Who Was the Greatest Baseball Player Ever?


Babe Ruth
Exhibit card of Babe Ruth, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

A few years ago, long after his retirement from the game, Pete Rose was asked that same question in an interview. He replied, confidently, “Without any doubt in my mind, Babe Ruth, of course, because he could pitch as well as hit.” I would tend to agree. Although many of Ruth’s records have been broken since his leaving baseball as a player in 1935--206 records, to be exact--he still manages to hold a few significant ones 86 years later.


In 1914, his first professional season at the age of 19, he divided his time between three teams: the independent Baltimore Orioles--who first signed him--of the AA International League, the Providence Grays of the same league, and the Grays’ parent major league club, the Boston Red Sox.


With Boston from 1915-1919, the lefthander was a 20-game winner twice, and an 18-game winner on another occasion. In addition, as one of the best pitchers in the majors, he led the American League in shutouts, complete games, and ERA once each, and won three games in three starts during his team’s World Series championships years of 1916 and 1918. He was also a pitcher who could hit…and hit well. As the decade closed, he had been used less on the mound and more in field. In 1918, he hit .300 and 11 homers playing 59 games in the outfield, another 13 at first base, and 20 games pitching where he posted an excellent 13-7 mark with an ERA at 2.22. In the fall World Series, he won two games, one by a shutout.


Ruth’s destiny in the game was set in stone by his fifth full season in the majors. He was too good of a hitter to remain a pitcher; although he may have won 300 games as a pitcher had he continued pitching only. Playing in 130 games in 1919, of which only 17 were on the mound, Ruth reached league-leading marks of 103 runs scored and 114 RBIs, and smashed a new-record 29 homers. To show his speed, he connected for 34 doubles, 12 triples and swiped seven bases. Ruth did all this during what was called the “Dead Ball” era of baseball: the ball was spongy then and dirtier from staying more in play, leaving it harder to see for hitters.


In 1919, the Red Sox were no longer a strong force, finishing sixth in the league at 66-71. But their best commodity was Ruth, who was also establishing quite a terrible reputation for himself off the field: carousing, skirt-chasing, drinking and over-eating. In the off-season, Boston’s cash-strapped owner, Harry Frazee, was anxious to peddle Ruth off, and did so by selling him to the New York Yankees on January 5, 1920: $25,000 up front, three promissory notes for $25,000 each and a loan of $300,000 using a second mortgage on Boston’s Fenway Park as collateral.


 Providence Grays team photo
1914 Providence Grays team photo. Babe Ruth in the middle of the back row (US Public Domain)

Now used strictly as an outfielder in 1920, Ruth broke his own home run record by smacking a whopping 54 with his new team, thanks to a newly manufactured lighter and lively ball in the majors. Now any ball that became dirty was replaced in an instant by a sparkling new, white one. For the next few years, Ruth was hitting more homers than most teams. Offense was fast becoming the norm where one good smash led to runs scored in an instant.


The home run was the new king.


The Dead Ball era was a thing of the past. Baseball was now big business and the parks were filling seats, with thousands more than usual coming out to see just Babe Ruth. It was only the beginning for Ruth’s fabulous years as a hitter. In his 22 seasons in the majors from 1914-1935, he led the American league in home runs 12 times, his most being 60 in 1927, the season record until Maris hit 61 in ‘61.


Twelve times Ruth led in home run percentage (homers divided by at-bats times 100). His 11.8 HR% in 1920 was the seasonal record until Mark McGuire broke it in 1996. Eight times Ruth led the league in runs scored, six times in runs batted in, once in batting average and 12 times in slugging average with his best mark of .847, set in 1920, lasting as the MLB record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2001. Ruth simply dominated the game during his career.


MLB records Ruth still holds, to name a few, are his .690 lifetime slugging average, most extra-base hits in one game at six, and seasonal marks--which he accomplished in 1921--of 177 runs scored, 119 extra-base hits and 457 total bases. Not only that, but his 1921 season might have been the best all-around season ever achieved by any major league hitter: 44 doubles, nine triples, 59 homers, 170 RBIs, 144 walks, 17 stolen bases, .378 batting average, and .846 slugging average.


So, how good was Ruth really? Would he cut it today?


Would his lifetime numbers of .342 batting average, 714 homers, 2217 RBIs, and 2174 runs be attainable if he played in this era? There’s a lot to consider. For instance, had Ruth played only as an outfielder, he could have easily hit 800 homers. Also, he had a keen batting eye. He didn’t strike out as often as one would think. He never reached 100 or more strikeouts in a season, the most being 93 in 1923. Sluggers today strike out a lot more, and more than they walk, usually. A good way to judge a player’s batting eye is his walk/strikeout ratio. Ruth’s was 2056/1330. It’s safe to say, he’d take a walk if he didn’t get a good ball to hit.


There were no steroids or proper nutrition or weight lifting in Ruth’s day. They played in uncomfortable, wool uniforms. Hotels weren’t air-conditioned, and the bumpy, overnight train trips led to lack of sleep. Batters didn’t wear helmets for protection. Pitchers were mean, many of them headhunters. They would scuff balls for a better grip. A lot of them threw hard-to-hit spitballs. Ball parks had spacious power alleys where well-hit balls died.


How well did Ruth perform in the clutch, meaning hitting in World Series games? In 41 games in 10 different World Series he hit .326…five doubles, two triples, a record 15 homers (until Mickey Mantle broke it in 1964), 11.6 homer percentage (still a World Series record), 37 runs, 33 RBIs, 33 walks, and a .744 slugging average (also, still a record). Not bad against the best pitching staffs of the National League teams.


Hanlan's Point
Hanlan's Point in 1919 (Canadian Public Domain)

Even after Ruth became a Yankee, he would pitch an occasional game. And he still had it. He started four games and relieved in another, winning all five games. The final two starts, in 1930 and 1931, he went the distance. His lifetime pitching stats were 94-46 with a 2.28 ERA, 107 complete games in 147 starts, and 17 shutouts.


On the other side, how would Ruth fare against the hard-throwing strikeout pitchers today where there’s always a fresh arm available out of the bullpen a few times each game? Many throw in the mid-to-high-90’s, including wicked sliders and breaking balls. The population was less in Ruth’s day, and there were only white players in the majors, meaning less talent to pick from. Ruth played in a different age. But could he adjust to today’s game?


As a side note, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run here in Canada. The date was September 5, 1914. In his first season of pro ball, Ruth pitched for the AA Providence Grays in the first game of a doubleheader against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Hanlan’s Point Stadium, situated on the main island opposite the Toronto Harbour. Nicknamed the Coney Island of Canada, Hanlan’s Point--accessed only by ferry boat--had an amusement park, hotels, resorts, and a ball diamond that seated 18,000.


Ruth started the first game of a doubleheader. With two out, and two on in the sixth inning, he came to bat and smashed a ball into the harbour over the right-field fence. Ruth then went the distance and pitched a 9-0 shutout, on three walks and seven strikeouts. Ruth didn’t stay long in the minors. Before the month of September ended, Ruth was called up to the Boston Red Sox for the final week of the season. He never went back to the minors again.


A plaque was placed at Hanlan’s Point in 1985 to commemorate the great event--Babe Ruth’s first professional home run which, in reality, was only the beginning of his star-studded career.