Babe Ruth, the New York pitcherby Frank Jackson
September 10, 2012
Babe Ruth’s major league career falls into two distinct phases. The first is his tenure with the Red Sox, when he was a star pitcher who just happened to wield a potent bat. The second is his tenure with the Yankees, when he played the outfield and became the greatest power hitter the game had ever seen.
The few weeks he played with the Boston Braves in 1935 are just a coda to his career, notable largely because of his exploits in Pittsburgh on May 25, when he hit his last three home runs. His final home run, No. 714, was completely over the right field stands at Forbes Field and was adjudged the longest ball ever hit in that city.
Ruth’s Red Sox tenure actually falls into two distinct periods. Ruth made his debut as a pitcher in 1914, and in his two best years (1916-1917), he won 47 games. He pitched 323.2 innings in 1916 and 326.1 frames in 1917.
Ruth came to bat 136 times in 1916 and 123 times in 1917, about what one would expect for a starting pitcher in an era of four-man rotations when complete games were prevalent. In 1918 and 1919, Ruth also played first base and the outfield, so his innings pitched dropped to 166.1 and 133.1, while his at-bats swelled to 317 and 432.
When the Red Sox sold Ruth after the 1919 season, he had just set a major league record with 29 home runs, so the Yankees were clearly interested in him as an everyday player, not as a pitcher. Obviously, his value as a gate attraction was greater when he played every day as opposed to every fourth game.
While Ruth’s slugging feats with the Yankees have been well chronicled, it is worth noting that he didn’t entirely retire from the pitcher’s mound once he took his act to Gotham. The Yanks did not call on him often, yet in his post-Red Sox pitching career, he had five victories in five appearances!
Appearance No. 1: June 1, 1920, the Polo Grounds; Yankees 14, Senators, 7
At the time, the Yanks had a 23-15 record, and the Senators were at 19-18, so this game was hardly meaningless. Since the Yanks had played double-headers on May 29 and May 31 and had another one scheduled for June 2, Ruth’s presence was doubtless to save the pitching staff from too much wear and tear.
Ruth started the game and pitched four innings, giving up four runs (two earned). Hank Thormahlen came on to pitch innings five through nine and was credited with a save. Ruth got credit for the victory; apparently, the five-inning rule for starters was not in effect in 1920.
Appearance No. 2: June 13, 1921, the Polo Grounds; Yankees 13, Tigers 8
As in the previous appearance, this was a midseason game with some meaning to both teams. The Yanks came into the game at 32-21, and the Tigers were 29-28. Ruth pitched five innings and gave up four runs (three earned). Not exactly a quality start, but it got the job done.
After the Babe moved to center field, Carl Mays and Alex Ferguson followed with two innings each. The Babe helped his own cause with two home runs. Amazingly, Howard Ehmke, the Tiger starter, pitched a complete game despite giving up 13 runs—all of them earned!
It’s hard to figure out why Ruth was chosen to pitch this particular game. There was no pile-up of double-headers, but perhaps the pitching staff was beset by injuries or the scheduled starter was a late scratch.
As it turned out, this was the last time the Babe pitched to Ty Cobb. Ruth got the best of the match-up as the Georgia Peach nicked him for just one single in five at-bats.
Cobb, by the way, posited the paradoxical theory that Ruth’s Red Sox pitching career gave birth to his power hitting. Cobb’s reasoning was thus: Since little offense was expected of pitchers, Ruth could swing from the heels and perfect his power stroke without having to worry about keeping his job—so long as he was an effective pitcher.
Appearance No. 3: Oct. 1, 1921, the Polo Grounds; Yankees 7, A’s 6
During the 1921 season, the Babe hit 59 home runs, amassed 457 total bases, slugged .847, and scored 177 runs as the Yanks clinched their first-ever pennant with a record of 98-55, 4½ games ahead of the Indians, the 1920 World Series winners.
What more could a mere mortal do? Well, how about four innings of relief in the second game of a double-header in the next-to-last game of the season?
Now, it must be admitted that even though the Babe got a victory in this game, he didn’t really deserve it. If ever an example was needed to prove that it is better to be lucky than good, here it is.
The Yanks were leading the A’s 6-0 after seven innings, including four innings from starter Waite Hoyt and three innings from Jack Quinn. The Babe was brought in to do a couple of innings of mop-up after playing left field and first base.
One might say he missed a few spots while mopping up. Ruth was hammered by the A’s in the 8th inning and gave up six runs. In a meaningful game, any pitcher that ineffective would have been pulled, but he was just there to eat innings.
As it turned out, the Babe found his groove and held the A’s scoreless in the 9th, 10th, and 11th innings. The Yanks scored in the bottom of the 11th inning, so despite the fact that he had blown a six-run lead, the Babe was awarded the victory.
Meanwhile, the A’s starter, Eddie Rommel, pitched a complete game (10.2 innings) and took the loss. Why Connie Mack didn’t go to the bullpen is a bit of a mystery. The game was meaningless (the A’s ended the season with 100 losses), and the pitching staff had the entire offseason to rest. Since Rommell held the Yanks scoreless after the fifth, Mack may have figured leaving him in was his best option.
As for the Babe, my guess is that manager Miller Huggins penciled him in as the starting pitcher to save the pitching staff for the postseason. The Yanks had one more game to play, and the World Series against the Giants was scheduled to start on Oct. 5. This was the last World Series with a best-of-nine format, making it more important than usual to start off with a fresh pitching staff.
As it turned out, the Yanks’ collective ERA in the Series was 3.09, but the Giants clocked in at 2.54 and won the first-ever all-New-York Series in eight games.
Appearance No. 4: Sept. 28, 1930, Braves Field; Yankees 9, Red Sox 3
It had been two days short of nine years since the Babe’s last appearance on the mound. This was the last game of the season, a meaningless contest for both teams. The Yankees entered the game at 85-68 (they finished the season in third place, 16 games behind Connie Mack’s 102-victory A’s), a lackluster season for them, but one the Red Sox could only envy, as they entered the final game of the season mired in last place with 101 losses.
The game was so inconsequential that Yanks’ manager Bob Shawkey had excused some of his best players from the one-game jaunt to Boston. Catcher Bill Dickey was given the day off, giving backup Benny Bengough a chance to start. Starting pitchers Red Ruffing, George Pipgras, and Herb Pennock were also allowed to skip the trip. Pitching-wise, it was up to the Babe and the bullpen.
The game marked the Babe’s lone appearance as a Yankee hurler away from New York. He came away with a complete-game victory.
Curiously, the game was played at Braves Field. There was nothing wrong with Fenway Park since the Red Sox had played there the day before. Perhaps they were thinking the return of the Babe would require the higher seating capacity at Braves Field (46,500 versus 35,000 at Fenway).
Appearance No. 5: Oct. 1, 1933, Yankee Stadium; Yankees 6, Red Sox 5
A little more than three years later, the Babe again started the last game of the season (his only appearance on the mound in Yankee Stadium) against the Red Sox and garnered a complete-game victory. Again, the game was meaningless for the Yankees, as the Senators had already clinched the pennant. The Red Sox were in seventh place, 34½ games out.
Ruth gave up five earned runs, so it was not a work of art, but of the 12 hits he gave up, 11 were singles. His biggest stumbling block was the sixthh inning when he gave up four runs on five singles. Even so, considering he had not pitched in three years and was 38 years old, it was a remarkable effort. He even added a home run to aid his cause.
Despite his age, Ruth was a fast worker, as the game was over in 1:38. An estimated 25,000 showed up for the contest, so the chance to see the Bambino on the mound certainly put some extra butts in the seats.
In these five appearances for the Yankees, Ruth had just five strikeouts. Pitching to contact, however, was the Babe’s forte. His career strikeout total was 488 in 1,221.1 innings, so while the Babe was a power hitter, he definitely was not a power pitcher. Nevertheless, he must have been an imposing presence on the mound.
Granted, Ruth’s Yankee pitching career was of little consequence in the great scheme of things. But the five games he won actually enhanced his pitching career, as they added four seasons of winning pitching stats to his record with the Red Sox. In sum, he pitched in the major leagues for 10 seasons and never had a losing record. Needless to say, there are many outstanding pitchers who cannot make such a boast.
Those 10 winning seasons, among Ruth’s other pitching feats, will forever set him apart from the hitters who have hit or will hit more than 60 home runs in a season or 714 home runs in a career.
Baseball had never seen anyone like Babe Ruth before, and we really haven’t seen anybody like him since.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.