On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip burst from nowhere onto the international scene. His potshot at Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the streets of Sarajevo helped launch the Great War and everything else — industrial-scale slaughter, Soviet Communism, Hitler’s Third Reich — that would spring from it.
Two weeks later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, another rookie made his debut, and he too would have a deep and lasting impact on the 20th century.
It won’t garner the attention that the centennial anniversary of Princip’s performance received. Nevertheless, it is incontrovertible that the appearance of reform-school product George Herman Ruth on a major league baseball field one hundred years ago today marked the beginning of a career that would help define our nation and shape our culture.
Babe Ruth, as everyone knows, turned out to be larger than life, a genuine sports hero, a man with outsized appetites to go with an outsized personality. His exploits both on and off the field inspired such awe that linguists added the term “Ruthian” to our lexicon.
Even a hundred years after his entry onto the stage of American celebrity, he remains an icon. He was the rags-to-riches personification of America not just during the Jazz Age and Roaring 20s, but at a time when the United States was settling onto its perch as the preeminent superpower on the planet.
Ruth described himself by saying, “I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” The 20th Century would be known as the American Century, and Ruth was the most famous American of all.
No one could have guessed what lay ahead when Ruth climbed the mound at Boston’s Fenway Park on July 11, 1914. Check out the Boston Globe story about the game, which can be found in the paper’s online archives. The 19-year-old Ruth was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox, earning the win in a 4-3 contest against the Cleveland Naps (they would change their name to the Indians the following season). He went 0-for-2 at the plate, striking out in his first at-bat.
The Globe piece hints at the promise that had already attached to Ruth — his purchase from the minor league Baltimore Orioles the week before drew wide attention — but who could have known that Ruth would not just excel at the sport, he would revolutionize it in the process of proving himself its greatest practitioner?
It’s hard to debate that last point. On account of hitting a record 714 homeruns and compiling a .342 lifetime batting average, he was among the first five inductees into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1936.
If Ruth had never swung a bat, he surely would have made the Hall by virtue of his excellence as a pitcher, the position he played for his first five years in the majors. His lifetime won-loss record of 94-46 gives Ruth the eighth best winning percentage of all time.
His career earned run average of 2.28 is 17th best all-time. His 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings pitched in World Series play was a record that stood until 1961. He beat Walter Johnson six times in 1-0 games. In 1917 he pitched an astounding 35 complete games (only Bob Feller has pitched more in a season since). One could go on and on.
Ruth’s superlative performances both at the plate and on the mound are an anomaly in the history of the game. For well over a century there has been a divide separating the hitters from the pitchers. They are, simply, different animals. Yet Ruth straddled both camps, and was nearly incomparable in each.
Of course, we know Ruth primarily for his hitting. His bat transformed the institution of baseball, helping usher in the live-ball and long-ball era that defines the game today.
When Ruth broke the career homerun record in 1921, it had sat at 138 for 26 years. As Sports Illustrated notes, “Ruth hit 575 home runs after breaking [Roger] Connor’s record. Only nine players have hit that many in their entire careers since, and four of those nine have been implicated as steroid users.”
Moreover, the Babe can be said to have saved America’s pastime in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, adding bombast and excitement to a sport reeling from the sordid attempt by crooked gamblers to fix the World Series.
In the process he turned the New York Yankees — the team to which the Red Sox sold him in 1920 — into a dynasty. The team had not won a single American League championship in the two decades prior to his arrival. They made seven trips to the World Series in the 15 seasons after he was acquired, winning four. More than that, since Ruth donned pinstripes, the Yankees have won 40 A.L. pennants and 27 World Series titles.
There is nothing to say about Ruth that hasn’t been said countless times before — from his called shot in the 1932 World Series to his Yankee Stadium farewell weeks before his 1948 death — and I make no attempts at original commentary. Yet the fact we still discuss and know Babe Ruth is testament to his enduring mark on American culture.
Consider the following list: Paul and Lloyd Waner, Bill Terry, Walter Johnson, Bob Meusel, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott, Sam Rice, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, Joe Cronin.
These greats all played contemporaneously with Babe Ruth. But today, most are nearly forgotten, except to a few baseball die-hards. If their names ring familiar to people, it is only in the vaguest of senses.
But a century after Ruth’s career began, he remains quite well known even to those who care little for sports.
The Babe’s biographer Robert Creamer noted that Ruth was “a unique figure in the social history of the United States. … For more than any other man, Babe Ruth transcended sports, moved far beyond the artificial limits of baselines and outfield fences and sports pages.”
No one was more quintessentially American than Babe Ruth. Forever young, he was a giant kid who never really outgrew childhood. Brash and wild, like the young Republic itself, he took an established American institution and set new standards for excellence. He lived as big as he could.
Historians often say the 20th century began with the bloodshed in Sarajevo in 1914. They may be right. But a fair case can be made that, in America at least, the modern age began when Babe Ruth took the mound at Fenway Park a century ago.