Could Babe Ruth have done what Shohei Ohtani is doing?

Babe Ruth Helmar card

There’s an old baseball tale that goes like this: George Herman “Babe” Ruth was in the Boston lineup as a first baseman early in the 1918 season, when he smacked a towering home run into the right field bleachers at the Polo Grounds in New York. Seated together watching, were Red Sox owner Harry Frazee and Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. After he saw the baseball disappear into the far reaches of his ballpark, the flabbergasted Ruppert was reported to have offered $150,000 to purchase Ruth.

That story is probably not true. It smells of too much convenience. The two owners side by side, the famed ballplayer hitting a mammoth home run, and a half-hearted (or serious) offer being made. It seems too perfect to be true.

But the facts of that game are true. Ruth did blast a long, towering home run on May 6, 1918, at the Polo Grounds against the Yankees. He was in the Boston lineup that afternoon as a position player for the first time, and it wasn’t something Boston manager Ed Barrow intended on making a regular occurrence.

“I’d be the laughingstock of baseball if I changed the best lefthander in the game into an outfielder,” manager Barrow said.

All these years later, more than a century later in fact, baseball experts are having a similar debate about a new two-way superstar. His name is Shohei Ohtani, and he’s doing things even the Babe never did. But there are some who think “Shotime” should concentrate on hitting or pitching, not do both.

The Best Left-Handed Pitcher in Baseball

Was Babe Ruth the best left-handed pitcher in baseball in 1918? If he wasn’t, he sure was in the conversation. Consider:

Most Wins by Lefty, 1915-1918

  1. Hippo Vaughn … 82
  2. Babe Ruth … 78
  3. Lefty Tyler … 60
  4. Dutch Leonard … 57

Lowest Earned Run Average by Lefty, 1915-1918

  1. Babe Ruth … 2.05
  2. Eddie Plank … 2.11
  3. Eppa Rixey … 2.14
  4. Hippo Vaughn … 2.19

In 1916, Ruth led the American League in ERA and shutouts. He averaged 22 wins per season over 1915-1917, the last three years he was used exclusively as a starting pitcher.

Let’s just say that Georgie Ruth was the best southpaw in the American League from 1915 through 1917, and one of the two or three best in the game.

Ohtani is doing both at the same time

What makes Shohei Ohtani different? In 2021, the Japanese-born ballplayer is performing at star level both with a bat in his hands, as well as from the mound as a pitcher.

In fact, Ohtani has been selected to the American League All-Star Game as both a pitcher and a hitter, the first time that’s ever happened.

Entering the mid-season break, Ohtani leads the major leagues in home runs, and is on a pace to hit more than 60, which would eclipse the Babe’s highest total. At the same time, the Angels’ star is slinging it from the mound too.

In 13 starts so far this season, Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA, and he’s averaging nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings. While he hasn’t had the best luck (his teammates have a knack of not scoring much when he starts as a pitcher), Ohtani is a top-level pitcher in MLB. He has the stuff and the arm to be a true ace.

Could Babe have kept pitching as a slugger?

Thus far, the Angels have allowed Ohtani to pitch and play DH between starts in 2021. But, the Red Sox decided to switch the Babe to the outfield. It seems obvious now, but at the time it was a risky decision. Boston had one of the best pitchers in the game, and they had just won three World Series titles in four years. Yet, their front office, urged by outfielder Harry Hooper, made the decision to go all-in on Ruth as an outfielder.

Ruth went on to win 12 home run titles, to rewrite the record books, and as a Yankee, he established a dynasty. He became America’s first iconic athlete of the postwar era. He eventually smacked an astonishing 714 home runs and set a single-season mark of 60, in 1927.

But could the Babe have still pitched while hitting his home runs in pinstripes? Could he have done what Shohei Ohtani is doing?

It’s possible, but doubtful. The Babe was not the type of personality who could focus on many things at once. He was often distracted just playing defense in the outfield, and his indulgences with alcohol and women were legendary. Ruth probably never could have tried to do both and be great at them both. He was meant to be larger than life, an explosion of mighty accomplishments, which was well-suited for hitting home runs and setting slugging records.

What we’re getting from Ohtani in 2021, is something unseen in baseball, even from the Great Bambino.

4 thoughts

  1. Oh come on he’s DH’s and not playing the field. Would you take him over Tatis, Guerrero or Devers? How come no one mentions what Cy Seymour did? Ohtani’s not ever going to do what he did. The problem is MLB needs a poster boy since Trout avoids the limelight so they cram this guy down our throats daily. They try and make every at bat of his the second coming of Jesus.
    As long as there is humans on this earth there will never be another Ruth unless the steroid and HGH goofs keep using those special Wheaties.

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  2. Apples and oranges . . . the world of baseball at the end of the Dead Ball Era is widely different from what we have two decades into the 20th Century. Babe Ruth actually hastened the end of an era in baseball; he proved that fandom was enthralled by the long ball. Ohtani is the product of the current era. He has people gushing about his pitching, when he’s on target to post a whopping eight or nine victories.

    I wouldn’t downplay what Ohtani’s accomplished this year. He’s proven to be as much as had been promised when the Angels signed him. But I think the question is rather, could Ohtani have accomplished what Ruth had done in his era? We don’t know . . . we can’t know. You can’t factor out the difference in diet and training from the modern era to a hundred years ago.

    Ohtani is able to do “both”: because of the designated hitter rule. Well, Ruth didn’t have that, or maybe they wouldn’t have felt that to be an everyday player, he had to give up the pitching. Maybe Ruth wouldn’t have had the discipline to excel at both, but there’s no of knowing that, either.

    That Ohtani is being put on so tall a pedestal after only a half season of performing at this level only proves that we’re always on the lookout for the next big thing. But no matter how many years Ohtani pitches, he’ll never match Ruth on that score. He won’t be allowed to. Starting pitchers in Ruth’s day were expected to start what they finished. Ruth started 125 games from 1915-18 . . . and completed 92 of them. Ohtani, in his 25 career starts, has no complete games and has averaged less than five innings per outing.

    No one expects a pitcher to pitch a complete game any more. They’re expected to throw no more than 100 pitches before turning over the game to a series of set-up men. That’s not going to result in as many victories for starting pitchers, so a re-education has been going on for the last decade that, well, victories really aren’t the most important statistic. But it’s not just the number, it’s the idea that, God forbid, any starting pitcher would have to face the opposing team’s batting order for a third time. This may make sense as far as winning a game, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what a pitcher will do with the chips down, gutting out a victory on determination and guile when your fastball’s speed has diminished over the course of the evening. Ohtani has pitched into the seventh inning only twice in 13 starts this year, and in one of those two he put the first three runners on base in that inning and took the loss.

    Again, not selling Ohtani short. He’s been remarkable and has been having the kind of season that super-charges fan interest. But he’s no Ruth . . . no one else ever has been. Plenty of fans will disagree with that statement, but it’s an easy one to defend.

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