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Nearly 3 Decades Before Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth Helped Save Baseball

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Nearly 3 Decades Before Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth Helped Save Baseball

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Babe Ruth likely would have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. But with a bat, he became a legend.

COMMENTARY | Had Babe Ruth remained on the mound, he could have been a Hall of Famer.

But with a bat in his hands, Babe Ruth became a legend ... and saved Major League Baseball along the way.

As a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox from 1914-19, Ruth put up some terrific numbers. In 158 appearances and 143 starts, Ruth was 89-46 with a 2.19 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 1,190.1 innings. He completed 105 of his starts and twirled 17 shutouts.

While helping to pitch the Red Sox to a pair of World Series titles in 1916 and 1918, Ruth was a perfect 3-0 in three starts and ranks third all-time, behind only Mariano Rivera and Harry Brecheen, with his 0.87 postseason ERA.His 5.52 hits per nine innings is the eighth-best in baseball's playoff history.

Add in the fact he was only 24 years old when he gave up pitching in favor of becoming baseball's greatest slugger and, yeah, he was on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

On Jan. 3, 1920, Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees for $100,000, an outrageous sum for a single player at the time. That $100,000 translates to more than $1.1 million in today's economy.

Man, did the Yankees get a bargain.

At the time Ruth went to the Yankees, the franchise was not the most storied in all of baseball. The team had only been in New York for 17 seasons, had never finished higher than second and had compiled a losing record in six of the previous eight seasons. Heck, they had only been the Yankees seven seasons; from 1903-12, the team was known as the Highlanders.

The team had moved into the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan from old Hilltop Park in Washington Heights during the 1912 season, but the Yankees weren't even first-class citizens in their own ballpark. That honor belonged to the New York Giants, a National League powerhouse that had won five pennants since the turn of the 20th century and were perennial contenders.

Baseball was recovering from the Black Sox Scandal, where eight players were banned for life for their roles in allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series. Baseball needed someone to make people believe again.

That person was Babe Ruth.

As a part-time outfielder for the Red Sox in 1918 and 1919, Ruth had led the American League in home runs, belting 11 in 1918 and 29, a new all-time record, in 1919. The previous record of 27 long balls in a season had been set in 1884 by Ned Williamson of the Chicago White Stockings.

But with the arrival of the new, lively baseball in 1920, Ruth was about to take things to the stratosphere.

He shattered his own single-season record with 54 home runs in 1920 and set the mark again with 59 round-trippers in 1921. It was also in 1921 when he became the game's all-time home run king, breaking Roger Connor's career record of 138.

It was a record he would hold for 53 years until it was broken by Hank Aaron in 1974. Ruth would again break the single-season mark, as well, clouting 60 homers in 1927, a record that stood for 34 years until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.

By the time Ruth retired in 1935, the Yankees were four-time World Series champions and played in a new ballpark that opened in the Bronx in 1923. Yankee Stadium was long known as "The House that Ruth Built," because without Babe Ruth, the Yankees likely would have remained at the Polo Grounds for many more years.

However, Ruth's popularity caused the Yankees' attendance to more than double that of the Giants. This prompted the Giants to boot the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds, necessitating the new ballpark that would become the home of the most championship teams in baseball history.

Ruth retired as the game's all-time leader in home runs, runs batted in (2,220, broken by Aaron in 1975), bases on balls (2,062, broken by Rickey Henderson in 2001), strikeouts (1,330, broken by Mickey Mantle in 1964) and extra-base hits (1,356, broken by Stan Musial in 1963).

He still holds the all-time marks for adjusted on-base plug slugging percentage (OPS+) at 206 and wins above replacement at 163.2.

As baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson for breaking baseball's racial divide 66 years ago on April 15, 1947, the contribution Robinson made to the game cannot be minimized.

But it's also important to remember that without Babe Ruth, there might not have been a sport for Robinson to save.

Phil Watson is a freelance journalist and commentator based in upper Michigan who covers the New York Yankees for the Yahoo Contributor Network.

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