In 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.