The discussion of two-way baseball players starts and ends with Babe Ruth. In the years before the infamous sale that sent Ruth from Boston to New York, the man known as the “Sultan of Swat” was baseball’s premier left-handed pitcher. Ruth would later become the most prolific hitter in baseball history.
Before his powerful uppercut swing made home runs relevant and transformed baseball into an offensive game, the full-time pitching ace and part-time slugger led the Red Sox to three
World Series Championships. Ruth put together a 94-46 career record with nearly all of his pitching appearances coming in a Red Sox uniform. His 2.28 ERA is 17th lowest in baseball history.
The Babe found his place on the pitcher’s mound at the St. Mary’s Industrial School, a boys’ reformatory school. He developed his craft with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League under owner and manager Jack Dunn, who signed the 19-year-old southpaw to his first professional contract in 1914. The first Ruth baseball card was included in the 1914 Baltimore News series. Issued with red or blue fronts and black variation backs, the card displays a gangly teenager yet to make his major league debut. A red PSA-1 version of the Ruth rookie sold at auction for $450,300 last year.
Struck with financial hardship due to the emergence of the Baltimore Terrapins of the short-lived Federal League, the Orioles unloaded Ruth, Ernie Shore and Ben Egan to the Red Sox for $16,000 later that year. Pitching behind established hurlers Smokey Joe Wood and Dutch Leonard among others, Ruth was used sparingly. But in 1915, he went 18-8 as the team’s third starter and helped the Red Sox to the AL Pennant.
In 1916, Ruth emerged as a dominant pitcher, winning 21 games while tossing nine shutouts and posting a league-best 1.75 ERA. Helping the Red Sox to back-to-back World Series championships, Ruth pitched 14 innings for a 2-1 Game 2 victory over the Brooklyn Robins.
Still considered a top-notch pitcher, Ruth returned in 1917 with a 24-13 record and 2.01 ERA. He finished 35 of the 38 games he started. At the same time, Ruth’s offensive prowess was taking shape. He finished the season batting .325, triggering an eight-year streak of hitting .300 or better.
Already an established pitching ace, Ruth’s transformation to iconic slugger hit full stride in 1918. Primarily an outfielder, Ruth led the league in homers with 11, earning his first of 12 home run titles. Appearing in 20 games as a pitcher, he went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. The Babe pitched a 1-0 shutout in Game 1 of the World Series and won Game 4, as he established a 29 ⅓ scoreless innings streak, eclipsed by Whitey Ford decades later.
The Babe made 17 appearances on the mound in 1919, going 9-5 with a 2.97 ERA, but by this time pitching was merely a diversion for the future Hall of Fame slugger-to-be. Ruth led the league in home runs (29), RBI (114) and runs (103). Following the 1919 season, the Yankees purchased Babe Ruth the slugger, not the ace pitcher from financially-strapped Red Sox owner Harry Frazee for $100,000.
Ruth’s Red Sox-Yankees overlap is highlighted in his 1914 Frederick Foto card. The unique card displaying a photo-quality image, pictures the Babe in a red Sox uniform, but reads “Babe Ruth N.Y.” in the upper left-hand corner.
In his first season with the Yankees Ruth set a new standard with 54 home runs, effectively introducing America to a new brand of baseball emphasizing power and brawn over speed and savvy. Putting Ruth’s 1920 season in perspective: No other player hit more than 19 home runs and only one team hit more homers than Ruth did individually.
Laying the groundwork for what would become the Yankee Dynasty, Ruth’s 1921 season may have been the greatest in MLB history. The 26-year-old Ruth batted .376 while bashing 59 homers, driving in 171 runs, scoring 177 runs, and slugging a then-unthinkable .846. Riding Ruth’s prowess as a slugger, the Yankees became baseball’s most recognizable — not to mention most dominant — team, establishing new attendance records almost annually.
He eventually raised the bar to 60 round-trippers in 1927, a record that would stand for 34 years. The Babe’s contribution to baseball was almost as significant as his contribution to the New York Yankees. The new stadium built to house a growing fan base was quickly dubbed “The House That Ruth Built.”
Prior to Ruth wearing pinstripes, the Yankees never won a title of any sort. In his 15 years in New York, the Yankees captured seven AL Pennants and four World Series titles. Most baseball historians consider the 1927 Yankees to be the best team in baseball history.
Ruth returned to Boston in 1935 to play his final season with the Braves, hitting six homers to bump his career total to 714. The Bambino held an amazing 56 major league records at the time of his retirement — including most career home runs. In 1936 the newly formed Baseball Hall of Fame elected Babe Ruth as one of its five original inductees. More than 75 years after his retirement, Ruth remains one of baseball’s first and America’s greatest icons.
The complete history of the Babe can be found in the 1962 “Babe Ruth Special” subset, which captures significant moments from his life and career, beginning with “Babe as a Boy” (#135) and ending with “Babe’s Farewell Speech”. The special 10-card subset was issued one year after Roger Maris eclipsed the Babe’s single-season home run record. Most of the cards can be found in good – very good condition for $8-$15.