August 28, 2022
Babe Ruth is generally considered one of the greatest American sportspeople of the twentieth century. He was one of those rare baseball players who could both bat and pitch, but he was much more than that.
With a very stats-based sport a few words on how baseball works would assist. Each team (nine players) has nine innings and bats in turn. A team’s inning proceeds until three batters are out, then the other team bats for its inning. Unlike cricket’s alternating bowlers, the defending team’s pitcher stays in play inning after inning until the manager replaces him. Because regular season games are daily and the unnatural pitching action is so physically demanding, even the best pitcher is rested far more games than he plays. A top batter might play every day absent injury. This is relevant to how Babe Ruth’s career progressed.
George Herman Ruth Jr was born in Pigtown, an area of Baltimore, Maryland to second generation German immigrants in 1895. As a child he spoke German. Only one of his seven siblings survived infancy. Little is known of his childhood except he went to a Catholic reform school at age 7, apparently because of his delinquent behaviour, which was to become a theme of his life. Brother Matthias there encouraged him in baseball and he was to become a star pitcher at the school but also with the coveted ability to hit home runs (where the ball’s hit so far the batter can run round all four bases, his team scoring up to four runs).
After a brief spell in the minor league, Ruth joined the successful Boston Red Sox team in 1914 aged 19. It was difficult for him to become established because the manager, Carrigan, held him back, according to one biographer, due to the player’s poor behaviour. As a rookie he was not quiet and inconspicuous as expected, and his insistence on attending batting practice despite being a pitcher, led to him being cold-shouldered by teammates. In 1917 he was suspended for throwing a punch at an umpire. He soon began agitating to become an outfield (non-pitching) player because they played every day while pitchers only played once every four or five. Although a successful pitcher, he was used less than he liked and increasingly his importance to the team was to hit home runs which drew in fans. In 1919 Ruth was sold to the Red Sox’s main rivals, the New York Yankees. Aware of his role in baseball’s rising popularity, he’d told the Red Sox they should double his salary, and his demands were leading to other players becoming restless.
Between 1903-1919 the Red Sox won five World Series, but after that they would not win again until 2004 in what became the ‘Curse of the Bambino’, since the decline began with the sale of Ruth.
He had a long and highly successful career at the Yankees, primarily as a batter. The Yankees had never won the World Series before, but won four during his time there and he played his full part. But his reputation for misbehaviour dogged him. In 1922 he was fined and suspended for playing in exhibition games (‘barnstorming)’ which was prohibited for those who’d participated in the World Series. He was appointed captain but lost this role after throwing dust in an umpire’s face and then clambering up into the stand to confront a heckler.
By early 1925, no conventional athlete (his appearance once described as toothpicks attached to a piano), Ruth weighed 260 pounds and became seriously ill, prompting a British newspaper to publish his obituary, but he survived ‘the bellyache that went round the world’. The cause of his illness was unknown, but writers speculated it was alcohol and poor diet. Despite Prohibition (from 1920) his nickname was said to be an acronym for Beer, Alcohol, Booze Excess. Stories abounded. In one he was in a Philadelphia brothel having his head shampooed in champagne and then after two hours sleep hit two home runs. He could typically eat 15 hot dogs with several sodas before a game.
During the 1926 World Series another feature of the Ruth legend was highlighted when he promised an eleven year old boy, who was in hospital after falling from a horse, that he would score a World Series home run for him, which he did. When this became public, extravagant press reports claimed he had saved the boy’s life. Then the 1927 Yankees, known as ‘Murderers’ Row’, became one of the greatest teams of all time. They easily won the World Series that year and Ruth scored a career-high 60 home runs.
But by 1934, Ruth, 39, was in poor shape, hardly able to field or run. He still had a good season with 22 home runs (‘merely mortal’ as one commentator described it), and a strong batting average. When he retired the following year (scoring three homers in his last game), he held 56 records. But he became embittered because he’d been led to believe he was lined up to become the Yankees’ next manager. It never happened and in fact nor did any other club even hire him in a coaching role, except one season as a first base coach in 1938, their disdain due to his poor self-discipline. As well as drinking heavily, he stayed out late and, although married, was known as a ‘womaniser’. The Yankees once resorted to hiring a private detective to keep an eye on him. In 1922, after a relatively disappointing season partly due to his behavioural problems, he was forced to sign a ‘morals clause’ requiring him to eschew alcohol and be in his bed by 1 a.m. He made it clear he would not give up seeing women for anything, saying ‘They’re too much fun’. According to family members he fell into a deep depression as a result of not being considered for a management role.
In the ‘34/35 offseason he had an experience of the English ‘summer game’. He travelled round the world with his wife, ending in the UK. An Australian cricketer named Farley introduced him to cricket. Unable to get used to the batsman’s stance at the wicket he abandoned it for his baseball stance. He hit some huge blows, destroying the bat in the process. Any notions of a late-flowering cricket career were killed off, however, when he learned that even a top batsman earned only the equivalent of $40 a week.
Ruth demanded a lot in terms of remuneration but he gave a lot in terms of performance and his mere presence brought fans to the game. Before TV and with few competing sports, a Babe Ruth home run was an event, something to say you’d seen. With money he could be reckless, once in Havana losing today’s equivalent of $500,000 on a single horse race. But he was generous too. He set up a charitable foundation to help disadvantaged children. This was not a publicity stunt but an active charity, and in his will he left much of his estate to it.
His antics off the field did nothing to harm his reputation with the public. The adulation he received was different to that witnessed before for sportsmen. Partly it was because of his transformation of the game. Prior to him it was known as the ‘dead ball game’, low-scoring and dominated by pitchers. Many in the game at first despised the ‘slugger’ who could despatch the ball 550 feet, but it began to attract bigger crowds. It was an example of a sport’s purists being out of step with its paying public. In fact, Ruth was excellent at other batting skills including bunting (a light tap to place the ball where it’s hard to field), and also fielding, famously once taking a catch barehanded after a dog stole his mitt. In a sport with no equivalent of cricket’s all-rounder he could have been one. He was also one of the first sports personalities. With his public persona and off-field exploits recorded in the press, he was the first player to hire a publicity agent,
Such was his legend in New York that he came to be regarded as a symbol of the city – raw, brash, flashy, irrepressible. It went further. He became seen as a symbol of the USA itself. He was the uneducated, unsophisticated boy made good. During World War Two Japanese soldiers would yell ‘To hell with Babe Ruth!’ to upset the Americans.
With such a high profile, advertisers were keen to secure his endorsement and naturally he welcomed the money. As well as the predictable such as cigarettes, beer, gum and cola, were cereals, margarine, and candies, even soap, shaving cream, underwear and fuel pumps.
Such was the love the public held for Ruth that in 1948 when he was dying of cancer thousands of New Yorkers stood in vigil outside the hospital. On his death at the age of 53 his open coffin was placed in Yankee Stadium and an estimated 105,000 visited it. At his funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral there were 6,000 mourners inside with another 75,000 outside in the rain. Over 100,000 lined the route in silence from Manhattan to Westchester as he was driven to his final resting place. All across the States people said, ‘He will never be forgotten’; indeed, April 27th is still celebrated as Babe Ruth Day.