July 9, 2014


THE GAME THAT RUTH BUILT : Babe Ruth will of course always be remembered as a Yankee, but it was the Boston Red Sox who first brought him to the major leagues. (Brian Tuohy, 7/09/14, Sports on Earth)

On July 4, 1914, the Orioles were in first place in the International League with a 47-22 record. Ruth was 14-6. Yet despite the on-the-field success, only about 5,000 total fans had shown up throughout the course of the season to see the O's play at home. Attendance was so bad, Ruth once tossed a complete game shutout versus Rochester in front of 11 paying customers. The problem for Dunn's Orioles stemmed from the rival Federal League team, the Baltimore Terrapins, which played directly across the street. Many Baltimore baseball fans, starved for a major league team since 1903, believed the Federal League would soon be a third professional league (along with the separate-at-the-time National and American Leagues). Because of this, thousands of fans flocked to see the Terrapins each day, leaving Dunn's stadium empty.

Faced with bankruptcy, Dunn was forced to sell off his players. He offered Ruth to Athletics' owner/manager Connie Mack, who had previously seen Ruth beat his team in spring training. When Mack came to see him pitch again, Ruth was roughed up and pulled by the fourth inning. Undeterred, Dunn started Ruth in the second game of the doubleheader and he responded with a shutout victory. But Mack was in financial straits as well (in fact, Mack would sell off most of his pennant-winning team after the 1914 season). He passed. The Cincinnati Reds made an offer for Ruth, as did John McGraw of the New York Giants, but Dunn wound up dealing with Red Sox owner Joe Lannin, thanks in part to a $3,000 "loan" Lannin provided so Dunn could meet his payroll. Lannin bought Ruth, catcher Ben Egan and another young pitcher named Ernie Shore for $25,000. The Red Sox raised Ruth's salary to $625 a month.

On July 10, Ruth and the other two players took an overnight train to Boston. They arrived at Back Bay Station at 10 a.m. Met there by a Red Sox representative, Ruth was informed he was to start that afternoon. Five hours later, Ruth made his American League debut against the Cleveland Naps in Fenway Park.

The 6-foot-2 lefty took the hill to face a Naps team featuring "Shoeless" Joe Jackson hitting third and future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie batting fourth. In the first inning, the rookie "displayed why he is a veteran in many ways," as the Boston Globe's T.H. Murnane wrote of Ruth's performance. Ruth gave up a hit to leadoff hitter Jack Graney, who advanced to second on a ground out. Shoeless Joe then singled to center. On the play, Red Sox center fielder Tris Speaker threw home, forcing Graney to momentarily hold at third. Ruth cut off Speaker's throw and threw to second. As Shoeless Joe retreated back to first, Graney took off for home, but was nailed at the plate. Ruth then ended the inning by picking off Shoeless Joe from first base.

Ruth would give up a run on three hits while striking out one over the next five innings before a two-run, three-hit seventh inning proved his demise. Remarkably, Ruth finished the inning on the mound, but was pulled for pinch-hitter Duffy Lewis in the bottom of the inning (Ruth struck out and flew out in his first two at-bats). Lewis would reach base on a hit, advance on an error and score the game-winning run on a Tris Speaker single.

Credited for the 4-3 victory, Ruth's first big league win didn't set off many alarm bells. The Boston Globe's headline for the game read, "Babe Ruth leads Red Sox to win in Boston debut." Murnane would write of Ruth, "He has natural delivery, great command and a curve ball that is tough for opposing hitters. However," he would add, "there's still room for improvement for him but he will undoubtedly progress with the help of Manager Bill Carrigan." The New York Times took little note of the performance. Writing under the headline "Ruth Batted Out by the Naps," the newspaper simply stated of the game, "Ruth, formerly of Baltimore, made his debut as a local pitcher and held Cleveland to five scattered hits in the first six innings." There was no hint of the New York legend yet to come.

In fact, despite the win, Ruth made little impression on his new club. Ernie Shore, the other pitcher bought from the Orioles in the Ruth deal, pitched a two-hitter the following day, winning 2-1. With an already crowded rotation, Ruth saw little playing time while Shore would get another 15 starts, going 10-5 for the season. At the end of July, Lannin bought the Providence Grays of the International League for $75,000, and two weeks later, sent Ruth there to get more work. Ruth shined with the Grays, posting a 9-3 record on the mound and hitting .300, including his first professional home run, hit in Toronto. With the Red Sox 8.5 games behind the Athletics, Ruth was recalled from Providence to finish off the last week of the 1914 season, going 1-1. His first season in the majors may have just been a cup of coffee, but shades of legendary Babe Ruth were visible.

Why does Ruth continue to matter today? Why do so many know his name 100 years after he played in his first MLB game? It's because in many ways, Ruth had all the trappings of a modern professional athlete. His on-the-field exploits were as wild as his reputation off of it. Rumors surrounding young stars like Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig are plentiful, yet Ruth did it all first. As a member of the Red Sox between 1915-1919, he posted a 89-46 record with a sub-3.00 ERA, won 3 World Series championships, and he set a MLB season record by hitting 29 home runs in 1919. At the same time, he broke his toe by kicking the bench in frustration after being intentionally walked, punched home plate umpire Brick Owens in the head after arguing balls and strikes which resulted in a $100 fine and a 10-game suspension, quit the team for a few days in 1918 after arguing over playing time with manager Ed Barrow, and held out for double his existing salary at the beginning of the 1919 season while threatening to become a professional boxer.

Though today Red Sox owner Harry Frazee appears the fool for selling Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 in 1920 -- thus creating the "Curse of the Bambino" which the Red Sox wouldn't break until winning the World Series in 2004 -- the fact is that many thought Frazee got the better end of the deal at the time. Ruth was drinking heavily, constantly crashing his car, and despite being married, regularly visiting prostitutes. He was a managerial headache and his record-setting 29 home runs in 1919 hadn't prevented the franchise from finishing sixth in the AL, 20.5 games out of first. Some felt Ruth might flame out of baseball within a year or two given his lifestyle, despite being just 25 years old.

Posted by at July 9, 2014 6:38 PM

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