Among Hall of Fame hurlers, maybe only Dennis Eckersley achieved such a reversal of fortune simply by changing teams. In Eck’s case it was his meeting a new pitching coach and manager and embracing a new role with the A’s. In the case of Charles “Red” Ruffing it was the fact that he gained a potent offensive attack to support his efforts in New York, where the tall righthander also learned to pitch more efficiently, staying effective until he was in his 40s.
Ruffing had lost his job in the Red Sox rotation when he was traded to the Yankees a few weeks into the 1930 season. The Sox were so perplexed about his performance that they briefly considered making him an outfielder. The 25-year old had spent five years as a Boston starter with mediocre to horrid results. As a young pitcher in Fenway Park in the 1920s, Ruffing’s nickname could have been “BP” for as easy he was on the opposition. He gave up 303 hits one season and in 1929 he surrendered 280 hits in 244 innings while also walking 118 batters. He was essentially a fastball pitcher who had to tame his one good pitch to get it over the plate, which meant big league hitters smacked it around a lot. He was usually pitching from the stretch with runners on the bases. Boston was a very bad team, so Red lost a lot of games. His record at the time of his trade to the Yankees was 39-96. An all-time great he was not. Ruffing wasn’t even on anyone’s radar at that point.
But fortunately for Ruffing and the Yankees, Ed Barrow had a sentimental relationship with his former team and its owner. Barrow had once been in the front office for Boston and Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was still a friend. When Frazee had financial troubles, which was frequent, Barrow felt obliged to help him out, usually by stealing away his best players in return for the cash that Frazee so desperately needed. In most cases, Barrow poached good players, but the Ruffing deal was more of a favor to Frazee, and a strategic move for the Yankees. Barrow knew Frazee would want to auction players in the future, and by taking the struggling Ruffing off his hands for a throw-in player and $100,000, he was buying a place at the front of the line for future deals. If Ruffing could be remade into a serviceable Yankee, that would be a bonus.
Yankee scout Paul Krichel liked Ruffing’s fastball and his temperament. He advised Barrow that Ruffing could be made into a winner. It helped that at that time the manager was former Yankee pitcher Bob Shawkey, who had a knack for working with young hurlers.
In his first start for the Yankees, Ruffing led almost from the start, thanks to a first inning homer by Babe Ruth. The Yankees built a 6-0 lead for their new starter, which was fortunate because Ruffing gave up six runs too. But the Yankees and Ruffing still won the game over the visiting Tigers, 7-6. That was the first of 231 wins for Red for the Yankees as he plowed his way to 273 for his career. The Yankees were either first or second in runs scored in the AL in each of the first ten seasons Ruffing was with them. His record for that decade 175-95, and he won 20 games four straight years. He made himself into a good pitcher too, posting an ERA+ of 119 in his tenure with the Yanks. Not great, but pretty good, and good enough when your teammates are scoring 5-6 runs per game.
HIGHEST RUN SUPPORT DIFFERENTIAL, SINCE 1930
1. Lefty Gomez … 21.2 percent (above league average)
2. Spud Chandler … 17.4
3. Carl Erskine … 16.5
4. Red Ruffing … 15.5
5. Mel Parnell … 15.5
6. Preacher Roe … 15.0
7. Don Gullett … 14.3
8. Vic Raschi … 13.4
9. Gary Nolan … 12.1
10. Whitey Ford … 12.0
Italics denote pitchers who spent significant stretches of their career with the Yankees.
Ruffing started Game One of the World Series for the Yankees six times, it became somewhat of a tradition. He won five times, and the Yankees won the Series six times in the seven times they won the pennant with Ruffing in their rotation.
Ruffing became a famous and important starting pitcher in the 1930s and early 1940s, but he was not a great pitcher. He was a good-to-really-good pitcher who was the beneficiary of a great team around him. For the record, I don’t have a problem with Ruffing being in the Hall of Fame. There’s room for many types of players in the Hall, including those who were famous, important, and on many winning teams. Ruffing was the most consistent and dependable starter on one of the greatest teams ever (the 1936-39 Yankees), the first team to win four straight World Series. That matters.