Pruett heir remembers Ruthian legacy

ST. LOUIS -- Dr. Don Pruett still walks quickly through his house for a 78-year-old. As he moves from room to room he limps a little, more from the passage of time and a life spent walking up and down hospital hallways than from an injury. We stop at the kitchen window overlooking the pool and he focuses his attention on a tree filled with birds.

Watching the birds and feeding them is an important daily activity now in his new, slower-paced life as a retired surgeon. Pruett said he wanted to make sure I saw the birds before he begins to tell me how all of this -- the beautiful colonial-style house on a sprawling estate, his family, his life of hard yet rewording work -- all came from one pitch that Babe Ruth couldn’t hit.

Pruett’s father, Hub Pruett, was born in Malden, Mo., on Sept. 1, 1890. Hub was a major league pitcher from 1922 to 1932. Hub’s nickname was Shucks, a childhood moniker kept even as a baseball player because he never swore. Hub would just say, “Aw, shucks.”

“[Hub's] parents died at an early age,” Don Pruett said. “His dad was a doctor and he died in a horse and buggy accident making a house call. He was raised by his aunt.”

Pruett said Hub loved to play baseball, but his real ambition was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. He was trying to figure out how to raise money to go to medical school when a serendipitous chain of events unfolded.

“They had a town baseball team and he was asked to play on the team.” Pruett said. “While he was playing in one of these games it just so happened that a St. Louis Cardinals scout, Charlie Barrett, was down there looking at two players -- two brothers -- a catcher and pitcher.”

The starting pitcher had a bad day and got knocked out early.

“So my father went in and allowed one or two hits the rest of the game,” said Pruett. “Barrett said to him, ‘if you ever want to play pro ball, come on up to St. Louis and we’ll see what we can do for you.'"

Hub eventually went to St. Louis because he figured if he could play ball in the majors, this would pay his way through medical school.

“At that time the Browns and the Cardinals shared an office, and the day he went to St. Louis, the Cardinals were out of town,” Pruett said. “So he talked to the Browns' general manager. [Bob Quinn] asked my father, 'Does it make any difference what St. Louis team you would play for?' He said, 'No, all I want to do is play ball.’”

Had Hub ended up playing for the Cardinals, his story could have ended there, but in 1922 the Browns were in contention for the pennant. The Yankees and the Browns battled until the final three-game series between the two teams.

“He pitched a lot against the Yankees, and Babe Ruth just couldn’t hit him,” Pruett said.

In his rookie year in 1922, Hub struck out Ruth the first 13 times he faced him. Ruth batted against Shucks a total of 17 times in 1922 and struck out 15 times. In Game 2 of the final series between the Yankees and the Browns, Ruth had his only hit off of Hub that year -- a home run. The Yankees would win the next game 3-2 and go on to win the American League pennant.

At the time, reporters called it, “The pitch that bamboozled Babe.”

“He threw a fadeaway,” said Pruett. “That was the pitch he learned from Christy Mathewson. Christy Mathewson was right-handed and my dad was left-handed and he learned how to throw that fadeaway. Of course, no left-hander in the majors threw a fadeaway, and Ruth just couldn’t touch it. His fadeaway pitch he threw from three different angles: top, sidearm and underarm, and it looked like three different pitches.”

The records from that era are incomplete, but the legend of Ruth and Hub passed down from the family and from newspaper reports say Ruth faced Hub 30 times. Ruth, a lifetime .345 hitter, was held to a .190 average against Hub.

After the 1922 season, the rest of Hub’s baseball career could be described as hanging on just enough to pay for medical school. He had injured his arm in college and always pitched with pain. By 1932 he had finished medical school. Hub was offered a pay raise and a contract from the Giants’ John McGraw after the 1932 season, but Hub made a conscious choice to close the door on his baseball life forever.

Hub passed away on Jan. 28, 1982.

Pruett followed in his father’s footsteps and became a surgeon, and his son Chris is now a surgeon as well. Because his education was provided by the hard work of Hub, Pruett acknowledges that three generations of doctors are now the result of one pitch Babe Ruth couldn’t handle.

“If it weren’t for Babe Ruth, we wouldn’t be sitting here now,” Pruett said.

There is no plaque in the Hall of Fame honoring Hub Pruett, no mention of his feats against Ruth in 1922, yet countless baseball players will share Hub’s experience: A flash of brilliance in the majors for a few short years, or even just a moment.

As we walk by the kitchen window again, there is just one bird left. It’s a cardinal sitting on a tree branch, his bright red feathers standing out in stark contrast against the dark winter colors in the yard. The colorful bird waiting amid a dull winter day is a great symbol that the baseball season is almost here and even in seemingly insignificant baseball stories, anything is possible.

Hub and Ruth never talked during his playing days. Pruett said his father would say this is because there wasn’t as much fraternization between players as there is today.

“But sometimes coming off of the field Babe Ruth would wink at him,” Pruett said. “Their first conversation was at a meeting where Babe Ruth was being honored [in 1948] just a few months before he died. It was the first time he ever spoke with [Ruth], he said to Ruth, 'I want to thank you Babe for putting me through medical school,' and Babe Ruth replied, 'If there would have been more like you, no one would have ever had heard of me.'"