Which Man Has Had the Best Overall Career in MLB History?

While looking at Bill Miller’s post on Walter Johnson’s hitting proficiency, I came up with this question: Which man has had the best overall baseball career in MLB history, covering the roles of pitcher, position player and/or hitter, and manager? The criteria I came up with was that the man had to serve in at least two of the three roles, had to be at least adequate in each role he served, and ideally was superlative in at least one of the three roles.

Babe Ruth, with his pitching and hitting career, is of course the first name to come to mind. Ruth never managed, though, and I think it’s harder to choose the winning candidate than you first assume. Here are the three men who seem to be the best candidates: John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson.

You presumably know what Ruth did on the field, but here are some quick details on McGraw and Johnson’s careers. McGraw managed from 1899-1932, with a 2763-1948 record over 4769 games, for a .586 winning percentage. He won three World Series and 10 pennants, all with the Giants, from 1902-1932. As a hitter, his triple slash line was .334/.466/.410, for an OPS+ of 135. His OPB topped .500 in three seasons, 1899 through 1901, he drew at least 90 walks in five seasons, scored 1024 runs in 1099 games, scoring at least 100 runs in five seasons. His OPB of .466 is third-best in MLB history. He played for the Baltimore Orioles as they won the N.L. pennant in three straight years, 1894-1896 (there was no A.L. and no World Series at the time).

Johnson’s record as a manager was 529-432, a .550 winning percentage over 861 games. He managed the Senators from 1929-1932, then the Indians from 1933-1935. His Senators had three straight 90-win seasons, 1930 through 1932, but Johnson left before they won the pennant in 1933. His triple slash batting line of .235/.274/.342 (for an OPS+ of 76) is not very impressive, until you realize most of his at-bats were in the deadball era. Nonetheless, he hit 24 homers, 41 triples, and 94 doubles. From 1924 through 1927, when he was 36 to 39 years old, Johnson’s triple slash line was .306/.332/.423, with six homers and 22 doubles in 359 at-bats, for an OPS+ of 95. He hit .433/.455/.577 over 97 at-bats in 1925. Johnson appeared in 132 games as a pinch-hitter or outfielder. And, of course, he was arguably the greatest pitcher ever, going 417-279 from 1907 to 1927, and ranks in the top 5 in many pitching stats.

What jumps out to me is that Johnson is the only man who was well above average in two of the three roles, and clearly held his own in the third role, as a hitter. McGraw is perhaps the best player of the managers in the HOF who won at least 1500 games, and you can contend that he’s the best manager ever. Then you have Ruth. I think you can make an honest, solid argument for each of the three.

Published in: Uncategorized on June 4, 2013 at 6:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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How Many People Watched Babe Ruth Play Baseball?

Here’s a list of home attendance for Babe Ruth’s teams during his 22-year MLB career, with the year followed by the average attendance, the total attendance, and the number of games Ruth played in that season:

Total home attendance was 17,959,826. This divided by 22 gives an average attendance of 816,356 per year. Ruth played 16.25 seasons worth of games over his 22 years, based on MLB’s 154-game schedule that was standard during his career.

So, multiplying the per-season average of 816,356 by 16.25 equals 13,265,781, as the figure for total attendance at his home games. (By the way, Ruth’s first game was on 7/11/1914; his last game was on 5/30/1935.)

If you generously figure that road attendance for his games equaled attendance by Red Sox, Yankees and Braves fans, that means about 26.5 million people watched Ruth pitch, hit and field. (This doesn’t count World Series games.)

Compare this to the Yankees’ 3 million plus home attendance numbers for the past 14 years or so, and total average annual attendance of probably 6 million. For that matter, average annual home attendance for N.L. and A.L. teams has been at least 2 million since the late ’80s, so the typical everyday player plays before 4 million people or more each year.

Which means that a relatively unexceptional player who stays in MLB for a decade or more, Jack Wilson for example, in a 12-year career in which Wilson was not a full-time player for his last several years, plays before about double the number of fans that Ruth played before.

If you look at attendance numbers for baseball games before night games, before tv, before World War II ended, before the rise of computers and the service economy, you notice that a team very rarely drew even a million fans at home in a season. The Yankees’ peak attendance before 1946 was the 1,289,422 who came to the Polo Grounds to see Ruth and his teammates in 1920. In 1946, attendance throughout MLB spiked sharply, up nearly double from WWII levels. It makes sense that before 1946, people did not have the leisure time or money to go to games, especially, again, with most games played during weekdays.

When thinking of Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and other stars of pre-WWII, pre-integration MLB, it’s easy to imagine them playing before packed crowds, but this wasn’t the case, aside from a few special occasions and presumably some weekend games. In a more industrial economy, and given the Depression in the ’30s, many fans were probably either too tired from work or too impoverished to even go to weekend games.

To list some examples of games covered elsewhere on this blog: the Ernie Shore “perfect” game in which he retired 27 men in a row after Babe Ruth got ejected was the first game of a doubleheader, but attendance was apparently just 16,158.

Attendance for the Addie Joss perfect game in Cleveland in 1908, which came near the end of a tight pennant race, was 10,598.

Only 10,267 saw Cy Young’s perfect game on Thursday, May 5, 1904, despite the promise of “a classic pitcher’s duel between Boston’s already legendary Cy Young and Philadelphia ace Rube Waddell.”

And, only about 1,000 people watched the New York Giants finish up their exhibition series with the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore on April 13, 1914, with a 3-2 win over Babe Ruth pitching for the Orioles.

Published in: Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 at 11:04 am  Comments (3)  
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Babe Ruth’s Three-Homer Game at Forbes Field in 1935

This was Ruth’s last great game, and it came in his last week as a major-leaguer, playing for the Boston Braves. Here’s the headline, from the Boston Globe. The one record-setting, extra-long homer left Forbes Field, clearing its right-field roof, but the Pittsburgh Pirates still won, 11-7:

And here’s a cartoon of Ruth emerging from baseball’s cemetery to crush his three homers:

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 5:50 am  Comments (3)  
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Babe Ruth’s Last Game, on May 30, 1935

It was an 11-6 win for the Philadelphia Phillies, who played at home, in the Baker Bowl. Ruth played the first inning for the Boston Braves. Here’s the box score, and you can read an account of what Babe did as well. To briefly summarize: Ruth batted third and played left field for the inning. In the top of the first, he grounded out to first baseman Dolph Camilli on a pitch from Phillies’ pitcher Jim Bivin. In the bottom of the first, he apparently misplayed a fly ball from Phillies’ second baseman Lou Chiozza, failing to catch the ball and having the ball roll by him to the wall. Chiozza was thrown out trying for an inside-the-park home run, but a baserunner scored.

This is the Boston Globe’s headline for the game:

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 6:08 am  Comments (2)  

Ernie Shore’s “Perfect” Game and Babe Ruth’s Ejection in 1917

The Boston Globe covered this game with as much attention to the fracas that got Babe Ruth ejected after walking the first batter as to Ernie Shore’s feat of retiring the 26 batters he faced in relief, which, with the first batter being thrown out stealing, made 27 straight outs, if not quite an absolute perfect game. It happened at Fenway Park on June 23, 1917, in the first game of a doubleheader vs. the Washington Senators. Here’s most of the Globe’s account:

No-Hit, No-Run and No-Man-to-First Performance
Modest Ernie Shore took a place in the Hall of Fame as a no-hit, no-run, no man-reached-first base pitcher in the curtain-raiser of the twin bill with the Griffmen at Fenway Park yesterday. It was the best pitching seen in this city since 1904 when Cy Young put over a similar feat, the only difference being that Uncle Cyrus pitched to every batter, while the Carolina professor did not get into the exercises until after Ruth, who had walked Morgan, the first batter, had been removed from the pastime for striking Umpire Brick Owns. . .

While Shore covered himself with glory. . . Baltimore Babe with his temper beyond control went to the dugout under a cloud and undoubtedly will be severely punished by Pres Johnson.

His suspension will cripple the Red Sox badly as they need the big portsider very much.
Babe pitched four balls to Morgan and accused Owens of missing two of them. “Get in there and pitch,” ordered Owens.

“Open your eyes and keep them open,” chirped Babe.

“Get in and pitch or I will run you out of there,” was the comeback of the arbiter.
“You run me out and I will come in and bust you on the nose,” Ruth threatened.

“Get out of there now,” said Brick.

Then in rushed Ruth. Chester Thomas tried to prevent him from reaching Owens, who had not removed his mask, but Babe started swinging both hands. The left missed the arbiter, but the right struck him behind the left ear.

Manager Barry and several policemen had to drag Ruth off the field. All season Babe has been fussing a lot. Nothing has seemed to satisfy him.

Prof Shore stepped to the hill and, after Sam Agnew had taken care of Morgan when he endeavored to annex second, Ernie just breezed along calmly. He fielded his position well and was ready for any of those cantankerous bunts that the opponents might try to lay down. But strange to say the Griffmen were off that stuff, relying mostly on the slam-bang system.

The Carolinian is indebted to Scotty [shortstop Everett Scott] and Duffy Lewis for making his record. The Bluffton Kid robbed Jamieson of a hit in the fifth when a hard hit ball was deflected by Shore, Scotty being obliged to travel fast. However, he made a one hand pick-up and tossed out the runner. In the seventh “Duff” went back to his own little cliff for a bang from Morgan and in the final frame came in like lightning and speared one that Henry had planted in short left.

Shore fanned only two and it did not seem as if he was working hard. He made a number of nifty plays himself. Barry closed the game with a grand play on a swinging bunt by pinch hitter Menoskey.

Here’s the Globe’s box score:

And the headline:

Published in: on March 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm  Comments (5)  
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Babe Ruth’s Visit to Japan in 1934

Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Connie Mack headlined the roster of 15 stars who visited Japan in November 1934 to display their baseball skills. They, and Ruth especially, apparently made a big impression, because Japanese troops famously yelled Ruth’s name in jest when they fought U.S. soldiers in World War II. Here, from the Japan Times, are some reports on how the U.S. and Japan teams fared in their much less consequential mid-Depression battles:

Friday, Nov. 2
The most formidable team of the world’s best baseball players to arrive in Japan disembarked from the palatial Canadian Pacific white-hulled liner, Empress of Japan, at Yokohama at 10 a.m. today for a series of games in the Empire, its first being against the Tokyo Club Sunday afternoon at the Meiji Shrine stadium.

Leading this aggregation of 15 aces of the American major leagues, including the one and only George Herman ( Babe) Ruth , the Sultan of Swat, and Don Gehrig of the New York Yankees, was no less a person than Mr. Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack, manager of the Athletics who has been actively connected with baseball for 51 years.

The visitors were given a great welcome. No sooner had the yellow quarantine flag been lowered than Ruth and the other players were stormed with requests for autographs.

“How many home runs are you going to hit in Japan ,” Ruth was asked.

“I don’t know, but I am going to try to knock out as many as I can,” he said.

Monday, Nov. 5
Babe Ruth , Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx did not find the slow balls of three pitchers to their liking and failed to crash out homers, but the 56,000 or more baseball fans that packed the Meiji Shrine stadium Sunday sat back amazed all afternoon at the tremendous strength of Connie Mack’s American all-stars. The Tokyo Club nine, comprised of leading ex-university players, were slaughtered by 17 to 1.

With people standing in line for their tickets since Saturday night, every seat in the huge stadium was taken by noon Sunday, two hours before the game.

Saturday, Nov. 17
Babe Ruth has become quite the social lion of Tokyo. Together with other members of the American baseball team in Tokyo, he has been tea-ed, lunched, dined and danced, as never before.

It was a bright moment for several bellhops and girls of the Imperial Hotel when the baseball hero autographed his photograph for them the other day while having his shoes shined in its barber shop, and a Tokyo woman will always remember the time she had her hair bobbed — she sat in the next chair to the Babe.

Sunday, Nov. 18
The southpaw offerings of Lefty Hamazaki proved to be of no mystery to the portside sluggers of Connie Mack’s All-American professional baseball team and the latter routed the All- Japan nine by a 15 to 6 score Saturday afternoon at the Meiji Shrine stadium. It was the visitors’ final appearance in Tokyo (before they depart for matches in Omiya, Sendai, Nagoya and Osaka, then leave for Shanghai on Dec. 2).

Babe Ruth once again led the batting attack with two home runs. One of them came in the eighth inning with the bags loaded. He showed his aptitude to hit any kind of pitching by taking a healthy cut at Hamazaki’s slow teaser for a mighty drive into the right-field bleachers.

Wayne Graczyk, writer of the Times’ Baseball Bulletin, added that this “was the series when schoolboy phenom Eiji Sawamura struck out four big league superstars. Sawamura, after whom Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award was named, fanned Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx and Charlie Gehringer in a game in Shizuoka.

“He lost 1-0 on a homer by Gehrig but went on to fame briefly with the Giants until his career was cut short when he was called into service prior to the start of the Second World War. He was subsequently killed in action.

“Sawamura’s performance on that November day helped persuade Shoriki to work toward forming Japan’s first pro team one month after that major league tour ended.

“That team is still known as the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.”

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 12:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Babe Ruth, Movie Actor

Many baseball fans already know about how Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season, apparently to fund his production of the play My Lady Friends in 1920, which became Frazee’s musical, No, No, Nanette, in 1925. But the superstar he sold did some acting of his own. I don’t know when Babe Ruth first appeared on stage or before the movie cameras, but sometime between the end of the 1919 World Series and the start of the 1920 season he had the starring turn in a movie called Headin’ Home. (Strangely enough, in January 1920 the New York Times reported him only playing golf in the Los Angeles area, and said “he has not yet gone into the movies, as reported,” which is just more proof that newspapers aren’t the final arbiters of truth.) This silent movie was released in September 1920, in time for the Babe to have fueled anticipation for it with his massive hitting displays at New York’s Polo Grounds.

I came across Headin’ Home about a month ago, as the feature item in a two-DVD set of early baseball movies called Reel Baseball. It’s 73 minutes long, and the plot is both folkloric and bewildering: Babe is living in Haverlock, a made-up small town, with his elderly mother and a young foster sister named Pigtails. He lives to play baseball and win the heart of Mildred Tobin, the daughter of town banker Cyrus Tobin. Tobin has hired a young pitcher named Harry Knight to pitch for the Haverlock team and work for his bank. There’s a love triangle between Babe, Knight, and Mildred, with her father preferring Knight to Babe. Knight is secretly embezzling money from the old man’s bank, making him the villainous counter to the virtuous but hapless Babe. When the day of the big game with Haverlock’s rival, Highland, arrives, Knight convinces Cyrus to keep Babe off the team, so the Highland manager hires Babe as the replacement for his pitcher, who’s in a drunken stupor and can’t pitch. Babe hits the game-winning homer for Highland, brings Cyrus’s prodigal son, John, back home, saves Mildred from the vicious Knight, and, at the end of the movie, is starring with the Yankees in real 1920 game footage from the Polo Grounds.

In Headin’ Home, Ruth plays a small-town boy, a hick from the countryside; he doesn’t recreate his real-life childhood as a rough Baltimore kid. He’s naïve, pure-hearted, and innocent: at one point, he actually takes a stick of hickory from the forest and whittles it down to make his bat. Despite his game-winning performance, at first the Babe “can’t play ball—until he gets mad one day and knocks his first home run, through a church window five blocks away,” as the New York Times put it in its review.

Interestingly, the character of Harry Knight includes cheating at dice as well as stealing from the bank: he’s portrayed as a grasping, faithless scoundrel without scruples. Knight would clearly throw a game if given the chance, and his character reminded me that the Black Sox scandal unfolded in September 1920, just as Headin’ Home was coming to the screen. In fact, it opened a week-long run at Madison Square Garden on the 19th to a 10,000-strong audience, and on the 28th, Shoeless Joe Jackson confessed to throwing the 1919 World Series. I don’t know to what degree the myth that the Babe saved baseball after the Black Sox scandal is true, but it’s uncanny how this folkloric movie showing him as a plain-hearted hero from the countryside was released the same month that the Sox players were confessing to the corruption of the national sport.

Along with being virtuous, the Babe Ruth of Headin’ Home is also pretty silly and boyish much of the time, and even though the movie’s technically a melodrama, the subtitles furnished by Bugs Baer, a sports humorist of the day, relentlessly undercut any sense of pompousness. Some samples: “Almira Worters thought Babe wuz the handsomest man in town. Haverlock ain’t a big town.”; “Love makes you go through fire and water. Marriage throws water on the fire”; “Babe stayed in Hillsdale long enough to get out. He rose to fame like a comet with two tails.”

In real life, the Babe was, of course, not innocent. He was promised $50,000 for the movie from producers Kessel and Bauman, got $15,000, and went to court to collect the missing $35,000. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard was said to pay $35,000 to screen Headin’ Home at Madison Square Garden. And, in its review of Headin’ Home, Variety (it called the movie “atrocious”) noted that everything “from Babe Ruth phonograph records to the Babe Ruth song, ‘Oh You Babe Ruth,’ which . . . accompanied the picture” was for sale at the Garden. It was apparently the first and, so far as I know, last time Madison Square Garden has been used as a movie venue.

Previously, at the end of August 1920, Ruth had filed another lawsuit and obtained an injunction against a company that was illicitly showing him in game action for a film called Over the Fence. The Babe, who obviously wanted to clear the way for his upcoming movie, asked for $1 million in damages and claimed that as “the greatest home-run batter known to the baseball profession” he was now a public character like the President or a war hero. He lost that lawsuit the next February.

The modern-day equivalent of Headin’ Home might be a movie with Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez emerging from the slums of the Dominican Republic to become a star, win financial security for his extended family, and display his virtue and heroism in the process, all while serving as the foil for continuing jokes. The fact that such a movie is practically unimaginable reminds us of how much has changed in the last 90 years. You can take a look at the Babe, with his rounded face and baggy uniform, choking up on the bat and starring in the first full-length baseball movie I know of to feature an actual player, here: http://www.archive.org/details/Heading_Home

Published in: on August 13, 2009 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  
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Babe Ruth on “the Japs” in World War II

On March 18, 1944, the New Yorker, after hearing that the Japanese troops were yelling “to hell with Babe Ruth” as an insult when fighting against the American troops, paid a visit to the Babe at his apartment on Riverside Drive in upper Manhattan. He remembered a postseason trip to Japan in 1934 and said: “Sort of thing you’d expect from the itty-bittys [referring to the insult]. I figured at the time that they were acting awful friendly. Why, we arrive at Yokohama and there’s one million of the little fellows lined up, bowing and cheering and carrying American flags in one hand and Jap flags in the other. We take the train to Tokio and there’s another million standing around near the station, all too damned polite. . . . They were lovely to us, just lovely.”

The Babe said this about their ability to learn baseball tips: “They listen a lot, and then put two and two together.” He said this about the ’34 tour:  “I knocked out thirteen home runs, but I never saw a Jap hit one over the fence. A bat is about as big as a Jap, and the fact is, the itty-bittys can’t hit.”

And this about the Japanese fans: “They’re wild men in the stands. . . . They don’t know the difference between good plays and bad ones, so they yell at everything.”

And this about playing before Japanese royalty: “Wasn’t a game we played, but some royal uncle or nephew wasn’t sitting out there under the canopy, so everybody lined up and saluted the duck, while a cannon went off and a siren blew to let the neighborhood know the game was starting. Hell of a way to play ball.”

Published in: on July 14, 2009 at 1:40 pm  Comments (1)  
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Waite Hoyt Retiring 27 Batters in a Row

Here’s some information on Waite Hoyt pitching for the Boston Red Sox on September 24, 1919, and maintaining perfection from the fourth inning to the 13th inning, or 27 batters in a row. That’s what the New York Times said the next day, anyway: other sources have said it’s more like 34 in a row. Anyway, the Times gave relatively little notice to the feat. It said: “Waite Hoyt, the Brooklyn schoolboy, pitched for the Red Sox in the second [game of a doubleheader] and Bob Shawkey officiated for the Yanks. Hoyt gave a remarkable performance of his pitching skill, and from the fourth inning to the thirteenth he did not allow a hit and not a Yankee runner reached first base. In these nine innings the youngster was at the top of his form and pitched with the coolness and skill of a veteran.”

But, Hoyt lost, 2-1 because of a Wally Pipp triple in the 13th: Pipp then scored on a sac fly hit to Babe Ruth in left. Ruth was the big star of the day: his homer in ninth tied the game at 1. His 28th homer went “high over the right field grand stand into Manhattan Field, which adjoins the Brush Stadium. This smashes the thirty-five-year-old record made by Ed Williamson with Chicago.”
The Times called it “the longest drive ever made at the Polo Grounds”: it “cleared the stand by many yards and went over into the weeds in the next lot.”

Published in: on June 17, 2009 at 9:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Rumors of the Red Sox Trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1915

I happened across an item in the New York Times of February 3, 1915, about a trade rumor in basically the winter meetings after the 1914 season: “As usual, the air was full of rumors of trades. The one rumor which seemed to carry the most weight was that the new owners of the Yankees had come to an agreement with Owner Joseph J. Lannin of the Boston Red Sox for a trade which would involve the transfer of one of the Boston left-handed pitchers to the Yankees.

Owner Lannin has sent for Manager Bill Carrigan, who will be here today to complete the deal. It is stated that the Yankees will probably get Vean Gregg, the former Cleveland southpaw, or Babe Ruth, the young pitcher who was a sensation with the Baltimore Club early last season. It is expected that the Yankees will give some players besides cash for the pitcher.”

Neither trade was made: Gregg went 4-2 for the Red Sox in 1915 and Babe Ruth went 18-8 (Ruth also hit .315 with a .576 slugging percentage, and Gregg hit .350 with no extra base hits). The Yankees did buy Wally Pipp and Hugh High from the Tigers, but the pitcher they wound up getting was George Mogridge. (Read about the Babe pitching against the Giants in a 1914 spring exhibition game here.)

Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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