February 26, 2007

Deadball Stars Of The American League

The Deadball Era Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has published its second book of biographies of baseball's greatest players from 1900-1920.

The AL volume has 136 biographies. For each of the league's eight teams, there are All-Star teams and stat leaders for the era as well as the most common lineup for each season.

I contributed lineups for 1903, 1918 and 1919, as well as biographies of Red Sox pitchers Babe Ruth and Carl Mays. (You might remember that I wrote about Jack Titus of the Phillies for the NL volume). If you've seen the NL book, then you know how beautiful and well-written these books are.

Here's my Ruth bio:

George Herman "Babe" Ruth
Left-Handed Pitcher, 1914-1919

During his five full seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth established himself as one of the premier left-handed pitchers in the game, began his historic transformation from moundsman to slugging outfielder, and was part of three World Series championship teams. After he was sold to the New York Yankees in December 1919, his eye-popping batting performances over the next few seasons helped usher in a new era of long-distance hitting and high scoring, effectively bringing down the curtain on the Deadball Era.

George Herman Ruth was born to George Ruth and Catherine Schamberger on February 6, 1895, in his mother's parents' house at 216 Emory Street, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father owned a saloon at 406 Conway Street, where the family also resided; the spot is now center field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. With his father working long hours in his saloon and his mother often in poor health, Little George (as he was known) spent his days unsupervised on the waterfront streets and docks, committing petty theft and vandalism. Hanging out in his father's bar, he stole money from the till, drained the last drops from old beer glasses and developed a taste for chewing tobacco. He was only six years old.

Shortly after his seventh birthday, the Ruths petitioned the Baltimore courts to declare Little George "incorrigible" and sent him to live at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a reform school run by Xaverian Brothers on the outskirts of the city. The boy's initial stay at St. Mary's lasted only four weeks before his parents brought him home for the first of several attempted reconciliations; his long-term residence at St. Mary's actually began in 1904. But it was during that first stay that George met Brother Matthias.

"He taught me to read and write and he taught me the difference between right and wrong," Ruth said of the Canadian-born priest. "He was the father I needed and the greatest man I've ever known." Brother Matthias also spent many afternoons tossing a worn-out baseball in the air and swatting it out to the boys. Little George watched, bug-eyed. "I had never seen anything like that in my life," he recalled. "I think I was born as a hitter the first day I ever saw him hit a baseball." The impressionable youngster imitated Matthias's hitting style — gripping the bat tightly down at the knobbed end, taking a big swing at the ball — as well as his way of running with quick, tiny steps.

When asked in 1918 about playing baseball at St. Mary's, Ruth said he had little difficulty anywhere on the field. "Sometimes I pitched. Sometimes I caught, and frequently I played the outfield and infield. It was all the same to me. All I wanted was to play. I didn't care much where." In one St. Mary's game in 1913, Ruth, then 18 years old, caught, played third base (even though he threw left-handed) and pitched, striking out six men, and collecting a double, a triple and a home run. That summer, he was allowed to pitch with local amateur and semipro teams on weekends. Impressed with his performances, Jack Dunn signed Ruth to his minor league Baltimore Orioles club the following February.

Though he was a bumpkin with minimal social skills, at camp in South Carolina Ruth quickly distinguished himself on the diamond. That spring, the Orioles played several major league teams. In two outings against the Phillies, Ruth faced 29 batters and allowed only six hits and two unearned runs. The next week, he threw a complete-game victory over the Philadelphia Athletics, winners of three of the last four World Series. Short on cash that summer thanks to the Federal League's invasion of Baltimore, Dunn sold Ruth to the Red Sox on July 9, along with pitcher Ernie Shore and catcher Ben Egan, for $30,000.

On July 11, 1914, less than five months after leaving St. Mary's, Babe made his debut at Fenway Park: he pitched seven innings against Cleveland and received credit for a 4-3 win. After being hit hard by Detroit in his second outing, Ruth rode the bench until he was demoted to the minor leagues on August 18, where he helped the Providence Grays capture the International League pennant. Ruth returned to Boston for the final week of the 1914 season. On October 2, he pitched a complete game victory over the Yankees and doubled for his first major league hit.

Babe spent the winter in Baltimore with his new wife, Boston waitress Helen Woodford, and in 1915, he stuck with the big club. Ruth slumped early in the season, in part because of excessive carousing with fellow pitcher Dutch Leonard, and a broken toe -- sustained by kicking the bench in frustration after being intentionally walked -- kept him out of the rotation for two weeks. But when he returned, he shined, winning three complete games in a span of nine days in June. Between June 1 and September 2, Ruth was 13-1 and ended the season 18-8. However, despite his fine season, Ruth was benched in the World Series; his 2.44 season ERA was the worst among Boston's five spectacular starters.

In 1916, Ruth won 23 games and posted a league-leading 1.75 ERA. He also threw nine shutouts -- an American League record for left-handed pitchers that still stands (it was tied in 1978 by the Yankees' Ron Guidry). In Game 2 of the World Series, Ruth pitched all 14 innings, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-1. Boston topped Brooklyn in the series four games to one.

Ruth's success went straight to his head in 1917, and he began regularly arguing with umpires about their strike zone judgment. Facing Washington on June 23, Ruth walked the first Senators batter on four pitches. Feeling squeezed by home plate umpire Brick Owens, Ruth complained and was promptly ejected, after which he stormed off the mound and punched Owens, striking a "glancing blow behind the ear". After Ruth was ejected, Ernie Shore came in to relieve. The baserunner was thrown out trying to steal and Shore retired the next 26 batters for an unofficial perfect game. Ruth got off lightly with a 10-day suspension and a $100 fine. He ended the year with a 24-13 record, completing 35 of his 38 starts, with six shutouts and an ERA of 2.01. Ruth's 35 complete games have been topped only once since then, by Bob Feller in 1946.

Although Ruth didn't play every day until May 1918, the idea of putting him in the regular lineup was first mentioned in the press during his rookie season. Calling Babe "one of the best natural sluggers ever in the game," Washington sportswriter Paul Eaton thought Ruth "might even be more valuable in some regular position than he is on the slab -- a free suggestion for Manager [Bill] Carrigan." The Boston Post reported that summer that Babe "cherishes the hope that he may someday be the leading slugger of the country."

In 1915, Ruth batted .315 and topped the Red Sox with four home runs. Bobby Roth led the AL with seven homers, but he had 384 at-bats compared to Babe's 92. Ruth didn't have enough at-bats to qualify, but his .576 slugging percentage was higher than the official leaders in the American League (Jack Fournier .491), the National League (Gavy Cravath .510) and the Federal League (Benny Kauff .509).

With the Red Sox offense sputtering after the sale of Tris Speaker in April 1916, the suggestion to play Ruth every day was renewed when he tied a record with a home run in three consecutive games. Ruth hated the helpless feeling of sitting on the bench between pitching assignments, and believed he could be a better hitter if given more opportunity. In mid-season, with all three Boston outfielders in slumps, Carrigan was reportedly ready to give Babe a shot, but it never happened. Ruth finished the 1917 season at .325, easily the highest average on the team. Left fielder Duffy Lewis topped the regulars at .302; no one else hit above .265. Giving Ruth an everyday job remained nothing more than an entertaining game of "what if" -- until 1918.

The previous summer, the United States had entered the Great War; many players had enlisted or accepted war-related jobs before the season began. Trying to strengthen the Red Sox offense, about two weeks into the season, manager Ed Barrow, after discussions with right fielder and team captain Harry Hooper, penciled Ruth into the lineup. The move came only a few days after a Boston paper reported that team owner Harry Frazee had refused an offer of $100,000 for Ruth. "It is ridiculous to talk about it," Frazee said. "Ruth is our Big Ace. He's the most talked of, most sought for, most colorful ball player in the game." Later reports revealed that the offer had come from the Yankees.

On May 6, 1918, in the Polo Grounds against the Yankees, Ruth played first base, subbing for the injured Dick Hoblitzel, and batted sixth. It was the first time he had appeared in a game other than as a pitcher or pinch-hitter and the first time he batted any spot other than ninth. Ruth went 2-for-4, including a two-run home run. At that point, five of Ruth's 11 career home runs had come in New York. The Boston Post's Paul Shannon began his game story, "Babe Ruth still remains the hitting idol of the Polo Grounds." Three days later, on May 9, Ruth had one of the most extraordinary games of his career, going 5-for-5 in the cleanup spot with three doubles and a triple, while also pitching a 10-inning complete game, losing 4-3 to reliever Walter Johnson.

Barrow also wanted Ruth to continue pitching, but Babe, enjoying the notoriety his hitting was generating, often feigned exhaustion or a sore arm to avoid the mound. The two men argued about Ruth's playing time for several weeks. Finally, after one heated exchange in early July of 1918, Ruth quit the team. He returned after a few days and, after renegotiating his contract with Frazee to include some hitting-related bonuses, patched up his disagreements with Barrow.

"I don't think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year," Ruth said. "I can do it this season all right, and not feel it, for I am young and strong and don't mind the work. But I wouldn't guarantee to do it for many seasons."

Ruth then began what is likely the greatest nine- or ten-week stretch of play in baseball history. From mid-July to early September 1918, Ruth pitched every fourth day, and played either left field, center field or first base on the other days. Ruth's double duty was not unique during the Deadball Era -- a handful of players had done both -- but his level of success was (and remains) unprecedented. In one ten-game stretch at Fenway, Ruth hit .469 (15-for-32) and slugged .969 with four singles, six doubles and five triples. He was remarkably adept at first base, his favorite position. On the mound, he allowed more than two runs only once in his last ten starts. The Colossus, as Babe was known in Boston, maintained his status as a top pitcher while simultaneously becoming the game's greatest hitter.

Ruth's performance led the Red Sox to the American League pennant, in a season cut short by the owners because of a work-or-fight order and dwindling attendance. All draft-age men were under government order to either enlist or take war-related employment -- in shipyards or munitions factories, for example -- which led not only to star players being lost to the war effort, but also to paltry turnouts of less than 1,000 for many afternoon games that summer.

Ruth opened the World Series on September 5 against the Chicago Cubs with a 1-0 shutout. He pitched well in Game Four, despite having bruised his left hand during some horseplay on the train back to Boston, and his double drove in what turned out to be the winning runs. However, Ruth was used almost exclusively as a pitcher during the Series. In order to neutralize Ruth, the Cubs started only left-handed pitchers against the Red Sox; manager Barrow responded by inexplicably benching baseball's best hitter.

Still, Ruth's pitching performances, together with his extra-inning outing in 1916, gave Ruth a record of 29.2 consecutive scoreless World Series innings, one of the records Ruth always said he was most proud of. His streak was finally bested by Whitey Ford of the Yankees in 1961. Ruth established a record as the first pitcher in baseball history to pitch in at least 10 regular seasons and post a winning record in all of them.

While with the Red Sox, Ruth often arranged for busloads of orphans to visit his farm in Sudbury, Massachusetts, for a day-long picnic and ball game, making sure each kid left with a glove and autographed baseball. When the Red Sox were at home, Ruth would arrive at Fenway Park early on Saturday mornings to help the vendors -- mostly boys in their early teens -- bag peanuts for the upcoming week's games.

"He'd race with us to see who could bag the most," recalled Tom Foley, who was 14 years old in 1918. (Ruth was barely out of his teens himself.) "He'd talk a blue streak the whole time, telling us to be good boys and play baseball, because there was good money in it. He thought that if we worked hard enough, we could be as good as he was. But we knew better than that. He'd stay about an hour. When we finished, he'd pull out a $20 bill and throw it on the table and say 'Have a good time, kids.' We'd split it up, and each go home with an extra half-dollar or dollar depending on how many of us were there. Babe Ruth was an angel to us."

To management, however, Ruth was a headache. His continued inability -- or outright refusal -- to adhere to the team's curfew earned him several suspensions and his non-stop salary demands infuriated Frazee. The Red Sox owner had spoken publicly about possibly trading Ruth before the 1919 season, when Babe was holding out for double his salary and threatening to become a boxer. However, Ruth and Frazee came to terms and the Babe's hitting made headlines across the country all season long. He played 111 games in left field, belted a record 29 home runs, and led the major leagues in slugging percentage (.657, 127 points better than runner-up George Sisler), on-base percentage (.456), runs scored (103), RBIs (114) and total bases (284). He also drove in or scored one-third of Boston's runs. But while Ruth also won nine games on the mound, he slumped badly there, going from a spectacular 6.8 hits allowed per nine innings to a decidedly pedestrian 10.0. The rest of the staff fell victim to injuries and the defending champs finished in the second division with a 66-71 record.

The sale of Ruth to the Yankees was announced after New Year's 1920 and although it was big news, public opinion in Boston was divided. Many fans were aghast that such a talent would be cast off, while others, including many former players, insisted that a cohesive team (as opposed to one egomaniac plus everyone else) was the key to success.

"[T]here is no getting away from the fact that despite his 29 home runs, the Red Sox finished sixth last year," Frazee said. "What the Boston fans want, I take it, and what I want because they want it, is a winning team, rather than a one-man team that finishes in sixth place." Frazee also called Ruth's home runs "more spectacular than useful."

He also intimated that the Yankees were taking a gamble on Ruth. It was a statement he would be later ridiculed for, but at the time the Yankees felt the same way. The amount paid ($125,000, plus a $300,000 loan) was astronomical, Ruth ate and drank excessively, frequented prostitutes, and had been involved in several car accidents. It would have surprised no one if, for whatever reason, Ruth was out of baseball in a year or two.

Amidst this speculation over his future, on February 28, 1920, Babe Ruth left Boston and boarded a train for New York. He was still just 25 years old.


L-girl said...

Beautiful! Thanks for posting it.

L-girl said...

Ruth said of the Canadian-born priest.

Hey, I forgot that detail! Nice.

Zenslinger said...

Very nice work.