By Brian Tuohy
His real name was George Jr., yet no one ever seemed to call him that. At the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, he was derisively nicknamed "Nig," short for "N----- Lips." Upon escaping into professional baseball at the age of 19, he was mocked with the label "Baby." Shortly thereafter, Boston Red Sox teammates "Smokey" Joe Wood and Hall of Famer Tris Speaker dubbed him "The Big Baboon." Sportswriters would later knight him as "The Sultan of Swat," "The Colossus of Clout," and "The Maharajah of Mash." But to his fans, he was simply known as "The Babe."
Babe Ruth redefined baseball during his 22-year career, and July 11 marks the 100th anniversary of his MLB debut. His bat was the death knell of the game's "Dead Ball" era and revitalized public interest in a sport suffering in the wake of the 1919 "Black Sox" gambling scandal. Though many of his records have been broken, his all-time career marks are still impressive: 1st in slugging percentage (.690), 1st in OPS (1.164), 2nd in OBP (.474), 2nd in RBIs (2,213), 3rd in home runs (714 -- though he actually hit 715 as an early walk-off HR was recorded as a triple due to the scoring rules at the time), 3rd in walks (2,062), 4th in runs scored (2,174), and 8th in batting average (.342 -- he once claimed he could've batted .600 if he just tried to hit singles). Not bad for a guy who cracked the big leagues as a pitcher.
A teenage Ruth starred on the St. Mary's baseball team, playing every position at some point. As legend has it -- and many stories involving Ruth deserve the "legend" tag, as several details of his youth have been lost to history -- Jack Morgan, a catcher from the nearby St. Joseph's College, saw Ruth play and informed his coach, Brother Gilbert Cairns, that Ruth was worthy of scouting. When Jack Dunn, the 42-year-old owner of the International League's Baltimore Orioles, came sniffing around a highly touted pitcher on St. Joseph's, Brother Cairns deflected Dunn away from his squad by suggesting Ruth instead. The word of mouth was good enough that Dunn signed Ruth on Valentine's Day, 1914, to a $250-a-month contract allegedly without ever seeing him pitch or play.
On his own for the first time at the age of 19, Ruth joined the Orioles at spring training in Fayetteville, N.C. Most of the players were older and more established than Ruth, and they took to calling him "one of Dunn's babies." A pair of writers from the Baltimore Sun, Rodger Pippen and Jesse Linthicum, picked up on the taunt and first wrote of him as "Babe" Ruth. Despite the ribbing, Ruth quickly proved himself to be a young phenom. On the mound, Ruth beat the eventual American League champion Philadelphia Athletics in an exhibition game, 6-2. As a hitter, he could be fooled and made to look foolish swinging out of his shoes, but when he connected -- forget it. He hit the longest home run in Fayetteville history, besting a mark set by none other than Jim Thorpe. The feat made for Ruth's first headline.
On July 4, 1914, the Orioles were in first place in the International League with a 47-22 record. Ruth was 14-6. Yet despite the on-the-field success, only about 5,000 total fans had shown up throughout the course of the season to see the O's play at home. Attendance was so bad, Ruth once tossed a complete game shutout versus Rochester in front of 11 paying customers. The problem for Dunn's Orioles stemmed from the rival Federal League team, the Baltimore Terrapins, which played directly across the street. Many Baltimore baseball fans, starved for a major league team since 1903, believed the Federal League would soon be a third professional league (along with the separate-at-the-time National and American Leagues). Because of this, thousands of fans flocked to see the Terrapins each day, leaving Dunn's stadium empty.
Faced with bankruptcy, Dunn was forced to sell off his players. He offered Ruth to Athletics' owner/manager Connie Mack, who had previously seen Ruth beat his team in spring training. When Mack came to see him pitch again, Ruth was roughed up and pulled by the fourth inning. Undeterred, Dunn started Ruth in the second game of the doubleheader and he responded with a shutout victory. But Mack was in financial straits as well (in fact, Mack would sell off most of his pennant-winning team after the 1914 season). He passed. The Cincinnati Reds made an offer for Ruth, as did John McGraw of the New York Giants, but Dunn wound up dealing with Red Sox owner Joe Lannin, thanks in part to a $3,000 "loan" Lannin provided so Dunn could meet his payroll. Lannin bought Ruth, catcher Ben Egan and another young pitcher named Ernie Shore for $25,000. The Red Sox raised Ruth's salary to $625 a month.
On July 10, Ruth and the other two players took an overnight train to Boston. They arrived at Back Bay Station at 10 a.m. Met there by a Red Sox representative, Ruth was informed he was to start that afternoon. Five hours later, Ruth made his American League debut against the Cleveland Naps in Fenway Park.
The 6-foot-2 lefty took the hill to face a Naps team featuring "Shoeless" Joe Jackson hitting third and future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie batting fourth. In the first inning, the rookie "displayed why he is a veteran in many ways," as the Boston Globe's T.H. Murnane wrote of Ruth's performance. Ruth gave up a hit to leadoff hitter Jack Graney, who advanced to second on a ground out. Shoeless Joe then singled to center. On the play, Red Sox center fielder Tris Speaker threw home, forcing Graney to momentarily hold at third. Ruth cut off Speaker's throw and threw to second. As Shoeless Joe retreated back to first, Graney took off for home, but was nailed at the plate. Ruth then ended the inning by picking off Shoeless Joe from first base.
Ruth would give up a run on three hits while striking out one over the next five innings before a two-run, three-hit seventh inning proved his demise. Remarkably, Ruth finished the inning on the mound, but was pulled for pinch-hitter Duffy Lewis in the bottom of the inning (Ruth struck out and flew out in his first two at-bats). Lewis would reach base on a hit, advance on an error and score the game-winning run on a Tris Speaker single.
Credited for the 4-3 victory, Ruth's first big league win didn't set off many alarm bells. The Boston Globe's headline for the game read, "Babe Ruth leads Red Sox to win in Boston debut." Murnane would write of Ruth, "He has natural delivery, great command and a curve ball that is tough for opposing hitters. However," he would add, "there's still room for improvement for him but he will undoubtedly progress with the help of Manager Bill Carrigan." The New York Times took little note of the performance. Writing under the headline "Ruth Batted Out by the Naps," the newspaper simply stated of the game, "Ruth, formerly of Baltimore, made his debut as a local pitcher and held Cleveland to five scattered hits in the first six innings." There was no hint of the New York legend yet to come.
In fact, despite the win, Ruth made little impression on his new club. Ernie Shore, the other pitcher bought from the Orioles in the Ruth deal, pitched a two-hitter the following day, winning 2-1. With an already crowded rotation, Ruth saw little playing time while Shore would get another 15 starts, going 10-5 for the season. At the end of July, Lannin bought the Providence Grays of the International League for $75,000, and two weeks later, sent Ruth there to get more work. Ruth shined with the Grays, posting a 9-3 record on the mound and hitting .300, including his first professional home run, hit in Toronto. With the Red Sox 8.5 games behind the Athletics, Ruth was recalled from Providence to finish off the last week of the 1914 season, going 1-1. His first season in the majors may have just been a cup of coffee, but shades of legendary Babe Ruth were visible.
Why does Ruth continue to matter today? Why do so many know his name 100 years after he played in his first MLB game? It's because in many ways, Ruth had all the trappings of a modern professional athlete. His on-the-field exploits were as wild as his reputation off of it. Rumors surrounding young stars like Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig are plentiful, yet Ruth did it all first. As a member of the Red Sox between 1915-1919, he posted a 89-46 record with a sub-3.00 ERA, won 3 World Series championships, and he set a MLB season record by hitting 29 home runs in 1919. At the same time, he broke his toe by kicking the bench in frustration after being intentionally walked, punched home plate umpire Brick Owens in the head after arguing balls and strikes which resulted in a $100 fine and a 10-game suspension, quit the team for a few days in 1918 after arguing over playing time with manager Ed Barrow, and held out for double his existing salary at the beginning of the 1919 season while threatening to become a professional boxer.
Though today Red Sox owner Harry Frazee appears the fool for selling Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 in 1920 -- thus creating the "Curse of the Bambino" which the Red Sox wouldn't break until winning the World Series in 2004 -- the fact is that many thought Frazee got the better end of the deal at the time. Ruth was drinking heavily, constantly crashing his car, and despite being married, regularly visiting prostitutes. He was a managerial headache and his record-setting 29 home runs in 1919 hadn't prevented the franchise from finishing sixth in the AL, 20.5 games out of first. Some felt Ruth might flame out of baseball within a year or two given his lifestyle, despite being just 25 years old.
Once in New York, Ruth's bat, coupled with his personality, forever changed the course of baseball. He socked 54 home runs in 1920 (more than 14 of the 15 teams in baseball would hit that season) and followed that feat with 59 more in 1921. Starting that same year, Ruth led the Yankees to three consecutive World Series, bringing the franchise their first-ever championship in 1923.
Meanwhile, Ruth's rock star lifestyle was still incredibly problematic. He charged into the stands to fight a heckler in spring training in 1920; was suspended by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1922 for leading a barnstorming team in the offseason; was confronted with a public intervention led by New York mayor James J. Walker at an Elks Club dinner due to his drinking (during Prohibition, mind you); had a paternity suit was filed against him by a 19-year old waitress named Dolores Dixon; was caught with a corked bat in 1923; threw dirt in umpire George Hildebrand's face after which he stood on the dugout's roof egging on a heckler to fight him in 1925; and was known to partake in orgies which may have led to a sexually transmitted disease, costing him a good portion of the 1925 season.
Regardless of his antics -- much of which were outright covered up by the compliant press, including the rumored STD which was passed off as a "bellyache" brought on by "too many hot dogs and sodas" -- Ruth became one of the most famous celebrities in America. People of all ages embraced him. Children emulated him. His persona was marketed and sold better than any athlete playing today, including starring roles in motion pictures. The New York newspapers couldn't get enough of Ruth, with the Daily News going so far as to hire Marshall Hunt to write about Ruth 365 days a year. (Hunt would quickly become a feature player in Ruth's off-the-field exploits, carousing with the Babe, introducing willing women to him, and even forging his signature on baseballs.)
After his much-maligned 1925 season, in which he played in only 98 games, Ruth recommitted himself to baseball. At the age of 31, he cut back on his hard-partying ways, got into shape by shedding some 40 pounds, and put on a remarkable display of hitting over the course of the following seven seasons. From 1926 through 1932, Ruth averaged 49 home runs, 153 RBIs and 143 runs scored all while batting .353. He played in four World Series during that time, winning three championships with the Yankees while adding to his personal legend with his famed "Called Shot" in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs.
Like many other athletes, Ruth couldn't let go of the game that made him what he was. 1933 was still a very good season, though somewhat under his usual standards, and 1934 saw a downturn in his numbers as age caught up with him. Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert cut a backdoor deal with Boston Braves owner Emil Fuchs, and shipped Ruth back to the city that first welcomed him into the bigs. He only managed to play in 28 games as a Brave in 1935 before calling it quits. Eleven years later, he was diagnosed with cancer. The disease took his life at the age of 53.
All hyperbole (and personal foibles) aside, Ruth is a true legend of the game. The baseball we watch and enjoy today owes a deep debt of gratitude to him. His name still rings out a century after he first set foot on a professional baseball field, and will continue to echo as long as the game is played. Herculean events became Ruthian in nature, and rising stars in a variety of endeavors became known as "the Babe Ruth of…," all because of a man named George Jr.
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.