Ruth began his career in 1914 as a pitcher. Quickly becoming one of baseball’s best, he won 67 games over his first three seasons. In 1918, he set a record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series with 29, a mark that would stand for 43 years until Yankee Whitey Ford smashed it in 1961...
The sport was still in its “dead ball” era, when baseballs were more loosely stitched together than they are today, and were also reused far more frequently. This made the balls difficult to hit, leaving games low-scoring exercises.
The 1918 World Series, that last Red Sox victory for a while, was also the last in which neither team hit a home run the entire series.
Ruth’s talent first revealed itself during the team’s batting practices, which were open to the public. Baseball hitting then was all about strategy and control. Hitters swung “parallel to the ground,” hoping to “simply make contact and slap ground balls or line drives between fielders.”
But not the gigantic Ruth. He “attacked the ball, swinging a baseball bat almost like a lumberjack wielding an ax, but loose and free with a pronounced uppercut.” Fans young and old had never seen anyone swing like this, and had also never seen similar results, with the ball often flying out of the stadium.
It’s hard to fathom today, but at the time, team powers-that-be considered his home run swing a hassle.
“As he took batting practice, Ruth’s coaches and teammates just shook their heads and rolled their eyes. You couldn’t hit like that; everybody knew it,” writes Stout. “But since Ruth was a pitcher, they let him be. When he didn’t get his way, he’d mope and moan around the ballpark and be a bother to everyone. It was easier just to let him have his fun.”...
Amazingly, the great baseball minds and talents around him missed what young fans grasped instantly — that they were watching something not just special but literally game-changing.
“No one realized it yet, but Ruth’s swing was revolutionary,” writes Stout. Not only did Ruth’s uppercut send the ball for distance like no one before him, but the way “the angle of his swing nearly matched the downward drop of the pitch” meant that “Ruth’s bat stayed in the hitting zone for a longer time than that of other hitters.”
The increasing interest in this talent led to a repeated back and forth between Ruth and the team’s management throughout the 1918 and 1919 seasons that went something like this: Realizing the adulation that came with home runs, Ruth no longer wanted to pitch. But the team needed their star pitcher, not this home-run foolishness, so they pacified him with bonuses or whatever else it took to get him back on the mound. Then, sometime later, Ruth would threaten to leave, or he’d miss a few games in protest, and the process repeated.
He even once threatened, in a negotiating ploy, to leave baseball for boxing. The Red Sox, correctly, did not take this seriously. Throughout 1918, Ruth’s pitching diminished while his slugging intensified. He even hit home runs in three consecutive games, only the second time this had been accomplished. (The first, oddly, had also been by a pitcher: Yankee Ray Caldwell in 1915).
By 1919, Ruth realized that home runs were his future. The Red Sox did not, expecting him on the mound...
Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert...whose fortune had come from brewing, was set to face [financial problems]due to the coming prohibition on alcohol...a mess that the Ruth deal would help solve...
In his first year as a Yankee, Ruth, assisted by the move to the more slugger-friendly Polo Grounds as well as the beginning of the sport’s “live ball” era, shattered his previous year’s home run mark with 54, then broke his own record again the following year with 59. He’d hit 60 in 1927, and that mark would stand until 1961.