Remembering Ruth's big league debut 100 years ago

The Babe pitched seven innings, allowing two earned runs in a win over Cleveland

July 9th, 2014

The train traveled overnight, carrying him from his roots to his calling.

This was not a trip Babe Ruth planned, expected or even hoped to make. He was comfortable in his native Baltimore, still in awe of his surroundings after his exodus from an orphanage and reform school, still content pitching and pounding out home runs for a first-place Orioles team in the International League.

But that team was sagging in attendance and bleeding money, and it had shipped three of its better assets -- Ruth, Ben Egan and Ernie Shore -- to the American League, to Boston, to recoup some cash.

And so the train traveled up to Boston the night of July 10, 1914, a journey that, a century later, we can safely say changed the game of baseball forever.

It certainly changed Ruth.

Ruth was, at that point "a big overgrown green pea," as Red Sox teammate and eventual fellow Hall of Famer Harry Hooper would later put it. To say Ruth was raw and unrefined is underselling it.

Fast Facts about Ruth's Debut
  • Date: July 11, 1914
  • Final score: Red Sox 4, Naps 3
  • Location: Fenway Park
  • Attendance: Not known, but the Red Sox's average attendance that season, per Baseball Reference, was 6,093.
  • Ruth's line: Seven innings pitched, three runs (two earned) allowed on eight hits with no walks and one strikeout. He was 0-for-2 at the plate.
  • Famous K: Ruth struck out in his first at-bat, against Naps pitcher Willie Mitchell, who, interestingly, had thrown a perfect game against LSU. In that game, Mitchell logged an incredible 26 strikeouts while pitching for Mississippi State in 1909.
  • Cooperstown cred: Three eventual Hall of Famers were on the field that day: Ruth, Boston center fielder Tris Speaker and Cleveland second baseman Nap Lajoie. Hall of Fame right fielder Harry Hooper did not play in this game but was with the Red Sox that season.
  • Notable opponents: Two other Naps players who faced Ruth that day: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, whose involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal and continued ineligibility for the Hall remains a subject of great dispute, and Ray Chapman, who in 1920 became the only Major League player to die from an injury suffered on the field.

    -- Anthony Castrovince

"He was wild, he was reckless and he had not experienced much in life," said John Thorn, MLB's official historian. "He had a boundless appetite for everything. There was nothing that was engaged in moderation."

If we believe the legend (and really, isn't that more fun?), then there was nothing moderate about July 11, 1914, Ruth's first day in the Major Leagues.

The legend has it that the Federal Express train arrived at the Back Bay station around 10 a.m. Ruth bid adieu to Bill Wickes (secretary for the Orioles, sent to travel alongside the trio to ensure nobody from the rival Federal League tried to sign them), crossed the street to Landers Coffee Shop, hit on Helen Woodford, the 16-year-old waitress who would soon become his wife, paid a quick visit to the Red Sox offices on Devonshire Street, reported to work at Fenway Park, threw on a uniform, pitched seven innings and earned a 4-3 win over the Cleveland Naps.

That's a pretty full day, and it only takes us to mid-afternoon.

Now, granted, maybe the Babe didn't meet Woodford that exact day.

"I don't know absolutely that it's true," Thorn said. "But it is not implausible, because he had no experience with women, so he must have been completely smitten."

The rest, though, is fact.

And when it comes to Babe Ruth, the facts are legend enough

The next day's Boston Globe featured a picture of Ruth, Egan and Shore, with the understated caption, "New Red Sox Players from Baltimore." In it, Ruth looks every bit his 19 years -- green, uneasy and no doubt, nervous. There was simply no knowing that the sport's most singular career (find another player with 714 home runs and 94 victories on the mound) was beginning that day.

Sure, Ruth was well-regarded. Tales of his pure velocity and titanic blasts had emanated out of St. Mary's Industrial School and had made their way into the International League. But his reputation preceded him in the big leagues only to the more astute of sportswriters, and certainly not to the common fan.

Heck, even the fans in Baltimore largely ignored the Babe, which is how he got to Boston in the first place.

The newly established (and short-lived) Federal League, which saw itself as a "third Major League," had a team in Baltimore named the Terrapins. They built a ballpark right across the street from the Orioles' home at Back River Park. The Orioles, dropped from the big leagues 11 years prior, were old news, and while the Terrapins drew crowds by the thousands, Ruth once threw a shutout for the O's in front of just 11 paid customers.

Dunn could no longer afford to field a roster, and so he dangled Ruth and the others to several Major League clubs.

Had fate allowed, Babe Ruth could have been a Cincinnati Red, who are known to have made an offer that Dunn turned down. He could have been a member of John McGraw's New York Giants, who had also shown interest. But Ruth became a member of the Red Sox because their owner, Joseph Lannin, fronted Dunn $3,000 to make a payroll, in addition to the purchase price of a reported $25,000 (though some accounts put that price as low as $8,500).

Had the Red Sox not been playing in nearby Washington, D.C., that July 4, who knows where Ruth would have wound up?

It would, of course, be money issues in Boston (to say nothing of Ruth's erratic behavior) that would eventually prompt owner Harry Frazee's decision to sell Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. But in the meantime, the Red Sox had a live-armed left-hander who would use his time in Boston to establish himself as one of the game's most mesmerizing talents.

That wasn't evident immediately.

Ruth had a fiery fastball, good instincts and precision with the fundamentals, but he was basically a two-pitch pitcher.

"A change of pace [in pitch speed] did not come naturally to Ruth," Thorn said. "It was something he developed at the Major League level. He relied upon speed. He did not try to deceive you."

In the first inning of that first game, Ruth made a smart cutoff play on a throw from center fielder Tris Speaker that was traveling toward home. That sparked a chain of events that prevented Cleveland's Jack Graney from scoring on a Shoeless Joe Jackson single. Other than that, the game is notable only for the seven mostly-effective innings Ruth pitched, and the strikeout he logged in his first big league at-bat.

Ruth, though, did not have a long leash in that first stint with the Sox. He got shelled in his next start against the Tigers. And then Ruth hit the bench, where he sat idle for nearly a month.

It wasn't until late July, when Lannin bought the Providence Grays, an International League franchise, and made them a Boston farm team that Ruth had somewhere to work. He would win nine games in roughly six weeks with Providence, and he'd also smack his first professional home run. Ruth spent the last week of a lost Red Sox season in Boston, winning one start and losing another.

He married the waitress, Woodford, a couple weeks later.

Indeed, life changed in a big way for Ruth in 1914, and few moments in baseball history are more meaningful than that train ride that first brought the Babe to the big leagues.

"He was the Kaspar Hauser wolf child, brought into civilization," Thorn said.

The legend had just begun.