Rookie Routs Ruffing, Yanks
BOSTON – On a shivering, grey April 20th afternoon in the Bronx, the Boston Red Sox met with the rival New York Yankees to open the 1939 baseball season. Lefty Grove was to take the mound for the visitors, while pitching for the men in pinstripes was a former Sox fluke, Charles ‘Red’ Ruffing.
Beginning his career in Beantown in 1924, Ruffing began the first seven years of his career with an abysmal 39-96 record, seemingly due to an anemic Boston offense, as well as a childhood accident resulting in the loss of four toes on his left foot. Considered a monumental bust, he was dealt to the Yankees midway through the 1930 season for outfielder Cedric Durst and $50,000. In New York, he quickly benefitted from the offense of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Soon becoming the ace of the staff, Ruffing began the second stage of his career with a phenomenal 154-88 record.
With the Yanks’ third consecutive World Series triumph in 1938, the Boston Red Sox were left in their wake, finishing a distant nine-and-a-half games back, good for second place. For all accounts, the bean-eaters had a formidable team in ’38 with pitchers Grove and Fritz Ostermueller combining for 29 wins, and a feared offense that included Bobby Doerr, Pinky Higgins, Joe Cronin, and slugger Jimmie Foxx. Despite their strength in names, Joe McCarthy’s Yankees had built an insurmountable lead by mid-September of that year. The Bombers easily swept the Cubs to take their seventh title. Despite playing an ailing Lou Gehrig early on in the 1939 season, the Yankees seemed poised to continue their dominance uncontested.
However, 1939 would see Boston welcoming a new face to their line-up. Moving up from the minors was an eager, skinny rookie with a world of potential. After a short stint with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, Theodore Samuel Williams had signed with the Red Sox in 1937. He was assigned to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association soon after, where he won the first Triple Crown in the history of the league.
Though a mere 20 years old upon his calling up for the big leagues, he had already built a reputation as a fantastic hitter who would never swing at a bad pitch, and also, who studied the art of his craft like no other since the days of Ty Cobb. Coming up through the system, Williams seemed interested in nothing but hitting, and when he wasn’t taking extra batting practice, or swinging an imaginary Louisville Slugger in the outfield, he was chatting with roommates, pitchers, and even old timers – Hall of Famers Lefty O’Doul and Rogers Hornsby, especially – about the finer points of the art. Ted would learn the importance of studying his opponents in order to decipher weaknesses of each pitcher he found himself up against. He took into consideration a multitude of factors, including the strike-zones in which specific umpires operated – whether Bill McGowan favored a wider box over Bill Klem. He also learned about situational play – what kind of pitch Bob Feller threw with a 0-2 count with a man on second. Early in his career, topping this eagerness to learn was a self-confidence that would alienate even some of his teammates, and more importantly, both enthrall and demand the respect of his opponents.
Facing Red Ruffing for the first time in the second inning on the aforementioned April 20th afternoon, Williams promptly struck out on a deceivingly swift fastball. Though hazed by his teammates for previous braggadocio upon returning to the Red Sox bench, Williams remained unmoved and confident that he could hit the Yankee pitcher. During his next at bat in the fourth inning, he laced the same pitch for a double off of the wall in right centerfield. Williams struck out once more that afternoon, and though Ruffing and the Yankees won the game 2-0, the rookie was able to take with him a valuable lesson.
Since that Opening Day in April, the Yankee pitcher had yet to lose a decision, with a record of 7-0 coming into a late-May series against Boston. Ruffing’s turn in the rotation came again on May 30th, only the second time the two teams had met that season. That afternoon, 35,000 rabid fans were treated to a Decoration Day doubleheader with both teams at Fenway. Though almost 50,000 fans showed up, nearly 10,000 had been turned away due to owner Tom Yawkey’s doctrine to not over-crowd his park. The grandstand sale of rush tickets halted at 9:15, only 15 minutes after it had started. The pavilion was loaded to capacity at 11:15, and no bleacher seats were sold after 12:15. A couple of dozen hardy Boston rooters even climbed atop the Eagle Whiskey advertisement in centerfield to see the game, free of charge and solid ground. With beautiful, crisp weather and a 1:30 start time, the crowd was ready to see the world champions and the aspiring, second-place Red Sox fight the holiday twin bill.
As the Sox opened the bottom half of the first inning, Ruffing retired Doerr, then gave up a single to center by Doc Cramer. After stealing second base, Cramer raced home on a Jimmie Foxx single to left. Though recording a second out, Red was not yet out of the woods, with the Beast on first, and the 6’3” rookie Williams at the plate. Wasting his first pitch, Ruffing seemed to remember the solid double the kid walloped off of him a month prior. Ted socked the next pitch, a shoulder-high inside fastball, to right, high and far. The wind helped the drive a bit, though there was no doubt that it would clear the barrier, as it landed half-way up the right field bleachers, into the twentieth row.
Pictured is Toothpick Ted’s triumphant homecoming, with a dejected Red Ruffing seen on the mound. Waiting for the smiling rookie is the Red Sox batboy, and veteran umpire Stephen Basil. The towering advertisement-adorned wall dwarfs Charlie ‘King Kong’ Keller in leftfield as it meanders its way to the flagpole and the bleacher seats. The red, white and blue baseball centennial flag on the pole echoes the patches worn on the right sleeves of every major leaguer in 1939.
No other major leaguer hit more than one ball into those bleachers. Not even Babe Ruth. After the first inning bash by Williams, he had done it four times during the season, good for his seventh overall.
Ruffing’s day did not get any better, as he gave up a homerun to the screen in left to the next better, Joe Cronin. The next inning, after walking Cramer and Vosmik, Jimmie Foxx an inside curve halfway up in the leftfield screen for his seventh homer of the season. After doubles by Doerr and Cramer in the fourth, Red’s day was done. Boston fans still had the impression that Ruffing ‘laid down’ on the Red Sox during his days in New England, and as he walked towards the Yankee dugout, thousands boos cascaded down the grandstand. As he reached the dugout steps, Red calmly doffed his cap to the hostile throng, and made his way to the showers.
Boston took the first game by a score of 8-4.