The Sultan of Swat. The Great Bambino. The Caliph of Clout. Babe Ruth has been known by many names, including George Herman Ruth, Jr., which is the name he was born with on February 6, 1895, in Baltimore, Maryland. After a rocky childhood, he'd make a mark not just on American sports, but on a nation emerging from the horrors of WWI and the Great Depression.
With a career .342 batting average, 714 home runs, and outsized personality, he became a symbol of bold, decisive victory and bombastic braggadocio. A no-brainer Hall of Famer, Ruth is still probably the most famous American baseball player of all time.
Here are 11 facts about The Behemoth of Bust.
1. Babe Ruth wasn't an orphan.
Contrary to popular belief, Babe Ruth wasn't an orphan, though he did grow up in a school for orphans. His dad, George, Sr., owned a saloon downstairs from the family's apartment, and, according to some accounts, a concerned neighbor told the cops a child was living there after a gunfight broke out in the bar. The courts then remanded young Ruth to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys in Baltimore. It's said his parents would get him released temporarily a few times, but his behavior was too wild for them to control and he'd quickly be sent back.
Other sources—including Ken Burns's Baseball documentary—say Ruth was sent to the orphanage at age 7 solely because of his wild behavior and his abusive father's inability to handle him. Whatever the case, Ruth stayed in the school off and on until the age of 19, when he signed with the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles as a pitcher. The final entry of his file at the school reads, "He is going to join the Balt. Baseball Team."
2. He owes his baseball prowess to his school's disciplinarian.
There was no doubt that Ruth had a natural talent for the game, but it was nurtured at Saint Mary's by Brother Matthias, the school's disciplinarian who would often make a show of hitting makeshift balls 350 feet or more out in the schoolyard in front of the kids. That was more than enough to inspire Ruth, who later wrote in the Saturday Evening Post, "I think I was born as a hitter the first day I ever saw [Brother Matthias] hit a baseball." In later years, Ruth would also often refer to Brother Matthias as "the greatest man I've ever known."
3. "Babe" was a common nickname.
Today, there is only one. But when Ruth was playing, the nickname "Babe" was used for dozens of larger guys as well as naïve newcomers. It speaks to Ruth's power as a cultural figure that he was able to convert a nickname used generically for lots of ballplayers into a monolith that can refer to only the Great Bambino himself. Although there are several fantastical stories about how he got the nickname, the truth, according to Ruth, is that a member of the Baltimore Orioles coaching staff said, "Well, here's Jack's newest babe now," when Ruth first reported to the clubhouse. The "Jack" they referred to was Jack Dunn, manager of the team.
4. He earned a combined no-hitter after punching an umpire.
A no-hitter is one of the ultimate achievements for a pitcher, and Ruth has one on the books—despite only pitching against one batter. Ruth was the starting pitcher on June 23, 1917, when the Red Sox faced the Washington Senators, and, after walking the leadoff batter, Ruth got into a fight with the umpire. He was ejected from the game after punching the poor ump, and Ernie Shore came in to pitch for the Sox, completing a no-hitter that Ruth conveniently has his name attached to.
5. It cost the Yankees around $125,00 to purchase Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth is one of the most iconic New York Yankees in history, but he first made waves in the sport as a member of the Boston Red Sox, where he played for six seasons. Then, in January 1920, it was announced that Ruth was coming to the Yankees for the grand total of $125,000 (a little over $1.6 million today) and $300,000 in loans. Though the exact amount has been disputed over the years, it was a steal for the Yankees, and Ruth would lead the team to four World Series victories over the next 15 years.
6. He knocked himself out by running into an outfield wall.
During the first game of a doubleheader between the New York Yankees and Washington Senators on July 5, 1924, Ruth ran headlong into the concrete wall dividing the field from the bleachers while trying to make a catch. He was unconscious for 5 minutes while Yankees trainer Doc Woods poured icy water on his face and attempted to revive him. After coming to, Ruth refused to leave the field and continued playing despite a limp earned by injuring his hip. He logged two more hits that game and even managed to play in the second one.
7. He was one of the first celebrity golfers.
Ruth started playing golf in 1915, which was also his first year playing for the Boston Red Sox. It became a lifelong obsession for him, to the point where he said he was playing 365 rounds some years. Because of his superstar status, he was also able to bring attention to the sport as it battled with other minorly popular pastimes like horse racing and boxing. While Bobby Jones was the best golfer of the era, Society for American Baseball Research member Doug Vogel said that "[Ruth] played a big role in making golf a spectator sport in America — arguably, bigger than Jones.” That's because Jones was the most talented player of a niche sport, but Ruth was the most famous athlete in the world.
8. Babe Ruth used his celebrity to publicly denounce Hitler.
Ruth's father George, Sr. was of German descent, and his mother, Katherine, was of German-Irish descent, so little Georgie grew up speaking German in his childhood home in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore. He would use that heritage and celebrity clout years later when he signed a declaration published in 10 prominent newspapers denouncing Hitler. His bold public stance came in December 1942 and was meant as an attempt to rouse American sentiment in favor of rescuing the Jews of Europe and urged German citizens to overthrow Hitler.
9. Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" is still up for debate.
It's one of the most iconic moments in sports: During game three of the 1932 World Series, Ruth stood in the batter's box with the Yankees and Cubs tied 4-4 and pointed to the centerfield fence at Wrigley Field, signaling to everyone in attendance, including pitcher Charlie Root, that he was going to send a ball into the seats. On the next pitch, he made good on his boast. The Yankees won the game and, eventually, the series.
But the actual meaning behind the pointing gesture has long been in dispute. Ruth claimed the point was him signaling a home run was on the way. Root would later say Ruth was simply holding up two fingers to indicate how many strikes there were. Many fans and players in the ballpark that day took Ruth's side in later interviews and accounts; others said they never saw the point. Most damning, however, is the fact that the sportswriters covering the game—including the legendary Red Smith—made no mention of it in their write-ups. And the scant video evidence available doesn't answer the question conclusively; he clearly gestures something, but we'll never know quite what he meant.
In 2020, new evidence came to light in the form of an unearthed radio interview from Lou Gehrig that took place a few days after the game. In it, Gehrig said, "[Ruth] stands up there and tells the world that he's going to sock that next one. And not only that, but he tells the world right where he's going to sock it, into the center-field stands. A few seconds later, the ball was just where he pointed, in the center-field stands. He called his shot and then made it. I ask you: What can you do with a guy like that?"
The interview itself was likely scripted, but for what it's worth, a Gehrig biographer, Dan Joseph, who discovered and shared the audio on Twitter, believes it was sincere. “Until I heard the clip, I doubted it really happened,” Joseph told MLB.com. “I thought it was a sportswriter’s myth. After hearing Gehrig, who was the on-deck hitter, now I’m inclined to believe that he did it."
10. He met a young player who went on to become president.
A few months before his death from cancer, Ruth traveled to Yale to donate a signed copy of his autobiography to the school. The ceremony took place (where else?) on the baseball field, where Ruth handed the manuscript to the captain of Yale's baseball team. That captain was George H. W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States. Bush's account of the event was somber, calling it "tragic," because Ruth had looked so frail due to his illness.
11. Babe Ruth's last home run ball is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Babe Ruth had 714 career home runs, a record that would stay firm for nearly 40 years until Hank Aaron came along. His final big fly came as a member of the Boston Braves on May 25, 1935, in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That's notable enough on its own, but in true Bambino fashion, his last home run became the stuff of legend as it was the first time anyone saw a ball clear the 86-foot stands at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Some claimed it even cleared the stands by 50 feet.
Whether that's true or not, the ball definitely landed in a yard four blocks from the stadium, where a young man scooped it up and rushed to get Ruth's signature. The ball is now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.