B Ruth

“To understand him, you had to understand this; he wasn’t human.”– Joe Dugan

Babe Ruth

The Sultan of Swat

The very name of Babe Ruth conjures up images of towering home runs, stories of mythical proportions, and attributes that have become part of our language and culture.  Yet the Babe was all that and more; in fact, he was himself Ruthian.

He was born George Herman Ruth, Jr., in Baltimore to lower class parents who had a total of eight children, six of whom did not survive infancy.  George, Jr.’s childhood found him alone as his mother and father worked long hours in a tavern.  At age seven, his father took him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Children, and signed custody of George, Jr. to the Catholic-run orphanage and reformatory.  For the next twelve years, the young George rarely saw his parents.  Yet he found a father figure in Brother Matthias, the Prefect of Discipline for St. Mary’s, who took the child under his wing and taught him the finer points of baseball.

Even with the rising attraction of the Babe, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the young slugger to the New York Yankees prior to the 1920 season.  It was forever a dark moment for the Red Sox nation.  Baseball’s biggest star had come to the country’s biggest stage.

It wasn’t long before Ruth’s talents were noticed by Baltimore Oriole (a Boston Red Sox minor league team at the time) owner Jack Dunn, who signed the teenager to a contract.  When other players saw the strapping young Ruth, they referred to him as Jack Dunn’s “newest babe,” and Ruth was forever known as the Babe.

After only a few months with the Orioles, the Red Sox purchased the Babe’s contract and he became a pitching star for the Red Legs from 1915 to 1918.  If Ruth had remained a pitcher, he might still have been a Hall of Famer, leading his team to World Series title in 1916 and 1918.  His career earned run average in Series play is .87, a better mark than Sandy Koufax’s.  Ruth pitched against the great Walter Johnson on six occasions, winning five.

What was catching everyone’s eye, however, were his skills as a batter.  In just 95 games during the 1918 campaign, Ruth led the league in home runs; the following year he was placed in the everyday lineup as an outfielder, setting the record of most home runs in a season at 29.

Ruth clubbed 54 homers in 1920, almost doubling his record total from the year before and hitting more than several teams.  For perspective, someone today would have to ring up some 140 homers in a single season to match Ruth’s feat.  For the next fourteen years, the Babe became the talk of baseball, leading the Yankees to four World Series titles.

As big as he was on the field, his late night exploits of partying and his mass consumption of beer and hot dogs were also legendary.  According to the Babe, he did without so much as a youth that he couldn’t help himself.  He didn’t take care of himself but still put up numbers that boggle the mind.

He holds the career slugging percentage mark and finished with the tenth highest batting average at .342.  When he retired, he had hit more than twice as many home runs as the next person.  In only 8,399 at bats, he slugged 714 home runs; had he as many at bats as Hank Aaron, he would have hit over 1,000.

Hank Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank

There are few batting statistics where you will not find Hank Aaron’s name in the top ten list, yet playing much of his career for the Milwaukee (and later Atlanta) Braves, he never received the accolades afforded Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle.  What Aaron was able to do was compile a 23-year career of consistent excellence:  a major league record of 150 hits in 17 seasons, a .305 average, and when he retired, he held the record for most home runs, runs batted in, extra base hits and total bases.  Not bad for someone who came to the minor leagues batting cross-handed.  He switched to the proper technique and was always known for his strong, quick wrists – maybe the result of batting cross-handed all those years.

He was an excellent outfielder who fielded so effortlessly that many thought he was not playing hard.  However, there were few who played the game with the intensity of Henry Aaron.  In 1957, he won the MVP Award, leading his Braves past the Yankees in the World Series.

H Aaron

“Aaron’s excellence was not expelled in blinding bursts of energy, but rather played out, patiently and inexorably, over a whole generation.”- Lonnie Wheeler

But what Hammerin’ Hank will always be known for was his chase to break the most hallowed record in all of sports – Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714.  In the 1960s, many thought that it would be Willie Mays who would challenge Ruth, but his numbers began to diminish by 1970.  In 1971, Aaron hit his 600th round tripper and by 1973 the race for the record became national news as Aaron ended the season with 713, one off the Babe.  What should have been a glorious anticipation of baseball history in the off season turned out to be a hate-inspired assault on the dignified and reserved Aaron.  He endured death threats and racist hate mail from those who were horrified that a black man might break Ruth’s record.

Yet Aaron also received public support once word of the bigotry became known, even from Ruth’s widow, who said that the Babe would have applauded Aaron.  As the 1974 season began, every at-bat by Aaron was broadcast on the news.  He hit 714 in Cincinnati then returned to his home field in Atlanta.  On April 8, 1974, in the 4th inning, Aaron clubbed number 715, jogging around the bases as fans and America cheered this dignified man who had withstood the wrath of racism.

Aaron’s impact on the game has gone well beyond his playing days.  The Atlanta Braves appointed him vice president of the club, making him one of the game’s first minorities in management.  He has spent his years promoting minority hires and developing players.  In 2002, Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments both on and off the field.

F Robinson

“Going over the hitters it was decided that we should pitch Frank Robinson underground.”
-Jim Bouton

Frank Robinson

The Judge

As a player, Frank Robinson had no weaknesses.  He hit for power and average, had great speed and was a superb outfielder, yet he played in the shadows of Mays and Aaron.  He began his career with the Cincinnati Reds, exhibiting the fierce determination and hard play that were traits of his playing days.  In 1961 he led the Reds to the World Series and he earned the National League MVP award.

For 10 years Robinson was Cincinnati’s best player, yet by 1965 Reds’ owner Bill DeWitt felt Robinson was “an old 30” and his best years were behind him.  In one of the worst trades in Reds’ history, DeWitt traded his star player to the American League Baltimore Orioles.  Robinson proceeded to win the Triple Crown in 1966 and led the Orioles to its first World Series title.  His accomplishments earned him his second MVP award, making Robinson the only player to win that honor in both leagues.

Robinson and the Orioles were far from done; they won three consecutive American League pennants from 1969 to 1971 and secured a second World Series title in 1970 over Robinson’s old team, the Cincinnati Reds, when he hit two homers in the five-game series.

Robinson played the game with an unmatched intensity and determination.  He ran the bases hard.  “I always slid hard.  I wanted infielders to have that instant’s hesitation,” and considered batting a battle.  “Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down.  It made me more determined.  I wouldn’t let that pitcher get me out.  They say you can’t hit if you’re on your back, but I didn’t hit on my back.  I got up.”

When his career ended in 1976, Frank Robinson was fourth on the all-time home run list.  He was a first ballot Hall of Fame member, a charter member of the Orioles Hall of Fame, and an inductee to the Reds’ Hall of Fame.  His number 20 was retired by both clubs.

In 1975 Robinson carried that fire and determination to managing the Cleveland Indians, making him the first full-time black manager in the history of the game, a milestone and a tribute to one of the all-time greats.  He went on to manage three other teams, always getting his players to play well beyond their abilities.

Mel Ott

Master Melvin

The man with the short name could always hit the ball a long way.  Despite being only five feet nine and weighing 170 pounds, Mel Ott was a power hitter, slugging over 500 home runs in his career playing for the New York Giants.  When he retired, he held a slew of National League records, including most home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, and walks.

In his 22 years, Ott led the Giants in home runs in 18 seasons and the league for six years.  He was the youngest player to club 100 career home runs.  He played his career at the Polo Grounds, an unfriendly hitters’ park, but the Grounds did have a short right field which Ott took advantage of during his playing days.  Many argue that his home run total is cheap because of his home park, yet Ott’s average and hits were much higher on the road.  Maybe he had a few cheap ones in New York, but he also lost out in other offensive categories because of the Polo Grounds.

M Ott

“Every time I sign a ball, and there have been thousands, I thank my luck that I wasn’t born (Stan) Coveleski or (Bill) Wambsgnass or (Roger) Peckinpaugh.”
- Mel Ott

Ott’s batting style was unorthodox – he lifted his right foot in the air, a leg kick, right before swinging, much the same as the great Japanese slugger, Sadaharu Oh.  Whatever the style, it worked for Ott and the Giants as they went on to play in three World Series in the 1930s.

Mel Ott also was a member of a club that he would have loved not to have joined – great players who never won an MVP Award.  He is in the same company as Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Eddie Murray, Warren Spahn, Tom Seaver and Tony Gwynn.

Late in his career, Ott was a player/manager for the Giants and remained at the helm for seven years.  In 1942, he became the only player in baseball history to have led the league in home runs while also the team’s manager.

R Clemente

“He was the one player that players on other teams didn’t want to miss.  They’d run out of the clubhouse to watch him take batting practice.  He could make a 10-year veteran act like a 10-year-old kid.”- Steve Blass

Roberto Clemente

The Great One

Roberto Clemente ran like a gazelle, fielded with the grace of a ballet dancer, yet swung a bat in an unorthodox manner.  He spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates after being claimed from the Dodgers, despite the Dodgers attempts to hide the young Puerto Rican in a minor league team. 

He collected exactly 3,000 hits, had a career .317 average, and led the Pirates to the 1960 and 1971 World Series titles.  The 1971 October Classic was his personal stage as he hit .414 and made plays that left announcers speechless – all this at the age of 37.  He led the league in hitting four times and won the 1966 MVP award.

As great an offensive threat as Clemente was, his defensive skills left people in awe, winning twelve Gold Gloves in the process.  Of legendary status was his arm, one so strong and accurate that he many times threw out a batter at first who had hit what was assumed a single to right field.  Playing in spacious Forbes Field, Clemente once threw a ball in deep right center to home plate 460 feet away – on the fly.  Veteran announcer Vin Scully once said that “Clemente could field a ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”

His long career was not without its pains.  Sportswriters would make fun of his English (his second language) and many called him a hypochondriac, not knowing the severe pain he played with due to a bad back and the recurring bouts of malaria he had contracted early in his career.  Clemente was always resentful of these rumors and innuendoes.  He felt he had been slighted in the 1960 MVP Award when he finished 8th in the vote tally despite clearly being the best player on the World Series champion Pirates.  To add more insult, a teammate won the award.

But there was always much more to this proud Puerto Rican than the game of baseball.  Clemente once said, “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”  Clemente was always involved in charitable and civic matters in his homeland of Puerto Rico, creating foundations, schools, and even ball fields where the kids could play.

The defining moment of the man known as the Great One was his final act on earth.  A devastating earthquake had hit Nicaragua, leaving many without food, medical supplies, water and housing.  On his own, Clemente organized air shipments of needed items to the Central American country.  Hearing that some of the previous cargoes did not get to those who needed it, Clemente boarded one of his planes to oversee the shipment.  On New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente’s plane crashed.

In honor of his work, Roberto Clemente was inducted into the Hall of Fame when the Hall’s Board of Directors waived the five year waiting period.  In 1973, Major League Baseball renamed its newly created Commissioner’s Award the Roberto Clemente Award given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of the Great One.

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