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Babe Ruth

(born George Herman Ruth)

1895 – 1948

American Baseball Player; 6’ 2”, 215 pounds 

Sports Ranking 6th of 12

U.S. stamp, 1998.

Babe Ruth single-handedly reshaped American baseball. Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Not only a phenomenal left-handed hitter, Ruth began his baseball career as a great left-handed pitcher (1914-1919 with the Boston Red Sox), compiling a record of 94 wins and 46 losses – a 67.1% winning percentage with a 2.28 ERA. Boston won 3 World Series (1915, 1916, 1918) during Ruth's time on the team. When Ruth switched to the New York Yankees in 1920 they had never won a pennant in their history; with Ruth they won 4 pennants (1923, 1927, 1928, and 1932). The Red Sox then suffered the "Bambino" (nickname for Ruth) curse, not winning another World Series until 2004 – a stretch of 86 years. Ruth’s teammates on his first team, the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, gave him the nickname “Babe” because he was their youngest player.

Also in 1920, when Ruth started with the Yankees, the owners changed some of the rules for the ball that began the lively ball era. Before 1920, the same ball would be used throughout the game and foul balls would be thrown back on the field and reused. The ball would only be replaced if it started to unravel. As games progressed, the ball would become increasingly dirty and worn, making it difficult to see, and its movement erratic. Pitchers were able to help this process along by scuffing it, spitting on it, and since Russ Ford’s discovery in 1913, cutting into it with an emery board. The spitball was widely used as well. All of these effects gave the pitcher a major advantage. The physical wear on the ball from being repeatedly hit also made it more elastic as the game progressed, making it increasingly difficult to hit for distance.


The rule changes had two major catalysts – one, the owners were eager to cash in on the popularity of Ruth’s power hitting and two, Ray Chapman had died as a result of a beaning from a submarine pitch to his head. Starting in 1920, new balls were replaced at the first sign of wear, resulting in a ball that was much brighter and easier for a hitter to see. Second, spitballs were no longer allowed. The result was a typically low-scoring game becoming a high-scoring one, with a newfound reliance on the home run. During the 1920 season, Babe Ruth set a record for slugging percentage and hit 54 home runs, smashing his old record of 29. League wide batting averages jumped 35 points, and runs scored increased from about 9,000 a year in the 1910s to almost 12,000 in the 1920s. There were 384 home runs hit in 1915, but 1,565 hit in 1930. Adoring fans turned out in huge numbers to enjoy the new power game, with the 1920 New York Yankees becoming the first club to reach one million in home attendance.  


Ruth's appeal extended far beyond the everyday baseball fan to people who had only the most marginal interest in the game. In the 1920s his name appeared in print more often than anyone except the president of the United States. Ruth's legacy went beyond baseball statistics. Ruth altered the salary structure of the game via a trickle-down effect. His highest salary was $80,000 annually in 1930 and 1931. Because Ruth was extremely well paid by the end of his career, he helped increase salaries for all players.


Key Reference:  Babe:  The Legend Comes to Life by Robert W. Creamer, 1974.

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