100 years after big league debut, Babe Ruth is still larger than life

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth, with the Boston Red Sox in 1919, warms up before a game against Cleveland. (Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images / January 1, 1919)

It is easy now to identify the most famous name from the baseball box score dated July 11, 1914.

However, one hundred summers ago at Boston's Fenway Park, the annotation "Ruth" was not historically significant.

The baby-faced pitcher, only months out of reform school, must have been crippled with nerves in his major league debut.

The star power that afternoon belonged to Red Sox outfielder Tris Speaker and a Cleveland Naps lineup led by "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Nap Lajoie.

Ray Chapman, the Cleveland shortstop, batting sixth, was killed six years later when he was struck by a Carl Mays fastball at New York's Polo Grounds.

The baptism of George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Boston's rookie lefty, was efficient but ordinary. He scattered eight hits in Boston's 4-3 triumph, helped at the end by two shutout innings from Dutch Leonard.

Cleveland left fielder Jack Graney, the first batter Ruth ever faced, singled. Ruth, in his first major league at-bat, struck out. He was later pinch-hit for (imagine that) by Duffy Lewis, a career .284 hitter.

Nothing on that day hinted at immortality, or the notion that a century later we'd still be talking about Ruth as perhaps the most iconic figure in sports history.

Twenty-one years after his debut, on May 30, 1935, a worn-out Ruth, wearing the alien clothes of the Boston Braves, struck out in his final plate appearance at Philadelphia's Baker Bowl.

Between those monumental bookend whiffs he whipped up quite a dust storm.

Why are we still so fascinated?

"Because he was a fascinating person," Julia Ruth Stevens, Ruth's 98-year-old daughter, said in a phone interview from her summer home in New Hampshire. "He loved people, especially kids, he'd do anything for them. And he played to his audience. He was always trying to hit home runs because that's what they wanted him to do."

Cy Young won 511 games, but no one thought to stop the presses on Aug. 6, 1990, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his first game.

Ruth is still venerated because he combined extraordinary ability with panache and personality, in the epicenter of New York City, at the apex of the Roaring Twenties.

He invented, through his success and excess, a new term in the American vernacular: "Ruthian."

Willie Sutton would become "The Babe Ruth of bank robbers."

As Ruth said of himself, "I swing big with everything I got. I hit big or I miss big."

When Ruth succumbed to cancer Aug. 16, 1948, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, "The greatest figure the world of sport has ever known has passed from the field. Game called on account of darkness. Babe Ruth is dead."

He died only in the flesh. His legend lived through the portals of truth, lies, myth, hyperbole, books, newsreel clips and two lousy movies (See, or don't see: William Bendix in "The Babe Ruth Story" and John Goodman in "The Babe.")

Ruth's daughter laments that nobody has gotten it right.




Eduardo A. Encina

Eduardo A. Encina

Orioles beat writer
Peter Schmuck

Peter Schmuck

Sports Columnist
Dan Connolly

Dan Connolly

Orioles and national baseball writer
Dean Jones Jr.

Dean Jones Jr.

Orioles editor