Emerging as one of the American League’s top young pitching talents in his first full major-league season, 20-year-old Boston Red Sox left-hander George Herman “Babe” Ruth matched up against one of the greatest pitchers in baseball, Walter “The Big Train” Johnson of the Washington Senators, for the first time in August 1915.
Ruth, who had debuted with the Red Sox the year before, took the mound at Fenway Park on August 14 with a season record of 10-6 and an ERA of 3.13. Overcoming a broken toe1 sustained in early June, he had won nine of his last 11 decisions since June 2.
Johnson was in the middle of one of the most dominant pitching stretches in baseball history. Recipient of the American League’s Chalmers Award as its most valuable player a year earlier, the 27-year-old Johnson continued to build his legend in 1914. He finished with the most wins in the American League for the second of what turned out to be four seasons in a row and the most strikeouts for the third of eight consecutive seasons. Johnson was 18-10 so far, with a 1.73 ERA.
Boston entered the game with a 67-35 record and stood first in the American League, 3½ games ahead of the Detroit Tigers. Washington was 54-50, in fourth place, 14 games back of Boston. The clubs had already met 18 times during the 1915 season; the Red Sox had won 13 of the games. Washington had gone winless in their first 10 games in Boston in 1915.
Boston treated the 15,612 fans who had turned out on a Saturday afternoon to a run in the second inning. Dick Hoblitzell doubled, but, with the play in front of him, was tagged out by third baseman Howie Shanks attempting to advance on Duffy Lewis’s groundball. Larry Gardner fouled out to catcher John Henry and then “Jack Barry doubled to left [where] Mario Acosta tried to make the catch on the fly, but the ball eluded him with Barry ending up on third with Lewis scoring to give Boston a 1-0 lead.” 2
Clyde Milan had singled in the top of the first for Washington with two outs but was left stranded. The Senators didn’t produce a runner in the second inning, but erupted in the third. After Henry lined out to center fielder Tris Speaker, George McBride singled to left-center field. Johnson popped out to shortstop Everett Scott and Danny Moeller drew a walk.
Eddie Foster singled past Ruth; McBride and Moeller scored when Speaker’s wild throw from center field eluded catcher Pinch Thomas. Foster got to third base and scored on Milan’s second hit of the game, giving Washington a 3-1 lead.
That margin held until the fifth, when, as Louis Dougher, covering the game for the Washington Times, reported: “(t)he Red Sox crawled up closer to the Griffs. Gardner doubled to left center and Barry popped a bunt to Chick Gandil, then Thomas whiffed. Ruth, who is a real big league hitter, slammed a hot safety through the box to center field that scored Gardner. Harry Hooper forced Ruth at second base and the inning ended with Washington leading 3-2.”3
“For seven innings of this hard-fought battle, the Griffmen, with Johnson slabbing had staved off defeat. Three runs in the third chapter gave the Kansan a lead to work under and it looked as if he was going to hold the margin all the way,” observed the Washington Post.4 But he didn’t. Neither team scored in the sixth or seventh. Washington had a chance to score in the seventh inning but was foiled by Red Sox left fielder Lewis, who made, according to the Boston Globe, one of the greatest catches in the then-brief history of Fenway Park.
As the Washington Post recounted it, “Chick Gandil drove a ball on the line down toward the fence in left field, close to the foul line. Playing over some distance from the foul line, Duffy Lewis was after the pill in a flash. He had to run in the same direction with the ball and if it got away it was easy money that Gandil would reach third and when Lewis reached in the air, while travelling on a dead run and plucked the pill from the ozone with his gloved hand, which was facing the diamond, there was a demonstration the like of which has seldom been heard at Fenway Park.”5
Washington held its one-run lead into the eighth inning. Until then, it appeared that the three runs the Senators staked Johnson to in the third inning would be enough.
“Olaf Henriksen, always a pain for Johnson,”6 started a rally in the eighth inning for Boston. Red Sox manager Bill Carrigan had Henriksen pinch-hit for catcher Thomas and he punched a single just over Washington shortstop McBride. Ruth then singled past Gandil at first base (his second hit of the game), advancing Henriksen to third. Hooper singled down the third-base line to score Henriksen, tying the score, and sending Ruth to second. Scott sacrificed Ruth to third; Speaker hit a long fly ball to Milan in center field that sent Ruth home with the run that decided the game. After Ruth retired the Senators in the ninth, Boston came away with a 4-3 victory.
The writers were impressed, “and the name of Babe Ruth, the great young Red Sox southpaw, was heard on the lip of every fan. He outpitched the Kansas sharpshooter, twirling one of the best games of his career and proving conclusively that in him Carrigan holds a gem.”7
Milan mustered two of Washington’s five hits in the game. The Rex Sox had eight safeties, two by Ruth. But this was not a batting contest. “It was a battle between the David and Goliath of American League hurlers with Ruth, the youngest and most erratic of Carrigan’s hurlers[,] opposed by Johnson who the Griffmen banked on for victory. But David had it over Goliath in this matchup as Ruth outpitched Johnson and helped to win the game by his destructive work with the stick.”8
Ruth, who got a win here in the first of the Ruth-Johnson duels, improved his 1915 record to 11-6 with a 3.03 ERA. Johnson, the losing pitcher, dropped to 18-11, 1.73 for the season.
Author’s note and acknowledgments
This is the first in a series of Games Projects accounts intended to present each of the eight starting mound matchups between Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson between 1915 and 1918. Johnson had been pitching for the Senators for eight seasons and was an established star before left-handed pitcher George Herman Ruth, later to be immortalized as “Babe,” debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1914 after they purchased his contract from the International League’s Baltimore Orioles. Ruth and Johnson started against each other on eight occasions, starting in 1915 and extending through each of Ruth’s years in Boston — except 1919 — before his sale to the New York Yankees on December 26, 1919. Although Johnson continued to pitch through 1927, the Yankees, recognizing Ruth’s prowess as a hitter, moved him to the outfield. He and Johnson never again met as starting pitcher opponents after October 3, 1917.
This series was conceived just as John Fredland was being installed as the new chair of the SABR Games Project committee. The author appreciates John’s enthusiastic support of the series and suggestions for elements to improve the original concept. Jack Zerby, who introduced the author to the SABR Games Project in 2017, assisted with first-review vetting. Thanks to both.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites, including the box scores for this game:
1 Allan Wood, “Babe Ruth,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org, accessed November 7, 2020.
2 Stanley Milliken, “Rally in Eighth Wins for Red Sox; Henriksen, Pinch Hitter, Starts It,” Washington Post, August 15, 1915: S-1.
3 Louis A. Dougher, “Griffs Have Yet to Win at Fenway Park,” Washington Times, August 15, 1915: 13. Chick Gandil, who rose to notoriety with the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox,” had a circuitous route around the American League between 1910 and his banishment from baseball. Signed by the White Sox in 1909, he played in 77 games for Chicago in 1910. He was back in the minors in 1911, then was traded in 1912 to Washington. He played four seasons there before the Senators sold his contract to the Cleveland Indians. He spent the 1916 season with Cleveland and was back with Chicago for 1917, 1918, and the 1919 season that culminated with the World Series fix in which he was among the ringleaders.
5 Milliken. Fenway Park opened in 1912 and was in its fourth season when this game was played.
8 Paul Shannon, “Rally in Eighth Inning Wins Game for Boston,” Washington Herald, August 15, 1915: 9.