One hundred years ago today, Babe Ruth made his Yankees debut. And with the benefit of hindsight and time to scrutinize the stats, we can come to the possibly controversial conclusion that his career with the Yanks turned out … pretty well!
Once in pinstripes, the former two-way talent who had twice helped pitch the Red Sox to World Series glory became a permanent outfielder and was able to focus fully on being the monster masher we know and love. In the Bronx, the Sultan of Swat was born. He remains the standard by which all other power providers are judged.
But even the Babe had some pitchers he just couldn’t seem to hit. And we’re not talking about future Hall of Famers here. We’re talking about the more anonymous names of baseball yore who, for whatever reason, were kryptonite for the Colossus of Clout.
Here are the stories of nine random pitchers who owned Babe Ruth.
61 plate appearances: 10-for-49 (1 2B, 0 HR), 12 BB, 14 K
The lefty Wells faced the Babe fairly often between 1923-27, when he pitched primarily in relief for the Tigers. Wells attributed his success against Ruth to his “nothing ball” -- a slow curve that Ruth had trouble timing.
“In my first time to pitch to Babe,” Wells, who passed away in 1986, is quoted as saying in a Bleacher Report story about his life, “my catcher Johnny Bassler came to the mound and asked me, ‘What are you going to throw him?’ ‘And I said, nothing.’”
Wells was Seinfeld before Seinfeld.
It got to the point, Wells once told Society for American Baseball Research member James Lindberg, that Ruth would joke with Wells that he was going to get Wells on the Yankees so he wouldn’t have to face him anymore.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened in 1929, after the Yanks purchased Wells’ contract from Birmingham in the Southern Association.
“See?” Ruth told Wells. “I told you I’d get you with the Yankees!”
Wells was in uniform for the 1932 World Series, and he was convinced Ruth did, indeed, call his shot in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. He told Lindberg that Ruth cried in the locker room after the game, saying he had never hit a home run that meant so much to him.
11 plate appearances: 1-for-10, 1 BB, 1 K
Ruth never faced Cy Young, yet he made Cy Warmoth look like Cy Young. The left-handed Warmoth only pitched 129 recorded innings in the big leagues (three games for the Cardinals, 26 for the Washington Senators), and he had an undistinguished 4.26 ERA with a 1.70 WHIP. But against the Babe, he was at his best, allowing only a measly single.
Sadly, the internet is devoid of much information about who Warmoth was, what he threw, etc. He didn’t even have a baseball card.
But for some strange reason, at one time on Amazon.com’s UK site, you could buy a T-shirt that read, “This guy loves Cy Warmoth,” with two thumbs pointing inward. (Alas, it is currently unavailable.)
31 plate appearances: 7-for-24, 2 HR, 6 BB, 13 K
It’s admittedly a stretch to say Pruett “owned” Ruth, because the Babe had a .975 OPS against him. But Pruett is worth bringing up here because his 41.9% strikeout rate against Ruth was by far the highest among those who faced him at least 10 times.
Pruett K’d Ruth nine of the first 13 times they met (all in 1922) before the Babe finally took him deep on the 14th try. The Babe would have more success against Pruett from that point forward, but something about those early strikeouts stuck with people. Long after both men had stopped playing baseball, Pruett was described as a “nemesis” of Ruth. Pruett was not a highly accomplished arm at the big league level (4.63 ERA over 211 appearances), but he kept getting opportunities because teams felt anybody who could strike out Babe Ruth was worth believing in.
“My won-lost record (29-48) doesn’t look too impressive,” Pruett once said. “What got me a reputation and kept me in baseball were those dramatic strikeouts of Ruth. I owe him a lot.”
Pruett last pitched in 1932. With the money he made in the Majors, he was able to go to school to become a doctor. He finally spoke to Ruth for the first time at a baseball dinner in St. Louis in 1948 and thanked the Babe for, essentially, putting him through medical school.
“I’m glad there weren’t many more like you,” Ruth replied. “If I had anything to do with making you a doctor, I’m glad.”
14 plate appearances: 1-for-12, 1 BB, 4 K
Kinney’s success against the Babe during his short time in the big leagues with the Philadelphia A’s is nowhere near as interesting as his friendship with the Babe. The two were briefly teammates on the 1918 Red Sox, and, according to SABR, they shared a love of crass jokes and boorish behavior.
Their shenanigans came to the forefront during the World Series that year. Ruth was set to pitch Game 4 against the Cubs on the heels of train travel from Chicago to Boston. Per the Chicago Herald and Examiner, Ruth took a playful swing at Kinney in the train’s smoking room and Kinney successfully slipped the punch, causing Ruth to strike something that injured his pitching hand. It was the eve of Kinney’s 25th birthday and, apparently, the two men were celebrating with some, uh, refreshments.
The Babe was bruised pretty badly but still managed to win Game 4 and deliver an RBI triple. He was less successful when he actually faced his buddy Kinney at the plate in subsequent years.
12 plate appearances: 2-for-11, 1 BB, 2 K
In 73 1/3 Major League innings for the Philadelphia A’s and the Indians, Sullivan faced 14 future Hall of Famers and 52 non-Hall of Famers.
The future Hall of Famers hit .234 off him (11-for-47).
The non-Hall of Famers hit .386 (95-for-246).
15 plate appearances: 2-for-12, 3 BB, 1 K
Stiles had a 5.92 ERA in 298 innings for the St. Louis Browns. Although he didn’t last long in the big leagues, he lived to be 100 years and 247 days old before passing away on July 22, 2007.
That longevity earned Stiles a special distinction late in life. He was the last living person to be able to say he struck out the great Babe Ruth.
“He was a very nice fella,” Stiles said of Ruth in 2006. “I rode him all the time in batting practice. But he expected it. Everybody rode him.”
13 plate appearances: 1-for-10, 3 BB, 0 K
Benton is not as random as the others listed here. He had a lengthy career primarily in relief (14 seasons, missing 1943 and ’44 because of his service in World War II) and was twice an All-Star. But all these decades later, he’s no household name. While he never struck out the Babe, he somehow limited him to just a single.
Benton is actually the only pitcher to have faced both Ruth and Mickey Mantle in the big leagues (Mantle was 0-for-2 off him), according to SABR.
Oh, and Benton, in his retirement years, was once arrested for driving a stolen car from Sacramento to Oklahoma City. And he did it while partially blind. So his success against Ruth probably isn’t the most interesting thing about him.
Si Johnson and Johnny Babich
4 plate appearances apiece: 0-for-4, 3 K
These two fall into their own special category of humbling Ruth in that strange opening stretch of the 1935 season, when he was briefly with the Boston Braves. Babich, pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers, tamed Ruth on April 19, in the midst of a season in which he posted an un-angelic 6.66 ERA. Johnson’s brush with the Babe came on May 26, in the middle of a long but mostly undistinguished big league career.
Ruth actually signed one of the strikeout balls for Johnson, but it was stolen many years later during a holiday party at Johnson’s home. Johnson, who passed away in 1994, signed quite a few autographs of his own in his retirement years. People were drawn to anybody with a connection to Ruth, but Johnson mostly shrugged off his success as a matter of timing.
“Babe was on his way out by then,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1993. “He was practically washed up, the poor guy. Those pitches were all fastballs down in the middle. People came to see the Babe hit the ball, but he was late on every swing. Don’t tell anybody, but I was hoping the Babe would hit one out. He was a hell of a swell fella.”
Ruth retired a week after the 0-fer against Johnson. He left his mark on many a Major League pitcher, but a very select few could say they bested the Babe.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.