‘The Babe’ Dominated ‘The Big Train’

Walter Johnson, left, and Babe Ruth, in California, 1924.

SportsNation America has always been enthralled with the one-on-one matchup. Dempsey vs. Tunney, Ali vs. Frazier. Arnie vs. Jack. McEnroe vs. Borg. Magic vs. Bird, Russell vs. Chamberlain

In baseball, it’s the batter vs. pitcher. Bob Feller pitching to Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. Sandy Koufax facing Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Sans steroids, Roger Clemens vs. Barry Bonds.

Perhaps the greatest one-on-one matchup was Walter Johnson vs. Babe Ruth, the greatest pitcher ever vs. the greatest hitter and player of all-time, the Big Train vs. the Sultan of Swat.

Johnson  recorded a record of 417-279, second only to Cy Young, with a 2.17 ERA and 3509 strikeouts in a 21-year career with the Washington Senators that began in 1907. He also hit 24 homers and batted .235 lifetime, including a .433 batting average in 1925. Not to bad for a pitcher.

Ruth smashed 714 home runs, third behind Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron, along with 2217 RBIs, and had a .342 lifetime average. The Babe began his career as a pitcher with the Red Sox in 1914, went to the Yankees in 1920, and wound up his career with the Boston Braves in 1935. Ruth was an outstanding pitcher with a 94-46 lifetime record and 2.28 ERA, and was 2-0 in three World Series starts. He started five games for the Yankees between 1920 and 1933, and won them all.

Johnson gave up only 97 homers in 5,942 innings pitched, 40 homers at home and 57 on the road. Nearly half of the homers hit off him at home (mainly Washington’s Griffith Stadium) were inside the park. There were three seasons in which he did not give up any homers: 1908, 1916, and 1919.

10 Homers for Ruth

Of those 97 homers, 10 were hit be Babe Ruth. Frank “Home Run” Baker is next on the list with five. Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Al Simmons connected four times each against Johnson.

Johnson, finishing out his final season with the Senators, was at Yankee Stadium when Ruth hit his historic 60th home run against Tom Zachary on September 30, 1927. In the ninth inning of that game, Johnson, making his final appearance as a player‚ pinch-hit for Zachary and flied out to Ruth

As a pitcher, Ruth  had unusual success against Johnson, beating him six times in eight decisions lifetime, once in 1915 and four times in 1916 alone, by scores of 5-1, 1-0, 1-0 in 13 innings, and 2-1. In their final meeting that season, Ruth blew a 2-0 lead to Johnson’s Senators in the ninth when he gave up a double to John Henry and was pulled. Washington won, 4-3, in 10 innings as Johnson got the win and Ernie Shore, who relieved Ruth, took the loss.

In 1917, Ruth beat Johnson again, 1-0. Johnson finally beat Ruth with a 6-0 shutout in October of 1917.

The two combatants met twice in later years in exhibition games. In 1924, shortly after Johnson had pitched three times in seven games to give the Senators their only World Championship, Johnson and Ruth squared off in a barnstorming match in Brea, California. Johnson gave up eight runs on eights — two of them homers by Ruth, the second estimated at 550 feet — in five innings, while Ruth went all the way to win 12-1.

1942 Benefit Game
On August 23, 1942, Johnson faced the Babe in a benefit match (check this video) that drew 69,000 fans to Yankee Stadium for a doubleheader with the Senators and provided $80,000 for Army-Navy relief.

“Babe, I just want to ask one thing; don’t hit any back to me,” Johnson asked.

“Hell, I’ll be lucky to hit one at all,” Ruth answered with a laugh. “But I’ll try to pull ’em down the line.”

As the huge throng at Yankee Stadium cheered him on, the 47-year-old slugger came through twice — first hitting a line drive into the lower right field stands on his third swing and then connecting on the 20th pitch for a huge smash into the upper deck in right. As the Babe rounded the bases and hugged Johnson at home plate, nobody seemed to care that the ball had hooked foul at the last moment.

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