No player in baseball history has ever been so far ahead of his contemporaries as Babe Ruth. That's not just true on the field. His ascent helped the country heal after the tough years of the 1918 flu pandemic. For Ruth was the first real baseball "star", with an adoring fan base, and whose larger than life character made him an icon - not just in the sport, but as an American, even today.
He was born George Herman Ruth in 1895, a native of Baltimore. While his connections to Boston and New York are well known, he was first signed by the local Orioles, then members of the minor International League, in 1914. That's why there's a statue of him outside Camden Yards, and is also where Ruth got his nickname. The teenager was called "Jack's new babe" by teammates, in reference to owner/manager Jack Dunn, who gushed “Ruth looks like one of the best pitchers I have ever laid my eyes on. He possesses every quality of what I term a major leaguer... Within a year’s time I may be able to spring a big surprise on the baseball world.” But the honeymoon was swiftly over, because Dunn needed cash.
Less than four months after hitting his first pro homer, in a spring training game on March 7 in Fayetteville, NC, Ruth and two other players were sold to the Red Sox for $16,000. The Babe made his debut on July 14, pitching seven innings of two-run ball for the win. Let's not forget, he was initially a pitcher who could hit. Over six seasons in Boston, he went 89-46 with a 2.19 ERA - while much of that was in the deadball period, still an ERA+ of 125. He went 3-0 in the 1916 and 1918 World Series, both won by Boston, allowing three runs in 31 IP. That included a 14-inning win over the Brooklyn Robins in 1916. By Game Score, it's still the greatest pitching performance in World Series history, surpassing even Don Larsen's perfect game.
Ruth wanted to play more often, and despite qualms, he took up left field and first base on days when he wasn’t pitching. He quickly proved his worth: in 1918, despite appearing in only 95 games, Ruth still tied for the major-league lead in home-runs with 11, while also going 13-7 as a pitcher. The following year, he became an everyday starter, and batted .322 with 29 home-runs, again leading the majors. His OPS was 1.114, an OPS+ of 217 - the first of nine times Ruth’s OPS+ would exceed 210. All other qualifying hitters across baseball history have combined for only 17 such seasons, with just Barry Bonds (4), Ted Williams (4) and Rogers Hornsby (2) having done so more than once.
He set a new major-league record in 1919 with 29 home-runs, though the Red Sox finished a long way out of contention. Then came one of the defining moments in baseball history. On December 26, Ruth’s contract was sold to the New York Yankees for the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 [though the oft-cited story of the owner needing to finance the musical No, No, Nanette appears to be an urban legend, since that didn’t open until 1925] Reaction at the time among local fans was, perhaps surprisingly, mixed. But what’s undeniable is that Boston, who had taken four of the eight preceding World Series, would have to wait 85 years for their next victory in the Fall Classic.
Ruth, on the other hand, would go from strength to strength - not exactly hurt by the short right field at his new home of the Polo Grounds, only 258 feet from home-plate. In his first season as a Yankee, he tied his own HR record by July 15, and ended up almost doubling it, hitting 54 home-runs. A new manufacturing method helped issue in the live-ball era that season, but no other player in the league reached twenty. He hit .376, walked in almost a quarter of his plate appearances and had a 1.379 OPS, which more than a century later, remains the highest-ever in the AL. Ruth’s performances helped draw 1.2 million fans to see the Yankees in New York, the first time a team had reached a million in attendance.
In 1921, at the ripe old age of 26, he broke the career HR record, previously owned by Roger Connor (138). He also broke his own single-season record with 59 home-runs, and the marks set for runs (177), extra-base hits (119), and total bases (457), still stand to this day. But two years later, Ruth had arguably his greatest season, corresponding with his move to right field and the opening of Yankee Stadium, which became known as “The House That Ruth Built”. He batted .393/.545/.764, and though the Yankees won the pennant by 17 games, it was almost all due to Ruth, who was worth 14.2 bWAR, another mark yet to be matched. An unsurprising unanimous MVP, he then had a 1.556 OPS as the Yankees won their first World Series.
From 1923-28, Ruth was worth over 10 bWAR every year bar an injury-shortened 1925. His off-field behavior may have been a factor, with a legendary fondness for alcohol, hot dogs and women - not necessarily in that order. Here’s one such story: “[A] Yankee player observed Ruth sitting in a big chair in an upstairs room [of a Philadelphia brothel] with a brunette on one knee and a blonde on the other. As the girls poured a bottle of champagne onto his head and shampooed his hair with it, Ruth smiled and exclaimed, ‘Anybody who doesn’t like this life is crazy!’ The next afternoon at Shibe Park, the Bambino, with barely two hours sleep, hit a pair of home runs.”
Ruth became the first player to his 60 home-runs in 1927. The Yankees won the World Series that year, and again in 1928 and 1932. They did not lose a game in any of those three series, for a streak of 12 consecutive wins. Ruth batted .457 (21-for-46) with seven home-runs across those series. The last of them included another Babe legend in which he may (or may not) have called his home-run shot off Cubs’ pitcher Guy Bush. By that point, even Ruth was not immune to the passage of time, likely not helped by his lifestyle, though in his penultimate season of 1934, he was still worth 5.0 bWAR at age 39. He finished his career back in Boston with the Braves, playing his final game on May 30, 1935.
He had often expressed interest in becoming a manager, but in part due to his behavior, no team would hire him. He did coach first base with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a while, but his retirement contained more golf than baseball. He was one of the five inaugural members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, and his number #3 was retired by the Yankees in 1948, the same year as Ruth’s death from cancer. He still hold the career records for SLG (.690), OPS (1.164) and OPS+ (206), and there’s an entire page on Wikipedia devoted to his accomplishments. “Ruthian” has entered the language to describe any prodigious feat, and 87 years after his last game, his name still lives on in a candy bar.
Ruth was truly one of a kind. A product of his time, the Babe was someone who never let the game get in the way of his enjoyment of life in general. His talent and sheer domination of baseball may never be matched.