Leaving the Mound

The legacy of Babe Ruth, pitcher

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Baseball has almost always centered on one thing, which sounds reductionist, but isn’t terribly uncommon for a sport. Hockey, for instance, is all about time and space. If you are an offensive player, you wish to create time and space; if you are a defensive player, your goal is to limit both. Baseball has long been about pitching. Even the most successful batsman records an out 70% of the time. Everything is slanted towards the pitcher. Pitching is what wins games in October, and even offensive postseason heroics are often more a matter of timing — the clutch hit, that is — rather than sustained excellence.

Pitching has failed to rule the roost exactly twice: during the steroid era, when hitters began putting up numbers you’d never even say you accrued in a summer of Wiffle ball against your younger sister, and when one of the sport’s prospective pitching legends showed everyone he was that much better at hitting, and thus proceeded to overhaul America’s then-pastime. After which, when it was all over, everyone had come to know the value of pitching even more.

100 years ago, in 1915, the Boston Red Sox were establishing themselves as one of baseball’s first dynasties, a thought that, for decades following, must have felt so impossibly far-fetched for New Englanders as to be some joke rotely planted in every official history of the game.

In that same year, in which the Sox would win the World Series — a feat they would achieve again in 1916 and 1918 — the team featured a 20-year-old Ruth in his breakout season. As a pitcher. The lefty was 18-8, for a winning percentage just under 70%, with a 2.44 earned run average, a number he would lower to a paltry 1.75 the next year, taking the ERA crown in a field that featured no less a hurler than Walter Johnson, a man you could very well argue is the best pitcher in the history of the sport.

Ruth was equally brilliant on the mound during the rest of his Red Sox tenure, and if you extrapolate his early numbers — with Ruth, clearly, improving already — we’re talking a man who could well have made the Hall of Fame on the back of his mound mastery, and could have been one of the twenty or so top pitchers in the game’s history.

But something was happening, and that was that Ruth was coming to bat, too. Now, hitting and pitching are as different of tasks within the same sport as, let’s say, tending goal or being a skater are in hockey. If you do one of those things well, totally disparate as they are, you surely, unless you are a one in a trillion person, do not do the other at the level of a professional, let alone at an all-time great level.

This was the so-called Dead Ball age. You could hit for a batting average of .380, as Ty Cobb was wont to do, year after year, but if you jacked five home runs, you were the Reggie Jackson of your era. Chicks dig the long ball? Well, hit nine of them in 1917 as Wally Pipp did (the same guy who later infamously replaced by Lou Gehrig and who was, actually, a stud of a player himself) and you could lead the league, the chief slugging star in the baseball firmament.

1914 baseball card of Babe Ruth, pitcher, in the minor leagues
1914 baseball card of Babe Ruth, pitcher, in the minor leagues

But then something in 1918 happened that must have blown minds at the time. Babe Ruth, the pitcher, the ascendant star pitcher, the pitcher you would watch and think maybe you’d tell your grandkids about having done so some day, popped eleven home runs. This tied him for the league lead, and nearly doubled the total of the third place finisher, a man so adroit, in the view of his peers, at the long ball that his Christian name of Frank was replaced with Home Run. Not Frank Baker, but Home Run Baker. Because he’d hit a half dozen a year. Yowser.

In 1919, while still on the Sox, Ruth hit 29 home runs, almost three times more than the runner-up. A crude rule of thumb, if you’re trying to understand how much better someone might be, historically, than someone else, in these matters, is to take numbers that are considered elite, and multiply them by two. The greatest to have ever played will have had seasons like that. No one else will have, probably.

For instance, in hockey, 100 points has long been considered a superstar season. So, Wayne Gretzky had 200 point seasons. In baseball, 30 home runs has long been viewed as elite; Ruth, of course, in his famous 1927 campaign, hit 60. But here in 1919, he is tripling elite, in effect. It’s as if a hockey player not quite as good as Gretzky, but damn great all the same, decided to become a goalie, and started putting up record numbers. Instantly.

This may not, in fact, be art as we think of art, but it is surely its own something, and it seems that what we might designate as belonging to that category — if it is for some good, if it bespeaks of some human excellence, if it fires the imagination of others, if it can inspire you — is surely some form of art. A new make, you might say.

As you probably know, even if you are not a baseball fan, Ruth was sold to the Yankees to finance a musical — ah, different times — and in that first Yankee season, with the pitching gig a matter of the past, Ruth was able to focus on harnessing a skill that we might consider as sizable as just about any ever possessed by anyone in this country.

Number of 1920 home runs: 54, bucko.

Which, again, nearly tripled the number two man. Bostonians began to believe in sport-based imprecations, and if you wanted to, you could have composed a baseball version of a Devil’s Dictionary entry.

Curse: What is vested when one’s star thrower of a ball becomes a star smacker of one somewhere else.

What Ruth then proceeded to do over the course of the 1920s would thrill a mathematician. The numbers, any way you crunch them, are surreal, folkloric, with Ruth out-homering teams, doubling and tripling the outputs of other stars, other all-timers. He wasn’t even as good an overall hitter as previously when he had his epic 1927 season, with a career best of sixty home runs. We hear the phrase Murderer’s Row thrown about so casually, and regularly. A Murderer’s Row of, let’s say, amazing songs, or whatever. And one wonders if people know where it comes from. It comes from that 1927 Yankees lineup, with Ruth presiding over all.

Ruth’s offensive run was so extreme that while a batter’s approach changed little over the following decades, pitching became more and more of a science, with more data, measurables, and the latest approach coming to fruition to halt would-be Ruthian excess. The Royals, for instance, won the Pennant last year — and may do so again this season — by making their bullpen the core of their attack. The teams that win do so, as the old saw goes, with pitching. A Ruth-led staff would likely get you to postseason baseball now, as then. It’s just that Ruth the hitter set up a kind of unnatural order that would take something like Ruth the pitcher — and pitchers of that ilk — to undo.

That baseball’s most singular player also had its most dichotomous career is a true wonder that stands outside of sport, even though it originates there. For all of his brawn, Ruth must have been able to think, at a sublime level, as a pitcher, whether he was on the mound, or later destroying the ERAs of others who were.

In his wonderful 1912 memoir, Pitching in a Pinch, no less an authority than Christy Mathewson wrote, “Like great artists in other fields of endeavor, Big League pitchers are temperamental.”

Yes — and you’d have to be, to quit the gig you were crazily gifted for to basically do its antithesis, and do so at the level of a true artist. •

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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