≡ Menu

1914_babe_ruth_baseball_card-vadapt-664-high-21In this the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s second full season in the majors as a Boston Red Sox pitcher, it may be a good time to put to rest any suggestion that he wasn’t The Greatest Player Who Ever Played the Game. Today, Oct. 9, marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most remarkable World Series pitching feats in history, the second game of the Boston Red Sox vs. Brooklyn Robins series.

After giving up an inside-the-park home run in the top of the first – both outfielders stumbled going back on the ball – Ruth then pitched 13 scoreless innings, earning a 14-inning, 2-1 win and setting the record, which still stands, as the longest complete World Series game ever pitched. (His RBI groundout in the 3rd inning tied the game.)

I’m a San Francisco Giants fan from way back, had charter seats at the new stadium, and honor Willie Mays as a living treasure and the greatest living ballplayer. But he’s not the greatest who ever played the game, as the Giants’ organization would have it. That’s Babe Ruth, no doubt about it, partly because of his hitting but largely because of his pitching.

Most baseball fans with some knowledge of the game know Ruth was a mainly a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox before being sold to the Yankees for the 1920 season – beginning the Curse of the Bambino. True. Some know him as a ‘pretty good pitcher’ in those years with Boston, to quote one of our local sports radio hosts. Not true. He wasn’t a pretty good pitcher. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball. One of the best ever.

In a six-year pitching career with the Red Sox from 1914 through 19191, the left-handed Ruth put up numbers that rank with the greatest pitchers of all time. His lifetime record of 94 wins and 46 losses gave him a winning average of .671, one of the highest of any of the leading pitchers in baseball history, edging even Sandy Koufax’s .655 (165 wins vs 87 losses). Ruth’s career ERA of 2.28 would have put him in the top 10 pitchers of all-time if he had the requisite 2,000 innings (he pitched 1,220 innings).

In 1916 and 1917 he was the dominant left hander in the American League, setting season and World Series pitching records that lasted longer than his 60-home run season record set in 1927. In 1916 Ruth posted a 23-12 record with a 1.75 ERA & 1.08 WHIP, threw 23 complete games, and went 4-0 head-to-head against the great Walter Johnson, one of the best pitchers of all time. That same season he set the American League record for most shutouts (9) in a single season by a lefty, a record he still shares with fellow Yankee Ron Guidry who tied it in 1978.   In 1917 he went 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA and another 1.08 WHIP. Had he remained a pitcher his entire career, it’s likely he would have ended up in the Hall of Fame merely as a pitcher and been counted among the best pitchers in history. And, of course, he remains the greatest slugger in the history of the game. Check the stats.

Ruth was a money pitcher, winning big games and coming up huge in the 1916 and 1918 World Series. Over three games in those two series, including the 1916 14-inning epic, Ruth set a World Series pitching record of 29-2/3rd consecutive shutout innings – a record that lasted 43 years – nine years longer than his home run record. Ruth often said it was his proudest record in baseball. When I was a kid growing up in New York, Whitey Ford broke it during the 1962 World Series. Ruth’s streak began with those 13.1 innings against Brooklyn and picked up again when the Red Sox won the pennant in 1918. Ruth started Game 1 and pitched a complete game 1-0 shutout. He started again in Game 4 (with a badly swollen middle finger on his pitching hand) and didn’t give up a run until the eighth inning, ending his streak and breaking Christy Mathewson’s previous record of 28 scoreless World Series innings set in 1904. The Sox won 3-2, Ruth got the win and drove in two of Boston’s three runs with a triple in the fourth. In his three World Series games he put up an ERA of 0.87. Money pitcher.

And during these same seasons while the young Ruth was dominating the majors with his pitching, he began his career as the leading slugger in the history of the game. In those early seasons, hitting last as a pitcher, he routinely launched the longest home runs ever seen in nearly every major league and minor league stadium he appeared in. During some stretches in 1918 and 1919 he pitched every fourth day in the rotation, played first base or the outfield the other three days, and was a league leader in both pitching and hitting. But keeping up this pace on the field while pursuing his legendary social life off the field was wearing him down. He couldn’t continue playing every day, pitching every fourth day, and staying up all night every night carousing with floozies. He had to give up something, so he gave up the pitching. Reading his biographies, one imagines he could have continued pitching and playing every day at the same high level for years if he’d wanted to – maybe taking off a couple of nights a week to get a little rest. But he was Babe Ruth and that wasn’t the plan.

When you combine this stellar – albeit shortened – pitching career with his subsequent reign as the greatest slugger in the history of the game, you simply must conclude Ruth was the greatest who ever played the game. No one in the history of baseball ever did anything like it. It’s as if Roger Clemens stopped pitching after a few great seasons and then became Barry Bonds at the plate. There were weeks and months when Ruth was both of them at the same time. And yes, Mays and Dimaggio were better fielders than Ruth, though he had a very respectable .968 lifetime fielding average versus .981 for Mays. Mays and Cobb were much better base runners than Ruth, but Ruth threw out more base runners than Mays.

How many complete-game shutouts did Mays, Cobb, or Dimaggio pitch? Ruth had 17. How many 20-game seasons? Ruth had two – winning 23 in 1916 and 24 in 1917. Complete games? Ruth had 107. In 1917/1918 combined he started 57 games and completed 53, several in extra innings. And at the plate Ruth still has the greatest slugging average and OPS in major league history.

So with full apologies to Willie Mays and the Giants, there’s no doubt. Not a question. Babe Ruth was and still is the greatest baseball player of all time.

Who’s the second best player in the history of the game? My short list is Mays, Cobb, Dimaggio, Gehrig, Bonds and Aaron but the best easily is Willie, the Complete Ballplayer, the Greatest Living Ballplayer, and still an active and revered member of our San Francisco Giants.


1And 5 games he pitched over the next 14 years while with the New York Yankees, in which he went 5-0.

Richard Kreitman is a gallery owner, Giants fan, and sometime writer in Carmel.  


Sit.For a long time, it has been the opposite of cool to say you saw something interesting on Facebook. While it is how many of us receive a remarkable amount of our information, publicly acknowledging it can put you well down on the B-list. Sometimes, though, something there does inspire reflection. That was the case with a recent posting by Greg Ward, who used to wear the head honcho robe at the Unitarian outlet on the Peninsula. It was about his dad and baseball.

Ward posted a couple of nice pictures of himself with his father at an A’s game in Oakland. Ward wrote that it was the first baseball game he had attended with his father in 11 years.

“How we once loved to go to the games together!” he remembered. “And what a joy to get a chance to do it again–thanks to the kindness of David Keyes to make it happen. My Dad would never have agreed to go unless it was a gift, as he believes baseball games are too expensive.”

Here’s where I come in. Ward’s posting reminded me of one of the great regrets of my life. Which is simply that I never thought to take my dad to a baseball game.

Donald E. Calkins was a Yankees fan by virtue of having grown up in Willsboro, N.Y., a tiny town on the banks of Lake Champlain. It was a lovely place filled with people of slight aspirations. Canada was less than 100 miles away but I don’t think any of my relatives ever made it that far. New York City? It might as well have been in China.

From Willsboro you could see Burlington, Vermont, on the other side of the lake but that required a ferry, and the ferry required money and why would you pay money to go somewhere unless you really, really had to?

Anyway, as I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, baseball was Little League or something you watched on TV. Fortunately for my dad, the NBC Game of the Week featured the Yankees as often as not. It became a ritual, him in his easy chair eating pretzels and clam dip and drinking Olympia while I sat in my mother’s smaller chair being glad he was in a good mood. We laughed at the silly things announcer Dizzy Dean had to say.

Dad and I were fans of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, of course. It never occurred to me until I read Yogi’s obituaries this week that he and my dad were the same age. Apparently quite a few things never occurred to me, such as taking Dad to a game. Never sharing a game that wasn’t on TV.

I now realize there were several reasons for that. My dad was in the Air Force and I mostly grew up on or near Air Force bases, none of them close to a major league city. We were stationed in Marin County for a time but that was before the Giants had moved west. Later we were in Germany, Oklahoma, southern Virginia, Las Vegas and the San Joaquin Valley. No big league teams there. But a bigger reason, I now understand, is that we weren’t the kind of people who went to baseball games.

It wasn’t all about the money. My dad’s dad never took him to a ballgame unless it might have been a contest between Essex and Elizabethtown, so my dad really didn’t know how to go to a ballgame. He was an NCO in the Air Force. Going to games, that was something officers did. If you go to games, you know how to go to games, how to pick your seats and where to park, etc., etc. But if you don’t, you don’t.

We traveled a lot, and we often came close to places with big league teams. I remember a summer trip through the lower Midwest when it seemed like every radio station was playing a song about Stan Musial, the great Cardinal. I remember how excited I was when we drove through Cleveland one night and I could actually see the lights from an Indians game. I remember saying something like “Oh, my God, Dad! Rocky Colavito is right over there!” But when your cross-country trips mean sleeping in the back of a ’59 Chevy station wagon and eating baloney sandwiches, you don’t find your dad stopping at a stadium, pulling out his wallet and saying, “We’ll take four of your best seats, please.”

Unfortunately, we never talked about this. I never said, “Hey, old man, how come we never went to a ballgame?” And, even more unfortunately, I never thought to ask him, even when he was living near San Diego in his later years, “Hey, old man, would you like to go to a ballgame?”

In his later years, we didn’t talk about baseball much. He didn’t care about the Padres or any of the new breed of Yankees. If they had shown reruns of Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese calling a Yankees-Tiger showdown, he might have whipped up some clam dip, but they didn’t.

Fortunately, my brother and I did think to take him to Las Vegas one last time, so he could sit in a lounge with a view of the pool, order a shrimp cocktail and say, “This is the life,” At that point, it probably was better than a ball game. Fewer stairs, shorter lines. But there were times when the Yankees flew into San Diego and I wish to hell now that I had thought to show up in my own version of a Chevy station wagon to say, “Hey, Dad. We’re going to the game.” Even if the names on the uniforms were unfamiliar, he still would have recognized the pinstripes.

This column, by the way, has very little to do with baseball.