It’s a tough trick to be both the center of a curse and an iconic hero, but that’s exactly the place in history occupied by George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Today marks the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s major league debut. On July 11, 1914, Ruth first ascended the mound as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. The rest, as they say, is history.
Professionally, Ruth’s accomplishments are legendary. To begin, there are the statistical records including highest number of career home runs (714), career slugging percentage (.690), runs batted in (2,213), bases on balls, and on-base plus slugging (1.164), some of which have never been broken. He was one of the first five inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
He was twice an All-Star, seven times a World Series Champion and the 1923 American League Most Valuable Player. He was voted “Athlete of the Century” by the Associated Press; and second on ESPN’s list of greatest 20th century athletes. Similarly, he was named the greatest baseball player of all time by The Sporting News; and the greatest baseball player of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated.
For all his grand accomplishments on the field, Ruth’s exploits off it are also quite notable. Ruth’s prodigal appetites in the realms of eating, alcohol consumption and womanizing have their own stunning resonance. While he attempted to stay in shape for the two preceding seasons, Ruth weighed almost 260 pounds in 1925. He had spent time earlier that year in Hot Springs. There to take the baths, sauna and workout, Ruth took in many of that city’s other popular corporeal pleasures.
These excesses led to a protracted illness — which some suspect was actually venereal disease and/or alcoholism. After sportswriter W.O. McGeehan wrote that Ruth’s illness was due to binging on hot dogs and soda pop before a game, it became known as “the bellyache heard ‘round the world.”
He experienced relapses at spring training. These included a collapse at Asheville, N.C. While in New York, Ruth collapsed again and was found unconscious in his hotel bathroom. He was taken to a hospital where he suffered multiple convulsions.
At one point, a rumor even circulated that Ruth had died. A British newspaper errantly printed an obituary.
With all the personal travails following Ruth, perhaps the most memorable controversy was his 1919 trade from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. The deal proved pivotal in the history of the two teams, and in baseball more generally. Baseball historian Marty Apple summed it succinctly by stating that the trade, “changed the fortunes of two high-profile franchises for decades.”
As history records, the Red Sox, who had won five of the first 16 World Series (1903 and 1919) would not win another pennant until 1946, or another World Series until 2004, a drought attributed in baseball superstition to Ruth’s trade — popularly termed the “Curse of the Bambino.”
In contrast, the Yankees had not won the American League championship prior to acquiring Ruth. They won seven AL pennants and four World Series with Ruth; and led baseball with 40 pennants and 27 World Series.
As we remember Ruth’s inaugural outing a century ago, we do so with the knowledge that he, like all of us, was a complex figure. He was exceptionally gifted in the game of baseball, but flawed and susceptible to self-destruction.
Perhaps our pendulum doesn’t swing as broadly toward either apogee, but there is still in Ruth’s tale a lesson about moderation.
As enviable and almost unassailable as Ruth’s baseball achievements were, one wonders what they might have been were he physically fit, chaste and more metered in his off-field life.