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:
Mantle-Maris, 1961: 115
Barry Bonds-Rich Aurilia, 2001: 110
Ruth-Gehrig, 1927: 107
Mark McGwire-Ray Lankford, 1998, 101
Alex Rodriguez-Rafael Palmeiro, 2002, 100
Yes, who can forget that Bonds-Aurilia power combination?