The Legend of Babe Ruth

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Podcast Transcript

In 1941, a minor league baseball team in Baltimore, Maryland, signed a young player from the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys—a school for delinquent boys and orphans. 

Unbeknownst to them, the wayward boy would go on to completely transform the game of baseball and become one of the most famous people in American history. 

The changes in the sport that he ushered in can still be seen today, and even 100 years later, he is still considered to be the greatest baseball player of all time.

Learn more about the legend of Babe Ruth on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

For those of you who don’t live in a country where baseball is popular, or if you just aren’t interested in baseball, this isn’t really a baseball story. To be sure, there will be a lot of baseball involved, but this is the story of someone who came from nothing and managed to be one of the most famous people of his era. 

In the process, he completely changed and arguably saved the game of baseball. 

George Herman Ruth Jr. was born on February 6, 1895, in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland. 

His parents were both born in America, but all of his grandparents were born in Germany. His father did odd jobs before eventually owning his own saloon. His parents had eight children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.

George actually grew up speaking German, but quickly adopted English. He was mostly neglected by his parents, who were kept busy running the saloon, and George grew up on the streets and became a delinquent, drinking beer, skipping school, and getting in trouble.

At the age of seven, George’s father didn’t know what to do with his son anymore, so he sent him to a reform school known as the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore. Today, it’s known as Cardinal Gibbons High School. 

At St. Mary’s, he and the other boys learned trades. George learned carpentry and shirtmaking.

The exact details aren’t known, but one of the faculty, Brother Matthias, asked George to join the school’s baseball team when he was 12. Ruth played a host of positions, including catcher, shortstop, and third base, which were all unusual for a left-hander. 

Brother Matthias became a mentor and a father figure to George, something which he never forgot and mentioned throughout his life. In fact, in 1936, he bought Brother Matthias a new Cadillac…and then got him another new one when he got in an accident.

Ruth played a lot of baseball, often as much as 200 games a year, and eventually developed a reputation as an outstanding pitcher. By the time he was 18, he was leaving the school for games where he played on community teams. 

In 1914, he got his big break. He signed a contract with the local minor league team, the Baltimore Orioles. 

With the Orioles, he traveled outside of Baltimore for the first time and was given the nickname “Babe,” which stuck with him for the rest of his life. The name supposedly came from the fact that he was the “babe” or darling of the team owner, Jack Dunn.

Babe played his first professional game on March 7, 1914. He started the game as a shortstop but pitched the last two innings of the win and hit a massive home run in the second inning. His first professional home run was already being called the longest-ever hit. 

Despite performing brilliantly, Ruth didn’t play for the Orioles very long. A new major league was formed, known as the Federal League, that had a team in Baltimore that took fans away from the Orioles. 

Desperate to make money, he sold Ruth’s contract to the Boston Red Sox for $25,000, along with two other players.

He played his first game for the Red Sox on July 11, 1914, and he won the game as a starting pitcher.  However, there wasn’t much else of note that year, as Ruth only played in 5 games for the Red Sox. On August 18, he was sent to Rhode Island to play for the minor league Providence Greys.

In 1915, he played more often. He had 18 wins and 8 losses, which was good enough to be ranked fourth in the league for winning percentage. The Red Sox won the World Series that year, although Ruth did not pitch and had only one at-bat.

In 1916, he had his breakout year. He led the league in Earned Run Average, had 23 wins, and helped the Red Sox win another World Series. Post-season awards were not given out back then, but many statisticians would have retroactively given Babe Ruth the Cy Young Award that year as the best pitcher. 

In 1917, he had another great year among the league leaders in every major pitching category. 

Here, I should note that by this time, Babe Ruth had established himself as one of the best pitchers in the league….and no one thinks of him today as a pitcher.

What really changed for him was in 1918. Babe had become one of the most popular players on the team, and there were always more people in attendance when he played. In addition to being a great pitcher, he was also a good hitter, so the decision was made to have him play a position on the days he wasn’t pitching. 

The decision turned out to have been brilliant. In a season shortened by WWI, Ruth led the league in home runs slugging and also managed to win 13 games….and the Red Sox won the World Series again. The last time they would win was in 2004.

Ruth led the league in home runs with just 11. Here, I should note that baseball prior to this point was known as the Deadball Era. Home runs were infrequent. The emphasis was on hitting singles and stolen bases. 

The next year, 1919, Ruth only pitched in 17 games and played the rest of the season in the outfield. He set the single-season record for home runs with 29, a record that had stood for 35 years…..and with 14 fewer games than normal.

That off-season, the owner of the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth’s contract to the New York Yankees for $100,000. It was an unheard-of amount of money at the time. According to legend, the money from selling the Babe’s contract was used to finance the musical No, No, Nanette.

The Yankees at the time were not a great team. They had never won a championship. But now they had the best baseball player in the world playing in the largest market. 

1920 marked the full transition from pitcher to hitter, and he did so with a vengeance. He demolished his previous home run record of 29 by hitting 54. He single-handedly hit more home runs than every other team in the American and National League but one.

He set the single-season record for walks and led the league in runs, RBI, and every advanced stat that wouldn’t be invented for another 80 years. Ruth was doing something that no one else had ever come close to doing, and he was playing baseball in a way it hadn’t been played before.

In the process, Ruth became arguably the biggest sports celebrity ever. He was the right person at the right place at the right time. The United States had just gotten out of the war, mass media in the form of radio and movies was just taking off, and he was in the biggest market in the country, New York City.

His 1921 season was arguably better, hitting 59 home runs. His success also led to team success, with the Yankees appearing in their first World Series. There are many baseball historians who consider it to be the greatest season of any player in baseball history. 

In 1923, he led the Yankees to their first World Series championship, one of four he’d win with the team. It was also the first year of a new stadium called Yankee Stadium. It was dubbed the House the Ruth built because it was built to accommodate the large number of people who came to see him play.

In the process, more players began emulating Ruth in how they played baseball. Home runs were up all over the league. Ruth had single-handedly ended the Deadball era. 

Ruth just wasn’t an athlete, he was a personality. He was ultimately a big kid who enjoyed beer, cigars, and hotdogs. 

There were countless stories told about Babe Ruth, some of which were true. 

Perhaps the most famous story occurred in 1926. An 11-year-old boy named Johnny Sylvester was in the hospital after being in a serious accident. Johnny asked Babe to hit a home run for him, and the next game, he hit three. 

In game three of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, Ruth was getting heckled by the fans, and some reportedly threw fruit at him. In the fifth inning, with two balls and two strikes, he supposedly pointed toward the outfield and then hit a home run there on the very next pitch. 

That same year, he was supposedly making $80,000 per year, and he was asked how he could justify making more money than the president. He responded, “What the hell has Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did.” 

When he met Britain’s King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth, he wasn’t star-struck. He simply extended his hand and said, “Hiya, King!”

Ruth also made a fantastic amount of money for the time. He once made $100,000 for a 12-week run in a vaudeville show, more than what we made playing baseball. Likewise, he did many product endorsements and appeared in movies, almost always as himself. 

Despite the fame, the money, and the unhealthy living, Ruth managed to perform at a high level for years. The 1927 Yankees were dubbed Murders Row. He and his teammate Lou Gehrig won 110 games and won the World Series.

That same year, he once again set the single-season home run record at 60, a record that would stand until 1961.

In 1930, he signed a contract for $80,000 per year, a record at the time and 2.4x more than the next closest player. 

Towards the end of his career, Ruth desperately wanted to manage a team, but despite the respect everyone had for him as a player, no one trusted him to be responsible for a team. 

He ended his career in 1935 in a way almost everyone has forgotten, as a member of the Boston Braves in the National League. At the age of 40, he played in only 28 games and hit only six home runs. However, 3 of those home runs were in a single game. 

He retired, owning almost every major batting record in baseball, in the case of home runs, his 714 was far beyond the next closest player. 

The following year, he was part of the inaugural class of the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

He never did achieve his goal of managing a team. 

In his retirement, he traveled and continued to make public appearances, making money off his fame. In 1946, doctors discovered he had a tumor at the base of his skull, which caused his health to deteriorate rapidly.

He was one of the first people to have their cancer treated with both drugs and radiation simultaneously. 

He passed away on August 16, 1948, just days after the premiere of his biographical movie, The Babe Ruth Story. 

The legacy of Babe Ruth lives on. Babe Ruth memorabilia remains the most valuable sports memorabilia in the world.  In 2012, a jersey worn by Babe Ruth sold for $4,415,658 at auction. 

His bats, signed contracts, and many, many other things he signed or owned have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Today, over 100 years since he began playing professional baseball, he is still regarded by most baseball historians as the greatest player who ever played, primarily because of his success in both hitting and pitching. 

It wasn’t until 2022, 104 years after Babe Ruth’s 1918 season, that another professional baseball player went an entire season both as a starting pitcher and an everyday hitter: Shohei Ohtani. 

As a sports celebrity, the only person who ever reached the same heights as Babe Ruth was probably Michael Jordan in the 80s and 90s.

Today, baseball has fully embraced the home run as the primary offensive strategy. Home run rates today are near an all-time high, but it all began over a century ago with a delinquent boy from Baltimore who had an incredible knack for hitting home runs.