Shohei Ohtani, who is set to start on Friday night against the Astros, is one-of-a-kind. No baseball player has ever accomplished anything remotely similar to what Ohtani has done. He's hit more than 40 home runs, stolen more than 20 bases, thrown over 100 innings and fired fastballs over 100 mph. He's a superhero, a supernova on the baseball field, a superstar who looked at baseball's 150-year history and said, "Yeah, that's impressive, but I can do better."
Sure, there's Babe Ruth, but even he pales in comparison. Ruth never hit 40-plus home runs and started over 20 games in a season. The Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, the Great Bambino may have pitched and he may have hit, but he rarely ever did them at the same time.
“I don’t think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year,” Ruth said in 1918. “I can do it this season all right, and not feel it, for I am young and strong and don’t mind the work. But I wouldn’t guarantee to do it for many seasons.”
But that doesn't mean that once he became a full-time outfielder, he never pitched again. After throwing 133 1/3 innings and starting 106 games in left field with the Red Sox in 1919 -- hitting 29 home runs along the way -- Ruth became a full-time outfielder with the Yankees the next season. He would take the mound three times for 13 combined innings in 1920-21, but by then, his bat was not only his best asset, he was baseball's main attraction. It was time for him to stop bothering with his arm and think only of his bat.
He wouldn't take the mound again until Sept. 28, 1930. And who else could his opponent be but ... the Boston Red Sox.
Sept. 28, 1930
It was the final day of the regular season. Ruth had, once again, put up his usual numbers. He led the American League with 49 home runs. He hit .359 and led the Majors in slugging and on-base percentage. But for the second consecutive year, New York was not the pennant winner, finishing 16 games behind the Philadelphia A's for the American League title. So, with the Yankees in Boston on the final day of the season -- the game took place at Braves Field because Sunday games were still outlawed at Fenway due to its proximity to a church -- Ruth had a humble request for rookie manager Bob Shawkey: He wanted to pitch.
These days, no manager or pitching coach in their right mind would allow their superstar to do such a thing. And unlike now when a slugger might get some mopup innings to show off the knuckleball he's been working on, Ruth was here to compete.
"12,000 fans heard the announcer shout the battery for the New York Yankees, 'Ruth and Bengough,'" the AP reported the next morning. "The crowd thought they were being kidded. Nine innings later they cheered their heads off for George Herman 'Babe' Ruth, the master home run hitter who had returned to the pitcher's box and twirled his mates to a 9-3 victory over the Red Sox."
Though he was only expected to throw a "few innings," Ruth showed off his skill, allowing only two hits through the first five innings. With New York holding a commanding 7-0 lead when Ruth took the mound in the bottom of the sixth, the team let the Bambino go. He pitched a complete game, scattering 11 hits and giving up only three runs, with only the last two being earned.
"[H]e dealt speed and curves in a manner which utterly bewildered the Red Sox until the arm grew tired in the eighth," the New York Times reported.
Sadly, while Ruth was also solid at the plate, going 2-for-5 with two singles and an RBI, he didn't accomplish the one other thing the fans were hoping for: Ruth didn't go deep, leaving him stuck on 49, unable to reach 50 for the final time in his career.
Oct. 1, 1933
It would be three years before Ruth again toed the slab. Once again, it came on the last day of the season; once again the Yankees were out of the pennant race; and once again the opponent was the Red Sox. But this one had an added twist: Ruth was now 38 years old and had just put up his worst offensive numbers since 1925, when he missed nearly half the season with the "Bellyache Heard 'Round the World." There was a chance that this would be the final time that Ruth put on the pinstripes at Yankee Stadium.
Not only did Ruth volunteer to take the mound -- this time he practiced by throwing batting practice for the final weeks of the season -- he also took part in a pre-game Home Run Derby. With 20,000 fans packing the stadium, Ruth put on a show. He won the Derby, cracking a 395-foot home run to take home the crown.
After the pregame exertions and with trainer Doc Painter rubbing Ruth's arm between innings, Ruth was ready. Starting catcher Bill Dickey was given the day off and Joe Glenn, who had played in only 10 big league games, got the nod as his batterymate.
“I was going to be the second-string catcher. They figured they’d give me a chance to catch," Glenn told SABR in 1983. "It was a confidence builder. 'Throw him in with Babe and see what he can do.'"
Even at 38 and after competing in a pregame Derby, Ruth was on. He pitched five shutout innings before getting into trouble and giving up four runs in the sixth. Still, there was no thought of taking the Bambino out. He finished the game, giving up five runs and getting the win.
"Babe, who is positively deadly nipping base runners," Jimmy Powers wrote in the Daily News, "throws more strikes from the bleachers than the box. He gave only four hits in the first five innings and had nine consecutive putouts. He daintily planted his pooches on first base in the fifth inning and took Gehrig's throw on Almada's grounder for a personal putout."
It was such a fun moment, the paper gave Babe a giant headline and even had the paper's fashion editor report on his "plain everyday white flannel Yankees uniform."
Even better? This time Ruth did homer, cracking his 34th of the year off Bob Kline in the fifth inning.
"Babe was my idol," Glenn said. "He was like a god in baseball to me. And I never, never, never figured at that time that I would ever play with him on the same team and catch his last game. That is something like we call a miracle."
Though Ruth would return to the Yankees in 1934 before joining the Braves in '35, he never took the mound again.
“I lost eight pounds in that game,” Ruth said after the game. “No regular pitching job for me. The outfield has it licked. About one game a month is all I want to pitch. I’ve got a sore arm and a headache.”