LONGSHOTS: Sixty-one years later and Ruth’s still in the conversation
by Dave Long
This week’s edition comes out a few days after Aug. 16, which is the 61st anniversary of the day Babe Ruth died of cancer in New York. That he’s still in the baseball conversation 61 years after he died and 74 seasons since he last played in the majors is pretty remarkable.
A good example of that was the brilliant series ESPN did at the turn of the last century — ESPN on the 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century. At the very pinnacle of his achievement and popularity Michael Jordan grabbed the top spot in that ranking, where the freshness of his extraordinary skill took him past the Babe. But I suspect if it occurred while Babe was at peak and MJ’s great career was deep in the rear view mirror, the results would have been reversed.
Either way it doesn’t diminish what Ruth — the most remarkable presence in sport ever — means to the American sports culture. While Jordan was (is) immensely popular and sports’ all-time business icon, Ruth was the key figure at the dawn of the culture’s emerging love affair with sport. It’s true with boxing among the big three of that day heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey was big too. But the Babe’s brilliance has shined on every decade since, while if Jay Leno asks “Who is Jack Dempsey?” during his Jay Walking segment, I’m betting the answer coming back from most is “Who?”
Not that America wasn’t smitten before Ruth, but it took off when he got to the emerging NYC media center and it was a perfect marriage. And he’s still relevant today because the appetite for the long ball he satiated in 1921 not only changed how baseball was played but also was an underlying factor in the steroids saga. Since his day, homers have led to celebrity for the boppers, and that means money at the turnstiles for the owners and in the paychecks for the players. So with all that in mind, here are some little-known facts about the pre-New York Babe and a few from his days in the Big Apple:
The Red Sox Years: He won 20 games for Boston twice, going 23-12 and 24-13 in his final two years exclusively as a pitcher in 1916 and 1917. And, while I don’t want to give Terry Francona the heart palpitations he’ll probably get hearing this stat, he pitched 323 and 326 innings in those seasons with 58 COMPLETE games, including 35 in 41 1917 starts. He also set a record with 29.1 consecutive scoreless World Series innings as they won the title in 1916 and 1918. Ironically that record was broken in the 1961 World Series by Whitey Ford, less than two weeks after Roger Maris broke his home run record, prompting Ford to say later, “It was a tough year for the Babe.”
Pitching with the Yankees: Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t stop pitching in New York. He pitched five times there and was 5 and 0. The first was in 1920. A year later he picked up two wins in two tries when his hitting must have helped him out, as he gave up nine earned runs in nine innings. His next appearance came NINE years later when he was 35. That time he gave up 11 hits and three runs and went the distance for the win. The final game was two years after that when he pitched a complete game to get win number five in a Yankees uniform.
300-Game-Winner: Health is always an issue when you’re talking about 300 wins, so this is subjective, but if you project his numbers over the years he played in New York, it’s conceivable he could have made a run at 400! I get that by giving him an average of 32 starts for his 15 Yankee years — which is 480. It sounds like a lot, but the best pitcher of the era, who Ruth the pitcher was compared to — the great Walter Johnson of the Senators, pitched in 802 games and had 666 starts. He won 417 games with a winning percentage of .599. Ruth’s winning percentage was .654 and he got the decision in 83 percent of the games. Doing the math on that gives him 264 wins, which comes to 354 when his 89 Red Sox wins are added. OK, not 400, but that ties him for ninth all-time with none other than Roger Clemens.
Aaron and Bonds and A-Rod Oh My! We hear in these parts Ted Williams lost five years to serving in the military and how those five years would have brought him a lot closer to Ruth’s 714 homers. All is true and his service should be honored. But the Babe was a full-time pitcher from 1914 to 1918 and a part-timer in 1919, so he lost four years. Of course that was the dead ball era, so the switch in the ball would have to have happened earlier for it really to be meaningful. But if he averaged just 30 homers in those four years he’d have 834 overall, leaving Bonds and Aaron in the dust. Those years also cost him 3,000 hits as he ended with 2,873.
The Hitter: He actually broke the home run record 575 times after passing previous record-holder Roger Connor’s 139 in 1921. And by jumping from 29 to 54 in 1920 he hit more homers than every TEAM in baseball except the A’s. As great as Jordan was, he never did anything like that, did he?
DH-Pitcher: This would never happen, because no one outside of Bill Belichick has the guts (or brains) to kick convention to the curb to get the full brilliance of his skills. But while there’d be some issues with arm fatigue and stiffness the day after he pitched, why not have him hit the other four days? I bet it would cross Coach B’s mind.
The Clay Buchholtz Base-Running Award: He could run, as he stole a surprising 127 bases. But he did have a base-running blunder of epic proportions in being the only player ever to end a World Series getting thrown out trying to steal a base. That happened when with two outs in the ninth in 1926 he tried to get into scoring position and was gunned down at second by the Cardinals’ Bob O’Farrell.
Cliff Clavin Little-Known Facts Award: The impression is he won almost every year with the Yankees, but that’s not true. With the Yanks he only won in 1923, 1927, 1928 and 1932. With Boston he won only one fewer time in 1915, 16 and 18.
As for my vote for the greatest athlete of the 20th century, I’m going with Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson for different reasons. But if you’re talking icon, the only way Jordan beats out Babe Ruth is if people are still talking about him 61 years after he goes to his great reward like we still are today with the one and only Babe.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.