August 11th, 1929, Major League Baseball welcomed the founding member of its 500 Home Run Club. George Herman Ruth swung at the first pitch he saw from Willis Hudson and blasted number 500 over the right field wall of Cleveland’s League Park. As he stepped into the park that day, legend has it he found H. Clay Folger, Chief of Police and said, "Listen, I'm going to hit No. 500 today and I'll tell you what I wish you'd do. I wish you'd find the kid who gets the ball and bring him to me. I'd kinda like to save that one." Ruth delivered on his promise and the young kid who found the ball on Lexington Avenue reluctantly gave it to Mr. Folger in exchange for $20 and a new signed baseball.
The 6’2” southpaw slugger was born in Baltimore, Maryland to a seemingly ill-fated family. Both of his parents would die in his adolescent years and six of his eight siblings never made it past childhood. George was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys at the age of 7 and wouldn’t leave the area until almost 12 years later. Here Ruth began his illustrious career on the diamond as he excelled at an early age. At eight, he was not only playing on the 12-year old teams, but he was doing so with a right handed mitt because the school didn’t own a lefty glove. In grade school, he dominated all nine positions on the diamond and consistently batted over .500. Word spread quickly of the St. Mary’s Phenom and in 1914 the Baltimore Orioles sent a scout to see him play. Despite a stellar offensive performance hitting 3 home runs, the 19 year old was recruited to pitch for his hometown team. George quickly earned the name “Babe” as his teammates lampooned his youthfulness and innocence. Prior to being drafted, Ruth had never left the Baltimore area sheltering him from the outside world.
Almost at once, Babe embraced the sin-filled cravings associated with young adults as he developed an insatiable thirst for women, gambling, cigars, and food. On one of George’s very first road trip’s with the team, he was discovered in the hotel room with a local prostitute. “He was smoking a cigar and eating peanuts and this woman was working on him,” teammate Larry Gardner recalled. Despite Ruth’s infamous off the field antics, he proved to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game. After only four months in the Orioles minor league system, Babe was traded to the Boston Red Sox where he made an immediate impact. In his first day in a Red Sox uniform, Ruth pitched a 4-3 win allowing eight scattered hits. In his first full season in the Big Leagues, George produced an 18-8 record with a 2.44 ERA. Over the next 5 years, he would go 89-46 and is still one of nine pitchers to pitch at least 10 seasons and never have a losing record.
While Ruth continued to control the game on the mound, his coaches were put in a unique, albeit fortunate, situation. Never before in the history of baseball had any player, much less a pitcher, been so dominate on offense and defense. In 1918, the Red Sox began to take advantage of Ruth’s bat by playing him in the field on days he wasn’t pitching. George hit 11 home runs his first year back at the plate, which was more than 4 other major league teams’ total team home runs. One year later, despite throwing 12 complete games, Ruth almost doubled the American League home run record by poking 29 home runs over the outfield wall. Upon setting the MLB record for most home runs in a season, the Red Sox traded Babe to the New York Yankees in what will forever be known as “The Curse of The Great Bambino." His impact would be felt immediately as he smashed 54 and 59 homers the following two years after being traded. George finished the 1921 season with 59 home runs, 171 RBIs, 177 Runs, .376 BA, and a .846 Slugging % which is arguably the greatest offensive season of any player to ever play the game to this day. His performance drew crowds so big that the Yankees were forced to build a new stadium in 1923 which was appropriately nicknamed “The House that Ruth Built.”
George went on to hit 40+ home runs in seven of the next eight years and set a 34 year record in 1927 with 60 long balls. (He missed half of the 1925 season because of sickness and Ruth’s partying and eating habits finally caught up to him when he keeled over on the diamond in Spring Training. This event was dubbed, "The Bellyache Heard 'Round the World").
Aforementioned, 87 years ago today, Babe slugged number 500 in Cleveland, Ohio. By the end of his career, Ruth was the first player to hit 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, and 700 home runs. He earned seven World Series Championships, six time league leader in RBI’s, twelve time AL home run champion, and countless other records. George’s career ended in 1935 and he was promptly inducted into the Hall of Fame the year after with over 95% of the votes. Is Babe Ruth the greatest player of all time? Possibly. Was he the greatest, most influential baseball player of the 20th century? Absolutely.
For more information on Babe Ruth’s life and career, check out baberuth.com, baseball-almanac.com and One Summer by Bill Bryson. In the latter, Bryson takes the reader on a fascinating journey through America in the years surrounding 1927 honing in on Individuals like Babe Ruth, Charles Lindberg, and Henry Ford who revolutionized their respective industries.