05/01/10 10:00 AM ET
Ruth's first Yankee blast a cataclysmic event
Ninety years ago, one swing altered baseball forever
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
It was a "tremendous thump."
Those are the ways the sportswriters of their time, from New York's city papers to the Galveston (Tex.) News, described Babe Ruth's first home run with the Yankees on this day 90 years ago. It was more important than anyone could have known, and most amazing of all is that the legend just keeps on growing here in marvelous 2010.
After all, we are writing about it in this space, still always talking about it from time to time and telling our children and their children, as if to make sure no new fans grow up without knowing the tales. The Red Sox were the ones who sold Ruth to the Yankees for that 1920 season, they were the ones he hit his first Yankees homer against on that boisterous May Day, it was their future Hall of Famer Herb Pennock who surrendered the monster shot, and they are the ones who noted this anniversary last night in their game notes.
It was the 50th home run of Ruth's young career to that date. He had set the Major League Baseball record the previous season with a whopping 29 long balls. No one could have known where all this would lead -- to 54 homers that season, to 714 total, to the creation of such institutions as the All-Star Game and Hall of Fame that had him in mind, to immortality as the most fabled athlete on earth, and of course to a Duffy Lewis homer in the next at-bat for back-to-back swats -- but the Bambino was increasingly gaining the country's attention. Here is what The New York Times had to say about his first Yankees homer:
"Babe Ruth sneaked a bomb into the park without anybody knowing it and hid it in his bat. He exploded the weapon in the sixth, when he lambasted a home run high over the right field grand stand into Manhattan Field. This was Babe's first home run of the championship season, and it was a sockdolager. The ball flitted out of sight between the third and fourth flagstaffs on the top of the stand. Ruth smashed it over the same place when he broke the world's home run record last season. The only other citizen who has even slapped the ball over the stand was Joe Jackson, a few seasons back."
As far away as Galveston, that next morning's paper carried the headline: "BABE RUTH HITS OUT FIRST 1920 HOME RUN." The account included: "Ruth hit his first home run in a New York uniform in a championship game." They were unable to work the word "sockdolager" into the copy, but the fact that such buzz could travel in that era speaks volumes about the anticipation that was brewing within the National Pastime.
Around the Yankees' clubhouse, the only thing that mattered was that it helped them to a 6-0 blanking of the Red Sox -- and Bob Shawkey pitched a four-hit shutout. Shawkey had lost his first three starts of that season, including an April 20 decision at Fenway Park. The Yankees had been off to a disappointing 4-7 start entering that game -- and they had gone 0-4 already against Harry Frazee's team that had given them Ruth for $125,000 plus future cash considerations.
There was reason for concern among the Yankees and their fans. Entering that game, the Red Sox led baseball with a 10-2 record. Far worse than the Yankees' plight was that of Ty Cobb and the Tigers, who were 0-11 at that point, but this is where the very foundation of a sports empire was beginning to be cemented, with initial tension.
Babe Ruth had to hit a home run as a Yankee.
The Yankees had to beat the Red Sox.
The Yankees had to become the Yankees.
That is exactly what happened. Much has been said recently about Ruth's first home run at Yankee Stadium, struck in 1923, but it was this first homer as a Yankee that really was the cornerstone cemented into the new pinstripe foundation.
They started winning and, with the occasional hiatus, really never stopped. They would go from 80 wins in 1919 to 95 and a third-place finish in 1920. They would reach their first World Series in 1921, win their first in 1923, win their 27th in 2009.
It all really began in that sixth inning on May 1, 1920.
It was a cherry-blooming and predominantly tranquil Saturday much like today, and as such the Yankee crowd at the old Polo Grounds was typically half (roughly 12,000) what it would be on a Sunday. So by later standards there were not a lot who saw it, and had you been there you would not have spent too long at the ballpark. It was a 2:05 breeze thanks to Shawkey, who avenged his previous weekend's loss to Pennock.
Ruth hit cleanup that day, right behind the Human Trivia Question, Wally Pipp. Lewis followed Ruth in the lineup, and it should be noted that, in completing the back-to-back homers, Lewis reached 35 career homers. He would hit three more before retirement.
Babe, who also doubled and scored that day, was just getting started.
On that July 19, he hit his 30th and 31st homers against the White Sox, passing his own record. He was in the process of redefining the home run and remaking a franchise. He finished the season with a staggering 54, compared to 22 by the entire Red Sox club. Boston finished fifth in the American League standings with a 72-81 record -- a six-game improvement.
Ruth would go on to an unthinkable 59 homers in 1921, and then he would break that on the last day with 60 for the nonpareil 1927 Murderers Row club. He would go on to hit the famous "Called Shot" homer to center field at Wrigley during the 1932 World Series. And it all started in the sixth inning against Pennock at the Polo Grounds, creating some confidence.
Whatever he did, Ruth arguably never had a better year than that first one with the Yankees, once he got that first homer out of the way. His average skyrocketed to .376, fourth best in the AL; his slugging percentage was .847 -- the highest total ever to that point by nearly 200 percentage points. His .530 on-base percentage was the highest to that point, and 1.379 marked the highest OPS of his career. He led the AL in extra-base hits, runs, RBIs, walks and total average, which was an all-time high of 1.934, or nearly two bases for every out made.
Ironically, the April 11, 1920, issue of the Times had made it clear that the focal point going into the season was how Ruth would help the Yankees' pitching staff. They wrote:
"The addition of Babe Ruth has strengthened the attack to such an extent that (Miller) Huggins' men should be able to give the best in the (Ban) Johnson circuit an interesting argument. The Yankee pitching staff will start the season in great shape. In past season this has been one of the handicaps of the club, but this year will find the flingers ready for real work."
Ruth would fling only one start in 1920, getting the win against Washington on June 1 after four lackluster innings. He would have four other scattered appearances over the rest of his career, but his days as a pitcher were basically over once Frazee shipped him down the coast to a club that planned to play him every day. It is generally presumed that Ruth would have gone on to be a Hall of Famer even had he just continued pitching, given his past success on the mound.
But the fact is, Ruth was at least partly responsible for the very concept of a Hall of Fame that was constructed in Cooperstown, N.Y. It is where you needed to immortalize the game's greatest, and the notion always started with Ruth. The All-Star Game was created in 1933 to go along with the World's Fair in Chicago, but largely as a way to show everyone what it would be like to have the other top players in the Majors share the field with Babe Ruth.
Ruth played in 2,503 games and finished with 714 homers, which stood as the record until Hank Aaron broke it in 1974. Aaron played in 3,298 games and finished with 755 homers, and that total was surpassed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, who finished with 762 homers in 2,986 games. Ruth played in an era when the regular season was 154 games instead of the modern 162.
In 1920, the Yankees became the first team to draw more than 1 million fans to a ballpark, more than double the attendance of any other club.
"They all flock to see him," Huggins said, noting that the average fan "likes the fellow who carries the wallop."
It is 90 years later, and the first wallop as a Yankee is still worth talking about. It was the year of the superhorse, Man-o-War, and the superman in the American game.
"When Ruth socked his homer," wrote the Times in its "Curves and Bingles" column of May 2, "(Former teammate Harry) Hooper in right field didn't move. He knows Babe and knew where the ball was going."