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Happy Birthday, Babe Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat”

February 06, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Raised in a reformatory, George Herman “Babe” Ruth grew up to become baseball’s greatest star, setting hitting records while achieving worldwide popularity.

Babe Ruth’s Early Days

George Herman Ruth was born in Baltimore, Md., on Feb. 6, 1895. He spent his formative years at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where he rarely saw his parents and was essentially raised by the Catholic missionaries who ran the school.

“Little George was an unruly student, infamously classified as ‘incorrigible.’ Much of this was due the young man’s inability to adapt to the regimented and structured environment or St. Mary’s,” according to BabeRuth.com.

In 1914, at age 19, Ruth signed with the minor league Baltimore Orioles and became known as “Babe” when teammates referred to him as the manager’s “newest babe.” He spent half a season in Baltimore before being sold to the major league Boston Red Sox, making his debut that July as a pitcher.

Ruth’s Baseball Career

In 1915, his first full season in the majors, Ruth excelled at both pitching and hitting. The following year, he led the league with a 1.75 ERA and pitched 14 innings to win a World Series game against the Dodgers.

In 1918, the Red Sox began putting Ruth in the lineup when he wasn’t pitching, and he soon became one of the game’s best sluggers. Ruth led the team to another World Series title that year, extending his streak of consecutive scoreless innings to 29 2/3.

Though he was dominant on the field, the Red Sox were tiring of his boorish behavior off of it. Owner Harry Frazee, believing the team would come together without Ruth and—according to legend—needing money to finance his Broadway play, sold him to the New York Yankees in 1920 for an “astronomical” sum of $125,000, explains Allan Wood for SABR’s Baseball Biography Project.

“Babe Ruth arrived in New York City at the best possible time for his outsized hitting and hedonistic lifestyle,” writes Wood. “It was the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, a time of individualism, more progressive social and sexual attitudes, and a greater emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure.”

Ruth hit 54 home runs in his first season with the Yankees, out-homering all but one other team. Three years later, Ruth homered in the first game at Yankee Stadium, which became known as “The House That Ruth Built.”

In 1927, he became the first man to hit 60, homers, setting a record that would stand until 1961. In the 1932 World Series against the Cubs, Ruth is said to have pointed to the center field bleachers before a pitch and then hit “one of the longest home runs seen at Wrigley,” says Wood.

The Rest of the Story

Ruth was let go by the Yankees after the 1934 season, and played 28 games with the Boston Braves before retiring. He held many of baseball’s hitting records, including most home runs in a season (60) and in a career (714).

“Sometimes I still can't believe what I saw,” said Harry Hooper, a teammate with the Red Sox. “This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over—a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since. I saw a man transformed into something pretty close to a god.”

Ruth was diagnosed with a form of throat cancer in 1946. In April 1947, the Yankees decided to honor the ailing slugger with “Babe Ruth Day” at the Stadium. Ruth, accompanied by young America Legion players, declared, “You know this baseball game of ours comes up from the youth. That means the boys. And after you've been a boy, and grow up to know how to play ball, then you come to the boys you see representing themselves today in our national pastime.”

Ruth died the following year at age 53. In The New York Times’ obituary, Murray Schumach wrote, “Probably nowhere in all the imaginative field of fiction could one find a career more dramatic and bizarre than that portrayed in real life by George Herman Ruth. Known the world over, even in foreign lands where baseball is never played, as the Babe, he was … its greatest drawing-card, its highest salaried performer—at least of his day—and the idol of millions of youngsters throughout the land.”

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