Take a second, close your eyes and form a mental picture of Babe Ruth. I presume it’s a picture of him at bat. Now try to form a mental picture of him in the field. My guess is that it was either a picture of him on the mound from his pitching days or of him in right field. Neither of those are bad mental images, but they are both incomplete. It’s a question of the way we perceive the Babe.
I had known for years that Ruth played a number of games in left field and a handful at first base. I didn’t realize just how many of the Babe’s appearances in the field weren’t on the mound or in right. Here’s a quick rundown of his games by position (all from Baseball Reference): pitcher-163, first base-32, center field-74, left field-1050, right field-1132. In some games he played more than one position and in others he pinch hit, so the numbers don’t add up to his total games played (2503).
The difference between 1050, the number of games in left, and 1132, the number of games is right, is all of 82. Not much of a difference, is it? If you throw in the center field number with the left field number it comes out only eight games more in right field than in the other two combined. And yet we all think of him as a right fielder.
Why the changes in position? Well, a handful of things jump out if you look at the teams involved and the stadia. In 1918, Ruth’s first season with significant time in left field, the Red Sox have Harry Hooper in right. Whatever you think of Hooper’s credentials for the Hall of Fame, he was a very good right fielder in his day. By 1919, Hooper had moved to center field and Ruth took over as the regular left fielder (in 1918 he had 47 games in left, by 1919 it was 110). Why not move him to right? I’m not sure but maybe he was learning to deal with “Duffy’s Cliff”, the hill in left field in Fenway and the manager (Ed Barrow) didn’t want to move him. His fielding percentage (.988) and range factor (2.43) are actually better than either Hooper or Braggo Roth, the right fielder (but Ruth pitched 17 games that season and had a handful in center which may have changed his fielding numbers slightly).
In 1920 he moved to New York and the most significant thing to remember about the fielding in New York is that the Yankees played 1920 through 1922 in the Polo Grounds, not in Yankee Stadium. The horseshoe shape meant that you had to have a heck of a center fielder, but that right fielder and left fielder could be interchangeable. And we see that in the stats. In 1920 he plays most of his games in right, in 1921 he’s almost exclusively a left fielder, and in 1922 he splits time in both (about 2 to 1 favoring left).
By 1923 the Yankees are in Yankee Stadium with its bus ride to the fence in left field. In 1923-25 he spends most (but certainly not all) his time in right. I’ve been unable to break it down by park, but I understand from reading some stuff that he tended to play right at home and left on the road, but I can’t give you exact numbers. Beginning in 1926 he starts spending more time in right than in left (but in some seasons it’s close and in other a big difference shows up).
What’s going on here? Well, a couple of things. First, the Babe was never known as strong armed. He seems to have possessed a decent arm, but not a great one. In Yankee Stadium the big arm was needed in left field (because of the distances) so it was best to move him to right field. Second, for most games in the 1920s the other corner outfielder was Bob Meusel. By general agreement of almost everyone I’ve read, Meusel had the best arm of the decade. So playing Meusel in left at home and in right on the road made a great deal of sense. But it also meant that Ruth was going to have to switch positions a lot. By 1929, Meusel was fading (1930 was his last year and it wasn’t in New York) and Ruth began to get more time strictly in right field.
All of this is by way of reminding you that sometimes what we think we know isn’t exactly true. Even in the case of a great and well-known figure like Ruth.