erik lundegaard


Saturday December 03, 2022

Babe Ruth's Last Hit

It began with this question from the daily SABR quiz: “Who was the first Major Leaguer to cross the plate more than 150 times in a single season in the Liveball Era?”

My first thought was Lou Gehrig. Then I went, “Wait, Liveball Era? Wouldn't that be 1920 on? So wouldn't it be Babe Ruth or Rogers Hornsby?”

You usually get two or three hints with the daily quiz, and this was the first one: “Carl Hubbell surrendered this slugger's first National League home run.”

So it couldn't be Hornsby. He got his first homer way before Hubbell showed up, right? (Right: Hornsby debuted in 1915, Hubbell in 1928.) And it couldn't be Ruth because .... Oh, right. Braves. So Ruth.

I knew the trajectory—Red Sox to Yankees to Braves—but always thought about it as Ruth's return to Boston, and familiar surroundings, rather than playing in the unfamiliar National League. Afterwards, I looked it up. Hubbell gave up Ruth's first NL homer on Opening Day. I also knew about the three homers he hit in one day. Weren't they his last three? (They were.) What I didn't know, or hadn't realized, was that it was all in a losing effort. Despite Ruth's three homers and 6 RBIs, the Braves lost to the Pirates 11-7. And he didn't even play the whole game. From the bottom of the 7th:

Joe Mowry replaces Babe Ruth playing RF batting 3rd

Was he sick? Hungover? That's what the modern legend suggests. I believe the John Goodman movie has him completely sowsed, while Robert W. Creamer's seminal bio suggests hungover. He was also suffering aches and pains. He'd had a bad cold in April and after Opening Day rarely played a full game. Plus he figured out he'd been rooked. The owner of the Braves had promised him stock options, and a percentage of the profits, but the team was a loser—there were no profits.

How bad of a loser? After Ruth's three-homer game on May 25, the team's record stood at 8-20. Duffy Lewis, who'd been Ruth's teammate on the Red Sox and was now the Braves' traveling secretary, suggested Ruth retire: Go out with a bang. But Ruth had promised ownership one full swing around the Majors, so he stuck around for three games vs. Cincinnati and two against Philadelphia. It wasn't good. He went hitless and the team was lifeless. By the time he announced his retirement in early June, the Braves were 9-27 and would finish the season with the worst record in baseball, 38-115, 61.5 games back of the first-place Cubs and 25 games back of the seventh-place Phillies. They're generally regarded as one of the worst teams in baseball history.

So it made sense for Ruth to get out while the getting was good. One wonders, in fact, if the losing wasn't just as much a reason to retire as the aches and pains. In his long career, he'd only played on two MLB teams with losing records: the 1919 Red Sox, who went 66-71, and the 1925 Yankees, who went 69-85. Maybe he just couldn't take it.

I have to think Ruth removed himself from that May 25 game, too. One, Ruth did what he wanted, and two, the game was tied. Why bench the only guy who's hitting? And who has a shot at a four-homer game?

Instead, Joe Mowry—who would only play three seasons in the Majors, retiring after '35—led off the 9th with a single, but three quick outs followed and the Braves were done.

So Ruth's last hit in the Majors was a home run. And not just any home run. From Creamer's book:

It was unbelievably long, completely over the roof of the double-decked stands in right field and out of th epark. Nobody had ever hit a ball over the roof in Forbes Field before. Gus Miller, the head usher, went to investigate and was told the ball landed on the roof of one house, bounced onto another and then into a lot, where a boy picked it up and ran off with it.* Miller measured the distance and said it was 600 feet. His measurement may have been imprecise, but it was still the longest home run ever hit in Pittsburgh.

*Don DeLillo alert

I'm sure there's some legend in that, but everyone agrees it was socked. Not bad for an old, hungover man.

Posted at 10:29 AM on Saturday December 03, 2022 in category Baseball