By Glen Sparks
About 50 ballplayers, along with a handful of coaches, writers and 5,000 or so fans, were there at the start. They gathered at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on May 6, 1915, the day that a husky, hard-throwing pitcher named George “Babe” Ruth hit his first home run in the major leagues.
Surely no one then could have imagined then that this 20-year-old, former “incorrigible” kid from the tough waterfront streets of Baltimore, would wallop 713 more homers before retiring 20 years later as baseball’s fabled Sultan of Swat, the greatest home-run hitter of them all.
He didn’t even play every day. The minor-league Baltimore Orioles had signed Ruth as a pitcher in 1913. Young Ruth learned the game while living at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. George Sr. had told the local courts that his son was “incorrigible.” The boy was drinking too much beer at the family’s tavern, chewing too much tobacco and stealing money from the till.
Brother Matthias served as athletic director and head disciplinarian at St. Mary’s. He stood 6-feet-7-inches and was powerfully built, sort of the Frank Howard of his day. He hit flyballs that amazed Ruth and the other boys. Ruth duplicated Brother Matthias’ uppercut swing.
But, as mentioned, the Orioles liked Ruth as a pitcher. The left-hander even wowed some major-league squads during several exhibition games in South Carolina. Jack Dunn, the Orioles’ owner and manager, was short of cash. He sold Ruth to the Red Sox.
The skinny-legged, barrel-chested Ruth—one writer decided that the young player was “built like a bale of cotton”—made his major-league debut in late 1914. He went 2-for-10 with a single and a double at the plate. On the mound, he pitched 23 innings, compiled a 2-1 won-loss record and posted a 3.91 ERA. He walked seven and struck out three.
Ruth entered the action May 6 with a 1-0 record and a 5.02 ERA in two starts and three appearances. The Red Sox were playing the New York Yankees, Ruth’s future team and the franchise that he would establish as the game’s greatest. The New York Times already liked him. One reporter there had decided that “the big left-handed pitcher, Babe Ruth, was all that a pitcher is supposed to be, and some more.” At the plate, Ruth was 2-for-7, batting .286.
The Red Sox came into the game with a 7-6 record, good for fourth place in the American League, four games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers (15-6). The Yankees (10-5) were in second place, two games behind Detroit. The Red Sox had finished 91-62 in 1914, in second place. The Philadelphia A’s won the American League pennant with a record of 99-53. The Yanks muddled though a 70-84 season, good for seventh place.
New York still had not won a pennant. Boston was trying to win its fourth, and its first since 1912. Ruth batted ninth in the order, the customary spot for pitchers. On the mound this historic day, he was matched against right-hander Jack Warhop. An eight-year veteran, Warhop came into the game with an 0-2 mark and a 6.19 ERA.
After two scoreless innings, Ruth led off the third inning for Boston. The pitcher slammed a Warhop pitch far into the right-field stands. The hit surely drew some “oohs” and “ah’s” from anyone who saw it. Players did not hit many home runs in the Deadball Era, and they didn’t crush them like Ruth just did. (Frank “Home Run” Baker of the A’s led the A.L. in home runs in 1914 with nine. A.L. teams hit just 160 total homers, or an average of just 20 per team.)
This was a tape-measure job slammed before that term was ever coined. Fans, players, coaches, and reporters just did not see this type of round-tripper. According to one reporter, Ruth lifted Warhop’s offering “with no apparent effort.” Ruth, for the record, said he connected on a “rise ball.”
The Red Sox and Ruth ended up losing 4-3 in 13 innings. The Babe went the whole way for Boston and pitched a solid game before tiring at the end. Luther “Doc” Cook knocked in the winning run. The magnificently named Edwin “Cy” Pieh of Waunakee, Wisconsin, got credit for the win.
Ruth hit three more home runs in 1915 in 92 at-bats and led the team. Dick Hobitzell (399 at-bats), Harry Hooper (566 at-bats) and Duffy Lewis (557 at-bats) tied for second with two apiece. Boston ended up winning the pennant with a 101-50 record. The Yankees finished 69-83, 32 ½ games out of first. The Red Sox beat the N.L. champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games to win the World Series.
Ruth’s power display did not knock him off the pitching mound for another couple of seasons. He did not begin playing every day until 1918. He topped with 11 homers in just 317 at-bats that year and led the circuit again in 1919 with 29. Boston sold Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 campaign. Ten more home-run titles followed, including four seasons of more than 50.
Dizzy Dean, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hall of Fame raconteur, said this about Ruth: “No one hit home runs the way Babe (Ruth) did. They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings, then take off for the stands.”
The Babe Ruth story did not begin on May 6, 1915, of course. There were far too many interesting twists and turns in his oversized life before that one day at the Polo Grounds. What the game’s future Big Bam did in the top of the third inning, though, was to offer the audience an introduction to the long-ball heroics to come.