Shohei Ohtani makes baseball an unmissable spectacle. 100 years ago, Babe Ruth did the same thing

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball has changed a lot since 1918, but Shohei Ohtani’s quest to do what Babe Ruth did 100 years ago has reached a point of symmetry where we can begin to make comparisons of sorts.

DENVER -- And it’s fun to do this. Our own Carlos Feliciano did a very early side-by-side comp.

But here, in the second week of May will the Angels in Denver, Ohtani has made five starts as a pitcher, the exact same number of starts as Ruth The Pitcher, the Red Sox’ No. 3 starter had made at roughly the same date a century before.

It’s a good time for us to look down Memory Lane, and also look at what we’re watching unfold under the Halo. But first we have to go back to 1918, to see what Babe Ruth did.

BABE RUTH THE PITCHER – April 15-May 4, 1918:

Let’s call this one an uneven stretch for the hurling version of the Bambino. But as the only southpaw in Boston’s four-man rotation, Ruth was expected to take the ball when manager Ed Barrow told him to in a time when a "bullpen session" was chucking the ball around with a few buddies with small mitts.

Carl Mays – who was later to become "infamous" for being the only pitcher to kill a batter (Ray Chapman, 1920) with a pitched ball, was the Beaneaters’ ace. No. 2 was Bullet Joe Bush. Ruth was the No. 3, and Sad Sam Jones was the No. 4 starter.

Let’s bear in mind that the Red Sox, like every other team, was short-handed in 1918, with many players serving in the military or war-driven jobs as World War I raged across Europe. In April 1918 alone, more than 100,000 American fighting men arrived in France to fight.

One of the Red Sox players who did his duty was Dutch Leonard, a lefty who spent part of the Red Sox World Series-winning campaign by fulfilling military service in the shipyards. Ruth himself nearly did the same.

(Ruth signed up for the draft, but his number wasn’t called for the trenches. Although he thought he was 24 years old, he was actually 23 – but Ruth was married. He had married Boston coffee shop waitress Helen Woodford as a teenager in 1914. Married guys – and ballplayers – got kicked down the list. Otherwise, baseball’s most legendary star could have died in the fields of France).

It’s also important to bear in mind that this was 1918, and American League pitchers had to bat.

Ruth 1918

Babe Ruth, Red Sox, 1918 | USA Today file photo

April 15, 1918: It started swimmingly for the Babe, as his first start came against the lowly Philadelphia Athletics. Ruth would pitch a complete game – of course that was the norm for those days – and the big lefty was pretty much dealing and taking names later. Bear in mind this was not the overweight, swarthy of his Yankees’ heyday: Ruth stood 6-foot-2 and almost all of it was muscle and ripped abs.

The Athletics scuffled across a run in the second as shortstop Joe Dugan drove in George Burns but the Babe dug in on the rubber after that, putting up seven scoreless innings to finish what he started as the Fenway Park faithful saw their heroes emerge as 7-1 winners on Opening Day.

April 19, 1918: Ruth scuffled in the second game of a doubleheader against the visiting New York Yankees. The Yankees swatted around the future Sultan of Swat for 13 hits and five runs, but a relentless Red Sox offense wouldn’t let their southpaw lose.

Despite seeing his ERA rise to 3.00, Ruth (1-1) was the winning pitcher as Boston walked off the field at Fenway, 9-5. (For you statheads, this would be Ruth’s worst start of the stretch: His "game score" was 42. Pretty nickle-and-dime, to use some 1910’s old-timey slang).

April 24, 1918: The Babe got the call to the mound in Philadelphia, and it wasn’t a really bad start. He was the victim of a lack of run support, and the 3-0 loss dropped Boston’s record to 7-2 and Ruth’s to 2-1.

Ruth could have helped himself but all he managed was a single batting in the No. 9 hole. On the hill, the George Herman Ruth The Pitcher scattered five hits over eight innings, but one of those was a homer, hit by none other than the aforementioned George Burns.

April 30, 1918: The weather was warming up in Boston after a freezing winter, and on the inbound steam train were the Washington Senators. Ruth’s opponent on the hill was Harry Harper, a serviceable lefty, and Ruth wasn’t messing around this time with the visitors from the nation’s capital.

With a fastball that topped out at around 80mph (fast for a dead ball covered in tobacco, licorice and dirt), the Babe went nine complete, scattering five hits and three walks. And this time the beefy Ruth helped himself with the lumber. Still batting ninth, he smoked a double, scored twice and stole a base, and raised his batting average to .417.

May 4, 1918: Boston hit the road to the Polo Grounds to face the Yankees, and came away 5-4 losers to drop to 12-5. The Red Sox’ promising 5-0 start out of the gate had evaporated. On the mound, Ruth was again nickle-and-dime. He went the distance (of course), but gave up five runs (only two earned). His control was still erratic (he walked three).

The other part of control that was lacking in Ruth’s game was in his fielding. The canny Yankees determined that one way to get on base against the Babe was to bunt against him.

The other part of control that was lacking in Ruth’s game was in his fielding. The canny Yankees determined that one way to get on base against the Babe was to bunt against him.

As Ruth (3-2) fell off towards the third-base line after delivering his pitch, the Yankees dropped bunts down the first-base side. And Ruth, at 23, was still an awkward fielder. The reason three of the runs charged to Ruth were unearned? … He threw the ball away after getting his big body to the bunt, then throwing the ball past first base for an error. Ruth was charged with two throwing errors and Sox first baseman Stuffy McInnis was tagged with the other.

But they were all Babe’s fault.

But Ruth also hit his first home run of the season in that game.

To sum up: In this five-game span, Babe The Pitcher worked 43 innings, giving up 35 hits, 15 runs (11 earned). His command and control were still big issues. Although he had a tidy ERA of 2.30, Ruth deserved every bit of being Boston’s No. 3 starter. Not as good as Mays or Bullet Joe.

BABE RUTH THE BATTER – April 15-May 4, 1918:

Well, this is where things start to get interesting in terms of career arc. The Red Sox always knew Ruth was massively strong. In fact, in spring training of 1918, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Ruth had hit a pitch an estimated 500 feet into an alligator farm in the distance in an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In those days, almost every baseball team had spring training in Hot Springs, which was known for fine weather, wonderful spas, taverns, and multiple ladies of the night and otherwise. Chicks digged the long ball as much then as they do now. So many good-looking young men around!

Ruth was just one of many baseball legends who trained there: Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb also spent their springs in Hot Springs, in their natty clothes and straw hats, and flashing plenty of greenbacks.

Ruth is thought to have taken advantage of manager Ed Barrow’s rule that wives were not allowed to travel with the Red Sox to Hot Springs. That’s only assumed because of Ruth’s legendary later carousing. He was reported to have spent as much time in casinos, spas, and bars as he did on the baseball field.

But when Ruth arrived in Boston for the 1918, we was tanned, tall, and in exceptional physical shape.

Harry Hooper told Barrow he thought it would help the team to get Ruth’s bat into the lineup more often. Harry Hooper was right.

This wasn’t lost on Red Sox leadoff man and team captain Harry Hooper. Hooper told Barrow he thought it would help the team to get Ruth’s bat into the lineup more often.

Harry Hooper was right.

Between the start of the season and the start of May, Ruth’s at-bats were limited to the days he pitched, or occasional pinch-hitting duties.

May 4, 1918: This was the day Babe Ruth really arrived as an offensive threat. Although he was the losing pitcher, the Babe took Yankees starter Allen Russell deep into the right-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds, which was not an easy place to hit dingers. The right-field fence was a 449-foot poke.

May 6, 1918: Barrow had taken Harry Hooper’s words to heart. Ruth arrived at the Polo Grounds and was told to grab a first baseman’s mitt. He would be batting sixth. The former juvenile delinquent from the Pigtown Section of Baltimore listened. Ruth played an errorless first base. But his bat spoke volumes. Ruth went 2-for-4 with another homer, this time off unlucky George Modgridge, raising his batting average to .450 and his OPS (in the days when that stat didn’t exist) to an absurd 1.372.

May 7, 1918: The next day, Ruth was in the lineup again. The Red Sox had moved on by train to DC to face the Senators again at Griffith Stadium. This time, the skipper Ed Barrow told Ruth he was batting cleanup. But this time there was a twist.

This time the Washington pitcher was future Hall of Famer Walter "Big Train" Johnson. The tall righty from Orange County, California was feared by batters in the league because he had the fastest fastball anyone had every seen. (Ah, you see, we’re getting closer to the Angels here, grasshopper).

Babe Ruth didn’t give a damn.

He spat some tobacco, turned on a Walter Johnson heater and it was back, back, back and gone.

You could look at that pitch and say it was a turning point in the career of baseball’s most famous player, because after 1919, Babe Ruth the pitcher was done, and Babe Ruth was a slugger who slugged. A lot.

Sho Oh

Shohei Ohtani | USA Today Sports

After reading this far, you may say, OK Stu? What does this have to do with the Angels?

Ohtani, of course.

We can line up Ruth’s 1918 pitching and hitting stats with Ohtani’s numbers, and they don’t tell us a hell of a lot – except they have similarities. Both guys are (were) 23 years old, both guys had prodigious power. Both had extremely valuable arms.

It’s also important to note that Ruth was playing in a completely segregated league. Ohtani faces all comers from all corners of the world – black, white, brown and green.

Over his first five starts of 2018, the Angels’ Japanese sensation has logged 26.1 innings, in which he’s struck out 32 batters – something Ruth could only dream about. His ERA is 4.10, but I’ll say these numbers are awfully difficult to compare.

It would take someone with much more mathematical ability than myself to try. Feel free.

Also, the Angels’ usage of Ohtani is a deliberate mystery.

So really, the story is in the story itself. It’s not in the numbers.

Because on this sunny day in California, I can close my eyes and try to imagine what it felt like for those Boston fans in 1918. It’s excitement, what baseball’s all about.

Because on this sunny day in California, I can close my eyes and try to imagine what it felt like for those Boston fans in 1918. It’s excitement, what baseball’s all about.

Babe Ruth was helping take Red Sox fans’ minds off American lives being lost in France in World War I.

Shohei Ohtani is helping Americans and Japanese baseball fans minds off their cellphones and what is going on in the Trump White House.

Bless both Ruth and Ohtani for being such marvelous diversions.

This FanPost is authored by an independent fan. Tell us what you think and how you feel.

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