Saturday, February 13, 2010

3 & 4 Days Until Spring Training: Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig

Before the Babe came to the Bronx, the New York Yankees didn't have much of a history as a franchise. After he and Lou Gehirg had finished their playing days, the Yankees had become one of the finest organizations in baseball and would go on to become the best in all of American sports.

The franchise which would eventually become the Yankees spent their first two years in Baltimore known as the Orioles before moving to Washington Heights in 1903. The New York Baseball Giants were none too thrilled with the move, which was understandable because the incoming franchise built their new home, Hilltop Park, about 10 blocks from the Polo Grounds, where the Giants played. Before the move came to fruition, it was put to a vote and the 15 of the 16 Major League owners approved, the lone dissenter being none other than John T. Bush, owner of the Giants. That lone vote wasn't enough to keep the Orioles in Baltimore, so the club packed up it's things and relocated to Hilltop Park before the 1903 season begun, becoming the Highlanders.

The franchise wasn't any more successful at Hilltop than it was at Oriole Park. In the 12 seasons split between those two locations, the pre-Yankees failed to make the World Series in an 8 team American League even once and had a won-lost record 70 games below .500. During that same stretch, the Giants appeared in the World Series 4 times, winning one. The original New York club was content to ignore their neighboring franchise until the Polo Grounds were destroyed by a fire on April 14th, 1911. At that point, the Giants were forced to lease from and cohabitate Hilltop Field with the Yankees, neutralizing previous tensions between the two teams.

In 1913, the Polo Grounds were rebuilt and both teams moved into the new structure. Given that the Yankees were no longer playing in Hilltop Park, the nickname "the Highlanders" no longer applied. They jettisioned the moniker and officially became the Yankees. Unlike the old name and park, however, they couldn't leave their futility behind. The Yanks finished in the bottom half of the AL in each of the next six seasons.

Although he has become something of a historical footnote, Wally Pipp actually passed for one of the better Yankees of that era, putting up a 114 OPS+ from 1915-1919. Ray Fisher was probably their best hurler, but even he was no better than league average during his time with the team. Roger Peckinpaugh, who was the shortstop and briefly served a stint as player-manager in 1914, was one of the few constants over that time. But he wasn't much of a hitter.

In sum, the Yankees were a dismal franchise with middling talent who played their games in a ballpark that wasn't theirs. But all that began to change when the team was purchased by Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston for $1.25M in 1915.

Ruppert was a former Congressman and had just finished serving a term as the President of the United States Brewers Association. He was a businessman at heart and brought his willingness to wheel and deal to his manage to the Yankees, not to mention the substantial fortune he and his father had accrued in the brewing business. Both of those were essential in bringing the Yankees their first legitimate star.

When Babe Ruth came up with Boston, he was primarily a pitcher, and quite a good one at that. In 1916 and 1917 Ruth threw 323 2/3 and 326 1/3 innings to 1.75 and 2.01 ERAs, respectively. In his limited plate appearances, however, his hitting prowess was already evident, posting numbers well above league average in each of those years.

In 1918, the Red Sox began to transition Ruth into a hitter. That year he appeared in 75 games exclusively to hit and led the league in home runs with 11, despite relatively few opportunities. The following year he pitched in only 17 games, throwing 133 1/3 innings, the last time he would throw over 9 in a season. The Babe's ERA was just about league average in 1919, but he coupled that with pounding a then unheard of 29 home runs and driving in 114.

In the proceeding offseason, Ruth demanded a 200% raise, and rather than retain the slugger or trade him to the White Sox for Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000 cash, Harry Frazee famously sold him to Ruppert and the Yankees for $125,000.

It's easy to view this transaction in revisionist history and wonder what would have become of the Red Sox if they had held onto Ruth. The fact of the matter is at the time, he was still transitioning into a hitter and there was widespread doubt from respected people like Tris Speaker, who thought becoming a hitter would shorten Ruth's career.

To the Sox dismay, Ruth arrived in the Bronx and promptly launched 54 home runs, many over the short right field fence at the Polo Grounds, obliterating his own record of 29. He also worked 150 walks and sported a .533 on-base percentage. In fact, Ruth reached base in over half of his plate appearances in 5 of his first 7 seasons as a Yankee.

As the Bambino was taking the baseball world by storm, Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig was studying at and playing fullback for nearby Columbia University. He was born (at 14lbs!) on 94th and 2nd Ave and grew up first in Yorkville and later in Washington Heights. Gehrig, like Ruth, spent time as a pitcher early in his career. While on the mound for Columbia, Gehrig struck out a record 17 Williams College batters, but was noticed by Yankee scout Paul Krichell more for his left-handed power. He was signed by the Yankees two months later for a $1,500 bonus.

In 1923 & '24, the Iron Horse was used mostly in pinch hitting duty. He raked well above average in his 38 at-bats over the course of those two years and earned himself a more permanent place in the line up in 1926.

The '26 season was the 7th of Ruth's torrid stretch mentioned above. As would have been the case with anyone coming up through the ranks of the Yanks at the time, Gehrig stood squarely in the Babe's vast shadow:
"I'm not a headline guy. I know that as long as I was following Ruth to the plate I could have stood on my head and no one would have known the difference."
The two lefty sluggers had always been quite different. Gehrig was college educated and smoked a pipe while Ruth was street-wise and puffed on stogies. Ruth was an ostentatious extrovert, Gehrig was a bit of an understated loner.

At first, Gehrig was "admittedly in awe" of Ruth. However, the initial reverence wore off as Ruth mentored Gehrig and taught him many of the tricks to lofting the massive home runs that separated the Bambino from the rest of the league by leaps and bounds. Babe actually took a liking to Gehrig and considered him "like a younger brother who was bashful and backwards".

Despite the humility, Gehrig was a hell of a hitter himself. After replacing Wally Pipp on June 2nd 1925, he batted over .300 with a .400+ on-base percentage for twelve consecutive years. He hit 40 or more home runs 5 times and drove in at least 100 runs in 13 straight seasons, including an AL Record 184 in 1931 (due in no small part to Babe Ruth's .495 OBP that year). He won the 1927 League Award (before the MVP came to be) over Ruth who hit 60 HRs and slugged .772. Lou finished his career with a .340 batting average.

Gehrig was invited to go barnstorming with Ruth in the offseason and the veteran also took him fishing on occasion. Appreciative of this, Gehrig invited Ruth to his mother's house in New Rochelle, who was more than happy to cook him huge dinners, something that the Sultan of Swat never enjoyed in the orphanage he grew up in.

Unfortunately, Lou's mother caused their friendship to come to an abrupt halt. Ruth had made one of his visits to New Rochelle and brought both of his daughters, Dorothy, a 12 year old tomboy, and Julia, an 18 year old proper young lady. Gehrig's mother made an off-hand remark about Dorothy being poorly dressed as opposed to Julia, causing Ruth to implore Lou that his mother "mind her own business". Neither man would budge and they refused to speak to each other, forming a rift between the two.

When the cameras rolled, they pretended to be chummy, but the mutual distaste was palpable to those with knowledge of the situation. It wasn't until Ruth left the team in 1935 that Gehrig was named Captain, but the unofficial crown was passed after the two went blast for blast and tied with 46 HRs in the 1931 season. Gehrig's career was still trending upwards, while the Babe's was on the decline.

At the age of 40, Ruth was sold to the Boston Braves where he played only 28 games. He batted .181, but had a .359 OBP and hit 6 HRs.

About halfway though the 1938 season, Gehrig began to feel weak and his performance declined. His statistics were respectable over the course of the season, (29HR, 132 OPS+) but well off his career norms. When he showed up for Spring Training the following year, he was visibly diminished and actually collapsed on the Al Lang Field while running the bases. He made an attempt to play out the season, but it was soon clear he wasn't physically up to the task and his 2,130 consecutive games played streak ended on April 30th. On his birthday, June 19th that year, he was diagnosed with ALS.

On July 4th, 1939, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. It wasn't until then that he and Babe Ruth finally ended their grudge against each other. He delivered his famous speech and became the first player in MLB history to have their number retired.

Gehirg's retirement marked the end of an era which saw the Yankees rise from the doldrums of the league and become one of it's preeminent powers. The Yankees won 8 World Series titles, losing just once in the fall Classic. They failed to finished in the top 2 of the AL just twice in 19 years.

Although there was a great supporting cast of players like Tony Lazzeri, Billy Dickey and Earle Combs, the Yankees engine was powered primarily by Ruth and Gehrig. Comfortably two of the top five players in the league for eight consecutive seasons, the Iron Horse and the Bambino were the cornerstones of the Yankee franchise. They had an interesting relationship, ranging from cordial to cold and back again, and both unfortunately found their way to an early grave. Gehrig passed away in his sleep at the age of 37 on June 2nd, 1941. Ruth lived until August 16th, 1948 when he succumbed to pneumonia. He was 53.

1 comment:

  1. And the one Series they lost ended with Ruth getting caught stealing second as the tying run in Game 7. I can't imagine the storm that would result if that happened today