On the afternoon of July 11, 1914, a husky 19-year-old starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox made his major-league baseball debut by earning a victory against the visiting Cleveland Naps. None of the 11,087 fans in attendance at Fenway Park could have known that Boston’s rookie southpaw, who was hitless in the game, would become a baseball legend still instantly recognizable a century later by just his nickname—the “Babe.” On the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s first major-league game, learn 10 surprising facts about baseball's biggest icon.
1. Ruth first gained fame as a pitcher.
Although best remembered for swatting a prodigious 714 home runs and slugging .690, which remains a major-league record, Ruth was one of baseball’s most dominant left-handed pitchers in the 1910s. He won 89 games in six seasons with the Boston Red Sox, including 24 in 1917, and helped the team win three World Series titles. Ruth only pitched five games for the New York Yankees as his position switched to outfielder after being sold by Boston before the 1920 season.
2. He did not retire as a New York Yankee.
Ruth’s major-league career not only started in Boston, it ended there as well, but not with the Red Sox. Discarded by the Yankees as his performance waned, Ruth signed with the National League’s Boston Braves in 1935 in the hopes of becoming the team’s manager the following season. When it became clear that his skills had deteriorated and the promise would not be kept, Ruth ended his 22-year career after just 28 games in a Braves uniform.
3. Ruth was not a unanimous choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A year after his retirement, Ruth was among the five initial inductees elected to the new National Baseball Hall of Fame under construction in Cooperstown, New York. In spite of Ruth’s amazing career statistics, 11 of the 226 voters left him off their ballots, and the “Sultan of Swat” trailed Ty Cobb as the leading vote-getter. Ruth’s plaque in Cooperstown refers to him as baseball’s “greatest drawing card,” and proving the point, the Hall of Fame last month opened a new exhibit on Ruth to coincide with the centennial of his first big-league season.
4. He was not an orphan.
Although Ruth attended St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys in Baltimore, he wasn’t an orphan, but merely delinquent, incorrigible and wayward. “Looking back on my boyhood, I honestly don’t remember being aware of the difference between right and wrong,” Ruth wrote in his autobiography. Ruth’s parents were so overwhelmed with their “Bambino” that they sent the troubled youth to the Catholic school at age seven. The school had full guardianship of the boy, and it was there that he fell in love with baseball and signed a contract with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles on Valentine’s Day in 1914.
5. Ruth believed he was a year older than he really was for most of his life.
For decades Ruth believed that his birthday was February 7, 1894. However, when he applied for a passport before sailing to Japan with an all-star team of ballplayers after the 1934 season, he looked up his birth certificate and found his birthday listed as February 6, 1895, nearly a full year later than he had believed. Ruth, however, continued to celebrate February 7 as his birthday and did not shave a year off his age.
6. His father died in a fight with a family member.
Ruth’s father, George Herman Ruth Sr., owned a string of Baltimore saloons—the site of one of them is now Oriole Park’s center field—and was tending bar one day in August 1918 when a quarrel broke out between two of his brother-in-laws. Ruth began to argue with one of the family members and followed him onto the street where a fight ensued. Ruth fell, hit the back of his head and died of a fractured skull.
7. Ruth once pitched a combined no-hitter without retiring a single batter.
On June 23, 1917, Ruth took the mound against the Washington Senators and walked the leadoff hitter, Ray Morgan. Ruth argued balls and strikes with home plate umpire Brick Owens so vociferously that he was ejected from the game. Ruth rushed Owens and threw a punch that struck the back of the umpire’s neck. Morgan was then thrown out trying to steal second base, and Ruth’s replacement, Ernie Shore, retired the next 26 batters in order.
8. He served jail time for being a reckless driver.
Ruth possessed underrated quickness on the base paths—he stole home 10 times in his career although he made the last out of the 1926 World Series attempting to swipe second base—but it couldn’t compare to the speed he displayed behind the wheel. Ruth’s litany of speeding tickets, traffic violations and automobile accidents was nearly as prolific as his 714 home runs. On June 8, 1921, Ruth was arrested in Manhattan for speeding—albeit at 26 miles per hour—for the second time in a month and sentenced to spend the rest of the day in jail. Released 45 minutes after the start of that day’s game, Ruth put on his Yankee uniform underneath his suit and sped off with a motorcycle escort in time to play for the Yankees.
9. He made his last official major-league appearance in a Dodgers uniform.
After his playing days were over, Ruth maintained his dream of managing in the big leagues. In June 1938, he was hired as a first base coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ruth entertained fans by taking batting practice and appearing in exhibition games, but the struggling Dodgers used the “Sultan of Swat” mainly to sell tickets. When the manager’s job opened for the 1939 season, the Dodgers selected captain Leo Durocher over Ruth, who did not return to the team.
10. His first wife died under mysterious circumstances.
Ruth married 16-year-old Helen Woodford after his rookie season. The couple adopted a daughter, likely born to one of Ruth’s mistresses, in 1922. Within a few years, the pair separated permanently. In January 1929, faulty wiring sparked a fire that swept through a Watertown, Massachusetts, house owned by a dentist named Edward Kinder and killed a woman mistakenly identified as his wife, Helen Kindler. Helen, however, was actually Ruth’s estranged wife, and her true identity didn’t come to light until readers and family members recognized her photograph in a Boston newspaper. The true identification of Helen Ruth came only hours before her scheduled interment.