The Baseball Time Machine: Greg Ruthby Steve Treder
September 29, 2004
Welcome aboard! Please stow your carry-on items in the overhead bin or underneath the seat in front of you, and fasten your seat belt tightly, and we'll be ready for pushback, and another on-time takeoff in the Baseball Time Machine.
For you first-time flyers, an extra welcome! Please pay careful attention to our flight attendants, while they explain our very important (okay, not really important, but I was on a roll there) procedures:
We take a player from the long past. We make the assumption that his exact genetic clone - the same DNA - appeared on the planet in a much later era, an era we're quite familiar with: the current era. We make the further assumption that this kid grew up to become a big league ballplayer, as did the original. Then we apply everything we know about (a) the innate qualities of the player and (b) the conditions of the current era, and come up with our best depiction of just what kind of a player the guy would be: just how well would he do, competing against modern players, under modern conditions?
Once we reach our cruising altitude, in the cabin we'll be serving platters of pig's feet, bottomless pitchers of beer, and bootleg whiskey in discreet silver hip flasks.
Babe Ruth: Childhood and Skill Development
George Herman Ruth was born February 6, 1895, in the rough-and-tumble waterfront district of Baltimore, Maryland. His father, "Big George", was a saloonkeeper, and "Little George" was the eldest child of a hardworking family that saw five babies die in the next several years; only young George and one sister survived. George ran fairly wild in the raucous streets. From a very young age, he was out of control and into trouble, smoking and drinking and persistently refusing to attend school. Between the ages of nine and nineteen, George spent most of his life confined in St. Mary's Industrial School, a reform school for incorrigible boys.
At St. Mary's, George was under the control of a particularly impressive man: Brother Matthias, the prefect of discipline, who was 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. Brother Matthias commanded respect not only physically, but also through his very calm and quiet moral example.
Brother Matthias steered George into various athletic pursuits, particularly baseball. George immediately became a prodigious standout, and by his teenage years was frequently appearing (under St. Mary's approval) in local semi-pro games. He starred as both a catcher and a pitcher, and in every circumstance a terrific hitter.
By his late teens, George was a strapping 6-foot-2, long-legged and barrel-chested. His athletic gifts and sheer physical prowess were overwhelming. He was attracting the attention of local pro outfits, and in February 1914, just past his nineteenth birthday, George signed with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, a highly prominent and accomplished minor league team.
Greg Ruth: Childhood and Skill Development
Gregory Harris Ruth born February 6, 1965, in a tough neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland. His father ran a liquor store, and Greg was the eldest child of a hardworking family that quickly swelled to five children within a few years. Greg began to get into trouble from a young age, drinking and doing other drugs, being chronically truant from school, and being involved in petty crimes and minor violence. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen, Greg spent much of his life incarcerated by the Juvenile Detention Authority.
While a Juvenile Offender, Greg came under the authority of a particularly impressive Juvenile Parole Officer: Mr. Matthias, who was 6-foot-8 and 275 pounds. Mr. Matthias commanded respect not only physically, but also through his very calm and quiet moral example.
Mr. Matthias persuaded Greg to become involved in football and baseball programs at school (when he was there). Greg became a prodigious standout as both a southpaw quarterback in football, and a pitcher and power-hitting right fielder in baseball. He aggravated his high school coaches in both sports by performing brilliantly, and then repeatedly being removed from competition by academic ineligibility and/or incarceration.
By his late teens, Greg was a strapping 6-foot-3 1/2, long-legged and barrel-chested. His athletic gifts and sheer physical prowess were overwhelming. He managed to pass his high school equivalency exams, and following his eighteenth birthday Mr. Matthias arranged for Greg to be enrolled in a Baltimore-area junior college. For the first time, Greg was able to maintain reasonably steady class attendance. He also excelled on the football field and the baseball diamond, and enhanced his status as a regional star in both sports.
Greg's very checkered background diminished his attractiveness to major colleges and pro teams in both sports, but the Boston Red Sox took a flyer and drafted him, a 20-year-old sophomore, as a late-round pick in June 1985. Greg was thrilled, and against the advice of some who insisted that his real future was in football, he signed with the Red Sox.
Babe Ruth: Early Professional Career
George was unusual among the Orioles for both his extreme youth, as well as his lack of cultural sophistication. Within the first couple of weeks, he acquired the not-uncommon-for-the-time nickname of "Babe." It thoroughly stuck: for the rest of his life, few people would address him in any other manner.
Despite his renown and continued success with the bat, the Orioles deployed Babe primarily as a pitcher. And as a pitcher he was immediately and phenomenally successful, going 14-6 by early July. The Orioles were in the business of buying players low and selling them high, and that July they sold Babe to the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox deployed Babe sparingly that mid-summer, as he went 1-1 in two games over a months' time. They then farmed him out (finessing him through waivers past all fifteen other major league teams!) to Providence of the International League. With Providence, Babe went 9-2, spurring them to the I.L. pennant. The Red Sox recalled Babe at the tail end of the season, and he pitched in two more games, winning one, and also getting his first two big league hits (a double and a single).
He was in the majors to stay. The next year, 1915, Babe not only made the Red Sox team but developed into a star, going 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA in 32 games as a pitcher. He was also used 10 times as pinch-hitter, and overall hit a lusty .315 with 10 doubles, a triple, and four home runs in 92 at-bats - and this amid very low-scoring "dead ball" conditions.
In the next two seasons Babe emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball, going 23-12 and 24-13, and leading the league in ERA and shutouts in 1916, and in complete games in 1917. He also continued to hit extremely well, and as the Red Sox continued to liberally deploy him as a pinch-hitter, his fame grew as a "two-way" star.
Finally in early 1918, Red Sox manager Ed Barrow faced the fact that, though tremendous as Babe's pitching was, his batting prowess was even more extraordinary, and furthermore, the great crowds that came out for Babe were primarily interested in watching him hit. On May 6, 1918, Babe appeared for the first time in the majors in a role other than pitcher or pinch-hitter, starting at first base. He hit a home run, and then continued to start at first, and then in left field, all the while hitting up a storm.
Babe still pitched, and quite effectively, in 1918 and 1919, but he was primarily a hitter now. In that role he was sensational: in 1918 he hit .300, and tied for the league lead in home runs with 11 in just 317 at-bats. In 1919 he bowled everyone over, hitting .322 and setting a new all-time major league home run record with an astounding 29. Babe had unquestionably arrived as the most dominant, exciting, and colorful star in all of baseball.
Greg Ruth: Early Professional Career
Despite his renown as a pitcher, the Red Sox organization decided that Greg's greatest potential talent was with the bat, and they wanted him to focus on that. Resisting protestations from him that he could easily handle pitching as well as playing elsewhere, the Red Sox deployed Greg strictly as an outfielder when assigning him to Elmira in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League in 1985. Greg proved the organization's expectations correct regarding his hitting potential: he took the league by storm, hitting .335 in 215 at-bats, and leading the league with 17 home runs.
This performance earned Greg a promotion to Class AA New Britain in the Eastern League for 1986. At the age of 21, he tore that league apart too, hitting for both average and power, and by late June he was promoted to the Red Sox' triple-A affiliate, Pawtucket in the International League. There he hit .321 with 22 doubles and 8 homers in 184 at-bats. The Red Sox called him up in September as they drove toward their division (and eventual A.L.) championship, and that September he had his first 10 big league at-bats, going 2-for-10 with a double and a single.
In 1987 Greg won the starting right field job with the Red Sox, as the veteran Dwight Evans was shifted to first base. Mark McGwire edged him out for AL Rookie of the Year, but Greg was sensational in his own right, hitting .302 with 30 homers. He was on his way to major stardom.
Babe Ruth: Prime Years
On December 26, 1919, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee - hungry for cash to finance his Broadway show projects - agreed to sell Babe to the New York Yankees. The deal was quite complicated, involving multiple payments over a period of three years, as well as a very substantial loan to Frazee (in which the Yankees took over the mortgage on Fenway Park in Boston), but its overall value of more than $100,000 made it more than twice as much as had been paid for any baseball player in history.
Babe's arrival in New York in 1920 coincided with a major league baseball rule change in which the spitball or other doctoring of the ball by pitchers would no longer be allowed. As a means of enforcing the rule, fresh clean baseballs were continually put into play. This change - perhaps accompanied by stronger, tighter yarn now used in sewing the balls - had a tremendous impact on batting and scoring, and no one demonstrated the new capacity of players to hit for power better than Babe.
He quite simply led a complete transformation of the sport. In 1920 he shattered his previous record of 29 home runs by blasting a staggering 54, and the next season he upped that record to 59. No one had ever hit like this before; to describe Babe as the best player in baseball in 1920 and 1921 is to completely understate the case: he was a better player, a whole different type of player, than anyone had imagined could exist.
His phenomenal performance on the field was matched only by his phenomenal mega-stardom in the popular imagination. Certainly facilitated by his placement in New York, Babe immediately became not just the biggest star in baseball history, but far and away the biggest star in the history of any sport. His animated, lusty personality, his quotable gregariousness, amplified his towering status. No sports figure, and perhaps no entertainment celebrity of any kind, has ever been more famous than Babe in the 1920s.
But Babe, just a few years removed from St. Mary's, didn't always handle his celebrity and wealth with grace and maturity. Always headstrong, he became increasingly difficult. He treated Yankees' manager Miller Huggins, AL President Ban Johnson, and MLB Commissioner Judge Landis with arrogant disdain, and blithely disregarded team and league rules and regulations. As a result was he spent much of the 1922 season under suspension.
Babe never ran quite as far afoul of management again after 1922, but he continued to lead a raucous, binging party lifestyle. His weight began to balloon, and though he would periodically get it under control, a bulging belly became his trademark physical feature. In April 1925 he collapsed, and required emergency surgery to treat an intestinal abscess (it was rumored to actually be an attack of gonorrhea; although Babe might very well have contracted V.D., it is certain that he was truly suffering from the effects of gluttonous eating and drinking). He missed one-third of that season, and was ill and in poor form all year.
But of all his amazing attributes, perhaps Babe's most remarkable was his capacity to rebound, and to regain top form and sustain spectacular performance, despite his high living and obesity. Most observers expected he would be finished as a top star following 1925, now being past thirty and chronically overweight. Babe proved them completely wrong, laying out a series of six consecutive brilliant seasons from 1926 through 1931, leading the league in homers and slugging percentage every year, and breaking his own single-season home run record with 60 in 1927.
Despite playing most of the time at over 250 pounds, he remained a dangerous slugger through his late 30s, compiling career records that would be unassailable for decades. It's impossible to say with certainty whether Babe was the single greatest player in baseball history, but especially when taking into account his pitching as well as his hitting feats, it's simply the case that no consideration of that question can fail to prominently include him.
Greg Ruth: Prime Years
Within his first few years with the Red Sox, Greg quickly emerged as one of the best all-around players in baseball: a fast, aggressive baserunner, a solid right fielder with a rifle arm, and a terrific hitter for average, power, and on-base percentage. He won his first home run title with 37 in 1989, and his first MVP with a .327, 44-homer performance in 1990. He led the majors with 49 home runs in 1991, and when Cal Ripken was voted AL MVP in a close vote that year, Greg was considered in many quarters to have been robbed.
His remarkable performance on the field was matched by his great prominence as a celebrity superstar in the modern multimedia age. His animated, lusty personality, his quotable gregariousness, amplified his status as one of the most popular young stars, not only in baseball, but in all of American sports.
But Greg, just a few years removed from Baltimore's Juvenile Authority, didn't always handle his celebrity and wealth with grace and maturity. Always headstrong, he became increasingly difficult. He treated Red Sox management and AL and MLB authority with arrogant disdain, blithely disregarding rules and regulations. When he spent much of 1992 under suspension, his already rocky relationship with the Red Sox completely soured, and it was clear that he wouldn't sign with them when he became a free agent that fall.
Despite his tumultuous and subpar 1992 season, Greg was in extremely high demand on the free agent market, and it was to little surprise that the team winning the bidding war to land him was George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees.
Greg's arrival in New York in 1993 coincided with a major league-wide upswing in batting production, likely caused by a combination of a variety of factors. Few players demonstrated the new capacity of sluggers to hit for power better than Greg. He blasted 54 home runs in 1993, the most anyone had hit since Roger Maris in 1961, while cruising to his second MVP award. Further facilitated by his new placement in New York, Greg became an even bigger media mega-star then before.
Greg began to be at least as famous for his on-field feats as for his raucous, binging party lifestyle. His weight began to balloon. In the long players' strike from late 1994 through early 1995, rumors of Greg's wild antics abounded. When the strike finally ended in the spring of 1995, Greg reported to the Yankees terribly out of shape, and very soon afterward was hospitalized. The first reports called it "exhaustion," but it quickly became clear that Greg had suffered a life-threatening overdose of cocaine and other drugs.
He was sanctioned, both legally and by MLB, paying fines, and being placed on probation. Greg was suspended for much of the 1995 season, and was required to undergo drug rehabilitation. When he finally returned to play in 1995, he was still in poor shape, and he didn't play well.
His public pronouncements that he has sworn off cocaine and other illegal drugs appear to be truthful, but since 1995 Greg has continued to readily consume alcohol and cigars, and in general has remained a stranger to few parties. In an era in which most top stars are fanatical about weight-training and conditioning, Greg's commitment to such regimens has been spotty. He has remained quite heavy, playing most of the time at around 250 pounds.
Most pundits predicted Greg would be finished as a top star following 1995, now being past thirty and obviously struggling with sobriety and health. But despite everything, Greg proved them wrong, laying out a series of six consecutive great seasons from 1996 through 2001. In 1997 he won his third MVP, while breaking Maris' longstanding single-season home run record with a sensational 64 (the mark that McGwire would eclipse the next year). His presence on the great Yankee teams that have won so many championships has amplified Greg's massive celebrity.
Playing most first base and DH since the late 1990s, he has remained a dangerous slugger into his late 30s. In early 2003, Greg hit his 661st career home run, passing Willie Mays and moving into second place on the all-time list. In late August of 2004, he beat Barry Bonds by a few weeks to the 700 mark. Bonds, who has continued to excel while the less well-conditioned Greg has been fading in the past few years, is widely considered the better bet to go on to break Hank Aaron's legendary mark of 755, but as of this point Greg remains the second most prolific home run hitter in major league history.
Given Bonds' surge, few now say as many did a few years ago, that Greg is probably the greatest player in baseball history. But it certainly is the case no consideration of that question can fail to prominently include him.
Year Team Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB BA OBP SLG 1986 BOS 21 5 10 1 2 1 0 0 0 0 4 0 .200 .200 .300 1987 BOS 22 151 559 92 169 27 9 30 107 62 147 19 .302 .372 .544 1988 BOS 23 156 597 114 194 44 *11 26 105 87 118 26 .325 .411 *.566 1989 BOS 24 153 532 104 155 30 9 *37 111 101 108 17 .291 .404 *.590 1990 BOS 25 157 548 115 179 27 5 44 111 *118 110 14 .327 *.446 *.635 1991 BOS 26 155 540 117 174 33 8 *49 119 124 111 17 .322 .449 *.685 1992 BOS 27 119 406 63 113 17 3 25 77 64 90 2 .278 .377 .520 1993 NYY 28 159 552 *124 185 25 7 *54 *135 *136 112 7 .335 .467 *.699 1994 NYY 29 108 388 92 121 20 3 36 89 92 81 9 .312 .444 .657 1995 NYY 30 68 239 42 58 9 1 17 40 49 73 2 .243 .372 .502 1996 NYY 31 156 529 125 163 22 2 51 123 *144 127 4 .308 .456 .647 1997 NYY 32 156 540 *132 162 19 3 *64 *152 *138 148 2 .300 .442 *.702 1998 NYY 33 155 536 122 148 19 1 52 127 *145 155 1 .276 .430 .606 1999 NYY 34 144 499 101 142 17 0 44 116 103 130 1 .285 .407 .583 2000 NYY 35 152 518 123 151 19 2 46 129 136 122 3 .292 .439 .602 2001 NYY 36 151 534 122 164 21 1 44 127 128 102 1 .307 .441 .597 2002 NYY 37 140 457 103 131 13 2 36 98 117 124 0 .287 .432 .560 2003 NYY 38 136 459 76 118 14 0 31 81 103 135 1 .257 .393 .490 2004 NYY 39 122 365 53 90 11 1 20 59 93 95 0 .247 .400 .447 Career 2543 8808 1821 2619 388 57 706 1806 1940 2092 126 .297 .424 .595
References and Resources
The primary source of information on Babe Ruth was Robert W. Creamer's definitive biography, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.