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Lessons From a Legend, 100 Years Later

What Babe Ruth’s 1918 two-way campaign teaches us to hope for from Shohei Ohtani’s debut campaign with the Angels

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The baseball populace may have been too eager with its comparisons of Shohei Ohtani to Babe Ruth, but even with the 23-year-old Japanese star scuffling in spring training, it’s hard to cast blame. There is no more recent precedent to whom a two-way major leaguer can be compared; no player since Ruth in 1918 and 1919 has amassed both 200 plate appearances and 100 innings pitched in the same season.

If Ohtani is even moderately successful and healthy in his debut MLB season, the new Angel pitcher and designated hitter should eclipse both those numbers with ease. The spring worries are real, as he’s amassed a 16.20 ERA in four real pitching starts—including two against lower-level competition—and a .107/.219/.107 slash line at the plate. But he’s adjusting to a new culture, a new style of play, and even a new baseball, and he has the diverse skills required to make his plan work: By the age of 21, Ohtani was the best pitcher and designated hitter in Japan, worth 10.4 wins above replacement combined. It’s impossible to watch this highlight reel and not think that Ohtani can excel in the majors.

It’s too fitting to be coincidence that Ohtani is embarking on his two-way quest exactly 100 years after Ruth started his. The Babe is now a mythical figure whose legend has never died, who remains discussed as the best in his sport’s history despite playing before living memory. Ruth ushered in the end of the dead-ball era and made the Yankees a juggernaut, but before then, he was an excellent pitcher with a penchant for thrilling fans in batting practice. On the occasion of Ohtani’s debut, there’s no better time to revisit Ruth’s momentous 1918 season with Boston—relying in large part on the contemporary newspaper accounts collected by Ty Waterman and Mel Springer in The Year the Red Sox Won the Series: A Chronicle of the 1918 Championship Seasonwhen his usage and perception began to change.

The 1918 season wasn’t wholly celebratory for Ruth, who missed a week of games in May due to a bout of tonsillitis—the Boston Herald and Journal described how Ruth “looked like a real baby” with “an infant’s whisper” in his hospital bed; in his book The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend, author Glenn Stout theorizes that Ruth actually suffered from an early case of the Spanish flu—and another week in August after his uncle killed his father in a domestic dispute. He led the majors in strikeouts as a hitter; he briefly quit the team after an argument with his manager; he pitched a World Series game just a day after punching the steel wall of a train car, perhaps while faux-wrestling with a teammate. (Despite an injured pitching hand, Ruth allowed just two runs in eight innings and slugged a two-run triple in Boston’s 3-2 win over the Cubs.)

And yet, Ruth’s 1918 is one of the greatest seasons and inflection points in MLB history. Ruth wasn’t unprecedented as a two-way player in an era of small rosters and greater positional flexibility, but his performance was incontrovertible, and he was undeniably special even among the already special breed of two-way talents. Though his annual hitting totals would soon dwarf his 1918 statistics, his numbers that year were tremendous in all phases: at the plate, a .300/.411/.555 slash line with the MLB lead in slugging percentage, OPS, extra-base hits, and home runs (the last one a tie, with 11); on the mound, a 13-7 record, 2.22 ERA (ninth in the AL), and 1.05 WHIP (second); in the playoffs, a World Series ring with two wins and a 1.06 ERA.

Matching any one of those numbers would count as a success for Ohtani 100 years later. Even 11 home runs, which means a lot less in the juiced ball era than it did in the dead-ball era, would mean 11 breathlessly shared highlights over the spring and summer months. But those ultimate season totals represent just one part of the coming two-way experience. There are still six months and 162 game days to tick off before reaching that point of comparison, leaving plenty of opportunity for Ohtani to either follow Ruth’s path or deviate from the Bambino’s century-old adventures. Let’s go through them one by one, both to remember the Babe and learn something about what Ohtani might have in store.

Courtesy of Ty Waterman

Hyperbolic Descriptions of Ruth’s Talent Started in Spring Training

In 1918: Ruth’s hitting elicited plaudits from the start. In his first spring training game, he crushed two home runs, one of which flew into a nearby alligator farm. (A Boston Post editorial cartoon from later that spring depicted Ruth purchasing one of the gators to take back to Boston as a “souvenir.”) Later in spring training, he hit a grand slam that “every ball player in the park said was the longest drive they had ever seen,” The Boston Globe reported—which is saying something, given that the alligator farm blast is reputed to have traveled 573 feet on the fly.

Ruth was also lauded for his work ethic, as the above cartoon shows, with the Boston Post noting that “any player who followed the pace that Ruth set … would have been hobbling about in crutches this noon, but Babe suffered neither ache nor pain, and no one [in Boston’s camp] will dispute his claim to the title of ‘Iron Man.’” (Future teammate Lou Gehrig might dispute that Iron Man claim.) Of course, that report continued, Ruth might have been pouring more effort into his workouts to finish early and find time to “sneak out to the race track and get down a couple of bets on the ponies.”

In 2018: Evaluators have already called Ohtani the best two-way player they’ve ever seen, and teammate Justin Upton suggested he and Ohtani have similar power at the plate. As a pitcher, meanwhile, Ohtani has recorded 19 of his 25 outs via strikeout, and GIFs of his sharpest breaking balls have only spread his legend further.

That’s the good news. The bad is Ohtani’s aggregate performance, which has yielded concerns from scouts that he isn’t ready to contribute to an MLB lineup and concerns from the broader baseball world that he might require some polishing time in Triple-A. Thus far, the Angels have hinted that a demotion is unlikely, but that such a thing is even a possibility means Ohtani is well behind where Ruth was at this point.

Within Weeks, He Was Regarded As the Most Exciting Player in Baseball

In 1918: Ruth didn’t set out to become a two-way player, but he had always fared well with the bat on days that he pitched, and with Red Sox manager Ed Barrow seeking to spark an offense that was scoring just 3.25 runs per game when Ruth didn’t start, the two-way experiment began. On May 4, Ruth pitched and hit a homer, his first of the season, and in Boston’s next game, on May 6, he played for the first time in his career at a different position. Starting at first base and hitting sixth, he belted another home run. The next day, again playing in the field and now hitting fourth, he hit another homer, this one off Walter Johnson, who’d finish the year with just two long balls allowed in 326 innings: both by Ruth.

By May 13, The Boston Record deemed Ruth the sport’s most valuable player and a better hitter than Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. By June 6, The Cleveland Press said he was “already being hailed in the big leagues as the king of home run hitters” after Ruth had set a new MLB record for most consecutive games with a homer, with four. (The record-breaking shot reportedly cleared a 45-foot-high fence in right field and “sailed beyond a house on the other side of the street.”) And by June 10, The Boston Record called him “the greatest drawing card in the major leagues.”

In 2018: There is little chance that Ohtani is hailed a better hitter than, say, José Altuve or teammate Mike Trout within a week of starting to play both ways, but he could soon prove to be the sport’s greatest drawing card. Every game he plays should be a sellout; a century after Ruth’s successes spread slowly via newspaper, Ohtani’s will translate immediately on Twitter. The span of his ascension to most exciting player in baseball is, if anything, even more compressed than Ruth’s, as he’s already being viewed that way in some corners (including this one!), and that’s before his season has even truly begun.

He Signified Bad News for an Incumbent Hitter

In 1918: First baseman Dick Hoblitzell opened the 1918 season as Boston’s captain and cleanup hitter. He was an accomplished batter, with a career 112 OPS+ entering that season, and he had started for two World Series–winning teams. Then Hoblitzell slumped to start the 1918 campaign, Ruth began moonlighting at first in his stead, and public opinion turned against the captain.

After the May 7 game in which Ruth hit cleanup and homered off Johnson, The Washington Post noted that Hoblitzell had an injured finger and added, “From the manner in which the buxom Babe performed yesterday, it wouldn’t be such a blow to the Sox if [Hoblitzell] is on the hospital list for some time.” Hoblitzell’s MLB career would last just one more month, as he was drafted to the United States military and didn’t return to the pros after the war.

In 2018: This one happened before the season began, as the Angels traded first baseman C.J. Cron to Tampa Bay two months after Ohtani committed, thereby opening a spot for Albert Pujols on days that Ohtani hits in the DH spot. And it could conceivably occur a second time, even though he and Pujols aren’t in so direct a competition now: If Pujols can’t handle a shift back to the field, or if his bat doesn’t recover from a disastrous 2017 and he’s a lesser hitting threat than Ohtani, the situation could grow uncomfortable as Angels manager Mike Scioscia divvies up at-bats.

Courtesy of Ty Waterman

He Produced Plenty of Late-Game Heroics

In 1918: On the last day of June, Ruth hit a game-winning home run off Johnson in the 10th; just a week later, on July 8, Ruth hit another extra-inning winner, with the walk-off homer depicted in the above cartoon (which was ruled only a triple, per 1918 rules) in a scoreless game in the 10th. Ruth won numerous other games in innings earlier than the ninth, too: On June 15, he hit a tie-breaking three-run homer in the seventh to beat the St. Louis Browns, and on July 6, he knocked a two-run, sixth-inning triple to tie the score, then scrambled home on an error to beat Cleveland.

In 2018: Imagine how the baseball world would react to a game-winning Ohtani homer off the likes of Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen—the closest Big Train comparisons who might pitch in the 10th inning of a 2018 game. “Plenty” might be stretching Ohtani’s capabilities, but he should be good for at least a couple of clutch swings.

He Grew Weary of Playing Both Ways

In 1918: On July 2, Ruth left a game against the Senators after striking out in the sixth inning, and Barrow subsequently fined his star $500 (which, given his salary at the time, was the equivalent of a roughly $2 million fine for modern stars). The next day, Ruth quit the Red Sox and declared he would join the competing Bethlehem Steel League, which featured players who worked in industrial plants to avoid the military draft. He explained to the Boston Post, “We had some words, and I thought [Barrow] called me a bum and I threatened to punch him. He told me that would cost me $500, and then I made a few more remarks and left the club.”

The core issue wasn’t Ruth’s strikeout, though, even if he reportedly defied his manager’s orders to take a first-pitch strike before swinging. Rather, with Boston’s rotation ailing following the defection of pitcher Dutch Leonard to a shipyard league, Barrow and Ruth’s teammates were angered by their star’s refusal to pitch. Beginning in mid-May, Ruth complained of a sore arm and the immense workload necessitated by his two-way usage, and from May 15 through his brief departure from the club, he started just one game on the mound. His teammates noted, though, that Ruth never seemed to exhibit exhaustion at the plate or other spots in the field.

That issue reached a pique in that July 2 game, which marked first-place Boston’s seventh loss in 12 games and sent the Red Sox tumbling into a three-way tie for first. By July 4, though, after intervention from Sox ownership and the threat of legal action against the steel league, Ruth decided to rejoin Boston and came to an understanding with his manager: Ruth would re-enter the rotation, and Barrow would drop the fine.

In 2018: There’s almost no chance that this particular scenario unfolds with Ohtani, who, contrary to the temperamental Ruth, is by all accounts reserved and won’t rock the Angels’ boat. The Dodgers might be mad at him, but it’s difficult to envision anyone else ever feeling that way, and unlike Ruth, who was engaging in two-way play unplanned and for the first time in 1918, Ohtani has been pitching and hitting for years.

He Warped Arguments About Player Value

In 1918: Absent modern wins above replacement calculations, Ruth’s contemporaries were forced to rely on more rudimentary estimations of player value. “If they win [the pennant], Babe Ruth ought to be given 50 per cent of the team’s share, as he has won this pennant almost alone by his pitching and hitting,” a Boston American columnist wrote in August. “My count shows nineteen games in which Ruth has turned the tide by his own efforts. Without him, even with a first class substitute, the team would be down in fourth or fifth place.”

In 2018: Modern metrics show that Ruth was worth only seven wins above a replacement player—let alone a “first class substitute”—that year, and while it’s unlikely that even a best-case version of Ohtani will produce more than a handful of WAR this season, his unique usage pattern will engender debates about what a stat like WAR is missing. How much value does Ohtani add with his flexibility? How much does he detract because a team has to massage his innings load, as with the Angels and their six-man rotation? What’s the best way to measure his impact on roster construction?

Courtesy of Ty Waterman

He Amassed a Number of Ludicrous Box-Score Lines

In 1918: To list just a few of Ruth’s:

On May 9, he hit a triple, three doubles, and a single as part of a 5-for-5 day at the plate, while pitching 9 ⅔ innings in a 4-3 loss in Washington.

Over a nine-stretch start from July 29 through August 31, Ruth threw eight complete games, allowing two runs or fewer each time, as Boston pulled away in the pennant race. (The 1918 season was shortened by a month because of the war.) During that span, he also posted a .440 on-base percentage in 110 plate appearances.

In one of those nine starts—a key battle against second-place Cleveland on August 4—Ruth hurled 12 innings, allowing one run on four hits without issuing a walk, while contributing Boston’s sole RBI through the first 11 innings in a 2-1 win.

In 2018: It would register as both a surprise and disappointment if Ohtani doesn’t turn in any such lines of his own, though their likelihood will lower considerably if he doesn’t hit on days he pitches, as has been the case in spring training. (The Angels would have to give up the DH slot in their lineup if they had the pitcher hit.) If forgoing his bat when he pitches is the plan during the regular season too, then no days with multiple hits and a shutout are possible.

He Raised Expectations Like No Other Player

In 1918: On July 16, the Chicago Daily Tribune called Ruth’s performance the night prior, in which he singled twice in three at-bats, “something of a batting slump” because his hits were “only singles.” In August, Stout writes in The Selling of the Babe, newspapers began ignoring Ruth as he stopped hitting homers—due in part to an even deader ball than was typical for the time, as the burgeoning war effort left worse materials to make balls as the season progressed—and mentioned him only if “he really did something.”

In 2018: Hopes for Ohtani are sufficiently high that if he plays solidly but still below an All-Star level, he might disappoint relative to initial expectations, though after he endured such a rough spring training, fans might take any positive signs as notes of encouragement. Would results resembling a no. 3 starter and an unspectacular but playable hitter impress? For any other 23-year-old making a minimum MLB salary, definitely, but that’s a legitimate concern for Ohtani’s perception stateside. And of course, the inverse is true, too: If Ohtani flops, the disappointment will be heightened even beyond what is typical when a no. 1 prospect struggles.

He Won His Team a Spot in the Playoffs

In 1918: This one’s simple: Ruth was the winning pitcher in the game that clinched the 1918 pennant for Boston. (At that point in MLB history, the best team from each league automatically reached the World Series.) He pitched a complete-game three-hitter and went 2-for-4 at the plate in a 6-1 win over the Athletics.

In 2018: The Astros are so strong that it’s hard to imagine the Angels winning the AL West, but a wild-card spot is in play. Dream, just for the taste, of a wild-card game matching Ohtani against Chris Sale.

He Dominated the Postseason Narrative

In 1918: In advance of the World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs, the two teams’ hometown papers battled to see which could lavish Ruth with more praise. In the Herald and Journal’s preview, Ruth was described as “the difference between defeat and victory” for Boston. The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, opted for a backhanded compliment, calling Boston the AL’s “weakest” World Series representative in a decade and writing that “the team would never have finished in the first division but for the tremendous clouting ability of the versatile Babe Ruth.” The Cubs’ manager said it simplest, noting that Boston was “a one-man team, and his name is Ruth.” That one-man team won the Red Sox their last title for 86 years.

In 2018: Ohtani will never constitute a one-man team as long as Trout is his center fielder, but if the Angels reach the playoffs, he will certainly be the center of attention. Even beyond the optics of Ohtani carrying his team to the playoffs, the Angels’ strategy alone—both in-game and throughout a series—would fascinate.

He Caused His Manager to Become a Lightning Rod for Strategic Second-Guessing

In 1918: After spending the regular season placing Ruth in the middle of the order and playing him in the field on off-pitching days, Barrow changed tact in the World Series. Ruth pitched but hit ninth in Game 1, and he didn’t hit at all on days he didn’t pitch. In Game 2, a Boston loss, Ruth didn’t leave the bench even in a pinch-hitting role; in the ninth inning with two men on, down two runs, Barrow selected a different pinch hitter because Chicago had a lefty on the mound. (Platoon splits aren’t available for the 1918 season, but based on the data that does exist, Ruth is the best hitter ever against southpaws.) In Game 4, after Ruth had already hit a two-run triple, Barrow ordered him to bunt.

In 2018: Scioscia is generally a solid strategic manager, and despite his old-school reputation, he adheres to a fair number of sabermetrically sound principles like shifting and avoiding intentional walks and sacrifice bunts. He seems flexible with his deployment of Ohtani, and the Angels have consulted management for the Nippon Ham Fighters—the Japanese team for whom he starred, and whom he led to a Japan Series title in 2016—to learn best practices. Scioscia will be second-guessed because every manager is second-guessed and his spotlight is brighter this year with a unique talent at his managerial disposal, but there’s nothing to suggest—yet—that he’s liable to err.

He Was a Yankee Within Two Years

In 1918: Of course this final part of Ruth’s two-way story was coming.

In retrospect, the 1918 season was full of deliciously ironic quotes about the possibility of a Ruth sale to New York. At the end of April, a rival club of Boston’s—most likely the Yankees, though the historical record isn’t definitive—reportedly offered Sox owner Harry Frazee $150,000 for Ruth, but he told reporters, “I would not think of selling him. … I might as well sell the franchise and the whole club as sell Ruth.” Ruth told the Globe that he had a dream that the Sox had sold him, but Frazee laughed about the prospect of Ruth’s dream coming true.

On May 6, Ruth’s home run in his first game as a position player came against the Yankees. “Babe Ruth continues to thrill New Yorkers with his potential batting strength,” read a piece the next day in the Herald and Journal. “He’d be a better investment for the Yankees than would Ty Cobb. How the Babe would maltreat that right field stand, the upper tier, and the none too distant barriers.” Later that month, Frazee himself noted, “Ruth is already mighty popular in New York, and just think what he would mean to the Yankees if he were playing for them every day and hitting those long ones.”

By January 1920, Ruth was a Yankee, for a sale price less than the $150,000 New York had offered two years earlier. In his first season maltreating the Polo Grounds, Ruth hit 54 home runs, out-homering 14 of 15 non-Yankee teams by himself; in his first 12 years with the Yankees, he led the AL in OPS 11 times and home runs 10. Moving to New York essentially ended Ruth’s two-way play, though, as he’d throw in just five games throughout the rest of his career as the Yankees viewed his hitting prowess as too great to warrant sacrificing some of his time at pitcher.

In 2018: It won’t happen. It can’t happen, right? Ohtani is subject to rookie-scale and then arbitration wages for the next six seasons, and if he’s merely decent, he’ll be the Angels’ best young player; if he’s a star, he’ll be the sport’s most valuable asset. Ohtani won’t be a Yankee—but for old times’ sake, if Arte Moreno starts trying to finance a Broadway play, it’d make sense to grow a little concerned.