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How Babe Ruth became Babe Ruth in Baltimore

Before he was a superstar for the Red Sox and Yankees, Babe Ruth was a kid who ran the streets of Baltimore. His father owned a pub that sat on ground that is now covered by centerfield at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Before he was a superstar for the Red Sox and Yankees, Babe Ruth was a kid who ran the streets of Baltimore. His father owned a pub that sat on ground that is now covered by centerfield at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Babe Ruth Museum / Baltimore Sun)

A century ago in old Oriole Park, Babe Ruth hit four home runs during an exhibition game, changing the path of his career and the game of baseball.

Babe Ruth started his professional baseball career as a 19-year-old pitcher for the minor league Baltimore Orioles. He soon became a starter with the Boston Red Sox and won more than 20 games in both 1916 and 1917. His pitching helped his team win championships.

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Although he was an excellent pitcher, Babe Ruth transitioned into a position player during the 1918 and 1919 seasons. It was as a batter and more specifically as a home run hitter that he became famous.

As the Red Sox were preparing for the 1919 season, Boston played several exhibition games while heading north from Florida. They stopped in Baltimore playing two games against the Orioles on April 18 and 19, 1919.

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There was a time in Baltimore when a functioning ballpark once fit into two neighborhood blocks.

In the first game, Ruth started in left field and batted fifth. He walked in his first at bat. In the third inning, he blasted a long home run clearing not only the right field fence, but, according to some, both Greenmount Avenue and a telegraph wire across the street.

In his next at bat in the fourth inning he was intentionally walked, but followed that in the fifth inning with another long home run in deep right center field into the backyards of houses fronting the 2900 block of Greenmount Avenue. In the seventh inning, his third home run, like the first, cleared the right field fence. He came to bat once more in the ninth inning and hit a fourth home run beyond the right field foul pole.

This was the only time Ruth is known to have hit four home runs in a competitive professional game. Although others had hit four home runs previously, they were either over short 250-foot fences or included inside-the-park drives.

Yet, his home run hitting was not finished. Babe Ruth was the starting pitcher the next day, Saturday, April 19th, against the Orioles. He pitched for four innings giving up only one run on two hits, but it was his home run hitting that made the headlines.

On April 18, 1919, Babe Ruth, whose pitching and slugging led the Boston Red Sox to the 1918 world championship, returned to Baltimore with his club to play two exhibition games against the minor league Orioles, the team that gave him his start in baseball.

Although batting in the customary ninth spot for a pitcher, he hit another home run in his first at bat. The pitch was reported to be fully three inches outside, but he pulled it to right center. It landed on the roof of a Greenmount Avenue rowhouse. In his next at bat, he homered again over the right field fence.

Babe Ruth hit six home runs in six consecutive at bats (since walks are not officially counted as an at bat). Nobody had ever accomplished such a feat in professional baseball. He finally struck out in his next appearance ending the streak, after which he left the game.

During the 1919 season, Ruth played in 130 games, but only pitched in 17 games. Primarily used as a left fielder he hit 29 home runs, nearly three times as many home runs as any other major league player. He also led the league in runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage. He still managed to win nine games as a pitcher with an ERA below 3.00, but now he was Babe Ruth the home run king.

The following year he was traded to the Yankees. He only pitched four innings in 1920, but he hit 54 home runs in 142 games primarily playing in the outfield. The transition from lefty pitching star to home run king was complete.

Before Babe Ruth, baseball followed the philosophy of Wee Willie Keeler whose motto was “Keep your eye on the ball and hit 'em where they ain't.” In the early 20th Century, Ty Cobb perfected a game of slash and speed. Players choked up on the bat and placed base hits. Ruth changed all that. Now players swung away and aimed for the fences.

When Babe Ruth hit six home runs in eight plate appearances at Oriole Park 100 years ago, baseball was changed forever. Baltimore got a first glimpse of how that new game would look courtesy of their native son.

Fred Shoken is a Baltimore historian who has written about Babe Ruth’s early days in Baltimore in his blog baberuth100.blogspot.com. His email address is fred.shoken@gmail.com.

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