To this day, Babe Ruth is one of the most-famous baseball players in the world. If you ask a random person to name five baseball players, there’s a good chance that Ruth will get mentioned. You could make the argument for him being the greatest player ever. He was maybe the first true celebrity the sport birthed. The life of one George Herman Ruth wasn’t always glorious, but a look back at his career is full of iconic moments and incredible accomplishments.
George Herman Ruth had a troubled childhood. In fact, he spent much of his youth at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a reform school and orphanage. Ruth often found himself in trouble, but he also found an outlet in baseball, a sport he excelled at. Oftentimes he was only allowed to leave the premises of St. Mary’s to play baseball. In 1914, the Baltimore Orioles of the International League signed him to a deal. This is where he first earned the nickname “Babe.”
Ruth’s time with the Orioles was short-lived, as the team had basically no money. Babe played a few exhibition games but had his contract sold to the Boston Red Sox in July of 1914.
As you likely know, Ruth began his career as a pitcher. Babe made his debut on July 11, 1914 against the Cleveland Naps. The Red Sox, and Ruth, won the game 4-3. However, his first season with the Red Sox he was barely used, which is fair given he was an inexperienced teenager.
By 1916, Ruth had become one of the best pitchers in the league. The Red Sox won two 1-0 games that Ruth started and finished, including a 13-inning shutout. Overall, Ruth had nine shutouts in 1916 while posting a 1.75 ERA. Both led the league, and the nine shutouts was a record for lefties until 1978. Oh, and the Red Sox won the World Series.
The first few seasons of his career Ruth rarely got to hit, as he was primarily pitching. That changed in the 1918 season, which was impacted by World War I. Ruth really wanted to bat more, and Boston’s new, inexperienced manager Ed Barrow decided to give him a shot. Babe hit a home run in four-straight games at one point and finished with a .300 batting average and 11 home runs. Oh, and he also went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA as a pitcher.
In 1919, Ruth was still pitching a bit, but had primarily become an outfielder and a hitter. Babe quickly broke the American League record for home runs in a season, as the record was only 16 at the time. When Ruth started hitting home runs, he was really rewriting record books. By the end of the season, Ruth had piled up 29 home runs, which beat the Major League record of 27, which had been set in a ballpark with right field only 215 feet from home plate.
It’s one of the most-famous moments in baseball history. The reasoning for it is debated to this day. All we know is the Boston Red Sox sold the contract of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. The Curse of the Bambino was born.
Ruth was a huge star attraction by the time he signed with the Yankees, and his star only rose in New York. Bear in mind that Ruth had just set the record for home runs in a season with 29. In his first season as a Yankee, Ruth hit 54 home runs. This was a massive uptick in the home run record, and Ruth would go on to become by far the most-prolific power hitter of his generation.
Speaking of Ruth’s power prowess. In early 1921, the Babe hit the 139th homer of his career. Not a big deal, right? Except, this set a new record for career home runs. Prior to the arrival of Ruth, the record for home runs in a career belonged to Roger Connor, who hit 138. There were many more home runs to come for the Babe.
The Yankees made it to the 1921 World Series, but fell short against the New York Giants. After the season, Ruth and two of his teammates decided to go on a barnstorming tour for some cash. However, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, had a rule in place that did not allow World Series participants to tour like that. Ruth and his teammates were suspended and fined their World Series checks. The rule would be changed in 1922. Later, during the 1922 season, Ruth would be suspended again, this time for going in the stands to confront a heckler.
After the 1922 season, the Yankees lease at the Polo Grounds was over. The owners were looking for their own stadium, and they would indeed build one in the Bronx, completing Yankee Stadium in time for the 1923 season. Ruth would hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium, and it became known as “the House that Ruth Built,” in part because of the popularity of the Babe boosting the Yankees’ profits. Indeed, the park was built with Ruth in mind, as the right field was shallower and the sun was not in Ruth’s eyes in the outfield.
It’s crazy to think that Ruth only won a single MVP, but it’s true. That win came in 1923, the first year of Yankee Stadium. Babe hit .393 with 41 homers and 45 doubles, and the Yankees won the American League by 17 games. The next season, Ruth hit .378, which won him the batting title.
While he was an elite baseball player, Ruth was not necessarily in the greatest of shape all the time. In 1925, the Babe had some health issues. He first felt ill in Hot Springs, Arkansas during the offseason, but during spring training he collapsed and had to be put on a train back to New York. There were even reports that he had died. Later he would collapse again and have to be hospitalized once more. The exact cause of Ruth’s health issues at the time are unknown. Sportswriter W.O. McGeehan claimed it was from eating hot dogs and drinking soda during the game. This was, of course, a time when the media would often product athletes. It is known that Ruth was a heavy drinker, and some have speculated that played a role in Ruth’s hospitalization. The truth remain unclear.
To this day, there are those that consider the 1927 New York Yankees the greatest team of all-time. Led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the team known as Murderers’ Row won 110 games, then an American League record, and won the pennant by 19 games. The Yankees would win the World Series in a sweep as well. As for Ruth, he also made history by hitting 60 home runs, a record that would stand for many years.
In 1929, the Yankees introduced uniform numbers, bestowing three on Ruth because he batted third. A few years later, in 1932, the Yankees and Cubs squared off in the World Series. It was a heated series, but it also gave us a famed moment. In Game 3, the first at Wrigley Field, the score was tied 4-4 when Ruth came up to the plate. Some say that Ruth gestured toward center field, indicating he planned to hit the ball there. Others say he didn’t really call his shot. All we know for sure is that Ruth absolutely mashed a home run to center field to give the Yankees the lead. New York would win the series.
In 1933, Ruth took part in the first-ever All-Star Game, even though he was starting to fade from his peak. In the final game of the season, Ruth pitched against the Red Sox. Granted, it was a publicity stunt, but Ruth still pitched a complete game and got a win. It was the last time he would ever pitch.
By 1934, Ruth wasn’t really capable of fielding or running, and even took a pay cut for the Yankees. While he was no longer athletic enough for some of the aspects of baseball, he could still hit to a degree. Ruth batted .288 and hit 22 home runs. Not bad numbers, but definitely a significant step down for the Babe.
Ruth really wanted to become a manager. After the 1934 season, realizing his playing days were effectively over, he tried to get a job managing the Yankees. He was almost made the manager of the farm team, the Newark Bears, but the Yankees’ owner decided against it at the last second. Left with nothing to do, Ruth would sign on to play for the Boston Braves. Mostly a publicity stunt for a struggling team, Ruth only played in 28 games and hit .181 with six homers.
Ruth hung up the clears after the 1935 season with the Braves. The Babe still wanted to manage, and the Cleveland job came open, but he was not seriously considered. Eventually, Ruth was given a job as the first-base coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938. However, Ruth was told he would not be considered as the next manager of the team, and after the season Dodgers player Leo Durocher was hired as the new manager. Ruth stepped down as first-base coach and never was involved in baseball again.
In 1936, Cooperstown inducted its first-ever Hall of Fame class. The five members were all legends. Joining Ruth in the 1936 class were Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner.
Ruth first developed cancer in 1946, and it would become a recurring issue for the rest of his life. On June 13, 1948 Ruth made a public appearance at Yankee Stadium to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the House that Ruth Built. He had lost a considerable amount of weight and used a cane as a bat. A photo taken by Nat Fein of Ruth on the field that day won a Pulitzer Prize.
In July of 1948, Ruth entered Memorial Hospital in New York, and he would spend most of the rest of his life there. Babe left a couple times, one to pay a visit to Baltimore, one to see the premiere of “The Babe Ruth Story.” A few weeks later, August 16, 1948, Ruth would die in his sleep. He was only 53.
In his short life, Ruth basically changed the game of baseball. His power hitting was revolutionary. After breaking the career home run record of 138, Ruth would finish with 714 total home runs. That record would stand for many years. Ruth is still third on the career homer list. His career slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ are all still the best in baseball history. And that’s with him beginning his career as an above-average pitcher! The Babe was the most-famous baseball player in the world for decades. He may still be.