Although many eyes are turned toward the NFL regular season as major league baseball heads into the 2012 playoffs, to longtime baseball fans there’s no other game that can take their attention away from the national pastime.
Looking at the Era from 1920-1940 …
One name stands far and above all others in the pantheon of major league baseball stars of the 20th century. Ask anyone—baseball fan or not—to name the man who remains the face of major league baseball since its inception, and the name you’re going to hear far more than any other is certain to be Babe Ruth.
The Babe was, and remains, one of those rare, larger-than-life figures that seem to transcend sport. To be sure, Babe Ruth lived big, but let’s not forget what he did to back up his larger-than-life status on the baseball field.
During his storied major league career, Babe Ruth:
- First established himself as a dominant pitcher, winning over 90 games and over two-thirds of his pitching decisions
- Led the American League in home runs 12 times
- Changed the face of the game by shattering home run records and sparking interest in higher scoring games dominated by power hitters
- Set single-season and career home run records that stood until the 1960s and 1970s
- Had a stellar career batting average of .342
Those are just a few highlights. Of course, the Babe also led the Yankees to eight World Series championships over the course of his 16 seasons in New York. Many of the records he set as a Yankee—including the team record single-season batting average of .393 set in 1923—stand to this day.
Off the field, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was known as a charitable man. Ruth was raised largely by Catholic missionaries and teachers after his father signed over custody of a seven-year-old George to missionaries running a Baltimore school for young offenders and orphans. It was in this setting that the young Ruth was introduced to baseball, and many people feel it was his humble beginnings that helped the Babe keep his perspective in later years and set his sights on helping others who had disadvantages to overcome in their lives.
Almost as much for his exploits on the baseball field, Ruth was known for doing things his own way.
In an age decades before free agency, player-owner disagreements were often resolved in a way that didn’t necessarily reflect the market value of certain players. Even so, Ruth was known to stand up to owners in order to receive the pay he felt he was entitled to.
After setting an American League single-season record by hitting 29 home runs for the Boston Red Sox in 1919, Ruth demanded his pay be doubled—to a whopping $20,000—for the following season. The Red Sox owner refused Ruth’s demand, expecting Ruth would see no alternative but to cave in and lower his demand. Ruth, however, held firm, and ended up being sold to New York—where, the very next season, he nearly doubled the home run record he’d set the season before. And Boston, as you may remember, paid dearly for the sale of the Babe, remaining under the “curse of the Bambino” until finally winning a World Series title 84 years later.
While Babe Ruth is widely considered the face of the major league era spanning 1920-1940, there’s another player who deserves recognition for his contribution on and off the field.
“Hammering” Hank Greenberg, like Ruth, was an extraordinary power hitter of his era. While Greenberg’s power totals don’t approach Ruth’s, Greenberg’s career batting record was one of the best of his era and more than makes the case for Greenberg’s inclusion on any list of the best power hitters of the 1930s.
Greenberg didn’t have an especially long career for a Hall of Famer. His career batting totals—including only 331 home runs— wouldn’t normally qualify someone classified as a power hitter for serious Hall of Fame consideration. But his career spanned only 13 seasons, and probably only seven complete seasons in what could be considered the prime of his career. While at his best, Greenberg was among the top power-hitting first basemen-outfielders ever.
Among the highlights of Greenberg’s career were:
- Being the first major leaguer to hit 25 or more home runs in a season in each league
- Setting—and still holding—the American League RBI record for right-handed batters with 183 RBI in 1937
- Hitting 58 home runs for the Tigers in 1938, equaling the mark for most homers in a season during the 34 years between the Ruth and Maris record breaking seasons
There are at least two reasons Greenberg deserves special recognition:
- Drafted into military service in 1940, Greenberg served until being honorably discharged two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Greenberg reenlisted and volunteered for service in the United States Army Air Forces. After graduating from Officer Candidate School he was commissioned as a first lieutenant, rose to captain, and served mainly in Asia for nearly four years before returning to the major leagues. Not only did Greenberg return to the major leagues, but during his second year back with the Tigers following his service in World War Two, Greenberg led the American League in home runs and RBI for the fourth time in his career.
- As the first Jewish superstar in American major league sports, Greenberg stood up to plenty of Antisemitism during his career. Struggling over decisions about whether to play baseball on Jewish holidays, Greenberg was held up to ridicule by some sportswriters and fans, but by all accounts he handled himself with dignity in difficult situations. Perhaps recognizing firsthand some of what African Americans and Jackie Robinson in particular were experiencing in the latter days of his career, Greenberg was one of the few opposing players to welcome Robinson to the major leagues during Greenberg’s final season as a major leaguer—and a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates—in 1947.
Greenberg himself was welcomed … into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956 as one of the most deserving inductees of his era.
With players such as Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Lou Gehrig, and others leading the way, the era in the major leagues from 1920-1940 is generally considered a hitters’ era.
The 1920s in particular is considered an abysmal decade for pitchers in the majors. This “live ball” era saw the shattering of power hitting records and a new emphasis on high scoring, offensive displays at the expense of workhorse pitchers doing their best to hold their own in an era that clearly favored batters.
One pitcher of the 1920s, however, more than held his own against the onslaught of offense.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, in fact, had already enjoyed considerable success before the arrival of the Roaring Twenties. Beginning his major league career with the Phillies in 1911, Alexander already had 208 pitching victories at the close of the 1910s.
Alexander earned another 165 victories while pitching for the Cubs and Cardinals in the 1920s. Even though his better days were behind him long before the decade closed out, Alexander managed to win 21 games at age 40 in 1927. All in all, Alexander put together a great career, finishing with 373 victories, putting him in third place on the all-time list.
But that’s not what stands out most about Alexander—or other pitchers of his era. What jumps out from the statistics chart has nothing to do with wins, losses, earned run average, or even strikeouts.
What stands out—especially when you compare it to the modern age—is the amount of work pitchers of the 1920s put in. We’re in an age of specialization now—relief pitchers for every situation as starting pitchers rarely finish games anymore. But that wasn’t the case at all during the Babe Ruth era.
Detroit’s Justin Verlander is considered a workhorse pitcher of the current era. Verlander has an excellent winning record considering his age and the era in which he’s pitching, and he’s normally counted on to pitch over 200 innings per year for the Tigers. He’s seldom pulled early from games, and during his eight major league seasons thus far he’s pitched as many as 240 innings in a season twice.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, meanwhile, pitched that many innings 13 times. Nine times he exceeded 300 innings. He exceeded 350 innings six times. During one two-year stretch he pitched 388 and 389 innings.
All of Alexander’s inning totals were accumulated during shorter major league seasons than the present one. During the hitters’ era of the 1920s and 1930s, pitchers who started a game usually stayed in the game.
Did you know …
Babe Ruth played himself in The Pride of the Yankees, the movie starring Jackie Cooper as Lou Gehrig, Ruth’s longtime teammate. Ruth and other Yankee teammates were eager to pay tribute to their fallen teammate, whose closing line in the movie (“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”) is included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movie quotes.
While Gehrig’s biographical movie is highly regarded, the same, unfortunately, can’t be said about The Babe Ruth Story, released shortly before Ruth’s death from cancer in 1948. Few critics have suggested the movie did any justice to the life of the Babe, who himself attended the film’s world premiere at the Astor Theatre in New York.
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