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Then came Ruth, who swung a mighty bat and pitched, to boot. He hit moonshot home runs fans literally could not imagine.
“We would have never seen anything like it in our lives,” said Mike Gibbons, chief historian at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore.
Barrow batted Ruth last, the customary spot for pitchers, in the Boston lineup. He played once every three days. And then Dick Hobliztell, the first baseman, hurt his finger in the beginning of May 1918. George Whiteman, the left fielder, was struggling at the plate.
On May 6, 1918, Barrow played Ruth at first base, the first time the “Sultan of Swat” took the field in the big leagues as a position player.
“Ruth slapped a saucy home run high into the attic of the grandstand” in the fourth inning, the New York Times wrote. “Ruth can cover first just as well as he can pitch, and he can bat just as well as a first baseman as he can as a pitcher.”
“Babe is doing a lot of rough work aside from his pitching this season,” The Washington Post’s J.V. Fitzgerald wrote the next week when the Red Sox played the Washington Senators.
He was never solely a pitcher again. Ruth split time between the outfield and the mound the rest of the season as the Sox captured the American League pennant and won the World Series.
A century later, Major League clubs vied for the services of a player who promises to do the same. Shohei Ohtani, dubbed the “Babe Ruth of Japan,” was Japan’s best hitter and best pitcher.
In 2016, Ohtani, at age 21, hit 22 home runs and batted .322. As a pitcher, he posted a 1.86 earned-run average (the number of runs opponents score against a pitcher, averaged over nine innings) and struck out 174 batters.
Ohtani announced in November that he would sign with an American major league team in time for the 2018 season, and instantly became baseball’s most sought-after player. In an era of the game when teams value strikeouts and home runs — the game’s two absolutes — more than ever, Ohtani can provide both, and he vowed to sign only with a team that lets him play the field and pitch, something no major leaguer has done habitually since Ruth.
In December, Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, announced he had agreed to play for the Los Angeles Angels. Ohtani struggled through spring training with a 27.00 earned run average and going 3-for-28 at the plate, but made enough of an impression on Angels coaches that he’ll start the year at designated hitter.
His first start on the mound is scheduled for April 1 against Oakland.
“He’s going to pack parks,” Gibbons said, sitting in his office a floor above the room where Ruth was born in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. “People are going to want to see that.”
Professional pitchers are typically part of a five-man rotation and get four days off between outings. Ohtani would instead pitch, then play outfield for three days, scouts say. Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia will likely remove him from the lineup the day before he was scheduled to pitch.
The Angels will use a six-man rotation early in the season until Ohtani settles in, Scioscia said.
Ruth got no such treatment. After he broke in at first base on May 6, he played the next five games at first, pitcher and left field. He took a day off to prepare for a start on the mound, then played four more days in a row before being hospitalized with the flu.
He returned to Fenway Park in street clothes on May 27 and poked his head out of the dugout, according to Robert Creamer’s biography, “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.” The Red Sox crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“Boston has made Babe Ruth its new idol,” wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer on June 1, 1918. He appeared as a pinch hitter in the Red Sox 4-3 loss to the Tigers.
The next day he pitched in another 4-3 loss, but hit his fourth home run of the year. He played center field the next day and homered in a 5-0 win. He homered again the next day, and the day after that.
“How is Barrow supposed to keep him out of the lineup after that?” said Gordon Edes, the Red Sox’ team historian. “Even though at this point, he’s 23, he’s a left-hander, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball.”
Barrow couldn’t, and Ruth insisted he play the field regularly and pitch only when Barrow found it most necessary, Gibbons said. Barrow reluctantly agreed, but only because “Sad Sam” Jones, who came over from Cleveland as a minor leaguer in a trade for Tris Speaker in 1916, was pitching well enough in Ruth’s place.
The Babe pitched only 12 more times the rest of the season, which was shortened because of World War I. He finished with 11 home runs.
“He was taught the craft of pitching, and he did it really well,” Gibbons said. “But he thought his ability to hit the ball as far as he could was a gift from God.”
By Opening Day 1919, a 10-0 whacking of the New York Yankees, Ruth was the Red Sox’ everyday left fielder. He smacked a two-run homer in the first inning, sending the ball 475 feet to dead center field. “The game,” wrote the Times, “was over right there.” He hit 29 home runs that year, then 54 in 1920.
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