Babe Ruth: A Starting Batter
Babe Ruth was the Opening Day starter for the Boston Red Sox in 1918 for the third straight year, and for the third time he came away with a victory.
The quartet of Ruth, Carl Mays, Dutch Leonard, and Joe Bush was the steadiest in baseball (none ever missing his spot in the rotation) over the season's first month, but once again the Red Sox were not hitting much. When Ruth slugged his first homer of the season over the roof of the Polo Grounds on May 4 (against, who else, the Yankees), it brought to light the same old question: Why not try to get his bat in the lineup every day?
The Babe as Batter
Apparently Harry Hooper had been discussing this very topic with manager Ed Barrow on a regular basis. With service duties and injuries plaguing his regular lineup, the manager finally relented by letting Babe play first base and bat sixth against the Yankees on May 6.
Three years to the day after hitting his first major-league home run in the same ballpark, Ruth homered again at the Polo Grounds before a crowd that included both Frazee and Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. No doubt realizing that this was the fifth of Ruth's 11 career homers hit in his yard, Ruppert supposedly offered to buy the young slugger on the spot. Frazee declined, but it was an omen.
The next day in Washington, Ruth was at first base again and homered for the third straight game -- the second time he had accomplished this rare feat. He doubled while playing first base the next day, then returned to the mound the following afternoon and worked 10 innings in a 4-3 loss -- notching a single, three doubles, and a triple in the process.
Babe was suddenly hitting .484 and was the talk of baseball. Conversely, the Red Sox were on a six-game losing streak. Barrow may have had thoughts of ending the experiment then, but Boston was returning home, and he knew Babe's presence would draw huge crowds. After all, Barrow had a $50,000 investment in the club.
Ruth was in a new position -- left field -- the next day at Fenway Park, and perhaps unnerved by the switch, he went hitless to break a 10-game batting streak. Back at first base the following afternoon, he had three hits, fielded well, and drew raucous applause each time he approached the plate.
Ruth's hitting fell off as he battled a sore throat, and when the sickness worsened he was scratched from a scheduled pitching start May 20 and sent home. The team trainer accompanied him, and along the way they stopped into a drugstore where the trainer treated Babe's throat by swabbing it with silver nitrate (then a common prescription). The pain and choking that ensued landed Ruth in the hospital, where his condition was diagnosed as swelling of the larynx and labeled serious.
Ruth remained in the hospital a week and later would attribute his trademark husky voice to the incident. He was back with the club on May 30 but received just one pinch-hitting appearance before pitching three days later. He lost the game despite hitting a home run, then was moved back to the outfield where he homered each of the next three days.
Babe Boycotts Pitching
Babe was starting to really enjoy himself, and when his turn to pitch came around again he told Barrow he was no longer interested. He wanted to be out there hitting every day.
Barrow agreed at first. Sad Sam Jones was able to step in and pitch well in Ruth's absence, but when Dutch Leonard jumped the club to take a shipyard job and avoid being drafted, the manager wanted Ruth back in the rotation. Ruth, claiming a wrist injury, refused.
After a brief benching, Babe returned to the regular lineup and hit three homers in little over a week. He now had 11 home runs on the season -- a figure reached by just three American Leaguers in the previous 15 years -- and it was only June 30.
An argument caused Barrow to fine Ruth $500. The Babe, distressed by the situation, stormed from the clubhouse and retreated to his father's home. Meanwhile, the team traveled on to Philadelphia, and two days later headlines blared that Ruth was quitting the Red Sox to play for a Pennsylvania shipyard team.
Eventually things were ironed out and Ruth returned, ostensibly to play the outfield and pitch when needed.
Baseball received a scare when its new classification as a job nonessential to the war effort suddenly left hundreds of players open to the draft, but a compromise was made in which all players were allowed to stay on provided the season end a month early on Labor Day.
His compromise with Barrow had Ruth pitching every fourth day down the stretch. When Ruth won seven games in little over a month, he helped the Red Sox to their third pennant in four years. He wound up 13-7 overall with a 2.22 ERA and 18 complete games in 19 starts. Despite this illustrious feat, it was in 59 outfield games and 13 at first base that Ruth had provided the most excitement.
His home run power mysteriously vanished the final two months, but despite just 317 at bats, Babe's 11 homers still tied him for the major league lead. His 66 RBI (tied for third) and 26 doubles (second) ranked high as well, and he was the only .300 hitter on the team.
While he also set the standard with 59 strikeouts, this only added to his popularity. Fans loved watching him miss and wind up in his trademark pretzel-like position almost as much as they enjoyed seeing him connect.
The 1918 World Series
Boston had a 21-game winner in Carl Mays, but Barrow fooled almost everyone by starting Ruth in the World Series opener against the Chicago Cubs on September 5 at Wrigley Field. People had expected Babe to be in left field the first contest, but instead he tossed a six-hit 1-0 shutout and set up the winning run with a fourth-inning single off Hippo Vaughn. Once more Ruth was the center of attention.
The teams split the next two contests, and Ruth was slated to start Game Four in Boston. Babe hurt the middle knuckle of his pitching hand horsing around on the train home. Despite struggling throughout the contest, he managed to earn a 3-2 victory, thanks to relief help in the ninth and his own two-run triple.
He also shut out the Cubs over the first seven innings, giving him 29 consecutive scoreless frames over three games (including one in the 1916 Series) to break Christy Mathewson's record of 28 set in 1905. Ruth's mark would stand 42 years, and he would always label it his proudest accomplishment in baseball -- greater than any of his batting feats.
The final two games were tainted by a thwarted player strike over record-low Series shares, but the Red Sox won nonetheless to claim their fifth World Championship overall without a loss. They were a strong team that expected to be on top for years, with the 23-year-old Ruth their prize player.
When the war ended two months later, fans began looking forward to an uninterrupted season when they could see their beloved team claim another flag. Little did they know how long the wait would be.
Babe's performances off the field would garner some extra attention in the coming years. Find out about his antics in the next section.
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