A century ago in spring training, a rawboned Orioles rookie stepped to the plate, swung from the heels and hit a fastball deep to right field. The ball landed in a rut in a cornfield, more than 400 feet from home plate.
In Fayetteville, N.C., a historic marker notes the spot where George Herman Ruth, 19, hit his first professional home run in his first outing as an Oriole in 1914. He wasn't yet The Babe — teammates would pin that nickname on him within the month — but he surely was Baltimore's own.
That Ruth began his career with his hometown team surprises many, sports historian Mark Millikin said.
"People talk about Ruth with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, but they aren't aware that he started as a minor league Oriole," said Millikin, who wrote a booklet on Ruth's brief stay with the International League team. "It's a shorter story for sure, but it's so important in baseball history. If [Orioles owner] Jack Dunn hadn't discovered him, I wonder if we'd ever have had a Babe Ruth."
It was Dunn who, in February 1914, signed Ruth out of St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in West Baltimore, where his parents had sent their wayward son 12 years earlier. Ruth's father ran a saloon; his sickly mother died in 1910. The Xaverian Brothers at St. Mary's cared for Ruth and kindled his athletic skills in the school's baseball league until Dunn, acting on tips from acquaintances, offered him an Orioles contract for $100 a month.
He played for Baltimore until July 9, when the club, strapped for cash, dealt Ruth and two others to Boston for $16,000. (The bill of sale is on display at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum.) Six years later, the Red Sox sent Ruth to New York for $100,000 in one of the most controversial trades ever. With the Yankees, he quickly became the greatest slugger in baseball history.
His stay was 'short, sweet'
Early on, however, he was an afterthought. Newspaper reports in 1914 describe Ruth as a right-hander (he was not) and call him "Frank." But not for long. Ruth quickly became the star pitcher, winning 14 of 20 decisions for the first-place Orioles.
"What he did is almost mind-numbing," said Bill Jenkinson, author of "Babe Ruth: Against All Odds, World's Mightiest Slugger." "Here's a kid from a reform school, with no professional training, who steps right into Class AA, the highest minor league at the time. Dunn just plugged him in.
"Ruth's stay in Baltimore was short, sweet and reliably indicative of his future greatness."
The media took note.
"The first day he reported at training camp in Fayetteville, he displayed more than the ordinary busher," The Sun wrote. "Ruth ... knows how to go on the mound, or is able to cover any infield or outfield position. He has even gone as far as taking a turn behind the bat."
After three intrasquad games — including that in which he hit the home run — Dunn had seen enough. He would keep Ruth on the Orioles roster all season, he declared, and develop the youngster.
"Ruth looks like one of the best pitchers I have ever laid my eyes on," Dunn told The Sun on March 12. "He possesses every quality of what I term a major leaguer. ... Within a year's time I may be able to spring a big surprise on the baseball world."
Ruth nearly wrecked Dunn's plans. One week later, after practice, he borrowed the bicycle of a local boy and began racing up and down Fayetteville's main street like a wild-eyed 10-year-old.
"Ruth rode as far as the [train] depot and had his feet working at full speed," The Sun reported. "On his return he shot past the hotel ... and looked around to greet several of his teammates. A large truck was directly in front of him, but he did not see it. Someone yelled and Ruth turned in time to steer the handlebars to the side. His feet slipped from the pedals and George went from one side of the street to the other. He stopped suddenly on account of colliding with a curbstone, but was not injured."
The episode proved prescient of the Babe-to-come.
"He never lost that childlike quality," said Shawn Herne, chief curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. "He'd gone from a very structured environment to one of complete freedom, and he loved every minute of it."
'Who is that big fellow?'
That exuberance spilled over into baseball. Ruth the rookie, The Sun said, "is one of the first players on the field and one of the last to leave. When tired of chasing about the field, he dons [catcher] Ben Egan's glove and warms up the pitchers. Ruth has played every position on the field and covers plenty of ground wherever he is placed."
Ruth's play in two preseason games, both against big league teams, tested his mettle, Jenkinson said. On March 25, Ruth struggled on the mound, allowing 13 hits and walking four, but he hung on to defeat the world champion Philadelphia Athletics, 6-2, in Wilmington, N.C.
"Normally, when you put 17 men on base you succumb. But Babe did not," Jenkinson said. "That's the toughness he always had."
Perhaps Ruth benefited from his naivete as well, The Sun reported:
"After getting such stars as [Hall of Famer] Eddie Collins to bite on his puzzling benders, he walked to the bench and said, 'Who is that big fellow playing third base for the other team?' "
On April 5, while batting in a game against the Brooklyn Robins at Back River Park in Baltimore County, Ruth hit a towering fly that right fielder Casey Stengel caught after a long run.
"When Casey returned to the dugout, he was berated by manager Wilbert Robinson for almost letting a rookie pitcher hit one over his head," Jenkinson said. "On Ruth's next at-bat, to prove a point, Stengel retreated so far in the outfield that the manager could barely see him. This time, Ruth hit it over his head for a triple."
The Orioles won the game, 6-2, on an eight-hitter by Ruth, who "looks like a comer," Robinson conceded. "I do not think International League clubs will break any fences when he goes on the mound."
On April 22, Ruth made his official debut and shut out the Buffalo Bisons, 6-0. He also singled twice in a game witnessed by 200 fans at Oriole Park, which stood at Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street. At the same time, more than 4,000 people were across the street, rooting on the Terrapins, Baltimore's entry in the upstart but short-lived Federal League, which caught the public's fancy after raiding the majors for players.
The Terrapins wooed Ruth as well, dangling big bucks, but he declined.
"I am pleased with the treatment I've received from Dunn," he told The Sun. "He picked me up from the sandlots and offered me a good salary. The Federal League's offer was much larger than I am getting now, but it will only be a short while before I am drawing a much bigger envelope."
'Babe was our guy'
One month later, Ruth was gone. Poor attendance at Orioles games forced Dunn to sell his stars and, on July 10, he sent Ruth, pitcher Ernie Shore and Egan to Boston.
The public wished them well.
"Naturally all are glad to go, because it means more money for them and more glory too, for they have not had large crowds at Oriole Park this year to either inspire them or to applaud their playing," The Sun surmised. Ruth especially drew raves, the paper predicting "a long career on the rubber if he takes good care of himself.
"His hitting will enable him to take up the outfield or work around the initial sack when he quits twirling. He is fast on his feet and has learned a great deal about the inside of the great American pastime during the few months he has been under Dunn."
While he won 14 of 20 decisions, Ruth batted .205 for the Orioles (16 hits in 78 at-bats) and failed to hit a home run. In Boston, he split two decisions before being shipped to Providence for seasoning. There, to Baltimore's dismay, he helped the rejunvenated Grays win the International League pennant, twice defeating the Orioles down the stretch. In the final game, Ruth played right field and went 3-for-4, including a triple and two stolen bases, in a 23-19 win over his old team.
All told, between Baltimore, Boston and Providence, Ruth won 30 games as a rookie — "a harbinger of things to come," Jenkinson said of the man whose arm would lead the Red Sox to three world championships in four years. In 1918, he pitched a then-record 292/3 scoreless innings in the World Series; two years later, with the Yankees, he hit 54 home runs.
"Obviously his career was all about Boston and New York, but Babe was our guy before he was theirs," said Herne, pointing out Ruth's 1914 baseball card on display at the museum. The card is said to be worth an estimated $700,000.
Ruth never forgot his roots.
"When St. Mary's School burned in 1920, he took the school's band with the Yankees on a road trip to Cleveland to raise money to rebuild it," Herne said.
In addition, Ruth donated the bat with which he hit 29 homers in 1919 — a record he would break time and again — to the school's new showcase.
Routinely during his 22-year career, he brought teams back to his hometown to play the Orioles. In April 1919, the Red Sox suited up for two games at Oriole Park. In the first, Ruth hit prodigious home runs in four consecutive official at-bats, and he homered again on his first two trips in the second game.
"He hit six home runs in seven swings of the bat; the other was a foul ball," Jenkinson said. "It's almost biomechanically impossible for a human being to do that against professional pitching, but he did it — at his old ballpark. That's extraordinary.
"If any player in history is gush-worthy, it's Ruth."