TOKYO -- The last man to present a true threat from both major league mound and batter's box suited up for the Boston Red Sox a century ago, and his name was Babe Ruth (1895-1948). Now, Major League Baseball again has a genuine two-way talent in the towering person of Shohei Ohtani, who in his first two weeks in a Los Angeles Angels uniform has already wowed fans and impressed baseball commentators with two pitcher wins and three home runs.
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Babe Ruth's career is woven into the fabric of baseball lore, his presence and thundering accomplishments with the bat still felt more than 80 years after his retirement in 1935. He would doff his uniform for the last time as baseball's unquestioned home run king, with 714 dingers over a 22-year career -- a record not surpassed until "Hammerin" Hank Aaron launched his homer No. 715 in 1974. Today, Ruth still has the third most career home runs in major league history.
Ruth smacked the vast majority of those round-trippers as a New York Yankee, and it is as a Bronx Bomber that he is usually remembered. But from 1914 to 1919, he pitched in 158 games for the Red Sox, 143 of them starts. He went on to toss a handful of games for New York after his trade to the Yanks following the 1919 season, ending with a career line of 94-46 and an ERA of 2.28.
Ohtani is still one of Major League Baseball's freshest faces, so any talk of career numbers is premature. However, initial results have been encouraging. He won his first start against the Oakland Athletics on April 1, before tossing an absolute gem against those same Athletics on April 8, staying perfect into the seventh inning and striking out 12. He also hit home runs in three consecutive games, making him only the third player in major league history to do so in the same season as racking up a double-digit strikeout game, according to MLB.com. And who were the other two? Ken Brett for the 1973 Philadelphia Phillies, and Babe Ruth for the 1916 Red Sox.
Some other statistical sweet spots: When Ohtani swatted the ball over the fence in his first ever Angel Stadium at-bat on April 3, he became the only player to hit his first homer of the season within two days of getting a pitcher win since Babe Ruth in 1921. Ohtani was also the first MLB player in 99 years to start as a non-pitcher on Opening Day and then as a pitcher within the first 10 games of the season. The last person to do that? Babe Ruth again, in 1919.
When Ruth was in his early 20s, he was the pillar of the Red Sox pitching staff, winning 20-plus games in both 1916 and 1917 -- this despite his habit of sticking his tongue out whenever he threw a curveball. The story goes that those telegraphed curves often got hammered.
The Red Sox went to the World Series every year from 1916 to 1918, in which Ruth pitched 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings -- a record that would stand until Yankee superstar and Hall of Famer Whitey Ford surpassed it in 1961.
The United States entered World War I in 1917, and many teams were left shorthanded as players were recruited into the armed forces. As a result, Ruth began to see more time in the outfield starting in the 1918 season, taking his first steps down the road to superstardom as a prolific slugger. That year, he won 13 games and smacked 11 home runs, and is still the only player to register double-digit numbers in both categories in a single MLB season.
Ohtani, meanwhile, is the only player in Japanese pro ball history to accomplish the feat -- twice, with 11 wins and 10 homers in 2014, and 10 wins and 22 dingers in 2016.
In November and December 1934, the twilight of his career, Ruth toured Japan as part of a U.S. team playing exhibition games against Japanese squads. According to newspaper reports from the time, Ruth belted two home runs during batting practice before the tour's first game at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium. One reporter wrote, "(Ruth) keeps hitting amazing home runs, two so far. ... He cramped up the stadium like King Kong, and plodded around making requests of various staff. At the end, though, he stood on the plate and threw batting practice."
Two-way players have been few and far between since Ruth retired. Especially in the present era, when pitching and batting have become more intensified specialties, becoming a true threat on both sides of the game seems difficult.
LA Times sports columnist Dylan Hernandez commented that all eyes are on Ohtani as he attempts to accomplish something done just once before a century ago. He also observed that the 23-year-old phenom indeed spends a lot of time practicing both pitching and hitting, and that "the fluidity of his pitching motion and swing (are) likely the byproducts of years and years of Japanese-style workouts."
"(Ruth) is like a god to me," Ohtani has commented. "I'd like to get close to him through playing baseball."
Since he was with the Sapporo-based Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani has dealt with critics who insist he pick either hitting or pitching. However, he has managed to quiet those critics with his on-field results.
"The two-way player thing isn't just mine anymore. The fans are rooting for it, too," Ohtani commented.
Perhaps Babe Ruth would be, too.
(Japanese original by Yu Kishimoto, Sports News Department, and Kenichi Omura, General Digital News Center. Additional reporting by Robert Sakai-Irvine, Staff Writer)