The Day That Changed Baseball Forever

March 21st, 2012

It was in Hot Springs, Arkansas on March 17, 1918 that the legendary Babe Ruth altered the course of baseball history. As far back as 1886, the Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs) came to Hot Springs for spring training. Those were the old days before Florida and Arizona, with even warmer temperatures, became the Meccas of pre-season baseball. By the 1930s, nearly half of all Major League teams had, at some time, used Hot Springs as their spring training headquarters.

In addition, almost every prominent player of the first half of the 20th Century visited Hot Springs on an individual basis, even if his team trained somewhere else. They would generally arrive in the “Valley of the Vapors” a few weeks before reporting to their formal spring workouts. While in town, those old-timers would hike in the mountains, play golf, attend the horse races and bathe in the warm springs. A partial list included Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth and many others.

The Babe first came to Arkansas on March 6, 1915, when he stepped off the train as a rookie pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Ruth had played briefly for Boston in 1914 (his first professional season), but had spent most of the year in the International League with either the Baltimore Orioles or Providence Grays.

Babe was immediately smitten with Hot Springs; to him, it was the most exotic place he had ever seen. The warm baths, mountain vistas, golf courses, horse races and attractive women seemed like a dream. Until 1914, his world had been mostly limited to the waterfront streets of Baltimore or the inside of St. Mary’s Industrial School for delinquent boys.

Twenty-year-old Babe Ruth was an unstoppable force of nature. The six-foot-two-inch, rock-hard, two-hundred pound juggernaut hit the ball harder, pitched better, hiked with more stamina, and ate more food than anyone in town. Pitching in an intra-squad game on March 23, 1915, Ruth belted a savage line drive home run to right centerfield that left witnesses scratching their heads in disbelief. Despite Boston’s talent-laden pitching staff, Ruth surprisingly earned a place in their starting rotation, eventually winning eighteen games as a rookie. Young Babe Ruth was a puzzle. He fit into no established norms, and defied explanation.

When the Red Sox returned to Hot Springs to train in 1916, along with his pitching duties, Babe played center field in several “squad games.” He hit no competitive homers that year, but regularly belted them over the fences during batting practice. During the regular season, Ruth developed into the American League’s most dominant left-handed pitcher, winning twenty-three games and posting a stunning 1.75 Earned-Run-Average.

Babe’s status remained basically unchanged in 1917. He and the Red Sox returned to Hot Springs for spring training, where Ruth pitched and belted a bunch of batting practice homers. That year, Babe won the imposing total of twenty-four games, thereby solidifying his role as baseball’s best young pitcher. During those first three seasons (1915-1917), Babe Ruth recorded nine official Major League home runs, eight as a pitcher and one as a pinch-hitter. Everyone knew that he could hit, but his greatness as a pitcher pre-destined his stay at that position. But, then, even larger events intervened.

With World War One raging in Europe, many Big League players joined the conflict. That included Red Sox 1917 player-manager Jack Barry along with other prime members from the Boston organization. Owner Harry Frazee did his best, obtaining four players from Connie Mack’s financially troubled Philadelphia Athletics, but, overall, the Red Sox were working with a diminished roster. Frazee also signed former International League president Ed Barrow to take over as manager.

Barrow was an intelligent, competent man, but he was also humorless and unimaginative. He was not inclined toward frivolous ventures, and moving Babe Ruth off the pitcher’s mound in 1918 would have been regarded as absolutely reckless by most baseball insiders. In fact, when Ruth signed his season’s contract in January, Babe predicted that he would win thirty games as a pitcher. By the time the Red Sox arrived in Hot Springs on March 11, neither Barrow nor Frazee had publicly uttered a word about Babe Ruth playing anywhere but pitcher.

Ruth arrived in peak physical condition after spending the winter with his wife in a remote cottage in rural Massachusetts. Babe had needed to chop wood as the only means of heating his home in the cold northern climate, and had also vigorously engaged in various winter sports. During that first week of practice, Barrow worked all his pitchers hard, making them hike over the mountains, shag fly balls, and take infield practice. Ed had already decided that Big League teams carried too many pitchers on their rosters, and wanted his hurlers in optimum shape to handle the increased workload. In the process, Ruth had looked comfortable at first base, and, as usual, had clubbed several batting practice homers.

So, when regular first baseman Dick Hoblitzel was not ready to play in the opening exhibition game, Barrow simply inserted the twenty-three-year-old Bambino into his position. The game was played at Whittington Park on March 17 against the Brooklyn Dodgers (aka Robins). It was the first time that Babe Ruth ever played against a Major League team in any position other than pitcher. What happened next changed the sport of baseball forever.

Batting in the fourth inning, Babe lined a mammoth shot to deep left centerfield that landed in a distant wood pile, enabling Ruth to easily circle the bases. Two innings later, Babe did even better. This time, he unloaded a stupendous drive to right field that passed so far over the fence that it landed across the street in an alligator farm. The blow was so amazing that even the Dodgers stood up and cheered. None of them had ever seen anybody hit a baseball with such astonishing force. It is likely that this second Ruthian homer was the longest that had ever been hit (to that time) in the history of baseball.

Word of these remarkable events quickly circulated around the baseball community, and everyone wondered if they would ever be reprised. It was one week later when the Red Sox played their next game, another contest against the Dodgers at Whittington Park. The Boston second team was also playing the Brooklyn second team in Little Rock, thereby creating a manpower shortage. So, when Barrow started Carl Mays on the mound, he had to use Babe Ruth in right field. Again, Ruth was in the field more due to chance than actual design, and, again, Babe took advantage.

In the third inning, he smashed another tremendous home run to right field, a grand slam that landed in the pond adjacent to the Arkansas Alligator Farm, a nationally known tourist attraction. Almost inconceivably, Babe had launched a drive of approximately the same epochal proportions as the preceding week. Ruth then took his turn on the mound, and pitched effectively over the final three innings.

The Red Sox soon settled into their normal routine. Babe Ruth only pitched for the remainder of the spring schedule; he did not play a single defensive inning anywhere but on the mound. He recorded his fourth home run against Brooklyn on March 30 in Little Rock, but did so as the winning pitcher.

When the regular season started at Fenway Park in Boston on April 15, 1918, Babe Ruth pitched a masterful four-hitter against the Athletics, the Sox winning 7 to 1. Babe batted ninth. And so it went until May 6 in New York. Ruth pinch-hit a few times, but had taken the field only as a pitcher. Then, first baseman and team captain Dick Hoblitzel was injured again, and, harkening back to Hot Springs, manager Ed Barrow summoned the Babe to substitute for him. Predictably, he hit a home run.

The Sox traveled overnight by train to Washington, D.C. where they faced the magnificent, flame-throwing Walter Johnson of the Senators. Barrow rolled the dice once more, and Ruth blasted another homer as a first baseman. Taking his regular turn in the starting rotation two days later, Babe lost a classic, ten-inning confrontation with Johnson who pitched with less then forty-eight hours of rest. Yet, despite his losing effort, Ruth went 5 for 5 against the peerless “Big Train.” The die was cast.

For the remainder of the war-shortened 1918 schedule, Babe Ruth alternated between his duties as a starting pitcher and baseball’s mightiest slugger. The ailing Hoblitzel, who was also a dentist, retired in mid-season, but Barrow installed veteran Stuffy McGinnis at first base. Believing that Ruth was less susceptible to injury in the outfield, that’s where Babe was positioned. Ruth wound up tying for the American League home run honors by belting eleven four-baggers.

As the abbreviated 1918 season wound down, the focus of Babe Ruth’s play shifted back to his formidable pitching acumen. The 126-game-schedule ended on September 2, thereby making the month of August the stretch run for the pennant. During those thirty-one crucial days, despite missing a start when his father died, Ruth pitched seventy-three superb innings, winning six games and posting a remarkable 1.60 ERA.

When the World Series against the Chicago Cubs began on September 5 in the Windy City, Babe Ruth was on the mound. He pitched a momentous complete-game shutout, winning 1 to 0. Babe didn’t play in games two and three, but, back in Boston for game four, he started again on the mound. Working into the ninth inning, he was the winning pitcher once more: this time by the score of 3 to 2. Combined with his outstanding work back in the 1916 Fall Classic, Ruth threw a then-record 29.2 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series.

The Red Sox won that 1918 Series in six games, but, if there had been a crucial seventh game, Babe Ruth would have pitched it. Essentially, when the 1918 season concluded so gloriously for the World Champion Boston Red Sox, Ruth was heralded for reaching new heights in his career as a brilliant pitcher. With Major League Baseball expected to return to normalcy in 1919, the pragmatic Ed Barrow had no plans for his star southpaw to do anything but pitch and occasionally pinch hit.

The Red Sox switched their spring training site from Hot Springs to Tampa in 1919, and Babe Ruth showed up with his own ideas about where he should play. To him, it really wasn’t much of a choice. He could either play the outfield every day while swinging for the fences, or wait for every fourth day while batting ninth and pitching. With his free- spirited and impatient disposition, it was a no-brainer. But his manager had other plans.

It appears that Ed Barrow thought that he could wait out the situation by letting Ruth have his way in the beginning of spring ball. As in 1918, he would play Babe in a few games in the field, and, then, gradually work him back into the regular starting rotation, where, this time, he would stay. So, on April 4, 1919 in Tampa, Babe Ruth began the spring schedule against the New York Giants playing left field.

Problematically for Barrow, but beneficially for baseball history, Babe proceeded to regularly pound home runs throughout the remainder of the month. To Barrow’s chagrin, the Red Sox opened the season on April 23 with Carl Mays as their starter and Ruth in left field. Babe had hardly pitched, and complained about a sore arm whenever Barrow pressed the issue of his return to the regular rotation. Both player and manager were wary of each other, and the uncomfortable situation escalated into a confrontation on April 30 in Washington.

Barrow suspended Ruth, ostensibly due to a training violation, but, in reality, the tension centered on the pitching issue. After almost coming to blows in the locker room, Babe finally apologized on the train ride back to Boston. The two stubborn men got together, and worked out a truce. Ruth would stay in the line-up on an every day basis, but agreed to pitch whenever Barrow needed him.

As expected, Babe Ruth pitched well again in 1919. Although baseball was trying to resume business as usual, the Red Sox still played only 137 games that season. In that abbreviated time, Ruth pitched 133.1 innings, posting a 9 and 5 record with a 2.97 ERA. Offensively, Babe blasted the then mind-boggling total of twenty-nine homers. Ruth’s effort was roughly equivalent to someone bashing about one-hundred in today’s game. The entire country went home run crazy, and Babe Ruth became a batting deity.

By the end of that season, Harry Frazee had lost interest in owning the Red Sox, and was directing his passion to the Broadway stage. He sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees where the team and the man made history for the next fifteen years. During that time, Ruth returned often to Hot Springs in order to prepare for spring training. Babe had made a connection with the town and its people, and heartily enjoyed his visits.

In retrospect, it is clear that Babe Ruth was not necessarily destined to play the outfield, and hit record numbers of home runs. That final outcome depended as much on coincidence and timing as it did on Ruth’s extraordinary talent. What if World War One had not diminished the Red Sox roster in the spring of 1918? What if Dick Hoblitzel had not undergone off-season surgery before that season, thereby rendering him unfit to play that first exhibition game at first base? Most importantly to this discussion, what if Babe Ruth had not seized the moment, and clouted two prodigious home runs on that fateful St. Patrick’s Day?

As stated, that was the first time that Ruth ever played in the field against another Major League team. What if he had gone 0 for 3? Would he have impressed his dour manager sufficiently to play him at first base when Hoblitzel was injured again in early May? That seems unlikely to me. Certainly, baseball would have eventually evolved into the “Power Game” that it is today, but how long would it have taken if Babe Ruth hadn’t led the way? Perhaps decades.

If it wasn’t for Ruth suddenly and simultaneously smashing home run and attendance records, would scouts have even bothered to sign young muscle men like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in the 1920s? Who really knows? Without question, the emergence of Babe Ruth dramatically altered the sport of baseball forever. Yet, that historic transformation almost never happened.

Without significant serendipity, our sports heritage might easily be diminished by the absence of its most charismatic and beloved figure. Without those events on St. Patrick’s Day in Hot Springs in 1918, Babe Ruth might be remembered only as a Hall of Fame pitcher instead of a cultural institution. How relatively barren would baseball seem without the incomparable imprint of the Sultan of Swat? I prefer not to even think about it.

Bill Jenkinson

Baseball Historian (2011)