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Widely considered to be the best player of all time, Ruth was the prototype of the modern superstar. He was the first player to hit 30, 40, 50, and 60 home runs in a season, and his slugging style forever changed the way baseball was played.
Although it was his unprecedented hitting that would make him a charter member of the Hall of Fame, the barrel-chested, spindle-legged Ruth began his career as a pitcher with the minor league Baltimore Orioles (International League) before being sold to the Red Sox. With Boston, he became one of the game's best pitchers, posting 29 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play, a record that stood for 42 years. He led the AL with a 1.75 ERA and nine shutouts in 1916, going 23-12 for the World Champion Red Sox, and won a career-high 24 in 1917. However, the Red Sox could not ignore the abilities of a hitter who would establish a career-record .304 batting average as a pitcher. In 1917, his .325 batting average (in 123 at-bats) trailed only superstars Cobb, Sisler, and Speaker. He began playing some outfield in 1918 and led the AL in home runs in 1918 and 1919, with a ML-record 29 in 1919. Aside from five more appearances (winning four) scattered over the next 14 seasons, his pitching career was over.
To bankroll his Broadway ventures, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees prior to the 1920 season for $100,000, twice the highest price previously paid for a player. (Frazee also got a $300,000 loan.) Ruth responded by shattering his home run record with 54, and went on to break his own record twice more with 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927. The sale initiated the enduring rivalry between the two teams and shifted the balance of American League power from Boston to New York. Whereas the Red Sox had won six pennants and five World Series in the American League's first nineteen seasons, the Yankees, who had never won a pennant, would rule in the 1920s and 1930s and win fourteen flags before the Red Sox would clinch another.
As an everyday player, Ruth rewrote the record books. The league home run leader a record 12 times, he lost another title by four in 1922 when he missed the first six weeks of the season under suspension by Commissioner Landis for participating in a prohibited barnstorming tour. From 1926 through 1931 he averaged better than 50 home runs a year. Over the course of his career, he homered once every 11.76 plate appearances, well ahead of runner-up Ralph Kiner's one home run per 14.11 appearances. Ruth led the league in RBI six times, runs scored eight times, and walks 11 times. His 170 walks in 1923 and his career total of 2056 are still records. No one has matched his slugging average of .847 in 1920, nor his career record of .690, to which Ted Williams's .634 average is a distant runner-up. Among his other hitting records are his 457 total bases in 1921 and his combined total of 375 hits and walks in 1923. Using his pitcher's arm as an outfielder, he twice recorded more than 20 assists in a season.
Ruth appeared in ten World Series. He holds the dubious distinction of being the only player to be caught stealing to end a World Series. Representing the tying run, he was nabbed trying for second by Cardinals' catcher Bob O'Farrell in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 1926 WS. That year, he was the first to homer four times in a Series. He batted .625 in the 1928 Series. Whether Ruth actually called his shot when he homered off the Cubs' Charlie Root in his last Series in 1932 is still debated, but the incident typified the enormity of the Ruth legend. He returned to Chicago in 1933 for the inaugural All-Star Game and hit the first homer in All-Star history.
Sportswriter Bill Broeg said that "to try to capture Babe Ruth with cold statistics would be like trying to keep up with him on a night out." On and off the field, Ruth's gargantuan appetites, charisma, and ego kept the media scurrying in the wake of his latest generosities and indiscretions. The same Ruth who would happily spend hours of free time with needy children was ejected for swinging at an umpire who called ball four on the first batter the young pitcher faced in a June 23, 1917 game. Red Sox teammate Ernie Shore relieved Ruth, the runner Ruth had walked was caught attempting to steal, and Shore retired the next 26 batters to earn credit for a perfect game. As for Ruth's legendary carousing, roommate Ping Brodie quipped, "I don't room with him. I room with his suitcase."
Ruth's abilities and personality made him a tremendous drawing card throughout the league and made him the highest-paid player of his era. When informed that the $80,000 dollar salary he received in 1930 was $5,000 more that that of President Hoover, Ruth was reported to have said, "I had a better year than he did." Sportswriter Red Smith always claimed the story had to be apocryphal, because "Ruth was too uninformed about politics." Just as his hitting redefined the game, his salary breakthrough affected others to the point that former teammate Waite Hoyt said, "Every big league player and his wife should teach their children to pray: `God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy, and God bless Babe Ruth.' "
When the Yankees released him to sign with the Braves in 1935, Ruth's skills had diminished, but he did manage to hit his last three homers in a single game at Pittsburgh. His final homer may not have actually traveled the 600 feet some claimed, but it was considered to have been the longest ever hit in Forbes Field. In 1938, he coached for the Dodgers, but he was never offered the manager's job he hoped for.
Ruth's last public appearance came at the time of the premier of the movie about his life, "The Babe Ruth Story." Three weeks later, he was dead of throat cancer and lay in state in Yankee Stadium, widely known as "The House That Ruth Built." At his funeral, pallbearer and former teammate Joe Dugan, noting the heat of the August day, said, "I'd give a hundred dollars for a beer." Waite Hoyt replied in the spirit of Ruth, "So would the Babe." (TG/CR)