By In Stuff

Feb. 6 Birthday: Babe Ruth

Today is a great celebrity birthday day — Babe Ruth, Ronald Reagan and Bob Marley were all born on February 6. Also Zsa Zsa Gabor and Axl Rose and Tom Brokaw. America and the world would be a poorer place without them.

There are numerous great little facts about Babe Ruth — one being that his birthday is one day after Henry Aaron. I love little quirks of timing like that.

But probably my favorite little fact is that Ruth is, quite easily, the best hitter AND the best pitcher born on February 6. The second-best hitter is Smoky Burgess or Richie Zisk, and while they were both good hitters they were obviously a million miles from Ruth. But the second best pitcher is probably Bob Wickman, who did save 267 games. But — and I find this amazing — he threw FEWER INNINGS than Ruth, who was only a pitcher early in his career but still went 94-46 with a 2.28 ERA and was pretty close to unhittable in his three World Series starts.

This, of course, has always been the trump card for Ruth, of course, when discussing the greatest player who ever lived: Only Ruth, over an extended period of time, played at a Hall of Fame level as both a pitcher and a hitter*. Really this argument cannot be touched. Nine Babe Ruths — in his younger and more athletic days — would almost certainly beat nine of any other player. I need to ask Bill James about a Sweet 16 tournament based on this idea.

*There are a few players before 1900 who were very good hitters and pitchers, probably highlighted by Monte Ward, a dominant pitcher between 1878 and 1884, winning 47 games one year and compiling a career 2.10 ERA. He then became a good hitter who twice led the league in stolen bases, though he was probably not a Hall of Fame caliber offensive player.

Kid Gleason was not Hall of Fame caliber either way, but he was a pretty good pitcher (won 138 games), a pretty good hitter (1,946 career hits) and then he was the beleaguered manager of the 1919 White Sox. Then, he stole from that retirement home causing great pain to his lovely daughter who fell in love with the guy who owned that record store whose mother was a grifter, though I could be confusing movies.

Smoky Joe Wood was absolutely a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher — there are those who still push for him as a Hall of Famer because one incredible season and a couple of very good ones — and after a serious injury he returned as a hitter, and was good. His highlight as a hitter was hitting .366 in part-time duty for Cleveland in 1921.

Wes Ferrell is probably the best hitting pitcher other than Ruth — but he never did get 200 plate appearances in a season. He hit 38 career home runs, nine of them in 128 plate appearances in 1931. He was also a very good pitcher in a high-scoring era — he is not in the Hall of Fame but he IS in the Baseball Think Factory Hall of Merit.

Ruth hit .370 or better six times but won only one batting title — he finished second to Harry Heilmann’s .403 in 1923 and second to Heinie Manush’s .378 in 1925. Later, in 1931, he finished second to Al Simmons. 390.

Of course, none of this had anything to do with Ruth’s baseball contributions — he led the league in on-base percentage 10 times, and he led the league in slugging every single year but one from 1918 to 1931. It’s a fascinating question to ask how good Ruth would be in our time. Baseball is obviously a completely different game now. Ruth didn’t play in a desegregated league, much less a international league. Ruth didn’t play night games. Ruth didn’t play games West of St. Louis. Ruth didn’t face closers. And this must be considered too: Ruth was obviously the most famous player in baseball, perhaps the most famous man in America, but it was long before Twitter and talk radio and podcasts and 24-hour news pressures — and we all know Ruth had a self-destructive personality.

That said, what we know about Ruth is how he fared in his own time — and no one in baseball history dominated his time the way Ruth did. He basically led the league in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, RBIs and runs every year. In 1920, he outhomered every team in the American League. In 1921, he outslugged everyone by 240 points and won the home run title by THIRTY FIVE homers. In 1927, he and Lou Gehrig combined for 107 homers — a record which would last until Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combined for 115 homers in 1961.

Here, for fun, are the teammates who have combined for 100 homers in a season:

  1. Mantle-Maris, 1961: 115

  2. Barry Bonds-Rich Aurilia, 2001: 110

  3. Ruth-Gehrig, 1927: 107

  4. Mark McGwire-Ray Lankford, 1998, 101

  5. Alex Rodriguez-Rafael Palmeiro, 2002, 100

Yes, who can forget that Bonds-Aurilia power combination?

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31 Responses to Feb. 6 Birthday: Babe Ruth

  1. David says:

    In answer to your last question, those of us who had Bonds and Aurilia in fantasy baseball in 2001 can’t forget. Which I did. It was awesome.

  2. “Only Ruth, over an extended period of time, played at a Hall of Fame level as both a pitcher and a hitter.”

    Bullet Rogan would like a word.

  3. LargeBill says:

    Everyone points to desegregation when comparing the past to present. However, because it doesn’t support their argument they fail to note that baseball was the only real professional team sport in the early part of the 20th century. Football and basketball today take many players who back then would have chosen baseball if given the choice. So, it is not as clear a case that today’s players play against tougher competition demographically. Football players like Kaepernick would have likely picked baseball given a choice back then. Also, while travel is more extensive today it is also more comfortable. Bottom line all you can do is look at how a player did against the competition available in his time and age.

    • Pip says:

      All good points. People seem to forget that travel conditions are definitely, DEFINITELY better today then they were back then. If you asked a ballplayer today to spend all night riding from New York to Chicago on an uncomfortable train, and then play the next MORNING (modern players hate day games. It’s harder to see) against pitchers who were throwing tar balls, do you think he’d prefer that to what he’s doing now? And seeing as only a small percentage, like you said, of professional athletes elect to play baseball.

      At the same time, the US population has tripled since then, not to mention baseball is now an international sport. I think, in the end of the day, segregation definitely benefited Ruth as a player. But not as much as many might think.

      (Some side notes: Ruth barnstormed a good 900 games against Negro teams, and though much of the records of these games have been lost, all the information we DO have says that Ruth played exceptionally well against them. See Buck O’neil’s account of Ruth hitting a 500 foot homer against Satchel Paige for an example. http://atyourlibrary.org/sports/world-champion-legacy-satchel-paige)

    • Mark Coale says:

      Well, pro hockey was around in the early 20th century. The stanley cup was canceled due to the spanish flu epidemic.

    • DJM says:

      You’re right to a certain point, Mark. There were professional teams in all three of the other “major” sports at that time. However, the organization wasn’t within the same universe as baseball at the time.

      As an example, the National Hockey League formed in 1917. The National League in baseball had already been in existence for over forty years.

      Other professional sports didn’t become real options until the late-20s, and didn’t become significant threats to baseball until the 1950s.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Pip is absolutely right. The thing that Ruth’s critics point out is that he didn’t play against the negro leaguers. Well, he did, and often, and from all accounts, Ruth dominated. And the negro leaguers were in awe of him just like everyone else was. The other factor I infer when talking about the Negro league is that the pitching, although there were some star pitchers like Satchel Paige, was not very deep. I infer this from some of the high batting stats from the Negro Leagues. So, while the Negro Leaguers would have had a definite impact, it wouldn’t necessarily have come from pitchers. Also, keep in mind that the high water mark for African American participation in MLB was 20% or below. Now, I believe it hovers at, or below 10%. So, it’s not like African Americans would have just dominated baseball like they have basketball and football.

  4. Although he didn’t actually have the hall of fame career in both spots, would’ve been interesting to see Musial in that 9-player competition. Foxx, as well.

  5. Adam says:

    He doesn’t appear to be in the Hall of Fame, but Double Duty Radcliffe was an All-Star caliber Negro Leaguer at both pitcher and catcher (hence the nickname.)

    Also, as I research it, I see his name is Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe. It seems to me that if you want your kid play baseball, name him after a president or a patriot. Radcliffe, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Theodore Roosevelt Lilly, Jon Jay….

  6. Bob M says:

    We also see today one of those birthday things Joe likes:
    (I always love it when two famous people who have absolutely nothing to do with each other are connected by a birthday)

    Bob Marley!!

    The Babe Ruth of reggae?

    They both did enjoy prohibited things…

  7. MCD says:

    Among those players born on Feb 6, who had the most consecutive games with a home run?

    Dale Long, who shares the Major League record of 8 consecutive games with Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey, Jr.

  8. Frank says:

    In his playing days, there was an issue about Ruth’s date of birth – the year. Ruth, himself, did not know whether it was 1895 or 1896. Seems like 1985 came to be more generally accepted. Good thing he did not play Little League.

  9. Martín DiHigo merits a mention. He is in the Hall of Fame, and he is one of the most versatile players in baseball history.

    DiHigo played in the Negro, Cuban, and Mexican Leagues in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Not only did he both pitch and play the field, he could play any position on the field. (A nine-DiHigo team would certainly field much better than a nine-Ruth team.) In the Mexican League in 1938, he went 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA while winning the batting title with a .387 average. He twice led the Negro Leagues in home runs.

  10. Nick O says:

    One thing that’s changed since Ruth’s time is that professional sports have a much higher emphasis on fitness, dieting, weight training, etc. Of course, it’s not fair to hold that against the old-timers, as presumably if they played today they’d be able to take advantage of our more advanced training regimens. However, does Babe Ruth really strike you as someone who would work to maintain the level of fitness that today’s sluggers have, or does he strikes you as a guy who’d show up to camp in Delmon Young shape?

  11. sreed24 says:

    I think all you can really do is judge players by how much they excelled in their own era. As for the travel, desegregation, and all that stuff, I suspect it is probably swamped by the general improvement in athleticism in the population. Many here have probably seen this anecdote, but the Gold medal winning time in the 1896 Olympics in the men’s 100 meter freestyle would not even be competitive in a girls junior high swim meet today.

  12. schuyler101 says:

    Would 9 Ruth’s do as good as Joe says? Are we accounting for the fact that he has to play 2nd, 3rd, shortsop and catcher left handed?

    He’ll hit a ton and pitch great but a good argument could be made for someone like Martin Dihigo.

    • NMark W says:

      Ruth was an excellent athlete; playing shortsop would have been no more difficult for him in his prime than for Barry Bonds. Barry’s lame arm would not hold a candle to Ruth’s strong throwing arm. Ruth did not stop pitching because of a sore arm you know….

    • Rob Smith says:

      Stop it with the Martin Dihigo comments. It’s embarrassing. Ruth wouldn’t even need a shortstop or a second baseman against this clown.

  13. Richard S. says:

    In “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Recrowning Baseball’s Greatest Slugger” by Bill Jenkinson, the author does a extremely detailed analysis of all the perceived differences between Ruth’s era and contemporary baseball (integration, travel, press scrutiny, training methods, etc.). He notes, for example, that a knee injury Ruth suffered early in his career which bothered him for years could have easily been treated with modern methods. If I recall correctly (having read the book some time ago), the net effect of all those differences is essentially non-existent.

    The title comes from his play-by-play examination of Ruth’s 1921 season, where Jenkinson finds that if played in current stadiums and under modern rules, over 100 of Ruth’s blasts would have been home runs.

  14. Richard S. says:

    In “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Recrowning Baseball’s Greatest Slugger” by Bill Jenkinson, the author does a extremely detailed analysis of all the perceived differences between Ruth’s era and contemporary baseball (integration, travel, press scrutiny, training methods, etc.). He notes, for example, that a knee injury Ruth suffered early in his career which bothered him for years could have easily been treated with modern methods. If I recall correctly (having read the book some time ago), the net effect of all those differences is essentially non-existent.

    The title comes from his play-by-play examination of Ruth’s 1921 season, where Jenkinson finds that if played in current stadiums and under modern rules, over 100 of Ruth’s blasts would have been home runs.

  15. I think if you put any player in a time machine and transported them to play in a vastly different era (backward or forward), they would struggle at first and possibly never adjust. Modern players would struggle with larger bats, dirtier and deader baseballs, the travel, lack of medical help, the danger of hitting without a helmet when pitchers buzzed hitters as a matter of course, etc. And of course the game is faster and more athletic now, which would make earlier players seem lost.

    But I think Ruth was a great athlete and would have adjusted to have been great in any era. Ruth’s athleticism was seemingly designed perfectly for baseball, and he was decades before his time as a hitter.

  16. Kid Gleason was not Hall of Fame caliber either way, but he was a pretty good pitcher (won 138 games), a pretty good hitter (1,946 career hits) and then he was the beleaguered manager of the 1919 White Sox. Then, he stole from that retirement home causing great pain to his lovely daughter who fell in love with the guy who owned that record store whose mother was a grifter, though I could be confusing movies.

    Classic…

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Look, OBVIOUSLY, if Babe Ruth stepped into a time machine in 1923, and came out in the year 2000, he couldn’t hope to hit 50 homers. He might well look feeble swinging his heavy bat against a Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens.

    But in reality, though baseball changes drastically over time, it doesn’t change noticeably in the short run. And over the long run, the best of the best adapt and adjust.

    Baseball changed greatly between 1907 and 1927 (end of the dead ball era), but somehow Ty Cobb batted over .350 in both years.

    Baseball changed greatly between 1943 and 1946 (many of the best players were at ware in 1943, but were back in the major leagues in 1946), but somehow Stan Musial led the National League in hitting both years.

    Baseball changed dramatically between 1947 and 1961 (racial integration), but somehow Warren Spahn managed to win 21 games and lead the NL in earned run average both years.

    Baseball changed tremendously between 1972 and 1989 (free agency), but somehow Nolan Ryan struck out 300+ batters both seasons.

    Get the idea? Even radical changes DON’T cause the great ones’ stats to plummet. The great ones adapt to change and remain on top. There is NO reason to think Babe Ruth couldn’t have changed his game and moved with the times just as everybody else did.

    • Ian R. says:

      I think in particular of Cy Young, whose long career spanned some of the most drastic changes in the history of the game. He was still a dominant ace no matter what the rules people threw at him.

  19. Check it out! I stumbled upon this item that is currently up for auction at scpauctions.com, lot number 619. This historic program to the Walter J. “Rabbit” Maranville Testimonial Dinner of May 23, 1935, took place at the Hotel Schenley, Pittsburgh, just a few days before Babe Ruth went four for four and hit the last three homeruns of his career (712, 713, 714). Babe Ruth’s home run record stood for nearly 40 years. On May 25th, “The Sultan” also became the first Major League player to ever hit three home runs in both leagues – having previously achieved a three-homer game in the American League (May 21, 1930). The program is autographed by Ruth, Maranville, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, several other Hall of Famers (who all spoke at and attended the dinner). It is searchable under the current live auction, then under “Baseball,” then “Autographs.”

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