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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #17 Red Ruffing

Ruffing was the second legendary Yankees swindle from the Red Sox and helped pitch them to five World Series championships.

Red Ruffing gave the Yankees another steel from the Red Sox, Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Name: Charles Herbert “Red” Ruffing
Position: Pitcher
Born: May 3, 1905 (Granville, IL)
Died: February 17, 1986 (Mayfield Heights, OH)
Yankee Years: 1930-42, 1945-46
Primary Number: 15
Yankee Statistics: 426 G, 391 GS, 231-124, 3.47 ERA, 119 ERA+, 3.83 FIP, 261 CG, 40 SO, 1526 K, 1.282 WHIP, 46.5 bWAR, 42.6 fWAR
Bonus Yankee Hitting Statistics: 1,559 PA, .270/.312/.388, 398 H, 31 HR, 66 2B, 8 3B, 213 RBI, 83 OPS+, 84 wRC+, 10.4 bWAR, 11.3 fWAR

Biography

If you’re a Yankees’ fan then you’re almost certainly well aware of the famous deal with the Red Sox that brought Babe Ruth to New York. It is arguably the most famous sports roster move of all time and massively impacted the trajectory of both teams and the sport for years to come. (You may or may not get to read more about that in the coming weeks of our Top 100 series, big wink.)

A little more than 10 years after that trade, the Yankees and Red Sox made another deal that pretty much only benefitted the Yankees and helped them continue their dynasty for many years to come. That second one was for a pitcher named Red Ruffing.

Mining Out a Baseball Career

Born in 1905 in Illinois to German immigrants, Charles Ruffing was one of five children born to John and Frances Ruffing. In his childhood, his family called him Charley, but in school he got the nickname “Red” due to his hair color, which would stick and follow him throughout his baseball career.

Ruffing’s father was a mine worker and at 13-years-old, Red quit school and joined his father and other family members in the mines. While there, he developed a reputation as a skilled baseball player on the mine company’s team. In addition to pitching, he was also a talented hitter and outfielder, but had to give that up after a work accident saw Ruffing’s foot crushed between mine cars.

Four toes on Ruffing’s left foot had to be amputated, which led to him focusing on pitching, since running would now be a bit more difficult. While that ended up being a perfectly good move for him, his hitting talent would still always show through a little bit, as he was eventually regarded as one of the best-hitting pitchers ever. Ruffing clubbed 36 career homers and would often be used as a pinch-hitter.

As he put the hitting and fielding on the back burner, Ruffing’s pitching talent began to progress. His play in semi-pro ball got him a contract with the minor league Danville Veterans in 1923. He impressed there, earning him a contract with the Boston Red Sox.

Red Sox Years

Charles Ruffing in Red Sox Uniform Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite having just turned 19 a few weeks prior, Ruffing was thrown right into the fire and given his MLB debut on May 30, 1924. He was sparingly used and hit hard before being sent down to the minors. The best performance of his first major league season arguably came against his future Yankee teammates, when he threw a perfect inning against them on June 27th.

Boston later recalled him in September 1924, and from the next season on, he would become a regular member of their rotation going forward. While he would have his moments and generally became the Red Sox “ace” over the next couple years, he didn’t quite show signs of greatness in that time.

Ruffing spent the next six years with the Red Sox, and did lead the league in several statistical categories, but mostly not in ones you don’t want to be first in. He lost a league-leading 25 games in 1928 and 22 in 1929. In ‘28, he also gave up 125 earned runs, which was the most of anyone in the league. He did also throw a league-high 25 complete games in 1928. That season was the only one where he put up an above-average ERA+ at 104 in 289.1 innings.

Despite all of those negatives, the flashes Ruffing showed throughout that period were one of few bright spots the Red Sox had in that era. Outside of a seventh-place finish in 1924, the Red Sox finished in last place in the AL in every year during Ruffin’s tenure there and were headed towards another one in 1930. That year, they also had some financial difficulty and had to do something to alleviate that. Just like they had been back in 1919, the Yankees ended up being the beneficiaries.

Career-altering Trade to the Yankees

New York Yankees pitcher Red Ruffing is possible starting pi Photo by Seymour Wally/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In May 1930, Red Sox owner Bob Quinn reportedly needed to quickly raise $67,000 while in a bit of a financial pickle. He had already inherited a bit of a mess from previous owner Harry Frazee, of the famous Ruth sale. One of the things he did to try and make that money was to send the inconsistent but still young Ruffing to the Yankees in exchange for $50,000 and outfielder Cedric Durst, who had been a backup on the 1927 and ‘28 championship teams. Unlike the Ruth deal, this swap between the teams didn’t come with much fanfare.

Ruffing made his Yankee debut on May 11, 1930, allowing six runs in a complete game victory over the Tigers, where he drove in two runs at the plate. After that, he started to show some signs of what was ahead. Over the rest of May, he posted a 2.48 ERA in 29 innings across four games.

Over the rest of 1930, Ruffing posted stats a bit above average, putting up a 105 ERA+ post-trade. However, with a real offense behind him, he also ended up as the winning pitching in 15 of 20 decisions, which was nearly half of the amount wins he had recorded in seven years in Boston.

The 1931 season saw Ruffing regress back below average, posting a 91 ERA+. However, a breakthrough season was on the horizon in 1932.

In his second season at the helm of the Yankees, manager Joe McCarthy made a couple savvy additions to the roster, while the likes of Ruffing started to play to potential. In 1932, Ruffing went 18-7 with a 3.09 ERA (132 ERA+) in 259.0 innings. He led the league with 190 strikeouts. Had the Cy Young Award existed then, he likely would’ve finished quite high up, with only Lefty Grove and Wes Ferrell the only AL pitchers to outpace him according to Baseball Reference WAR. It took some time, but the change of scenery had done wonders for Ruffing.

Meanwhile, as a team, the Yankees came together and put up 107 wins, with an improved rotation headed by Ruffing taking a step forward. They would be matched up against the Cubs in the World Series, and McCarthy gave Ruffing the start in Game 1. After allowing two runs in the first, Ruffing settled in, and his offense took over in a 12-6 win. That got the series off to a perfect start as the Yankees swept the Cubs.

Yankee Pitchers 1932
Johnny Allen, George Pipgras, Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez.

The Yankees fell to second in 1933, and Ruffing had a bit of a down year, putting up just around league-average numbers. However, he again followed that up with a big year in 1934, winning 19 games and being named to his first career All-Star Game. He followed his Yankee rotationmate Lefty Gomez, throwing one inning after Gomez got the start.

The 1935 season was the Yankees’ first in the post-Ruth era, but Ruffing made sure the Red Sox still had a trade to regret as he was excellent that year. His 3.12 ERA was good for a 130 ERA+. However, as they had been every year from 1933-35, the Yankees were stuck in second place with the Ruth era over.

That changed in a big way in 1936.

Leading a Dynastic Rotation

Joe DiMaggio came into the fold in 1936 and boosted an already good offense. Meanwhile, the rotation — led by Ruffing — got strong seasons from pretty much everyone. For the first time in his career, Ruffing won 20 games, and his 120 ERA+ helped the Yankees win the pennant and finish nearly 20 games up on the second-place Tigers.

Ruffing was again given the start of Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants, but he gave up six runs and was outpitched by fellow Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. He came back in Game 5 with the Yankees up 3-1, and pitched well before they eventually lost the game in extra innings. Despite that, the Yankees won the series in six games, and Ruffing was now a two-time champion.

In 1937, Ruffing and the Yankees picked right up where they left off. According to FanGraphs WAR, 1937 was the best year of Ruffing’s career. He won 20 games again, putting up a 2.98 ERA, which equated to a 150 ERA+, also the best of his career. He finished eighth in MVP voting as the team romped to the pennant again. They did so in part because in five starts against the second-place Tigers in ‘37, Ruffing went 4-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 46.1 innings.

Again matched up against the Giants, Ruffing was used in Game 2. This time around, he dominated the cross-town foes, allowing just one run in a complete game victory. He also showed that hitting talent again, chipping in with three RBI in aid of his own cause. The win sent the Yankees up 2-0 as they eventually won in five games.

Red Ruffing - New York Yankees
Cliff Melton and Ruffing

In 1938, Ruffing posted a career and league-high 21 wins as he was named an All-Star and finished fourth in MVP voting. His 3.31 ERA (138 ERA+) again made him the star of a strong Yankees’ rotation that took them to another pennant. Ruffing got the start in Game 1 against the Cubs, and allowed one run in a complete game win. He came back to start in Game 4 and again held Chicago in check, finishing off a four-game sweep and a third-straight title. He very likely would’ve been series MVP had the award existed then.

Years of throwing 220+ innings began to catch up with Ruffing in 1939 as he dealt with elbow pain that he hid from the team. He began secretly having his wife, Pauline, use a vibrating machine to massage his hurting arm, although you’d never know it considering his results. A 21-7 record and a 2.93 ERA (148 ERA+) saw him again get an All-Star bid and a top-five MVP Finish. Again, that helped the Yankees to a World Series appearance where he again got the nod in Game 1. The opener of the ‘39 World Series was arguably the strongest outing of Ruffing’s postseason career as he allowed just one run on four scattered hits. He did all that while having no margin for error, locked in a 1-1 game. He eventually outdueled Reds’ ace Paul Derringer when Bill Dickey hit a walk-off single in the ninth, winning the game 2-1. That would be his only appearance of the series as the Yankees swept again.

Ruffing was good again in 1940, but a now Lou Gehrig-less Yankees fell to third in the standings, as his rotation-mate, Gomez, dealt with injuries. It was the only time that this dynasty failed to win the pennant between 1936-43.

Following some bounce-back seasons in 1941, the Yankees returned to the top of the AL. While he arguably wasn’t the best pitcher that season, Ruffing got his now customary World Series Game 1 start, and held the Dodgers to just two runs (only one earned) in a complete game win, as the Yankees eventually won in five games.

Ruffing was again solid in 1942, making a fifth-straight and sixth in total (and final) All-Star appearance. However, he was merely solid that year, with a 107 ERA+. That was offset by excellent years from Tiny Bonham and Spud Chandler, as the Yankees won 103 games. However, they fell to the Cardinals in the World Series. Ruffing allowed four runs in both his starts in Game 1 and the clinching Game 5 loss.

Military Years, Return, and Departure

Despite going on 38-years-old, Ruffing was drafted into the military in a non-combat role. He missed the entire 1943 and ‘44 Yankees’ seasons while serving, but did play some baseball in the military, even throwing a no-hitter against a team that included his Yankee teammate DiMaggio.

Ruffing returned to the Yankees in late July 1945. He spent the next two years with the Yankees, still putting up pretty solid numbers, but in more of a spot starter role. In June 1946, he was struck on the knee by a comebacker, and suffered a broken kneecap. Ruffing was now 41 and the Yankees decided to release their aging ace.

Ruffing’s career was assumed to be over, but the White Sox offered him a deal and the pitcher accepted, hoping to get to the 300-win mark, after getting to 270 through 1945.

Babe Ruth meets Red Ruffing White Sox
Ruffing catches up with his former teammate Ruth

But Red took another ball off the knee in spring training, and struggled in a handful of appearances with Chicago in the regular season. In September, the White Sox released him, and that would be it for Ruffing’s 22-year big-league career.

Post-Playing Career

After retiring, Ruffing spent time in the White Sox organization as a scout and minor league manager. He spent one year as the pitching coach for the Mets in their debut season but left that role after one unsuccessful year.

Following many years of falling short of Hall of Fame consideration, Ruffing was elected in 1967, his final year of eligibility. While he fell short of the 75 percent in the usual process still used today, the voting process called for a run-off election of the top 30 vote-getters if no one was elected on the initial ballot. Ruffing finished in first place in that tally and gained induction into the Hall. He still today has one of the highest ERAs of any pitcher elected and his induction is arguable, but Ruffing undoubtedly was a key piece of one of the most successful teams and eras in baseball history.

In his later years, Ruffing suffered a series of medical issues, including a couple of strokes that left him wheelchair-bound. He passed away from leukemia in 1986 at the age of 80. He was survived by his wife, Pauline, and a son. It took awhile, but 18 years after his passing, the Yankees posthumously honored him with a plaque in Monument Park.

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Ruffing’s No. 15 was later worn by and retired for Thurman Munson, but you could certainly make the case that he deserves that honor as well.

A lot of the most memorable names and players in Yankees’ history are position players: your Ruths, DiMaggios, Mantles, and Jeters. However, they wouldn’t have been as a successful a franchise as they have been with only one side of the coin. Red Ruffing was one of the greatest pitchers in Yankees’ history, and deserves plenty of accolades, some even for his hitting too.

Thanks again, Red Sox.

Staff Rank: 18
Community Rank: 11
Stats Rank: 15
2013 Rank: 15

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

SABR, Corbett, Warren.

BR Bullpen

Pinstripe Alley

Pinstripe Alley

Baseball Reference

Baseball Hall of Fame

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