In his two previous seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth slugged 40 home runs, including breaking Ed Williamson’s then-35 year old record with 29 long balls in 1919 as he spent more time than ever as an outfielder than a pitcher. The Yankees acquired the game’s best hitter for a song, almost literally, and upon all-but-retiring from the mound, Ruth set a lofty goal for himself in his first season in the Bronx: “a half-century.”
Already, there was no one in the sport playing baseball quite like Ruth. He was just getting warmed up.
1920 Statistics: 142 games, 615 PA, .376/.533/.849, 54 HR, 13.3 fWAR, 11.9 bWAR
Sam Miller once said that it was hard for anyone to write about Babe Ruth, since so many of the stories about him blend myth and fiction, and even his stat lines seem mythical. For a player, any player, to predict he would hit 50 home runs in a season would have been met with laughter, especially at a time when the home run record was 60 percent of the goal. For that player to then go out and do exactly that, and sprinkle four more home runs just for the flavor, well that’s what makes a myth.
Ruth didn’t even get off to the hottest start, putting up zero long balls in his pinstriped debut month of April as the Yankees stumbled to a 4-7 start and the Babe missed a third of those games with an injury — one wonders what the internet commentariat would have to say if all this existed a century ago. On May 1st, Yankee fans got the first real legendary moment from the lefty slugger, as Ruth supposedly hit a home run clear out of the Polo Grounds, only the second hitter after Shoeless Joe Jackson (the man who helped inspire his famous swing) to do so.
That home run led to a Yankee win over Ruth’s former squad, and kicked off one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, and all Babe did was give the rest of the league a three-week head start. The rest of the month, Ruth clubbed 10 more dingers, setting a then-record for the most in a single calendar month — a mark he himself broke with 13 more in June.
By July 19, Ruth’s own record was topped, as his 30th and 31st came in successive games of a doubleheader. The Yankees actually ended up missing the playoffs, finishing three games behind Cleveland for the AL pennant. Despite that, the team pulled in 1.2 million paying fans, the first time they drew seven figures in attendance, and the rest of the league as a whole sold 600,000 more tickets than the previous season, with many of those sales attributed to Ruth’s new superstar status.
There was no MVP award at that time, with the Chalmers Award having been discontinued in 1914 and MLB still two years away from implementing its own version. Yet, as Ruth led the league in home runs, RBI, runs scored, and finished fourth in the batting title, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have garnered significant attention for the league’s top honor, despite the Yankees falling short of the pennant.
In hindsight, of course a 54-homer season from Literally Babe Ruth is not surprising. But to those who followed the sport at the time, it was inconceivable. The Phillies were the only other team to beat Ruth’s total of 54 homers. The man was outhomering ballclubs in 1919, too, but this was him leaving essentially everyone in the game in the dust. (Upon dropping their superstar, the Red Sox garnered only 22 long balls in 1920, less than half the Babe’s total.)
More than any league recognition or end-of-season hardware, the 1920 season stands alone as the year baseball fundamentally changed. Ruth’s home run pursuit was aided by an entirely new baseball manufacturing process, which wound the yarn in a ball’s stitching tighter and thus increased the “springiness” of it. Babe was already the game’s best hitter, giving him a live ball to use the rest of his career that unlocked a legend. The home run was here to stay, and until Henry Aaron came along well after Ruth’s passing, no one did it better than the Great Bambino.
Somehow, the best of Ruth was yet to come. He would top his own 54 home run season the next year (six other teams at least beat that), before capping at 60 in 1927. By fWAR, he would best his 1920 mark twice. Although he came to New York with three World Series titles under his belt, it wouldn’t be until 1923 that he led the Yankees to a championship. Still, 1920 was the beginning of the mythos, the first season George Herman set himself head and shoulders above the rest of the game.