100 years ago today, the most iconic baseball player who ever lived made his Major League debut. The 19-year-old pitcher got the win for Boston, giving up three runs — two earned — over six-plus innings against Cleveland. In that first game, he failed to display the sort of power at the plate for which he would become famous, going 0-for-2. The rest of the season was equally unremarkable — he appeared in just three more games with the Red Sox before being sent back to the minors. But it didn't take long for Babe Ruth to become a sensation.
In 1919, Ruth set a new Major League record for single-season home runs with 29 longballs, but that didn't stop Boston from selling his contract to the New York Yankees in the offseason, setting another new record with the price. The New York Times celebrated the acquisition:
New York Times via Newspaper.com
Although he had left the Red Sox behind, late in the 1920 season Ruth penned a 12-part series for the Boston Post detailing his life and career until that point. It's unlikely there was much fact-checking of the first-person, bylined columns, so keep that in mind when it comes to particularly self-aggrandizing anecdotes. But the Babe really was an amazing athlete, already a legend during his life and still the best-known name in all of baseball. Let's take a look at what he had to say about himself.
First things first, Ruth wants you to know that St. Mary's Industrial School, where he spent 12 years starting at the age of seven, was, "the sort of institution where unruly young rascals are taken in hand by men of big character, and taught to be men." Ruth had played hookey from his traditional elementary school one too many times so his parents sent him away to receive "some discipline and close supervision."
Although homesickness and having to miss his mother's death made it hard to adjust to life at St. Mary's, it was there that Ruth honed the skills that would make him famous. And quickly, too:
On the second day in school, I made the Colts, the smallest ball team in the institution, as a catcher, and it was only a couple days later that I stepped up to the plate with the bases full, measured a nice groove ball and soccer it over the centre-fielder’s head for the first home run of my career...Since that day I have put over a good many home run wallops, but no drive I have ever made meant half so much to me as my first home run at St. Mary’s.
Chapter 2: August 10, 1920— Becoming a Pro
Under the tutelage of Brother Matthias, Ruth's baseball ability flourished. The mentor insisted all his athletes learn to play every position on the field. "Whatever I may have done at the bat or on the mound or in the outfield or even on the bases," he writes, "I owe directly to Brother Matthias."
Ruth insists it wasn't all baseball at St. Mary's. Although other sports held little interest for him, he worked hard on his studies, learned shirt-making as a trade, and gained a lasting sense of piety.
You heard some pretty loud cheering at our ball games, from a lot of us who were said to be roughnecks, but Brother Matthias was there, and out of respect for him, if for no other reason, there was no bad language. For 12 years in St. Mary’s I went to church every day, and I have never missed a Sunday since I left the school.
But make no mistake, even at a school with 44 different baseball teams, the Babe's ability stood out on the diamond.
If the baseball fan thinks that my home runs come easy now they should have seen the games at St. Mary’s in the early slugging days when I often made three homers in an afternoon.
By 17, he had earned a spot on the school's first team, "which had uniforms — and everything," leap-frogging many of his older classmates. Although Ruth said it felt like had "signed with the world's champs," bigger things were just around the corner.
One day in the winter of 1913-1914, Ruth was called to Brother Matthias' office for what he feared was a lecture about some wrong doing. What he got instead, was some life-changing news.
As I came in, I took off my cap and waited for it to happen. I looked from Brother Matthias to the visitor, and was surprised and a whole lot relieved to find that nobody was scowling at me. Brother Matthias took me by the arm and led me around in front of the visitor to introduce me to somebody he said was Mr. John Dunn. Of course, Jack Dunn, manager of the Baltimore Internationals, was sort of an idol to the boys of St. Mary’s, but hardly any of us had ever seen him, so the name “Mr. John Dunn” meant little me. When, after a few words, he asked me if I wouldn’t like to play baseball on the Baltimore Internationals, I almost fell over.
At the time, Baltimore was a Minor League team, but Jack Dunn was ready to pay Ruth $600 to play ball. Since he was just 19 at the time, Brother Matthias had to sign the contract for him and when he did, Ruth left St. Mary's to be a professional baseball player.
"The trip to Fayetteville was a great event in the life of a boy who had been under strict discipline for 12 years," Ruth writes of his journey to join Baltimore's Spring Training. Along with the other rookies, Ruth was competing for a spot on the squad and resented any delay in proving himself:
For two days Jack Dunn had us out limbering up with the mildest sort of ball-tossing. I didn’t like it, because I had been limber for 12 years and wanted a chance to show that I could put the ball clear out of the park if they’d let me lean a bat against it.
His impatience paid off and in his first at bat, Ruth hit one of his signature homers. The display quickly earned him a permanent place on the team and when they played an exhibition game against Connie Mack's World Champion Athletics, Ruth got the start and the win.
With the season underway, Ruth became a regular on the pitching roster, but his hitting suffered as he adjusted to professional pitchers. Just a few months after his departure, Ruth requested a short leave from the Orioles to return to St. Mary's. His former classmates were so excited that a speech was arranged:
As a speech this was a foul ball; I hadn’t any swing at all, but the boys were decent to me, so I told them how the professional ball players too care of themselves physically and that sort of thing.
Chapter 4: August 12, 1920— Meeting Miss Helen Woodford
Ruth is bought by the Major League Red Sox just five months after leaving St. Mary's. But after making his debut —100 years ago today— he ends up spending most of the 1914 season on the bench or back in the Minors, with no home runs to his name. 1915 was better off the mound — 18 wins and 7 losses back in the bigs — but a mere four home runs. After that, "the season of 1916 was the least successful from a batting viewpoint that I have ever played in the big leagues." Of course, Ruth's self-deprecation masks the fact that he won 23 games as a pitcher that season and helped his Red Sox to a World Championship. But even that is hardly the highlight of the column.
Back in 1914, Ruth found himself suddenly aware of the crowd that attended the Red Sox' games.
Along about this time I began playing to the grand stand. But don’t misunderstand me. There was only one person in the grandstand. Oh there might have been from 15 to 20 thousand other. But she’d have been the whole crowd among 20 million.Did I say she? I believe I did. And I was writing about Miss Helen Woodford, a Texas girl, so pretty, that any time she failed to show up I was useless.
She was a student at a Boston college and just a few months after meeting, in October 1914, she and Babe Ruth were married. Several years after the Boston Post columns, Ruth's many (well-known) infidelities would lead to the couple's separation. But writing in 1920, he still felt her very much to be his "better 90 percent." He praised her baseball knowledge and dedication to his games and even gave a glimpse at their married life, confessing to playing the organ for her and writing that, "she doesn’t call me Babe; she calls me Hon. And what I call her is — between us."
Ruth gives aspiring ballplayers who have tolerated his sentimentality to this point what they want: he explains — or tries to — how it is he hit all those home runs.
I suppose when you get down to it, there are several things that enable a man to hit home runs — batting eye, how he stands at the plate, how he swings, his strength and weight and his confidence. Let’s take them up in order.
And from there he does.
On keeping your eye on the ball:
It’s easy enough to follow the ball half way from the box to the plate. After that is when the pitcher fools the hitter…I believe that one of the secrets of my hitting is my ability to keep my eye on the ball longer than any other batter, even until it started to break.
How to stand:
First of all I get my feet in the exact position, the right one a little in advance of the left. My right leg is bent just a little at the knee, and as I stand this way the pitcher gets more view of my back and right him than of my chest or side. The weight of my body is, at the beginning, on my left leg. When the ball comes up, I shift my weight to my right foot, which steps out directly toward the pitcher as my bat, my arms and my whole body swing forward for the blow.
How to swing:
At the start of my swing I reach back with my bat as far as I can, almost turning my back on the pitcher. As my bat comes forward the movement with which I throw my weight against the ball often carries my right foot beyond the chalk line of the batter’s box. The greatest power in the stroke comes when the bat is halfway through the swing — I mean directly in front of my body, and that is where it meets the ball.
In our growing picture of Babe Ruth, here he makes the claim to use a 54 ounce bat and admits to only caring to hit home runs.
Chapter 6: August 14, 1920— The Great Injustice
It isn’t fair to the batter, it isn’t fair to his club. It’s a raw deal for the fans and it isn’t baseball. By “baseball” I mean good, square American sportsmanship, because baseball represents American in sport.
In the opening of his sixth installment for the Boston Post,Ruth introduces what he feels to be the great injustice of his era in the game. It isn't steroids, or even gambling, but intentional walks — or "intentional passes" as they were known — that really "gets [his] goat."
Ruth talks of proposed rules to prevent intentional walks, however, it's hard to imagine that his suggestion that all walks should count for two bases instead of one sounded much more reasonable back then than it does now.
With 101 walks in the 1919 season, Ruth can take personal offense at intentional passes. Of course, this was long before the appreciation of on base percentage, but Ruth's particular frustration still speaks to his confidence in routinely hitting the ball out of the park.
As for how his time as a pitcher effects his perspective, Ruth has this to say:
Of course there’s a great temptation to walk the men; but after all, winning isn’t all there is to sport. Believing this, I never gave an intentional pass in all my life, even though the manager signaled for one from the bench.
It's hard to imagine that Babe Ruth ever underestimated himself. Especially in the same column that features a claim for a 500 foot home run — long before such things were able to be measured. But buried deep in this account of his favorite shots — of which there was at least one at every stadium in the Bigs in 1919 — comes this prediction:
The 1919 season was a short one, you know. The schedule called for 140 games, of which I played only 130. Normally, the schedule reads 154 games, so you see I got my 29 official home runs and my 31 one actual ones on short rations. I felt sure I’d be able to beat that record this season, and now I have proved it, with a long time to go. I don’t make any promises but at the rate I’m going now I think I can see something hanging up that looks mighty like a 45 —if the pitchers behave.
He went on to hit 54 home runs that season.
Chapter 8: August 16, 1920— Pitching vs. Hitting
Although in Chapter 4 Ruth remembers 1916 has his worst season at the plate, here he recounts the pitching successes he enjoyed — and there were many. His 40 games started, nine shutouts, and 1.75 ERA were all best in the league. The column details perhaps his most significant start of the year: 14 innings of one-run ball to give his Red Sox a win in the second game of the World Series.
However he soon returns to considering his offensive struggles:
Here I was, a young fellow with a minor league record as a fence-buster, up in the big time with about 200 pounds of physique, a big bunch of muscles and all the confidence of a cocksure kid — and I was either missing them altogether or sending up skyrockets for easy outs.
It was clear Ruth could make a career out of pitching, but it wasn't just that hitting homers was more fun. Pitchers are only good as long as their arms are strong, and "a batter's eye ordinarily lasts longer than a pitcher's arm." With that in mind, Ruth worked hard in the offseason and brought his average up from .272 in 1916 to .325 in 1917 — good for fifth in the league. But still, home runs eluded him with just two hit that year.
In order to hit more, Ruth had to pitch less. It wasn't just a matter of preserving his arm — pitchers only played once every few days and for Ruth that simply wouldn't do. Over the 1917 and 1918 seasons, Ruth started spending more time at first base and in the outfield. But in 1918, the Red Sox made their second World Series appearance in three years and Ruth extended his streak of scoreless postseason innings to 29. It was his last great success on the mound.
It is true that I hurled 17 games in the following season, 1919, but it was to be Babe Ruth, outfielder, after this….In four whole seasons and two small fractions of seasons, I pitched a total of 133 games for a grand hurling average of .662. Once I had led the league as a moundsman and, although I left the hill for good and all, I did so in good standing and with a record of which I felt a little proud.
Chapter 10: August 20, 1920— Babe Meets the New York Press
Ruth wraps his consideration of the historic 1919 season with a marvel at his own prowess:
That seemed such a big order that in my wildest dreams of being a home run champion I never expected to be putting them over the fence as an almost daily stunt.
And a complaint that he could have hit even more homers if only he hadn't adjusted his swing to try to hit more balls to left and center. Well on his way to becoming the larger-than-life center of the sporting world, Ruth rankles at his Red Sox salary — and is willing to say so.
I was tied up to the Red Sox with a contract which certainly did not call for the salary that a man with a home run record of 29 in a season deserved. I tried to open the deal for a raise, but couldn’t get Harry Frazee to see my side of it.
The Yankees were willing to pay well for the home run king — $125,000, the largest sum ever paid for a baseball player. That money went to Frazee and the Red Sox, not Ruth, but he soon worked out a satisfactory new contract and started the 1920 season in New York. There, the former reform-school boy found the media scene in the Big Apple unlike anything he had ever experienced:
After we got away for the spring training I found myself up against something that puzzled me a lot more than Walter Johnson’s speed or Eddie Cicotte’s snake ball. This was the sport writer. They asked me all kinds of things about my bat and how I held it and how I swung it; they wanted to look at my eyes and one fellow got me to strip off my shirt to give my back muscles the once over. At first I thought they were kidding me, but it didn’t do me any good to find out they weren’t.
It's safe to say now that the Yankees got their money's worth with Babe Ruth, but at the time, the sensational sum came with equally high expectations. No one felt this more accutely than Ruth himself.
Could I make good $130,000 worth? It was a big order, but if home runs were what they wanted for their money, I felt certain of delivering the good, because my eyes were on the ball and I knew it. If I felt down I was sure I’d get the most classic raxxing(sic) in the history of the game.
But of course, Ruth can only feel ambivalent about his ability for so long. The rest of the chapter is given over to comparing his partial season in New York to previous home run champions — and finding himself far superior.
In writing this story of my career, I have been looking over a lot of old records and have just discovered that Frank Baer’s total of homers in the four straight years that he led the league was just exactly what I have done this season with more than a month to go —41. In less than two full seasons, 1919 and 1920, my grand slams mount up to 70. Do you know that the home run leaders of the American league ran up a total of only 72 in eight full seasons, from 1908 to 1915 inclusive?
Chapter 12: August 23, 1920— The "Wind-Up"
Writing a story about yourself is very different from pitching a ball, because in writing the “wind-up” is the last thing of all. But I’ve given you my best delivery and tried to tell you all about myself that I think would interest you… So here goes for the “wind-up."
After delving into a few more reminisces, Ruth "winds up" his series with advice for young boys:
Take my advice and learn to play every position on the nine...Above all, learn to keep your temper. Forget what I said about losing my own, because that never got me anywhere...If you haven’t started to smoke, don’t begin now. If you have, keep it down, especially during playing season. I smoke a lot of cigars and wish I didn’t, but I own a cigar factory, which I’ve got to keep busy...And here’s another thing: Get married. Pick a nice young girl who understands you —she’ll understand you a long time before you understand and appreciate her—and make a home run...Go to school as long as you can. There is plenty of time for baseball after 3 o’clock and during the summer vacations. I wish I had had more books — maybe I’d be a better author than I am...