Goldman: The year Babe Ruth lost it — and grew up

From SABR member Steven Goldman at VICE Sports on June 23, 2016:

The greatest service heroes can provide, after becoming heroes in the first place, is failing. A perfect standard is inimitable. We need heroes to astound us so we know that great things are attainable, but we also need them to disappoint us so we understand that no one is perfect, and that our demigods can be as thwarted as anyone else. In 1922, Babe Ruth was thwarted for an entire year. His solution was to lash out. It didn’t work. He was less than admirable that season, and while he still comes down to us as an all-American hero, he paid a high price for that year in his lifetime.

The events that brought Ruth to 1922 should be taught in every school: He was born in Baltimore in 1895 to parents who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, control his petty thievery and repeat truancy; they were cold enough to have their son legally declared “incorrigible or vicious” at the age of seven, and gave him up to St. Mary’s Industrial School, where he largely remained until he was 19. The Xaverian Brothers who ran the school taught him sewing and baseball, and he turned out to be very good at the more lucrative of the two trades. Signed as a pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, Ruth was quickly purchased by the Boston Red Sox. Though great on the mound, he hit his way into the outfield and immediately became the game’s preeminent slugger, topping himself every year: a league-leading 11 home runs in 1918; then 29 in 1919.

That winter, he was sold to the New York Yankees by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, and with the arrival of the lively ball Ruth set hitting records of which no one had ever dreamed. His .376/.532/.847 with 54 home runs in 1920 is still on the short list of greatest offensive performances in history; those 54 homers were more than any other team in the league hit. Ruth was almost as good the next year, when he hit 59 home runs. The Yankees won their first pennant that season, although they were beaten in the World Series by their Polo Grounds landlords, the New York Giants. It wasn’t necessarily reasonable, but still greater feats were projected for 1922.

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Originally published: June 23, 2016. Last Updated: June 23, 2016.