- Lincoln Mitchell
Ohtani and the Babe
by Lincoln Mitchell
April 20, 2023
Babe Ruth’s Last Days as a Two-Way Player
It is not even May 1st and already Shohei Ohtani is having a year that is amazing even by the extraordinarily high standards he has already set. It is very possible that even after the regular season and the World Series, the most memorable baseball moment of 2023 will still be the final out of the World Baseball Classic when Ohtani struck out Angels teammate Mike Trout to clinch the championship for Japan.
Since the regular season began, Ohtani has continued his elite performance as both a hitter (.300/.382/.533 with four home runs) and a pitcher (2-0, 0.86 ERA and 27 Ks in 21 innings.) Ohtani’s play, along with that of his teammate Trout, has kept the Angels in the hunt for a playoff spot with only about 90% of the season left to play.
Players who both pitch and hit have been extremely rare in recent decades. Rich Ankiel converted from pitching to being an outfielder between in the early 2000s. A few others have tried similar switches. Position players pitch in blowouts and pitchers occasionally pinch-hit, but those are not true two-way players.
Many have observed that Ohtani is the first real two-way player since Babe Ruth. The words “since Babe Ruth” rarely come up in discussions of modern players because Ruth was a sui generis figure who set many records and helped forge the modern game. However, as others have pointed out, Ruth wasn’t exactly a two-way player for most of his career. Ruth was a pitcher from 1914-1917, but almost never pitched after coming to the Yankees in 1920. It was only in 1918 and 1919 that he did both. Over those two years Ruth pitched a total of 500.1 innings while playing a combined 170 games in the outfield. Ohtani was a genuine two way player in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017 in Japan before becoming joining the Angels, where he has been both a hitter and pitcher in 2018 and again since 2021.
Seeing Ohtani’s hot start this year got me thinking about the final games of the Yankees season in 1930 and 1933. I know that sounds like a strange segue, but give me a minute. In 1930, the Yankees finished in third place 16 games behind a very good Philadelphia Athletics team. The Yankees got great years from Ruth (.359/.493/.732) with 49 home runs and Lou Gehrig (.379/.473/.721) with 41 home runs. Their starting lineup featured three other future Hall of Famers, catcher Bill Dickey, second baseman Tony Lazzeri and centerfielder Earle Combs, but their pitching wasn’t good enough to win the pennant.
Maybe that is why on the last game of the season against a pretty terrible Red Sox squad, the Yankees gave the ball to a 35 year old who had not started a game in the big leauges in nine years.
Babe Ruth, who started that final game in 1930, scattered eleven hits and only two walks, but pitched a complete game which the Yankees won easily by a score of 9-3. The next day the New York Times described how Ruth “dealt speed and curves in a manner which utterly bewildered the Red Sox until the arm grew tired in the eighth.”
Two years later the Yankees won the a World Series that is now most remembered for Ruth’s called shot, but in 1933 they finished second, seven games behind the Washington Senators.
By the Ruth was 38 years old and showing signs of slowing down. His OPS+ was 176, thirty points below his career figure. Ruth hit only 33 home runs that year, his lowest season total since joining the Yankees.
Just like three years earlier, the Yankees were playing the final game of the season against a hapless Red Sox team and once again they gave the ball to the Bambino. Ruth was not as sharp this time giving up 12 hits and three walks, but once again he earned a complete game victory as the Yankees won by a score of 6-5. For good measure, Ruth also hit a home run. The Times’ gleeful headline the next day was “25,000 See Ruth Hurl 6-5 Victory.”
Ruth’s final two pitching appearances were stunts to draw fans for a team that was not winning the pennant. This particularly true of the 1933 game at Yankee Stadium which drew twice as many fans as the last game of the Yankees 1930 season in Boston.
It was only two games against bad teams, but in his late 30s, Ruth was still a decent big league pitcher. This raises the tantalizing question of what would have happened if Ruth would have been a two-way player into his time with the Yankees. My feeling is that given his, shall we say, training regimen, it probably would have been too much for him. It also would not have made that much of a difference for the Yankees during the regular season in most years. During his 14 years with the Yankees, the team won seven pennants. In five of those other years, they were more than five games, usually much more, out of first place, but in 1920 and 1924 they finished three and two games out of first place.
We can never know whether a young Babe Ruth could have pitched the Yankees to a couple of more pennants in the 1920s, and to a great extent it doesn’t matter. Almost nobody believes the problem with baseball, or the world, is that the Yankees didn’t win enough a century ago. However, the possibility of asking the question and the process that gets us (me) there offers insight into the hold that baseball has over many of us.
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