Babe Ruth (1895–1948)

George Herman “Babe” Ruth is among the most dynamic and beloved characters in 20th-century American culture. He revolutionized the national past-time of baseball, rewriting the record books as no other figure before or after, and created a larger-than-life pop-cultural personality. In 1998, the Sporting News ranked Ruth number one on the list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players,” and in 1999, baseball fans named Ruth to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. In 1969, he was named baseball’s Greatest Player Ever by The Society for American Baseball Research. In 1993, the Associated Press reported that more than 97% of Americans over the age of 12 identified both Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali as the most recognized athletes in the United States.

Ruth’s formative years are as obscure as his adult years are an open book. Of the eight children born to George Herman Ruth and Kate Schanberg Ruth, only Babe and his elder sister Mamie survived infancy. When he was seven years old, his father deposited him at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys in Baltimore, under the care of the Brothers of Francis Xavier, where he would spend the better part of the next 13 years. Ruth never did find out why his parents abandoned him to St. Mary’s, a cross between forced labor camp, reformatory, and monastery. What saved him was his talent for baseball. There were 28 uniformed baseball teams at the school, and the brothers nurtured boys who could play the game. When he was all of 18 years old, Ruth pitched a one hitter, struck out 22 batters, issued only one walk, and collected four hits.

In 1914, on the recommendation of Brother Matthias, Jack Dunn, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles (then a minor league team), signed Ruth to a contract for $250 a month. Dunn had not seen Ruth play and thought he was getting a pitcher. Ruth was still a teenager, so young that he was called “One of Dunnie’s babies.” It was soon shortened to Babe Ruth. Dunn, however, was short of cash and sold Ruth and two other players to the Boston Red Sox for $8,500 and the cancellation of a loan. After a brief stint with the Red Sox minor league team in Providence, Rhode Island, Ruth was called up to the parent team and put in the rotation.

In 1915, baseball was all about pitching and putting the ball in play: bunt the ball, hit it on the ground, and leg it out. The line drive was an art and the home run was an oddity. The year before Ruth was called up Home Run Baker led the American League with eight homers and the Red Sox hit a grand total of 17. Ruth soon changed all that. As a pitcher, Ruth showed power at the plate, but his managers thought his value as a pitcher played into their style of play. By 1919, Ruth was a regular in the outfield. In 1919, his last full year with the Red Sox, he hit 29 homers.

Portrait of Babe Ruth, American baseball legend.

Portrait of Babe Ruth, American baseball legend. (Library of Congress)

At the end of the 1919 season, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, Harry Frazee, short on cash, sold a group of players, including Ruth, to the New York Yankees for $100,000.00 and a loan of $350,000.00. It was rumored that Frazee, a theatrical impresario, sold the players to fund a show that was to become one of Broadway’s great hits and moneymakers, “No, No, Nanette.” Frazee did produce the show in 1925, five years after he sold Ruth to the Yankees. Boston was a powerhouse in the American league, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series in 1903 and winning four more series by 1918. After the sale of Ruth, however, the Red Sox went into a World Series funk, and it would take 86 years before the World Series flag would once again, in 2004, fly over Fenway Field. It remains one of the longest championship droughts in baseball history and is famously known as “Curse of the Bambino.”

In an era of low salaries for the players, who rarely challenged management decisions, Ruth stood out as a personality. A lover of the good life, his salary demands and threats to sit out the season helped force Frazee’s hand. For Ruth and baseball, the deep pockets of the Yankee owners, and the decision of the Yankee manager, Miller Huggins, to make Ruth a full-time outfielder to take advantage of his power as a hitter, turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Ruth, the Yankees, and baseball.

In 1921, in what baseball historians consider to be the greatest ever turned in by any player, Ruth batted .378, led the American League with an on-base percentage of .512, and established a new major league record with 59 home runs, 35 more than the runner-up. Ruth also batted in 171 runs and scored 177 times. These numbers helped the Yankees capture their first pennant ever.

In 1923, the year in which the team first began playing its home games in Yankee Stadium, Ruth appeared in all of New York’s 152 games, batted a career-high .393, led the American League with 41 home runs, 131 runs batted in, 151 runs scored, a .545 on-base percentage, and drew an American League record of 170 walks. The Yankees won 98 games that year to easily win the A. L. pennant, and Babe was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The team then captured its first world championship, defeating the Giants in six games in the World Series. Ruth batted .368 during the series and hit three home runs. He so intimidated the Giants that their pitchers walked him eight times in those eight games. The Babe had single-handedly changed the game. Players were now swinging for the fences, and the era of the “live ball” began.

The Roman Emperors could not have imagined a more entertaining gladiator than Babe Ruth to distract the people from the turbulent times of the early 20th century. Ruth, his major league career spanning 1914 –1935, played through World War I (1914 –1918), the fixing of the World Series by Chicago White Sox players (1919), the fifth worst stock market crash (1919 –1921), Prohibition (1920–1933), the Roaring Twenties (1920 –1929), and into the Great Depression (1929–1941).

Baseball was the United States’ game, but the Black Sox scandal of 1919 shattered the innocence of its fans. The fixing of the World Series left an ugly mark on baseball. Under pressure, the owners hired Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis to clean up and restore fans’ confidence in the game. His first act was to ban the players who took bribes, as well as those who knew about the fix but did not report it. While Ruth had no part in the scandal, his free spirit soon came into conflict with the austere Landis, who learned that Ruth had organized a postseason barnstorming tour and ordered him to abandon it. Ruth challenged Landis and Landis met the dare by suspending Ruth and fining him $3,362.26, the amount of Ruth’s World Series share.

In 1922, Ruth signed a three-year contract for $52,000 per year, more than three times as much as the next highest paid Yankee. But Landis remembered Ruth’s rebellion and demanded that Ruth would never go on off-season barnstorming tours again unless sanctioned by the commissioner and owners. Ruth did not take Landis’s threats seriously until he was threatened with suspension for the entire season. Beaten, Ruth complied.

Ruth hit 60 home runs in1927, the first player to reach this milestone. The record stood for 34 years until it was broken in 1961 by another Yankee, Roger Maris. But Maris paid a penalty for breaking the record. Maris was harassed and hounded by the press and fans. His life was threatened and his health suffered. As Maris approached the record, baseball’s Commissioner Ford Frick declared that Maris’s record would be marked with an asterisk. While no such action was taken, it persists as an Urban Legend.

In 1974, Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves, one of baseball’s greats, passed Ruth’s career total of 714 home runs, a record that had stood for 39 years. Aaron received death threats and hate mails from people who did not want to see a (black) man break Ruth’s record.

While Ruth’s home run records are what most fans focus on, they do not indicate how complete a player he was. His .342 lifetime batting is the 10th highest in baseball history, behind Ty Cobb’s .366 lifetime mark. His .690 career slugging percentage and 1.164 career on-base plus slugging (OPS) remain Major League records. He led the league in home runs during a season 12 times, slugging percentage and OPS 13 times each, runs scored 8 times, and runs batted in 6 times. Ruth ranks third on the all-time home-run list and first in the American League behind only National League’s Barry Bonds with 762 and Hank Aaron with 755. Ruth was also a pretty good fielder. He had a lifetime fielding percentage of .966, 10th on the all-time list. He had a pretty good arm and was credited with averaging 10 assists from the outfield over the course of his career.

With his prowess as a hitter setting Ruth apart from nearly every other baseball great, his potential as a pitcher would have earned him a place in the record books if he had just that position. Ruth pitched for the Boston Red Sox for only five full seasons, from 1915 through 1919. In 1916, he started 44 games, completing 23 of them, compiling a record of 23 wins and 12 losses. Over the course of that season, Ruth gave up a miserly 1.75 runs per game, completed 23, and pitched 9 shutouts.

In 1930, Ruth demanded and received a salary of $80,000 a year, a spectacular number in those times. In 2010 dollars, that would translate to $1,034,525.93. When a reporter suggested that perhaps he was overpaid since President Hoover was only getting $75,000 as president of the United States, Ruth is reported to have replied, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.” One has to wonder what a player of Ruth’s prowess would command when the average contract on the Yankees for that year was $2,100,000.00.

Off the field, as well as on, Ruth danced to his own drummer.

On his radio show, the sportswriter Grantland Rice would provide his guests with answers to questions that Rice would ask his guests. Ruth responded to a question with, “Well, you know, Granny, Duke Ellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Elkton.” After the show, Ruth explained to Rice: “I married my first wife in Elkton” (Maryland) “and I always hated the damn place.”

Then there is the story of young Johnny Sylvester who was dying of a mysterious malady, and his doctors determined that only a profound and unusual event could save him. Ruth, armed with gifts of bat, glove, and half a dozen signed baseballs, showed up at the boy’s bedside. Seeing his idol face-to-face, Johnny was so overwhelmed that he miraculously recovered. A year later, the boy’s uncle stopped the Babe in a hotel lobby and told him that the family would never forget what the Babe did for his nephew. “That’s great,” replied the Babe. “Sure, I remember you. Glad to hear Johnny is doing so well. Bring him around some time.” After they parted, the Babe turned to a baseball writer and asked: “Now who the devil is Johnny Sylvester?”

Throughout his career, Ruth earned more through his contracts, barnstorming tours, and endorsements than any of his peers. As a young man, Ruth had an appetite for fast cars, fast women, clothes, and beer, and went through his money as fast as it came in. But as St. Mary’s provided the Babe with structure and discipline, his wife Claire, who he married in 1922, provided the steady and balanced influence in his later life that provided them with a comfortable retirement. When his baseball career ended, it was estimated that Ruth had earned $896,000 in salary, $41,445 in World Series shares, and perhaps $1,000,000 from endorsements, barnstorming tours, movies, and radio appearances.

Ruth died of throat cancer in 1948. More than 100,000 people paid their respects at Yankee Stadium and at his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

—Joel Sperber


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Society for American Baseball Research.