Here is the latest from Joe Guzzardi, a regular Wednesday and Saturday contributor here. Today, Joe looks at Babe Ruth as a pitcher.
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.
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.
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.