How good of a baseball player was Babe Ruth? What comparisons could be made today that can possibly put Babe Ruth’s greatness as a pitcher and hitter in the proper perspective? Was he a great enough pitcher to merit a Cy Young Award, had they been given out back in the days when Babe Ruth
played? With the attention focused today on Barry Bonds, who will surely pass Babe Ruth’s total of 714 home runs and then take aim at Hank Aaron’s 755, Babe Ruth’s legacy will be closely scrutinized. I will attempt to put his accomplishments in the proper light.
Babe Ruth was a nineteen year old left handed pitcher when he joined the Boston Red Sox in 1914. He threw 23 innings that season with a 2-1 record as a result. The following year, when he was twenty, he went 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA and hurled 16 complete games. Complete games were the norm for his era, so this is one statistic that cannot be given much thought when discussing Babe Ruth’s ability on the mound. In 1916 and 1917, Babe Ruth went a combined 47-15, with ERAs of 1.75 and 2.10 respectively. In 1916 alone, he tossed nine shutouts, with six more the following year. In 1918, Babe Ruth only pitched in twenty games, going 13-7 with an ERA of 2.22. He started fifteen games in 1919, winning nine and losing five to a 2.97 ERA.
In the World Series play of 1916 and 1918, as a member of the Red Sox, Babe Ruth had a combined ERA of 0.87. He pitched a total of 31 innings, allowing 19 hits and 3 earned runs! His scoreless streak of 29 innings in Series games lasted until Whitey Ford broke it over forty years later. Babe Ruth became a fulltime outfielder in 1920, but he played both the outfield and pitched for the Red Sox in 1918 and 1919. Once he became an outfielder for good, Babe Ruth hit the vast majority of the home runs he would be famous for. Up until 1920, when he made the conversion after he was sold to the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth had hit a total of 49 of his 714 round trippers.
Babe Ruth pitched five games as a Yankee, winning all five to bring his lifetime record to 94-46, a winning percentage of .671, with a career ERA of 2.28. At the age of 35, in 1930, having not pitched in a game for nine years, he gave up three runs in a victory; three years later he pitched his final time and won, allowing five runs.
Babe Ruth’s batting figures are more familiar to most that follow the game. The 714 home runs were compiled at a fantastic pace for that era. In 1920, Babe Ruth’s 54 home runs were more than any team hit as a total except for the 64 hit by the Philadelphia Phillies! To equal this feat today, Barry Bonds would have to hit over 200 home runs! Babe Ruth led baseball in runs scored eight times, total bases six times, RBI six times, bases on balls eleven times, extra base hits seven times, times on base eight times, and at bats per home run and slugging percentage thirteen times. Babe Ruth won a dozen home run titles, hit .342 lifetime, took home an ERA title in 1916, and had the most shutouts pitched in that same campaign. He also hit .326 in ten World Series with 15 homers in 41 games, playing on seven World Series winning clubs.
As for winning a Cy Young Award had they been in existence while Babe Ruth played, we must look at his two great years. In 1916, he went 23-12 with the 9 shutouts. Babe Ruth’s competition would have come from Harry Coveleski of Detroit, who was 21-11, but only had 3 whitewashings of American league teams. New York’s Bob Shawkey posted a 24- 14 mark, but Babe Ruth had 5 more shutouts and a much better ERA. The Senator’s “Big Train”, Walter Johnson, did win 25 games, but also lost 20, many of those due to no run support. His ERA was only slightly higher than Babe Ruth’s 1.75, but he only had 3 shutouts. Clearly, Babe Ruth would have won the American League Cy Young Award for 1916. Pete Alexander, with a 33 win season in 1916, would have run away with the National League’s version.
1917 would have seen Babe Ruth finish third in the Cy Young voting behind Chicago’s Eddie Ciccote, who went 28-12 with a 1.53 earned run average, and Jim Bagby of Cleveland, who had almost the same numbers as Ruth, only a smidgen better. One must also take into account that Babe Ruth was only 21 and 22 in these years, much younger than the other hurlers mentioned.
Who then can legitimately be compared to Babe Ruth? Obviously there is no one in baseball. The best example today would be to take a pitcher like Barry Zito, the Oakland A’s lefty who has a career record of 86-53 entering 2006. Now, Zito would have to become an outfielder and hit over 700 home runs in his remaining major league seasons! Plus, Ruth had won 89 games before he was 25; Zito is now 28. If the sport was hockey, the comparison would be a goalie winning about 100 games in net, before he was 25, and then scoring 500 goals as a center or winger! If you make the sport football, it would be like a linebacker leading the league in tackles for five years and then going on to become the all-time leading rusher as a halfback! In other words, there will never be another player in baseball like Babe Ruth!