Babe Ruth Was A Better Pitcher Than Walter Johnson– For Two Years, At Least

Here is the latest from Joe Guzzardi, a regular Wednesday and Saturday contributor here. Today, Joe looks at Babe Ruth as a pitcher.

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For two seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth was a better pitcher than the Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson, the Hall of Fame hurler with 417 wins and career 2.17 ERA that many historians consider the best ever.

Even though Johnson would eventually rank second on the all-time list in wins (417), ninth in strikeouts (3,508) and hold the MLB record for shutouts (110), most strikeout titles (12) and is tied for the most shutouts titles (7), Ruth pitching in his prime outdid “The Big Train” In eight head-to-head match ups, Ruth bested Johnson six times.

During 1916 and 1917, Ruth compiled won-lost records of 23-12 and 24-13 with ERAs of 1.75 and 2.01.

In 1916, Ruth led the league in ERA and shut outs (9) and in 1917, in complete games (35).

Johnson put up some eye-popping numbers, too. But his statistics weren’t as good as Ruth’s. Over the same two years, “The Big Train” was 25-20 and 23-16 with ERAs of 1.89 and 2.30.

Of course, in 1920 the Red Sox traded Ruth to the New York Yankees where he became the most feared slugger in baseball. And he often faced his old pitching rival, Johnson.

In the September 1920 issue of Baseball Magazine, Johnson wrote an article titled “What I Pitch to Babe Ruth—and Why”

Johnson’s analysis provided great insight into how one immortal confronted another.

Johnson wrote:

Babe Ruth is the hardest hitter in the game. There can be no possible doubt. He is a tremendously powerful man. He uses an enormous bat so heavy that most players would find it an impossible burden. To him however, it is just the thing.

He hits a ball farther and drives it longer than any man I ever saw. I certainly hope he never drives one straight at me for while I know my pitching days have to end sometime, I don’t want them to end quite so suddenly.

Johnson’s career was ending as Ruth began his slugging rampage. And Johnson was aware that he always had to be his very, very best when facing Ruth.

Concluded Johnson:

Ruth is still a young fellow with his best years ahead of him. There is no pitcher who can stop him or prevent him from making his long hits. As a veteran pitcher with most of his career behind him and a rather uncertain future ahead of him, I can only say that every time I am called on to face Ruth, I shall do my best to get an extra hop on my fastball. Whatever happens, I wish Babe Ruth the best of luck.

Oddly, Boston and Washington played a role in Ruth’s final pitching appearance.

Although the Yankees won 91 games in 1933, they would finish seventh behind the Senators. So the Yankees advertised a special for the season’s last day.

Ruth would start against his old team where he had done his best pitching, the Boston Red Sox.

Then 38, Ruth knew that he didn’t have his good fastball so he relied on off-speed pitches and let his infielders do the work.

Thanks in large part to Ruth’s fifth inning 34th homer (has a pitcher ever hit clean up before or since?) into the right field bleachers and a two run single by Lou Gehrig, the Yankees led 6-0 after five innings.

In the sixth, Ruth ran out of gas, surrendering four runs on a walk and five hits. The Red Sox scored another single tally in the top of the eighth.

Despite his uneven performance, Ruth (1-0) barely hung on to get the credit for the 6-5 complete game victory.

His line: 9 IP, 12 H, 5ER, 3 BB, 0 K

After the game, Ruth announced that he would never pitch again. His lifetime record was 94-46 with an ERA of 2.28.

How good was Johnson?

Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Joe Jackson considered him the best ever. Johnson’s career strikeout record lasted for half a century. No one has ever come close to his 110 shutouts. Johnson’s Senators’ teams were so bad that the only way he could win was to keep his opponents from scoring.

Off the field, Johnson was considered one of the finest men who ever played baseball. Long time Senators’ announcer Arch McDonald described Johnson as “a gentleman and a gentle man.”

Here’s Johnson pitching to Ruth during a 1942 exhibition game long after both had retired:

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Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

0 thoughts on “Babe Ruth Was A Better Pitcher Than Walter Johnson– For Two Years, At Least”

  1. Graham,
    There was another pitcher who bested Walter Johnson in two out of three exhibition pitching matchups. His name was Frank Wickware, and here’s a brief article that follows.

    Wickware was born a year after Walter Johnson and grew up in the same town. This led to Frank’s sometimes being called the black Walter Johnson.
    Wickware was a hard-throwing Negro League pitcher who broke in with the 1910 Leland Giants, a team reported to have had an incredible 123-6 record. In 1912, he went 10-4 to lead the Cuban Winter League in wins, pitching for a team that won only 14 games. The Kansas native was 2-1 for the Schenectady Mohawk Giants in 1913. That year, he battled fellow Kansan Walter Johnson in an exhibition, which Wickware won 1-0. Wickware reportedly split two other exhibition matches with Johnson in 1913-1914.

  2. In addition to Ruth and Frank Wickwire, there was another pitcher who was 2-0 lifetime against Johnson. Although this Hall of Fame player is quite famous, few people would think of him because, although like Ruth, he started his career as a pitcher, he was quickly switched to first base after his first two seasons due to his prowess as a hitter. Nonetheless, he beat Johnson 2-1 in 1915 and 1-0 in 1016. The player: George Sisler. Sisler pitched only a few games in the majors, and therefore does not not in any way equate to Johnson’s greatness as a pitcher. But he does share one thing in common with Walter Johnson: a reputation as an complete gentleman and class act.

  3. I’m writing a short book on the ranking of pitchers and wanted to include a piece on Ruth as a pitcher. Good thread.

  4. Babe had the greatest swing I have ever seen on film. To think that he was
    a masterful pitcher as well, is mind-boggling. In addition, he even stole home
    nine times. Every old-timer I have ever met, has told me the same thing:
    Babe Ruth was the most dominant player the game has ever known. In
    addition, he genuinely cared about the fans. All of this, without steroids,
    cocaine, etc. For a kid who was truly “dumped,” by his parents and reared
    in an orphanage, what he achieved in baseball is truly unparalleled. I wish,
    somehow, in the world of fantasy, that Babe and Yogi Berra could have played together. The two most lovable Yankees that ever played.

  5. I share John’s opinion that Ruth is the game’s greatest player. And from a baseball historian/journalists perspective, what better figure to write about.

  6. For about 40 years, Ruth also held the World Series record for pitching consecutive scoreless innings, broken by Whitey Ford in 1961.

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