Perhaps more than any other of the major North American team sports, baseball glorifies individual performances, giving the game’s greatest players ample opportunity to author signature moments that stand as touchstones in the sport’s history and development. What follows is a look at four iconic moments from four of the greatest players ever to play in the major leagues, without whom baseball today would not be what it is.
From the SI Vault: The Colossus, by William Nack (Aug. 24, 1998)
Sets World Series scoreless innings streak as a pitcher
Before he emerged as the best hitter in baseball history, Babe Ruth was the best lefthanded pitcher of the 1910s, a status he cemented with his contributions to the Red Sox’ World Series titles in 1916 and ‘18. In Game 2 in ’16, he allowed an inside-the-park home run in the first inning against Brooklyn, then tossed 13 scoreless innings to beat the Dodgers 2-1. His 14-inning complete game victory remains the record for the most innings by one pitcher in a single postseason game. Two years later, he tossed 17 more scoreless innings to deliver two of Boston’s four wins in its six-game triumph over the Cubs, the Red Sox last World Series title for 86 years.
Sold to New York Yankees
The big bang moment of modern baseball was the decision by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee to sell Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season for $100,000 and a $300,000 loan secured by a mortgage on Boston’s Fenway Park. That sale, prompted by Frazee’s financial problems and Ruth’s petulant behavior and threat of a holdout, sent the hitter who would transform the way the game was played to the biggest media market in the world at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. In New York, Ruth’s power hitting would transform the game and the Yankees franchise, and his star power would make him arguably the most famous athlete of the 20th century and cement baseball’s place at the heart of American culture.
60-home run season
Ruth set the single-season home run record four times in his career, doing it in three consecutive years from 1919 to ‘21, with respective totals of 29, 54 and 59, and then again with 60 in 1927. That latter mark stood as the record for 34 years, until Roger Maris broke it in the first year of the 162-game schedule in 1961. Though Ruth’s total was surpassed multiple times during the Steroid Era in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Maris remains the only player not linked to performance enhancing drug use to have topped it, so 60 retains a special place in the game’s lore.
Called Shot home run
Ruth was so much larger-than-life that it’s not uncommon for young people learning about the game to get the initial impression that he was a fictional character. That line between reality and myth was never more blurry than in the case of Ruth’s alleged “Called Shot” off the Cubs’ Charlie Root in Game 3 the 1932 World Series. Amid taunting between Ruth and Chicago’s bench, Ruth supposedly pointed to Wrigley Field’s centerfield bleachers, then hit Root’s next offering there for his second home run of the game, helping the Yankees to a 7-5 win and an eventual Series sweep. True or not, it remains one of baseball’s most iconic moments.
Starts consecutive game streak, makes Wally Pipp famous
The story about Wally Pipp begging out of the lineup due to a headache appears to have been fabricated, but whatever the reason, on June 2, 1925, Pipp did not get the start at first base for the Yankees. In his place the team started a native New Yorker who was just 17 days away from his 22nd birthday named Lou Gehrig. Gehrig went 3-for-5 that day in place of Pipp, who had been the team’s starter since 1915 but never started another game for the Yankees. Gehrig, meanwhile, stretched the consecutive games streak that had actually begun with a pinch-hitting appearance the day before to 2,130 consecutive games for New York. That record stood until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. To this day, “Wally Pipped” is shorthand for losing one’s position by being made instantly obsolete.
Sets American League RBI record
Ruth and Gehrig worked in concert for Gehrig’s other signature accomplishment. Batting fourth behind Ruth, as would later be immortalized by their uniform numbers, Gehrig broke Ruth’s single-season runs batted in record in 1927 by driving in 173 men, many of them Ruth himself. Gehrig matched that total in 1930, the year that Hack Wilson broke Gehrig’s major league record with 191 RBIs for the Cubs. Gehrig then set a new career high the next year with 185 runs batted in, the last two of which came on the final day of the season. That total still stands as the American League record.
Four-home run game, first in AL history
Were it not for his teammate Ruth, Gehrig might have been considered the greatest hitter of his era. Indeed, it was Gehrig, not Ruth, who became the first modern player to hit four home runs in one game, doing so on June 3, 1932 in a 20-13 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park. Gehrig’s feat has been matched 13 times since, most recently by Josh Hamilton in 2012, but never surpassed. Even on the ultimate individual day of his career, Gehrig, though, had to share the spotlight, as John McGraw announced his retirement that same day after 31 years as manager of the crosstown Giants.
“Luckiest Man” speech
If Ruth’s Called Shot was where baseball truth and myth intersected, Gehrig’s farewell speech on July 4, 1939 is perhaps the greatest example of the game’s reality surpassing any possible fiction. On that day an icon of strength weakened by the misfortune of terminal illness stood before a crowd of 42,000 people at Yankee Stadium on the birthday of the country his parents immigrated to and declared himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Less than two years later, Gehrig was dead at age 41 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In 1942, Gary Cooper recited Gehrig’s famous line verbatim at the climax of the film The Pride of the Yankees but Hollywood’s best scriptwriters couldn’t improve on what Gehrig had said speaking off the cuff and from the heart.
From the SI Vault: Williams Does It! By Richard Hoffer, July 19, 1993
Greatest rookie season ever
The same year that Gehrig retired, the American League gained a new superstar in a scrawny 20-year-old kid from San Diego named Ted Williams. En route to one of the great rookie seasons in major league history, Williams exploded in July, batting .372/.471/.643 with 28 RBIs, moving his batting average above the .300 line that would become his trademark. Williams finished the season with a major-league-high 145 RBIs, still a rookie record, and topped the AL with 344 total bases while hitting .327/.436/.609 (160 OPS+) and finishing fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting despite his Red Sox finishing 17 games behind the Yankees in the standings.
Walk-off HR in 1941 All-Star Game
The Red Sox only made the World Series once during Williams career, which may have been one reason that he thrilled at the interleague competition of the mid-season All-Star Game. Williams hit .304/.439/.652 in 19 All-Star games, holds the all-time record for most RBIs (12) and walks (11) in All-Star competition and is tied for second with four home runs. His signature All-Star moment came in the 1941 game, just the ninth ever played, when, with the AL trailing 5-4 with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, Williams hit a three-run, game-winning home run off the Cubs’ Claude Passeau to give the AL a 7-5 victory.
Williams’ signature accomplishment came that same season, when he became the first player since Bill Terry 11 years earlier to hit .400 or better over a full, qualified season. Williams famously entered the final day of the season with a .39955 batting average, technically .400, but not good enough for Williams, who chose to start both ends of the Red Sox’s doubleheader against the A’s in Philadelphia. In the first game, he went 4-for-5 with a home run to raise his average to .404. He could have skipped the nightcap, but played that game, as well, going 2-for-3 with a double to finish at .406. No one has hit .400 in a qualified season since.
Home run in final at-bat
In 1959, at the age of 40, Williams had his only unspectacular season at the plate, hitting .254/.372/.419 (114 OPS+). Believing he could still play, but embarrassed by his performance, Williams demanded a significant pay cut (which proved to be 28%), then hit .316/.451/.645 (190 OPS+) at the age of 41. He put an exclamation point at the end of his career by hitting a monstrous, 450-foot home run to Fenway Park’s centerfield bleachers in his final at-bat but refused to tip his cap to the crowd as he crossed home plate. The scene inspired one of the game’s iconic pieces of journalism, John Updike’s New Yorker piece, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
From the SI Vault: End of the Glorious Ordeal, by Ron Fimrite, April 15, 1974
Pennant winning home run in 1957
Hank Aaron was an All-Star at 21 and a batting champion at 22, but it was his age-23 season in 1957 in which he broke out as one of the game’s true superstars. Aaron hit .322/.378/.600 (166 OPS+) that year, leading the majors with 44 home runs and 132 RBIs and the National League with 118 runs scored. He also won the NL’s Most Valuable Player award for his role in taking the Braves to their first World Series since moving to Milwaukee in 1953. Aaron clinched the pennant for the Braves on Sept. 23 when, with one on and two out in the bottom of the 11th inning of a tie game against the second-place Cardinals, he hit a walkoff two-run home run off St. Louis reliever Billy Muffett to push Milwaukee six games in front with five to play.
Home run number 715
From 1957 to 1973, Aaron averaged 38 home runs per year, finishing the latter season, his age-39 campaign, with 713 career home runs, one shy of Babe Ruth’s career record. After enduring an off-season of vicious and racist hate mail, Aaron opened the 1974 season by tying Ruth on Opening Day in Cincinnati. Four days later, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he passed Ruth with a two-run, fourth-inning home run off the Dodgers’ Al Downing. The ball sailed into the Braves’ bullpen, and as Aaron rounded the bases, the number 715 lit up the scoreboard, and it has remained ever since as one of baseball’s brightest signature numbers.
Aaron breaks Babe Ruth’s record for career RBIs
The next year, Aaron broke another, less-heralded Ruth record with his 2,215th career RBI. Aaron, then back in Milwaukee and playing for the Brewers after an off-season trade, hit a sacrifice fly off the Rangers’ Steve Hargan that plated Billy Sharp to give Milwaukee a 2-0 lead in the first inning of an eventual 8-5 Brewers win in Arlington. Aaron finished his career the next season with 2,297 RBIs. And while his home run mark was surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007, Aaron still holds the RBI record to this day, though Alex Rodriguez is creeping closer. Entering 2016, during which he will turn 41 years old, A-Rod is 242 RBIs short of Aaron’s mark.
Last game for Brewers (last player from Negro Leagues in MLB)
Aaron’s great career came to a close in 1976, his age 42 season. In his final at-bat in his final game, a 5-2 Brewers loss to the Tigers at Milwaukee’s County Stadium, Aaron collected a two-out , sixth inning RBI single to score Charlie Moore. He was then pinch-run for by Jim Gantner, bringing an end to his 3,298th game in the majors, at the time the most in major league history. Aaron’s final home run, the iconic number 755, had come on July 20, when he a solo shot off the Angels’ Dick Drago, also at County Stadium. At the time of his retirement, Aaron was the last major leaguer to have at one point played in the Negro Leagues, marking the unofficial end to baseball’s integration era.