Babe Ruth put up monumental statistics during his playing career. But the Bambino was more than numbers – especially to those who knew him, like former teammate Joe Dugan, who once said: “To understand him you had to understand this: He wasn’t human.”
Sports writer Tommy Holmes, winner of the 1979 BBWAA Career Excellence Award, was more succinct: “Some 20 years ago, I stopped talking about the Babe for the simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen him didn’t believe me.”
Ruth has been called an American original, undoubtedly the game’s first great slugger and the most celebrated athlete of his time. Soon after honing his skills at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, he came to the big leagues as a lefty hurler with the Red Sox, where he won 89 games in six years while setting the World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings.
But the Red Sox recognized Ruth's ability at the plate and began transitioning him to the outfield. In 1918, the Red Sox won their fourth World Series title in seven seasons – Ruth was there for three of them – as Ruth led the American League with 11 home runs while also going 13-7 on the mound. Then in 1919, Ruth set a new single-season record with 29 home runs while recording 113 RBI. He went 9-5 on the mound in his last year with more than two appearances as a pitcher.
In what is likely the most famous transaction in baseball history, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 following the 1919 season. The next season, Ruth hit 54 home runs with 158 runs scored and 135 RBI, setting the baseball world ablaze with his talent. He would top those numbers in 1921 with 59 home runs, 177 runs scored and 457 total bases. The last two numbers still stand as modern era (post 1900) records.
The Sultan of Swat would lead a powerful and renowned New York squad to seven American League pennants and four World Series titles during his 15 years in New York. He led the AL in home runs 12 times, including his record-setting 60 in 1927 – a mark that stood for 34 years.
Ruth retired in 1935 after a partial season with the Boston Braves, ending his 22-year big league career with 714 home runs. His lifetime statistics also include 2,873 hits, 506 doubles, 2,174 runs, 2,214 RBI, a .342 batting average, a .474 on-base percentage and a .690 slugging percentage.
“It wasn’t that he hit more home runs than anybody else,” said 1976 Spink Award winner Red Smith, “he hit them better, higher, farther, with more theatrical timing and a more flamboyant flourish.”
Among Ruth’s other remarkable offensive achievements include leading the league in slugging percentage 13 times, bases on balls 11 times, on-base percentage 10 times, runs scored eight times and runs batted in five times. One of the first five electees to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ruth once said, “The fans would rather see me hit one homer to right than three doubles to left.”
Ruth passed away on Aug. 16, 1948.