For all of his tremendous success in the batter’s box, Babe Ruth felt just as at home on the pitcher’s mound.
“As soon as I got out there I felt a strange relationship with the pitcher’s mound,” Ruth said. “It was as if I’d been born out there. Pitching just felt like the most natural thing in the world.”1
Ruth’s record on the mound is indeed impressive. In 163 mound appearances from 1914 to 1933 he went 94-46 for a .671 win percentage. A southpaw, Ruth won 23 games in 1916 when he led the American League with a 1.75 earned-run average and won a career-high 24 the following season while also leading the league in complete games with 35. He fashioned a career 2.28 ERA over 163 mound appearances and threw 107 complete games.
Ruth was also undefeated in three World Series appearances for the Boston Red Sox in 1916 and 1918, and strung together a consecutive scoreless-innings streak that stretched to 29⅔ innings. Ruth’s mark stood until another Yankees legend, Whitey Ford, set a new standard in 1961. If The Sultan of Swat hadn’t made baseball’s Hall of Fame for his hitting, he almost certainly would have claimed a place in Cooperstown for his pitching.
By 1933, his next to last season in Yankees pinstripes, The Babe was winding down his unparalleled career. He was 38 years old, hadn’t made a mound appearance since the season finale three years earlier and hadn’t pitched regularly since 1919, his final season with the Red Sox.
Ruth hurled a complete-game victory over a depleted Red Sox squad on September 28, 1930, ending a nine-year hiatus from the mound. The Yankees were a distant third to Connie Mack’s powerful Philadelphia Athletics, who were in the process of claiming the second of three straight American League pennants. The Yankees-Red Sox series at season’s end was so insignificant that New York’s rookie manager, Bob Shawkey, excused his three top pitchers, Red Ruffing, Herb Pennock, and George Pipgras, and starting catcher Bill Dickey from making the trip.
Ruth had hurled exhibition games through the years but those occasional offseason outings hardly prepared him to pitch again in the majors. Ruth, being the incredible player that he was, climbed the hill at Braves Field. No longer the lean lefty who starred for the Red Sox in the Teens, the portly Ruth still succeeded in turning back the clock to his years as a dominant hurler.
In his only appearance as a Yankees pitcher outside of New York, The Babe blanked Boston for the first five innings in an eventual 9-3 win. He yielded 11 hits, struck out three — Ruth was never a strikeout pitcher, even in his prime — and started two double plays by twice snaring what the New York Times described as a “smash hot off the bat.”2
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that Ruth displayed “both speed and puzzling curves.”3
The Associated Press noted that six of the Red Sox’ hits came in the final two innings when Ruth was reportedly just lobbing the ball and coasting behind a comfortable lead.
Interestingly, the game was played at Braves Field rather the Red Sox’ home of Fenway Park, due to Sunday laws that prohibited the use of Fenway Park because of its close proximity to a church.4
The crowd, numbered at just 12,000, was reported by the New York Times to be “visibly and audibly impressed” by the Babe’s mound performance.5
As strange it may have seen for fans to see Ruth toeing the rubber, it must have been equally odd to see Lou Gehrig occupying Ruth’s position in left field. The celebrated Iron Man, in the midst of a streak that reached 2,130 games before his fatal illness forced him to rest, had long anchored the Yankees infield at first base and had not played the outfield since 1925.
Ruth returned to the mound one final time, in the final game of the 1933 season. The Red Sox were once again Ruth’s opponent, but the venue this time was Yankee Stadium. In his 20th major-league season, The Babe had grown increasingly overweight and out of shape. Once again the Yankees were out of contention, finishing second to Washington, so Ruth volunteered to pitch the final game. To get ready for his first mound appearance in three years, The Babe tossed batting practice for several weeks.
In order to attract fans to the Stadium, the Yankees advertised that a fungo-hitting contest would be held to highlight pregame festivities. To the delight of many in the announced crowd of 25,000, many of whom felt Ruth might be making his final appearance in pinstripes, The Bambino as he was also known, won the event with a 395-foot blast. James P. Dawson’s story on the game in the Times said Yankees trainer Doc Painter soothed the Babe’s aching left arm between innings with “diligent rubbing.”6
Ruth struggled but persevered. Just as he had done in Fenway Park in 1930, The Babe shut out the Red Sox for the first five innings. He surrendered four runs in the sixth but survived and went the distance in a 6-5 victory. His pitching line for the game read 12 hits, 5 earned runs, 3 walks, and zero strikeouts. Batting from his accustomed third spot in the order, The Bambino helped his cause by hammering a home run in the fifth inning, his 34th homer of the season. He also walked and scored.
Ruth was a fast worker on the mound; his complete game clocked in at just 1:38.
Yet he acknowledged in the aftermath that he was exhausted.
“I lost eight pounds in that game,” he said. “No regular pitching job for me. The outfield has it licked. About one game a month is all I want to pitch. I’ve got a sore arm and a headache.”7
With Dickey having been given the day off, Ruth’s catcher for the game was a husky youngster named Joe Glenn. Dickey’s understudy noted that despite not having pitched in three years, The Babe maintained his Ruthian image, warming up on the sidelines and striding to the mound as if he had been pitching all season.
“He knew how to operate,” Glenn told writer Joe Lawler.8
Glenn remembered Ruth having good command that day.
“He pitched better than a lot of guys who were pitching in the major leagues,” Glenn said.9
Glenn recalled Ruth having an average fastball, and also throwing a curve and change of pace. The Babe had good control of his pitches, Glenn added, and had pitching savvy.
Ruth received rubdowns and ice water between innings, allowing him to close out a game few expected him to finish. Glenn said no one figured on Ruth pitching nine innings. The thinking was to let Babe start the game to draw people to the ballpark. While Ruth said the effort exhausted him, Glenn thought The Babe finished the game without any problem.
“He looked good,” Glenn told Lawler. “Like a regular pitcher, not like a guy who was wild, throwing the ball in the dirt.”10
What pulled Ruth through was his previous experience as a pitcher, said Glenn. Ruth knew most of the Boston batters and was aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Ruth was a heads-up ballplayer, Glenn said, and on top of that The Babe was an ironman who could do things the average player would fall down trying to do. Ruth’s teammate Joe Dugan said once that to understand The Babe you had to understand this: Ruth wasn’t human.11
Ruth never again climbed a major-league mound, closing his pitching career in pinstripes with five wins in five appearances and two complete-game victories. He finished with a flourish, a fitting finale for one of the greats of the game.
1 baberuth.com, Babe Ruth Quotes.
2 Ken Schlager, “Babe Ruth Called His Shot, from the Mound,” New York Times, August 16, 2008.
3 “ ‘Pitcher Babe’ Would Rather Stay in Field,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 2, 1933.
4 Frank Jackson, “Babe Ruth, the New York Pitcher,” Hardball Times, September 10, 2012.
7 “ ‘Pitcher Babe’ Would Rather Stay in Field.”
11 baberuth.com, Babe Ruth Quotes.