SI Vault
Robert W. Creamer
March 18, 1974
Out of a fascinating new book on America's best-remembered sporting god strides the young Babe. It is 1919, the World War is over, and the country, like Ruth, is euphoric. The Babe has an enormous appetite for baseball—and the pleasures of the night. In his zest he becomes a hero whose like had never been seen before, and may not be again.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 18, 1974

And Along Came Ruth

Out of a fascinating new book on America's best-remembered sporting god strides the young Babe. It is 1919, the World War is over, and the country, like Ruth, is euphoric. The Babe has an enormous appetite for baseball—and the pleasures of the night. In his zest he becomes a hero whose like had never been seen before, and may not be again.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Curiously, Ruth's home-run hitting slacked off when he gave up pitching. After tying Seybold's record on July 29, Babe went more than two weeks without hitting another. This was frustrating to reporters and fans waiting for the record-breaking 17th, for Ruth's home-run quest was now being followed in minuscule detail in the sports pages. Some papers ran special boxes listing the date of each homer, the opposing team and the opposing pitcher. Records were not kept in the profusion they are today, but researchers came up with various marks for Ruth to aim at. First, of course, was Seybold's American League record of 16, which Ruth had tied. Then there was the modern major league record of 24, set by Gavvy Cravath of the Phillies in 1915. After that the target was the pre-1900 record of 25, set by Buck Freeman of the Washington Senators in 1899. That was considered the ultimate goal until someone, rooting about in old files, found that a long-dead player named Edward Nagle Williamson had hit 27 for the Chicago White Stockings in 1884. Ruth passed them all, but it is ironic that Williamson's was the final barrier. Seybold, Cravath and Freeman were power hitters, their home-run performances additional evidence of their consistent strength at the plate. But Williamson's record was a fluke. The year before he hit 27 he had hit only two, the year after, only three. What happened in 1884? Simple enough. The White Stockings that year played in the Congress Street Grounds, where right field was a ridiculous 215 feet from home plate. A year earlier the entire Chicago team hit a total of only 13 home runs, but in 1884 they hit 142. When Williamson hit his 27 (25 of them at home), he was closely followed by teammates Fred Pfeffer with 25, Abner Dalrymple with 22 and Cap Anson with 21. A season earlier the four of them had a combined total of five.

Nonetheless, Williamson had hit 27, and in mid-August, Ruth began his move toward that ancient mark. He hit No. 17 on Aug. 14 to set a new American League record. Two days later before a big Saturday crowd in Chicago he hit another of those "longest evers," and the next day in St. Louis, before another huge crowd, he hit No. 19. Three homers in four games. The fans began buzzing again, but the pursuit almost ended abruptly the following Friday in Cleveland when Umpire Brick Owens called a strike on the Babe. Ruth, objecting strenuously, backed out of the batter's box and cursed the umpire. Owens tossed him out of the game, and Ruth threatened to punch him in the nose. Players from both teams grabbed the Babe and pulled him away. Despite the outburst, he was neither fined nor suspended and the next day in Detroit hit his 20th home run of the year, his fourth with the bases full. Four bases-filled home runs in one season remained an American League record for the next 40 years.

Ruth was hot. He followed his Saturday grand slam in Detroit with two more homers there on Sunday and another Monday afternoon. How the fans bubbled now. Four in three games! Seven in 12 days! Twenty-three for the season! Babe was bigger than the pennant race. Crowds poured out to watch.

Late in August the Red Sox announced that as an added attraction on Labor Day, Ruth would pitch the first game of the holiday doubleheader. Babe won 2-1, driving in one of Boston's two runs with a triple and scoring the other himself a moment later. In the second game he hit his 24th homer to tie Cravath's modern major league record. Later in the week he tied Freeman's older record with his 25th and missed another when his line drive hit a couple of feet below the top of the right-field fence. A few days later he hit No. 26, and now only Williamson's 27 lay ahead.

Inevitably, considering Ruth's innate flair for milking a situation, he went into another dry spell. For 11 days baseball waited and for 11 days Ruth did nothing but hit singles and doubles and pop-ups. On Saturday, Sept. 20, Boston had a doubleheader scheduled with the Chicago White Sox, who were about to clinch the American League pennant. The Red Sox announced it would be Babe Ruth Day, a day on which the fans could honor him for his marvelous hitting. In turn, the Babe would once again pitch the first game of the doubleheader. Fenway Park was jammed for the occasion. The P�re Marquette Council of the Knights of Columbus presented Ruth with $600 in U.S. Treasury savings certificates, and he received other gifts, including a diamond ring he wore for years. After the game a reporter, thinking of the crowds Ruth had drawn all season, asked what Frazee had given him. "A cigar," Babe said.

On the field Ruth was, well, heroic. He did not pitch too well, lasting only into the sixth inning before shifting to left field. But in the ninth inning he hit a spectacular home run to left field off Lefty Claud Williams. It won the game, tied Williamson's record, utterly delighted the crowd and awed his fellow players. It was unheard-of for a left-handed batter to hit a ball that hard to left field off a left-handed pitcher, particularly a pitcher of Williams' exceptional skills. Between games the famous White Sox third baseman, Buck Weaver, stopped by the Red Sox bench to comment, "That was the most unbelievable poke I ever saw."

Ruth broke Williamson's record a few days later in New York with another landmark drive, this one over a distant section of the Polo Grounds roof—yes, the longest ever hit at the Polo Grounds, according to reports of the game. It was dramatic, of course. The Red Sox were losing 1-0 in the ninth when he hit it, and it tied the score ( Boston eventually lost 2-1 in the 13th).

The Red Sox went to Washington for the last weekend of the season, and there Ruth hit the 29th and last home run of his triumphant year. It was the first he hit in Washington in 1919, and it gave him the distinction of having hit at least one homer in every city in the league. No one had ever done that before either.

After his 1919 season—before he had played one game for the New York Yankees—Ruth was acclaimed the greatest home-run hitter baseball had ever seen, even though he had only 49 for his entire major league career to that point. Roger Connor then held the record for most lifetime homers with 136, but Ruth passed Connor in 1921, his third season as a full-time batter, to become the most prolific home-run hitter of all time. Each of the almost 600 home runs he hit after that only extended his own record. During the years that followed, different players—Rogers Hornsby, Ken and Cy Williams, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx—challenged him from time to time, but Ruth's consistency was overwhelming.

The 29 home runs made him a national sensation, but he almost doubled that in 1920, when he hit 54. Others followed his lead, and 29 quickly became a modest figure. By the end of 1924, 30 home runs or more had been hit nine times—but five times by Ruth himself. By the end of 1928, 40 or more had been hit 10 times, seven by Ruth. He did not merely break through, he made the breakthrough and kept going, leading the way. From 1918 through 1934 he led the league in home runs 12 times and hit 699 homers, an average of more than 40 a year for 17 straight seasons. From 1926 through 1931 he averaged 50.3 a year. He hit his 700th home run in 1934. When he hit it, only two others had hit more than 300. When he retired with 714, he had more than twice as many as the second man on the list. The home run was his.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14