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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #1 Babe Ruth

The greatest of all time.

Babe Ruth Calls His Shot Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Full Name: George Herman “Babe” Ruth
Position: Right Field
Born: February 6, 1895 (Baltimore, MD)
Died: August 16, 1948 (New York, NY)
Yankee Years: 1920-34
Primary number: 3
Yankee statistics: 2,084 G, 9,203 PA, .349/.484/.711, 659 HR, 1,959 R, 1,978 RBI, 197 wRC+, 142.9 rWAR, 148.5 fWAR

Biography

He is Paul Bunyan and Buford Pusser and Teddy Roosevelt all at once, a perhaps uniquely American legend. He played a hundred years ago, a time when writers were often an All-Star’s drinking buddy and I just don’t trust the veracity of handwritten box scores. His numbers are what they are and the broader baseball community accepts them, but Babe Ruth is more than a slash line, more even than 714. He is both a phantom and Jacob’s Ladder, hanging over Yankee history and offering a path to glory should you approach his baseline.

“I stopped talking about the Babe for the simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen him didn’t believe me.” - sportswriter Tommy Holmes

The Beginning

Like most people growing up in working-class neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century, many details about George’s early life are at best apocryphal. But we know for a fact that after too many ne’er-do-well incidents at a young age, his parents had him declared “incorrigible” sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School on the outskirts of the Baltimore.

And here he found baseball.

Babe Ruth
Babe first discovered baseball as a catcher at St. Mary’s

Later remarking that he played any spot on the diamond that was open while at St. Mary’s with his mentor, Brother Matthias, it’s easy to surmise the kid was in a search for belonging and recognition. One of the great truisms of the American education system is that you can always find that on a school sports team, and by the time he was 19, Ruth had impressed enough people in the local Baltimore baseball community — playing on semipro, Indy-league teams on weekends — that the then-minor league Orioles signed him to his first contract.

Playing against men eight years older than him on average, George Herman still posted a .720 OPS and allowed 88 runs in 244.2 innings in his first taste of professional ball. Here again we accept a certain amount of greyness in discussing on-field accomplishment — run totals were often not broken up into earned vs. unearned runs. If all 88 runs were earned, Ruth posted a 3.23 ERA on the hill in 1914, but for every unearned, that number creeps down more and more.

To drive this example further, Ruth’s SABR bio notes that in two outings against the MLB-level Phillies that spring, the left-hander allowed just two unearned runs. Baseball Reference, about as good a source for early-century statistical collection as we have, isn’t able to make that distinction. With all things Ruth, that childlike desire to be seen, heard, recognized drove him to be the greatest to ever play the game...even if we have to accept a certain amount of blur on the margins of his career.

Even baking in that marginal blur, Ruth was good enough that the big boys took notice. The Red Sox purchased the rookie from Baltimore, compelling Orioles owner Jack Dunn to part with the player who teammates called “his Babe.” Splitting his first two decisions, Ruth then rode the bench before being demoted down to Providence — there, helping the club capture the International League title before being brought back up. On October 2, 1914, Ruth’s ringing double in an otherwise meaningless game against the Yankees was the first of the 2,873 he’d compile in his career; though it’s unlikely any of the fans in attendance could guess what the next 20-odd years of baseball would look like.

Everybody loves a winner

It’s often thought that Ruth was a great pitcher first, then a great hitter, but a .952 OPS in his first full season belays that. Indeed, in those six seasons in Boston, Ruth and Ty Cobb were the two best hitters in the game — Cobb of course having almost three times as many plate appearances. Cobb also boasted a batting average nearly 70 points greater than the Babe, a testament to the impact Ruth’s power output was already having on the game.

Babe Ruth in Uniform

Although isolated power wouldn’t be recognized until the Branch Rickey era, in that same six seasons in Beantown, Babe Ruth’s ISO topped MLB by 65 points, and outpaced Cobb by 120. It wouldn’t be until his years in the Bronx that Ruth would completely rewrite baseball’s record books, but the bones of his hitting philosophy were already there. Hit the ever-loving crap out of the ball, it’s hard to record an out when the fielders are chasing it into the gap or watching it sail over the fence.

We have the beginnings of a myth, but it wouldn’t be until October 9, 1916 that Ruth carved out his first real part of baseball history, pitching all 14 innings in the Sox 2-1 win over the Brooklyn Robins in the second game of the World Series. A packed crowd of 47,000 filled up the borrowed Braves Field to see George allow an inside-the-park home run on the third batter he faced...and barely anything after that. Ruth scattered five more hits over THIRTEEN INNINGS, ending the game with a 1.08 WPA and 32.2-percent cWPA. In other words, he single-handedly delivered the Game 2 win and added a full third to the Sox’ chances of repeating. We weren’t at the apotheosis yet, but this is perhaps the first of Saint Ruth’s true miracles.

By May 1918, the decision was made to move Ruth into the lineup full-time, still with a spot in the rotation but filling in at first and swatting a home run in each of his first two games. In an early example of “chicks dig the long ball,” Ruth began to push back on his starting assignments, claiming dead arm and at one point in July actually quitting on the team until a new contract, with incentives for offensive output, could be agreed to. He said himself:

I don’t think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year...I can do it this season all right, and not feel it, for I am young and strong and don’t mind the work. But I wouldn’t guarantee to do it for many seasons.

THE Sale

Babe Ruth Warms Up for Boston

You all know the story of Ruth being sold to the Yankees, the myth of financing No No, Nanette and all that. What’s more interesting is the vocal minority of Red Sox fans who were happy to see Ruth go. The Babe’s ego was by then well-known, and his holdouts and tensions with management had many convinced the club would be better off without him.

This is something that we still see to this day, fans convinced that NO player is worth the high salary he commands, or that locker room culture is more important than having the best possible player. While it’s true the 1919 Red Sox were a one-man team, finishing 66-71 despite Ruth’s first of ten nine-win seasons, they were a year removed from their third World Series in four tries.

Despite the beliefs of Fred Tenney and Orville Dennison, locals who wrote to the Boston Globe in favor of the sale, the Sox of course got the short end of the stick. Ruth would make just five pitching appearances for the Yankees, but would write himself not just into baseball history, but American myth.

George came into Opening Day with 49 career home runs, after setting a new record in 1919 with 29. It would only take him until mid-July to break that mark, hitting number 30 on the 19th of the month. 24 more would follow, with Ruth eclipsing his previous career total in a single season and clubbing 29 of those long balls in the Polo Grounds.

There’s been a desire for a more scientific explanation for Ruth’s prowess for more than a hundred years — he is No. 1 on my list of guys I’d want exit velocity, hit distribution, swing decisions for. The Polo Grounds were the most bizarre possible combination of dimensions; how many of those 29 were yanked 250 feet to right, and how many were blasted almost 500 feet to center? Ruth was said to love hitting there even more than the ballpark built or him. There’s a famous anecdote that Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson were the only men to hit the ball completely OUT of the Grounds, but like so many legends it’s a story that is told, then retold, then told again, accepted as having happened even though there’s always a healthy amount of skepticism.

After that 1920 campaign, doctors and psychologists at Columbia University invited Ruth to partake in a series of tests, concluding that the star’s brain simply fired at a faster rate than most people’s. This isn’t dissimilar from stories reported about Barry Bonds or Mookie Betts, but as great as both those players were they didn’t stand above their contemporaries the same way Ruth did, with just one other team in the sport hitting more than 50 home runs that year. The next year was a familiar tune, as Ruth broke his own record with 59 in ‘21 while New York won its first pennant.

The economic depression of 1920-21 gave way to a massive boom period in the American economy, and the Roaring 20s were in swing by the third quarter. The red-hot economy, flapper culture, jazz and Art Deco defined the decade. It’s no surprise then that a man with such an outsized personality and performance would become one of the first true athlete celebrities, breaking his own HR record again in 1921 before embarking on a significant barnstorming tour. This was a clear violation of MLB’s rules around the practice, and commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis fined Ruth and teammate Bob Meusel the same figure as their World Series share, on top of a suspension for the first six weeks of the season.

A number of the players we’ve covered in this series were content to let their bats do the talking — heck, Ruth’s great contemporary Lou Gehrig was one of them. That was never Ruth’s style, as he was captain of the squad for just one week in 1922. A slow first five games brought out the boobirds, and brought out the frustration in the right fielder. Upset at a perceived blown call, Ruth threw a handful of dirt in the face of umpire George Hildebrand, before jumping into the stands to confront a heckler. The heckler turned and ran, while Ruth verbally challenged any others in the crowd who were upset with his performance. A fine followed, as did the stripping of the “C,” with Everett Scott named captain instead.

Another confrontation with an umpire a month later led to a three-game suspension, after which the Bambino offered to fight the offending official. Make that a five-suspension, and paired with the late start to the season, Ruth only ended up with 110 games played in ‘22. He was worth merely six and a half wins in that year. That barnstorming rule was changed in August, to allow World Series participants the chance to pursue winter income. What impact the loss of the sport’s biggest star for the first month and a half had on the impetus to change that rule is up to the reader.

Building the House

Splitting a park with your NL siblings is all fine, but as the Yankees climbed in cultural relevance it all began to feel a bit dated. The New York Giants as an organization — especially John McGraw — began to resent sharing the Polo Grounds with a much more popular squad, even with the NL boys taking two straight World Series against the Yankees in 1921 and 1922. So spurned, the Giants even issued a later-retracted eviction order in 1920. Jacob Ruppert, then-Yankee owner, wanted his club to have its own space and paid for a brand new stadium at that familiar 161st and River, with ground breaking in May 1922.

Compared to ballparks of the day, Yankee Stadium was a bit of a colossus. With an envisioned capacity double what most parks boasted, 60,000, Ruppert specifically invoked Ruth’s popularity and money-drawing ability when rationalizing the titanic scale of the Stadium. When it opened, fresh for the 1923 season, Ruth christened the building with a three-run home run to help top the Red Sox 4-1. Some ball park.

Yankee Stadium Opening Day 1923 Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

With this entire project I’ve tried not to just list the stats or retell the stories we’ve all heard a hundred times about these ballplayers. I’ve tried to dig into their personalities and their quirks and pull out as much as I can about who these men really were. But sometimes, you just have to read a line of numbers and laugh. 1923 was arguably the greatest that Babe ever was, as his .393 average was the high water mark for his career, and an offseason focus on keeping his cool and making better, more routine plays in the outfield had him lapping the American League.

Unanimously the winner of the League Award, the AL’s forerunner to MVP, Ruth once again led the Yankees to their third-straight pennant and finally exorcised some demons by beating those Giants in the Series, which saw Ruth swat three home runs out of his seven hits. By the time the winter rolled around, Ruth’s teammates had adopted something of a “Babe being Babe” attitude towards their star’s antics. Waite Hoyt remarked that he never knew a man who could drink so much without getting drunk, or be out every single night only to play at the highest level the next day.

By 1925, a decade of that lifestyle was finally catching up to the now-30-year-old. Touching 260 pounds, the outfielder battled the “bellyache heard round the world,” missing almost half the season and posting the worst offensive year of his Yankee tenure. The exact nature of his chronic pain is one of medicine’s most closely guarded secrets, with the most common explanation being a particularly inflamed stomach abscess, which can be a symptom of long-term alcohol abuse.

Whatever the particular diagnosis was, Ruth seemed to prioritize fitness in a way he hadn’t before. He began working out under the eye of Artie McGovern, losing 44 pounds that winter. He was never able to shake drinking, but the diet, workout regimen, and sleep preached by McGovern seemed to balance out the effect of alcohol. The Sultan swatted 44 home runs in 1926, playing 152 games, and after getting caught stealing to end the Fall Classic loss to the Cardinals, Murderers’ Row would arrive in full.

Damn Yankees

New York Yankees... Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

For the next six seasons, Ruth embarked on simply the finest offensive stretch in the history of baseball. You could pencil in 50 (he actually averaged 49) home runs a year, 144 runs, 152 RBI, and reaching base .477 percent of the time. He walked twice as much as he struck out, and he hit .350 over the stretch. His average OPS was 1.190, 80 points higher than Aaron Judge’s famous 2022. The unstoppable Yanks themselves romped to 110 wins and dusted the Pirates in the World Series. (They would sweep again in ‘28, this time over St. Louis.)

In 1927 Ruth of course hit 60, a feat that even for him seemed unreachable. The prevailing rules of the League Award prevented repeat winners, and I’m certainly not going to suggest the Iron Horse give up the award, but the sheer weight of 60 transcends the history of baseball. When Roger Maris did eventually break that record, rumblings came down, even from the commissioner of baseball, that the shorter schedule endured by Ruth meant the Babe was still the single-season home run king.

Finding the true Babe

The mythos of the 1927 team is perhaps matched only by that other great myth, at the top of this article: the 1932 “called shot.”

At the risk of being a little too Zapruder, what’s that right hand doing? The Cubs and Yankees had been jawing at each other throughout the World Series, and reportedly before this famous Game 3 Cubs fans had gotten in on the fun, jeering Ruth and his wife Claire as the pair arrived at Wrigley.

Gehrig insists Ruth was pointing to the pole in center field, and he doesn’t strike me as the type to lie about things. What we know for sure is that Charlie Root hung a curveball thigh high, and Ruth did exactly what you should do with that pitch. It’s possibly the most famous home run in history, and as we enter the Babe’s decline years, I think it’s particularly important to focus in on it.

There are famous World Series home runs. Albert Pujols hit three of them in one game, Joe Carter touched them all, Kirby Puckett and Reggie Jackson had their moments. Calling the shot trumps everything. Only Babe could do it, only he could make some kind of sign, some kind of raised right arm that would echo throughout baseball history. Imagine today if Shohei Ohtani or Ronald Acuña Jr. pointed toward center field in the middle of an at-bat. It would be more than simply Ford-150 Twitter blowing up, I don’t know if the pitcher would actually throw the batter something, he might just walk him.

Ruth alone could call it, and Ruth alone could back it up with a home run. Even at his height, if he had popped the ball up to the second baseman, that would have been mentioned in every single obituary written after he passed. We see here all the facets of George Herman Ruth, that need for attention paired with the natural ability to make the possible actual. He needed to be the center of attention — perhaps no longer the best player, but the biggest star, and the one who unequivocally had to make the difference.

The Bambino was certainly the center of attention at the very first All-Star Game, which took place at old Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 6, 1933. Fittingly, he belted the inaugural Midsummer Classic homer.

But the next two years would see a decline and eventual departure, as Ruth feuded with the front office over his future. Interested in managing, the best the game had ever seen was frequently at loggerheads with the inner workings of the organization. Lured to the cellar-dwelling Boston Braves with the promise of a player/assistant manager agreement, the years of hard living were calling due. He made so many errors that half the pitching staff expressed concern at throwing when he was in the outfield, and his weight had ballooned to the point that running to first left him gassed.

1935 would be Ruth’s final season, as he threw in the towel not long after one last moment in the sun in late May against Pittsburgh, when he launched three homers in one game at Forbes Field to reach 714. He was played his last game on May 30th and quietly stepped away, as it became obvious that the Braves only viewed him as a gate attraction and had no intention whatsoever of hiring him as a skipper.

The Babe barnstormed here and there, was part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1936, coached first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, and spoke at Lou Gehrig Day in 1939:

Perhaps the best image of the Babe is one of the most well-known, in 1948 at his own number retirement ceremony:

Babe Bows Out. The old lion, who built his fame and fortune on his bat, now using that bat to stand. The greatest player the game had ever, or would ever, see, riddled by cancer but still the star of the show.

So who then was George Herman “Babe” Ruth?

Oft neglected in childhood, often without friends, he strove to be recognized. That desire for belonging, for community, made him intensely loyal to his teammates, driven to stay at the highest level of the game, and still seeking companionship at the bottom of a bottle. He didn’t rewrite history; indeed, he simply wrote a new history book. He is the greatest player to ever pick up a bat, a century on from his peak, and he was so desperate to escape the lives of most poor Baltimore kids that he was left vulnerable to the excesses of the age.

Sam Miller once wrote about how it’s impossible to try and compare the Babe to any other player in baseball history. Among his contemporaries, he was a god, and for the few in baseball history that approach his accomplishments, the weight and fog of a century of baseball hang over every swing. In so many ways it is even fallible for us as a little blog to try and compare Babe Ruth to anyone, teammates, successors, even athletes in other sports. He is Paul Bunyan and Buford Pusser and Teddy Roosevelt, and also somehow Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, so indelibly tied to the history and culture of the sport that to untie them would prove impossible.

He is the greatest Yankee of all time. Somehow, that still seems insufficient. Happy birthday, George.

Staff Rank: 1
Community Rank: 1
Stats Rank: 1
2013 Rank: 1

References

Axisa, Mike. CBS Sports: “How MLB teams are using neuroscience to try to gain a competitive advantage,” 2017.

Baseball Reference

DeCosta-Klipa, Nik. Boston.com: “100 years ago, here’s how Red Sox fans received the most infamous trade in team history,” 2020.

FanGraphs

Francis, Bill. Baseball Hall of Fame: “Scientists explored secrets behind Ruth’s epic 1921 season.”

Fullerton, Hugh S. Popular Science Monthly: “Why Babe Ruth is greatest home run hitter,” 1921.

Gowdy, Kristen. Baseball Hall of Fame: “Babe Ruth hits his 30th home run of the season, breaking his own single-season record.”

Leavy, John. The Big Fella, Harper Collins, 2019.

Miller, Sam. ESPN: “The Year That ... : Finding the single memory that defines each baseball season since 1903,” 2017.

Miller, Sam. Pebble Hunting: “Then Came Ohtani,” 2023.

Montville, Leigh. The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, Doubleday Publishing, 2006.

Nowlin, Bill & Cecilia Tan, SABR: “October 9, 1916: Red Sox win Game 2 on a loaned diamond; Babe Ruth goes the distance in 14”

O’Leary, James, Boston Globe: “Red Sox sell Babe Ruth for $100,000 cash,” January 6, 1920.

SABR. The Babe (numerous), 2019.

Wood, Allan. SABR Bio.

Previously on the Top 100

2. Mickey Mantle
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