saloon ~ and in which the Ruths lived upstairs.
That building, so the story goes, was located approximately where centerfield now exists in the modern Oriole Park at Camden Yards. While Ruth is greatly associated with New York, his roots were Balimorean.
Details of Ruth’s childhood are incomplete. It is known that of his multiple siblings, only Ruth and a sister survived infancy.
By age 7, either forced by his parents because of delinquency, or authorities due to a violent incident at the saloon, Ruth began a nearly 12-year period at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a Catholic reformatory and orphanage. He arrived in mid-1902, and would spend most of his life there until his professional baseball career advanced.
The institution engaged strict discipline including corporal punishment. From early on at the school, Ruth became very close with Brother Matthias, a large yet calm influence who Ruth later claimed helped with his hitting style. Aside from being a fatherly figure for Ruth, Matthias also was a disciplinarian which Ruth probably needed in his youth.
Matthias’ influence on Ruth cannot be overstated. Ruth spoke of him often, and in the middle of his baseball stardom Ruth purchased a new $5,000 Cadillac for his mentor (in 1926).
Why the young Ruth began playing baseball is uncertain, with some claiming it stemmed from how he repeatedly broke Baltimore windows hitting long drives playing street ball, that locals wanted him on open fields instead.
Before long, though he played nearly every position for the school, Ruth established his dominance as a pitcher. The future Hall of Famer estimated that he played about 200 games annually at the school. Upon turning 18 in 1913, he was allowed to leave the campus to play games with teams that attracted the general public of the city.
Ruth’s play generated a local word-of-mouth reputation, and then the newspapers took notice, mentioning his name and exploits on more than one occasion.
That exposure to young Ruth’s feats on the diamond attracted the attention of a minor league club’s top official.
The owner of the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, Jack Dunn, inked Ruth to his initial professional baseball contract at the start of 1914. It was Ruth’s only season as an Oriole in the International League, as his fast ascendancy to Major League Baseball was accelerated by World War I.
That year, a rival emerged to challenge Major League Baseball: the Federal League. Because that league included a franchise in Baltimore, the Terrapins, it drew fans away from the minor-league outfit and eventually caused financial hardships for Dunn.
With Ruth, the Orioles performed well and the young star showed off both his pitching and hitting prowess. However, the success was hardly noticed and eventually as few as 150 people per game watched the O’s with Ruth.
This, despite reports of Ruth’s home runs of epic distances, and pitching feats including success against major league hitters.
Yet the Baltimore Terrapins of the new Federal League eclipsed anything Ruth could do. A city that went without a major league team since 1902 quickly attached to its new “major league” club.
By June 1914, despite the Orioles sitting atop the standings after winning 2 of every 3 games, cash-strapped Dunn threatened to move the club to Richmond, Virginia. Instead, he chose to sell his best players to major league clubs to raise money and hopefully save the franchise.
Dunn offered Ruth to the then-reigning World Series-champion Philadelphia Athletics; and the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds showed an interest in signing him. However, in the end, Dunn sold the contracts of Ruth and pitchers Ernie Shore and Ben Egan to the Boston Red Sox.
Ruth later stated that it only took a half-hour workout before the deal was sealed.
Ruth started the latter half of 1914 for a Red Sox team that eventually finished 8.5 games back from the A.L. champ Athletics, good for 2nd place. It was a baseline from which Ruth’s Red Sox would only build upon.
However, Babe Ruth was not an immediate success with the Sox. He was used inconsistently as a pitcher, which historians later surmised may have been due to his immaturity, or brashness, or both.
Near the end of the 1914 season, Ruth was sent back down to the minors, to help the Providence Grays to compete for the International League championship. It remains undetermined if Ruth was demoted due to his play, attitude, or to fill a need for the Grays.
The “Miracle Braves” of Boston won the World Series in 1914, but it was the Red Sox who claimed the title in 1915 and 1916.
During this stint, Ruth emerged as a star pitcher, dominating in both seasonal and postseason (World Series) play. A look at Ruth’s pitching statistics from the era tells the story:
1914 – Though he only pitched 23 innings in 4 games, Ruth did end up with a 2-1 record and logged a complete game
1915 – 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA and 16 complete games
1916 – 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA to lead the league; 23 complete games; and 9 shutouts to also lead the league
1917 – 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA and 35 complete games to lead the league, and 6 shutouts
1918 – Though Boston cut his pitching load by half so he could hit more, Ruth finished with a 13-7 record and 2.22 ERA on a team that won the World Series
1919 – Ruth pitched in only 17 games but went 9-5 with a 2.97 ERA, while slugging a record 29 home runs
That Ruth excelled as a 2-way player in 1918 and 1919 may have changed the history for himself, and for all of baseball.
In what is probably the most famous player transaction in all of sports, following the 1919 season, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000 (and other concessions) to fund a new play on Broadway.
The transaction instantly transformed both franchises ~ sending them in opposite directions. The Red Sox went from the elite of the MLB the first decades of the century, to the bottom of the American League standings for many years to come.
The Yankees with Ruth of course turned into a juggernaut, a force to be reckoned with. The franchise won its first World Series title in 1923, and went on to win 3 more with Ruth (and 27 to date overall through 2022), the most in MLB history.
The trade was the first of several by the Red Sox of stars from the 1918 championship team ~ and many to the Yankees for that matter ~ as Frazee transitioned his interest from baseball to theater.
The Red Sox were in last place when Frazee sold the franchise in August 1923. It took until the late 1960s until the Sox would achieve consistent success in the standings.
Ruth’s impact on the Yankees and the game of baseball was immediate. In his first season as a full-time hitter, Ruth smacked an unheard-of 59 home runs, doubling the season record he established only the season before.
Today’s fans should put in perspective the numbers compared with his contemporaries. In 1918, Ruth’s first season splitting time between the mound and outfield, the MLB leaders in homers smacked 11 (shared by Ruth while hitting part-time, and teammate Tilly Walker). No other hitter cracked double digits in homers.
Ruth’s impact on how the game would be played cannot be underestimated and will be explored more in detail below. With the Yankees he turned a franchise, which only recently had finished in the top half of the standings, into a perennial winner.
The Yankees made it to the World Series in 1921 and 1922, losing both to the New York Giants, before turning the tide on their cross-town rivals in 1923. The Yankees barely lost out in the 1924 pennant race with the Washington Senators, but still, Ruth won his only batting title with an impressive .378 average, and again led the league with 46 home runs.
Ruth finally endured a rough season in 1925, in which his carefree, partying days caught up with him.
Never the sign of great physical fitness, Ruth nonetheless had maintained efforts to get and remain in shape in previous seasons for the Yanks. That ended in 1925, when Ruth reached nearly 260 pounds.
The first sign of trouble was when Ruth collapsed during an annual trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he normally focused on fitness but instead chased fun. He then collapsed in North Carolina during spring training, before being shipped north to New York for a hospital stay.
There, he was discovered unconscious in a New York hotel bathroom. Transported to a hospital, Ruth suffered a series of convulsions. Concerns for his health became serious.
Eventually this series of events became known as the “bellyache heard ‘round the world,” since it was assumed the ailments were caused by his consumption of soda pop and hot dogs before games. Others assumed the trouble stemmed from alcohol or behavioral troubles.
Whatever the reason, Ruth played in only 98 games that season, blasting 25 home runs in that time as the Yankees finished just out of last place with a 69-85 record. It would be the last losing record for the Yanks until 1965.
Ruth’s off-the-field behavior was legendary then and now. He was a known womanizer, smoked cigars, and consumed food and alcohol in large amounts, even in public settings. Still, he somehow managed to thrive.
Apparently learning his lesson to take better care of himself, Ruth returned in 1926 with a vengeance. Very few major leaguers enjoyed the level of success of Babe Ruth from 1926 to 1928. Consider:
- In 1927, his 60 home runs extended his own single-season record and established a threshold for greatness that lasts to this day.
- He missed only 5 games total over the 3 seasons!
- He amazingly stroked 47, 60, and 54 home runs those seasons, respectively.
- His totals for runs batted in and base on balls are astronomical even to this day: he averaged over 154 RBIs per season, and 139 walks ~ seasonal totals that any ballplayer today would be proud of.
- During the period, he never struck out more than 89 times, despite sticking with a powerful home run swing that often produces strikeout totals deep into triple digits in today’s game.
- Compare today’s league leaders to the .372, .356, and .323 he hit those years.
- He headlined a 1927 Yankees team deemed “Murder’s Row” and ranked by many as the best MLB team ever.
- Ruth returned to the championship ranks, with New York sweeping both the 1927 and 1928 World Series contests.
Ruth continued to produce superior numbers through the early years of the Great Depression, before his numbers began to decline in 1933 and 1934.
Still, in the 1932 World Series versus the Chicago Cubs, in the 5th inning of Game 3 at Wrigley Field, Ruth legend has it that the aging slugger pointed to the outfield stands and “called his shot” before sending a homer over the fence.
The called shot remains in dispute to this day ~ some say he was merely gesturing in anger at Cubs players ~ but the story remains a huge part of the Ruth lore.
In his 15 years with the Yankees, Ruth helped the team win 7 American League (AL) pennants, and 4 World Series championships.
In 1935, Ruth headed back to Boston, to play for the National League’s Braves. He had hoped for an opportunity to potentially manage the club. It was a dream of Ruth’s that never developed.
On May 25, 1935, a greatly diminished Ruth reminded fans of his greatness a final time. At Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the Bambino slugged 3 home runs in a game.
Still, the following week, he announced his retirement.
Babe Ruth did not do well in retirement, nor did he age gracefully. His body began to fail him after years of abuse through womanizing, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption.
Because of this reputation, no team gave Ruth the chance to manage in the league. He was named a coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, but that’s where his coaching resume ends.
Ruth lived only 13 more years after baseball, notable mainly for his appearances in motion pictures. He appeared as himself in the legendary film about Lou Gehrig, “Pride of the Yankees,” released in 1942, and he either appeared in or was the focus of many motion pictures over the years.
He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1946, perhaps the result of cigar smoking, and passed away in August 1948 ~ the month following the release of the motion picture “The Babe Ruth Story.”
Many baseball historians say Babe Ruth saved the game of baseball in America. At least at the very top level, Ruth’s enormous popularity, plus his powerful and different style of play, brought fans to stadiums after the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series kept them away.
The Chicago White Sox were heavily favored to win the World Series, yet they failed in 8 games to the Cincinnati Reds. Allegations of gambling interference followed, landing Sox players in court in 1920. Eventually, 8 of the players were banned from baseball for life, and the gambling cloud loomed over baseball in the minds of fans.
It was perfect timing for the hard-swinging, homer-hitting Babe.
Ruth’s dominance as a slugger, plus the emergence of other hitters who emulated Ruth’s swing-with-ultimate-force approach to hitting, marked the end of what today is called the Dead Ball Era.
Prior to Ruth, baseball was a game of very low-scoring games, with players bunting, sacrificing and stealing and teams scraping to score even a single run. Well-placed singles and very high batting averages were the norm; home runs were rare.
Ruth spotlighted the excitement of the home run, thus shoving the game into what is known as the Live Ball era. With Ruth, the home run became king, and Ruth, the King of home runs.
His popularity was so sudden and so enormous that the Yankees could afford to build a brand new stadium, which was quickly dubbed “The House that Ruth Built.” Yankee Stadium to this day remains almost a cathedral to baseball and its history.
Early in his tenure with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, the rookie Ruth sustained significant ribbing and pranks by his older teammates, for many reasons including his large size and facial features.
Precisely how he came to be called “Babe” is undetermined. Some say it began as a jab at the man who signed him, as teammates would call Ruth “Dunnie’s babe,” or “Dunn’s baby.”
Some note the way Dunn allegedly “babied” the young player whose upbringing made him unfamiliar with road necessities like riding trains, eating at restaurants, and even application of proper manners.
Finally, there was the fact that “Babe” was a common nickname in baseball at that time. For Ruth, and American history, it stuck.
- 7-time World Series champion (1915, 1916, and 1918 with the Boston Red Sox; and 1923, 1927, 1928, and 1932 with the New York Yankees
- American League Most Valuable Player, 1923
- American League batting champion, 1924
- 12-time American League home run leader (including the 1918 season when he primarily was a pitcher; and 5 consecutively from 1926 to 1931)
- 5-time American League runs batted in (RBI) leader
- 2-time All-Star (for the very 1st games before his retirement)
- American League earned run average (ERA) leader, 1916
- Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame
- New York Yankees number (3) retired
- Major League Baseball All-Century Team
- Major League Baseball All-Time Team
- Among the first 5 players inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame
Upon his retirement, Ruth set many storied baseball records, including:
- Most home runs, lifetime, with 714, a record that stood until 1974 (and is still debated to this day since Ruth lost several years of hitting to pitching)
- Most years leading a league in home runs (12)
- Most total bases, season (457)
- Highest slugging percentage, season (.847)
Ruth hammered into the public’s consciousness the excitement of records, and chasing them. Arguably it began with the 29 homers he hit in 1919 to obliterate the previous record. Then he immediately followed by doubling that number, hitting 54, and then 59 home runs in a season.
Those are enormous home run numbers on their own. So when he struck 60 home runs in 1927, the Ruth hysteria was in full operation. In just a decade of play, Ruth was baseball’s all-time home run leader.