The acquisition of Babe Ruth is still probably the biggest moment in Yankees history. Maybe they still become the force of the 1940s and 50s anyway, but Ruth put the team on the map. Two decades after he left, they were the only team left in New York until the Mets came. Nowadays, they’re the most famous team in baseball. It’s fairly likely none of this happens if he doesn’t don a Yankees uniform.
Everyone knew it was a big deal when he was first sold to the team, although I doubt anyone knew how big at the time. For basically his entire tenure as a Yankee, he was the best player in baseball, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Yet, after his first month in pinstripes, you would never have known just how much he changed the arc of the Yankees.
Ruth made his Yankees debut on April 14, 1920, about three and a half months after the famous sale went through. He went 2-for-4, but the Yankees lost 3-1 to the Athletics in Philadelphia. His first game in New York did not come until eight days after that. On April 22nd, Ruth played his first game at the Polo Grounds, and had to be removed after just one at-bat.
After those two hits in his debut, April was generally downhill for Ruth. After a 1-for-4 game on April 30th, Ruth was hitting just .226/.250/.258. For someone who would come to be defined by the home run totals he put up, he had hit zero up to that point. Slow starts can happen, but those are about as un-Ruth-like numbers are conceivably possible.
Unsurprisingly, his slow start was due to an injury, and not because Ruth was bad. He missed some time, and presumably left his home debut early, because of a knee injury. In addition to that, he also had a weird spring training. He had also gotten off to a slow start there, and at one point tried to fight a fan who called him a “big piece of cheese.”
On May 1st, Ruth and the Yankees played the fifth game of the season against his old team. The Red Sox had swept a series in Boston earlier in April, and had won the first game of this series in New York on April 30th.
Future teammate Herb Pennock was on the mound for Boston that day. Back on April 20th, Pennock had held Ruth to an 0-for-4 day in Boston. He would not repeat that again. In the fourth inning, Ruth doubled. Two innings later, Ruth stepped to the plate again. This time he cleared the roof in right field for a massive home run. It was his first of the season and first as a Yankee. The Yankees won the game 6-0, and basically from that day on, Babe Ruth was Babe Ruth.
May was the complete opposite of April for Ruth. In total, he hit .329/.463/.921 in the month. After hitting zero home runs in April, he hit 12 in May. That’s especially nuts when you consider that at that point, the single season home run record was 29, having been set by Ruth the previous year. He nearly did half of that in one month. He followed that up with 12 more in June, and then 13 in July.
The .508 OPS in April 1920 is the lowest of any month in Ruth’s Yankee career. By the end of the 1920 season, Ruth had nearly doubled the single season home run record. The Yankees won 95 games. The Yankees drew over 1,000,000 to the stands on the back of Ruth’s play. They would win the AL the following season, take their first World Series three years later, and the rest is history.
Ruth’s struggles in April 1920 were probably due to injury more than anything else. Considering how good he was, he likely would have put up crazy numbers off the bat had he been healthy. However, it’s fun to imagine that the May 1st home run altered the course of Yankees and baseball history.