February 5, 2009

Happy 114th Birthday, Babe Ruth!

Tomorrow is the 114th birthday of Babe Ruth.

In addition to my book on the 1918 Red Sox team, I have written two Ruth biographies for books published by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). One, which covers his Red Sox years, appeared in Deadball Stars of the American League. I posted it two years ago -- you can read it here.

That bio was expanded, with information on the rest of his career and life, for When Boston Still Had The Babe, a must-read book featuring extensive bios on every member of the 1918 team.

Picking up Ruth's story in 1920:
Babe Ruth arrived in New York City at the best possible time for his outsized hitting and hedonistic lifestyle. It was the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, a time of individualism, more progressive social and sexual attitudes, and a greater emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure. (Prohibition, instituted in 1920, had no effect whatsoever.) Sportswriter Westbrook Pegler called it "the Era of Wonderful Nonsense."

It was also a time when "trick pitches" – the emeryball, the spitter, and various ways of scuffing the ball—were outlawed. Both leagues began using a better quality (i.e., livelier) baseball. Ruth thrived—and over time, so did the players in both leagues.

The Babe got off to a slow start in 1920. He was in spring training for nearly three weeks before he crushed his first home run. Ruth also jumped into the stands to fight a fan who had called him "a big piece of cheese" (probably not a direct quote). While tracking a fly ball during an exhibition game in Miami, Ruth ran into a palm tree in center field and was knocked unconscious.

After a disappointing April, in which he missed time due to a strained right knee, Ruth began May with home runs in consecutive games against the Red Sox. He went on to set a major league record for the month with 11 homers. That record lasted less than 30 days, when he smacked 13 long balls in June. He tied his own single-season record of 29 home runs—set the previous year with Boston—on July 16. Two weeks later, he had 37.

He finished the year with the unfathomable total of 54 home runs. He outhomered 14 of the other 15 major league teams. The AL runner-up was George Sisler, with 19; Cy Williams needed only 15 to top the National League. Ruth hit 14.6% of the American League's 369 home runs. For Barry Bonds to outdistance his peers in 2001 (when he set a new single season mark of 73 home runs) as Ruth did in 1920, Bonds would have needed to hit 431 homers.

In addition to this stunning display of power, Ruth was fourth in batting average at .364. His slugging percentage of .847 stood for more than 80 years -- until Bonds reached .863 in 2001.

Ruth’s arrival in New York began a stretch of offensive dominance the game will likely never see again. In the 12 seasons between 1920 and 1931, Ruth led the AL in slugging 11 times, home runs 10 times, walks 9 times, on-base percentage 8 times, and runs scored 7 times. His batting average topped .350 eight times. In exactly half of those 12 seasons, he batted over .370. (Ruth once said that if he shortened his swing and tried to hit singles, he’d hit .600.)

Ruth also starred in a short movie entitled Headin’ Home, which was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The plot, such as it was, starred Babe as a country bumpkin who makes good in big league ball—not exactly playing against type. According to Variety, "It couldn’t hold the interest of anyone for five seconds if it were not for the presence of" Ruth. Babe often returned to the Polo Grounds after a morning of filming still wearing his movie makeup and mascara, much to the annoyance of manager Miller Huggins.

Ruth quickly became one of the most famous people in the country. On Yankees road trips, people with no interest in baseball traveled hundreds of miles to get a glimpse of the Babe. He was cheered wildly in every park—for rival fans, if Ruth smacked one out of the park, it hardly seemed to matter what the final score was.

Sunday baseball became legal in New York in 1919 and the fan base changed forever. Women and children came out regularly to the park. One of Ruth’s most enduring nicknames—the Bambino—came from the Italian fans in the upper Manhattan neighborhood around the Polo Grounds.

Everyone wanted to know as much about Ruth as possible. The New York papers (more than 15 dailies) began devoting more and more space to the Babe’s exploits. Nothing was too trivial. According to sportswriter Tom Meany, if Ruth was seen "taking an aspirin, it was practically a scoop for the writer who saw him reach for the sedative." Marshall Hunt was hired by the Daily News to write about the Babe—and only the Babe—365 days a year.

In the 1920s, giddy sportswriters were coming up with nicknames for Ruth nearly every day. His Boston nickname—the Colossus—morphed into the Colossus of Clout. From there, a seemingly endless—and often silly—list emerged: the Wizard of Wham, the Sultan of Swat, the Maharajah of Mash, the Rajah of Rap, the Caliph of Clout, the Behemoth of Bash, the Potentate of Pow, the Wali of Wallop, the Prince of Pounders, and on and on.

His own name became a nickname, bestowed on someone who was the best in his or her field: the Babe Ruth of Surfing, the Babe Ruth of Bowling, the Babe Ruth of Poker. His teammates usually called him “Jidge” (for George).

The Yankees finished the 1920 season in third place with a 95-59 record, only three games behind Cleveland. It was their best showing in 10 years. They followed that up in 1921 by winning 98 games and their first-ever pennant. And somehow Ruth may have actually had a better year at the plate than he did in 1920. His batting average improved slightly (.376 to .378), and while his OBP (.532 to .512) and slugging (.847 to .846) dipped slightly, he drove in 171 runs and hit a career-high 16 triples. (According to manager Huggins, Ruth was the second-fastest player on the team.) He also broke his own single-season home run record—for the third consecutive year—with 59. On July 18, Ruth became the game’s career home run leader, hitting his 139th homer, passing Roger Connor. Ruth also set new season records for runs scored (161), extra base hits (107), and total bases (412).

Ruth also pitched in one game. He started on June 13 and allowed four runs in five innings. He also hit two home runs that day and finished the game in center field as the Yankees won, 11-8.

In September 1921, Ruth underwent three hours of tests at Columbia University to determine his athletic and psychological capabilities. Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton wrote up the findings for Popular Science Monthly:

“The tests revealed the fact that Ruth is 90 per cent efficient compared with a human average of 60 per cent. That his eyes are about 12 per cent faster than those of the average human being. That his ears function at least 10 per cent faster than those of the ordinary man. That his nerves are steadier than those of 499 out of 500 persons. That in attention and quickness of perception he rated one and a half times above the human average. That in intelligence, as demonstrated by the quickness and accuracy of understanding, he is approximately 10 per cent above normal.”

The psychologists also discovered that Ruth did not breathe during his entire swing. They stated that if he kept breathing while swinging, he could generate even more power.

The Yankees faced their co-tenants in the Polo Grounds, the New York Giants, in the 1921 World Series. Ruth cut his left arm (which then became infected) during a slide in the second game and wrenched his knee in the fifth game. Babe made only one pinch-hitting appearance in the final three contests. The Yankees won the first two games, but the Giants took the best-of-nine series, five games to three.

After the World Series, Ruth and some other Yankees went on a barnstorming tour to earn extra money. This was in violation of the National Commission’s 1911 edict that players on the two pennant-winning teams could not barnstorm after the World Series—enacted, perhaps, to preserve the integrity of the World Series or to limit the players’ total income. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, newly installed as the game’s first commissioner, suspended Ruth and fellow outfielder Bob Meusel for the first six weeks of the season, and fined them each $3,362—the amount of their 1921 World Series share).

When Ruth returned to the lineup on May 20, he was also named as the team’s captain, succeeding Hal Chase (1912) and Roger Peckinpaugh (1914-21). The honor lasted less than one week. Ruth was again slow to get his bat started and after five games, he was hitting .093 and being booed.

On May 25, he was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double and, furious at the call, threw dirt in umpire George Hildebrand’s face. On his way towards the dugout, he spied a heckler and jumped into the stands, ready to fight. The fan ran away and Ruth ended up standing on the dugout roof, screaming, “Come on down and fight! Anyone who wants to fight, come down on the field!” Ruth was fined $200 and was replaced as captain by shortstop Everett Scott.

Babe was suspended for three days in mid-June for his part in an obscenity-laced tirade against umpire Bill Dinneen. When Ruth got the news the following day, he challenged Dinneen to a fist fight—and the suspension was increased to five days. In the wake of the suspensions, Ruth made an effort to check his temper. On June 26, as some of his teammates argued with Dinneen, Babe merely sat down in the outfield grass and watched.

Ruth played in only 110 games in 1922. His batting average dropped to .315, but he led the league with a .672 slugging percentage and his OBP of .434 was fourth best.

The Yankees and the Giants met in the World Series for the second straight year. After a three-year experiment as a best-of-nine, the series was back to being a best-of-seven, where it has remained to the present day. The Giants swept the Yankees in five games (Game Two ended in a tie due to darkness). Ruth went 2-for-17.

The Yankees left the Polo Grounds and began 1923 in their own ballpark, directly across the Harlem River in the borough of the Bronx. Yankee Stadium was dubbed the House that Ruth Built, but with its short right field porch, a more appropriate title might be the House Built for Ruth. Babe returned to his battering ways with a vengeance. He hit .393—if only four of his 317 outs had fallen for hits, he would have batted .400—and hit 41 home runs. Harry Heilmann of the Tigers led the AL with a .403 average.

The Yankees won their third straight pennant, finishing 16 games ahead of the Tigers. And for the third straight year, the World Series was an all-New York affair. This time, it was the Yankees, after losing two of the first three games, who prevailed. Ruth went 7-for-19 in the series, with three home runs. However, all three came at the Polo Grounds. Casey Stengel hit the first World Series home run at Yankee Stadium.

Ruth won his only batting title in 1924, easily topping the AL at .378—almost 20 points higher than Charlie Jamieson’s .359. Babe hit 46 home runs and finished second with 121 RBIs. His .739 slugging percentage was more than 200 points higher than runner-ups Harry Heilmann and Ken Williams (both at .533). However, the Yankees finished in second place, two games behind the Washington Senators.

In 1925, the Yankees fell all the way to seventh, 69-85, 28 1/2 games out of first place. It was a bad year from the start. Ruth showed up for spring training at 256 pounds and went on to have the worst year of his career. He hit .290/.393/.543 (batting/on-base/slugging), with 25 home runs and a paltry 66 RBIs. This was also when Ruth suffered the famed “Bellyache Heard ‘Round the World”. Ruth fell ill during the team’s spring training exhibition tour. The initial story was that Ruth had eaten too many hot dogs, and the New York Evening Journal ran a photo of Ruth with 12 numbered franks superimposed on his stomach.

It was clearly more serious than indigestion. On April 17, Ruth had minor surgery for what doctors termed an “intestinal abscess”. Several teammates hinted it might have been a sexually-transmitted disease; one teammate said it wasn’t a bellyache, “it was something a bit lower”.

Whatever it was, it didn’t cramp Ruth’s style. Babe was staying out all night more often than not and by the end of the season, he was a physical wreck. In mid-December, Ruth realized if he wanted to continue playing ball into his thirties, he needed to do something different. He showed up at Artie McGovern’s gymnasium on East 42nd Street in Manhattan, a well-known gym used by New York’s rich and famous.

Ruth committed himself to McGovern’s strict regimen of exercise, diet, and rest. Six weeks later, by the time he was ready to head south for spring training, Ruth had lost 44 pounds and shed almost nine inches from his waistline.

The Babe still had plenty of fun, obviously, but he never let himself get seriously out of shape again. As Robert Creamer wrote in Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, “From 1926 through 1931, as he aged from thirty-two to thirty-seven, Ruth put on the finest sustained display of hitting that baseball has ever seen. During those six seasons, he averaged 50 home runs a year, 155 runs batted in and 147 runs scored; he batted .354. … From the ashes of 1925, Babe Ruth rose like a rocket.”

As Ruth rose, so did the Yankees. The Bombers went from seventh place to first, winning 91 games and the 1926 pennant. Ruth batted .372/.516/.737, with 47 home runs (runner-up Al Simmons had 19), and drove in 155 (41 more than his nearest challenger). The Yankees were also boosted by the great play of two rookie infielders: second baseman Tony Lazzeri and shortstop Mark Koenig. First baseman Lou Gehrig, in his second full season at age 22, led the league with 20 triples and 83 extra-base hits—one more than Ruth.

In Game Four of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ruth belted three home runs. It was the first time he had ever hit three in one game—and it was the first time that had been done in a World Series game. This was also the game before which Ruth allegedly promised to hit a home run for 11-year-old hospital patient Johnny Sylvester.

The 1926 series came down to a deciding seventh game at Yankee Stadium. New York trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning, when Ruth walked with two outs. Bob Meusel was facing Grover Cleveland Alexander when Ruth took off for second. He was thrown out trying to steal—ending the game and the World Series.

The 1927 Yankees are often talked about as the greatest team in baseball history. New York finished with a 110-44 record, winning the league by a whopping 19 games and sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. They scored 975 runs, 130 more than second-best Detroit.

Ruth’s fabled 60 home runs—which he had become obsessed with since hitting 59 six years earlier—captured the headlines, but Gehrig, at age 24, had a better season. He outhit Ruth (.373 to .356) and nearly matched him in on-base percentage (.474 to .486), and slugging (.765 to.772). Gehrig had more extra base hits (117 to 97), total bases (447 to 417), and RBIs (175 to 164). He also led the league in doubles, was second in triples, second in home runs, second in hits, and third in batting average.

The Yankees won 13 fewer games in 1928, but their 101-53 record was still good enough for a third straight pennant. Ruth batted only .323, but his 54 home runs helped him lead the major leagues in slugging at .709. He and Lou Gehrig each drove in 142 runs. The Yankees used only three pitchers as they swept the Cardinals in the World Series. Ruth batted .625 (10-for-16), with three doubles, three home runs, and a 1.375 slugging percentage. Gehrig hit .545 (6-for-11) and slugged 1.727.

In January 1929, Babe’s first wife, Helen, died in a house fire in Watertown Massachusetts. At the time, Helen was living with Edward Kinder, a dentist, and while the deed on the house listed Helen and Kinder as husband and wife, they were not, in fact, married. (Babe and Helen had never officially divorced.) Ruth was devastated by the news. At the funeral, he wept uncontrollably.

Babe married Claire Hodgson on April 17. The following day, the Yankees—with numbers on the back of their uniforms for the first time—opened the season against the Red Sox. Babe whacked a first-inning home run to left field and doffed his cap to Claire as he rounded the bases.

On August 11 in Cleveland, Ruth hit the 500th home run of his career. The New York World called it “a symbol of American greatness”. The man who retrieved the homer got two signed baseballs and, after posing for a photo with Ruth, the Babe slipped him a $20 bill.

Miller Huggins passed away suddenly near the end of the 1929 season—and Babe lobbied for the manager’s job for 1930. (Ruth would drop hints about wanting to manage for the next four years, but the Yankees never seriously considered it.) Ruth also asked for his salary to be increased to $100,000—this coming a few months after Black Tuesday and the start of what became the Great Depression. He ended up signing a two-year deal for $80,000 per season. With exhibition game receipts, movie shorts, personal appearances, and endorsements, Ruth probably earned close to $200,000 in 1930.

By the end of June 1930, Ruth was ahead of his 60-homer pace of 1927, but injuries slowed him down and he finished with 49.

The Yankees were an offensive juggernaut. In both 1930 and 1931, they scored more than 1,000 runs—an average of nearly seven runs per game. But it was the Philadelphia Athletics who won the pennant in 1929, 1930, and 1931 behind the big bats of Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons and the pitching of Lefty Grove.

In 1931, at age 36, Ruth had one of his finest seasons. He hit .373/.495/.700, with 46 home runs, 163 RBIs, 128 walks and 149 runs scored.

Ruth made his final trip to the World Series in 1932. Amazingly, in the seven-year reign of Ruth and Gehrig from 1929-1935, the Yankees won only one pennant. Gehrig (.349/.451/.621, 34 HR, 151 RBI) and Ruth (.341/.489/.661, 41 HR, 137 RBI) were ably assisted by Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Ben Chapman and Earl Coombs. However, it was Jimmie Foxx of the A’s who led the league in home runs (58).

The Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series, giving them wins in 12 straight World Series games. It was during the third game—October 1 at Wrigley Field—that Ruth added to his legend. The game was tied 4-4 when Ruth stepped in against Cubs starter Charlie Root with one out in the fifth inning. Ruth had already homered in his first at-bat and the Cubs’ bench-jockeying was at a fever pitch.

Everyone agrees that as Root threw two called strikes to Ruth, the Babe held up one and two fingers. What exactly happened before Root threw his 2-2 pitch will never be definitively known. The legend says Ruth pointed, perhaps with his bat, towards the center field bleachers, indicating that was where he was going to hit the next pitch. Or he may have been saying “I’ve still got one strike left.”

Either way, Ruth swung and belted the ball to deep center field—one of the longest home runs seen at Wrigley—for his second home run of the afternoon. He laughed as he jogged around the bases, pointing and jeering at the Cubs dugout.

Of the many game stories written that afternoon, only one mentioned Ruth “calling his shot”. Within two or three days, however, writers who had initially made no reference to Ruth’s theatrics were offering their own recollections. And thus a legend was born. A 16mm home movie of the at-bat surfaced in 1999. The grainy film does show Ruth pointing his arm, but it’s impossible to determine exactly what he is doing.

Root maintained that Ruth “did not point at the fence before he swung. If he had made a gesture like that, he would have ended up on his ass.” As for the Babe, when asked whether he had really pointed to the bleachers, he smiled and said, “It’s in the papers, isn’t it?”

It was Ruth’s last trip to the World Series. He played on seven World Series champions: four with the Yankees (1923, 1927-1928, 1932), and three with the Red Sox (1915-1916, 1918). He was also on the losing side of three World Series teams with New York (1921, 1922, 1926).

1933 was Ruth’s 20th season in major league baseball. He batted only .301 with 34 home runs, though he still led the league in walks. One of the season’s highlights was the inaugural All-Star Game, played at Comiskey Field in Chicago. Ruth hit the game’s first home run. He also robbed Chick Hafey of a home run in the eighth inning, to preserve the AL’s 4-2 win.

The Yankees finished seven games behind the Senators and, in an effort to boost attendance for the last home game of the year, announced that Ruth would pitch against the Red Sox. The 39-year-old outfielder held the Red Sox without a run for five innings. With a 6-0 lead, he stumbled in the sixth, allowing a walk, five singles, and four runs. He gave up another run in the eighth, but hung on and won the complete game, 6-5. Although Ruth had prepared for the start, it took a toll on his arm. He couldn’t so much as comb his hair with his left arm for about a week.

Ruth took a $17,000 pay cut in 1934. His $35,000 contract was still the highest in the game, but it was his lowest salary since 1921. On July 13, in Detroit, Babe hit his 700th career home run. Three days later, he drew his 2,000th walk.

In August, during the Yankees’ last trip at Fenway, a record crowd of 48,000 turned out, assuming it would be Ruth’s last appearance in Boston. The fans cheered everything Ruth did. When he grounded out in his final at-bat, he was given a long, standing ovation. “Do you know that some of them cried when I left the field?” Ruth said afterwards. “And if you wanna know the truth, I cried too.”

On the other hand, for what was rumored to be his final home game in a Yankees uniform, only 2,000 fans showed up. Babe played only one inning, being replaced by a pinch-runner after drawing a walk. He ended the year with a .288 batting average.

During the off-season, Ruth agreed to travel with an all-star team to Japan. In arranging for a passport, he discovered that his date of birth was February 6, 1895. He had always believed he was born on February 7, 1894. He was actually a year younger.

Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, not wanting Ruth to return in any capacity in 1935, worked out a secret deal with Boston Braves owner Emil Fuchs. Fuchs would offer Ruth a contract that included the titles of “assistant manager” and “vice president”. Ruth loved the idea and when he informed Ruppert, the Yankee owner said he wouldn’t stand in Ruth’s way. At spring training in 1935, Ruth learned that the Yankees had already assigned his #3 to George Selkirk. They were also using his locker to store firewood.

Ruth ended up playing in 28 games for the Braves, batting .181. The one bright spot came on May 25 in Pittsburgh. Ruth belted the final three home runs of his career, and drove in six runs. Career home run #714 disappeared over the right field roof—the longest home run ever hit at Forbes Field.

Many of the hitting records Ruth once held have since been broken, but what cements Babe’s status as the best to ever play the game is the combination of hitting for average, hitting with power, and his work on the mound. In addition to his batting exploits, Ruth also pitched in 163 games, with a record of 94-46 and a career ERA of 2.28. For 71 years, he was also the unlikely answer to a great trivia question: Who is the only major leaguer to pitch in at least 10 seasons and have a winning record in all of them? Ruth had winning records in 10 seasons: 1914-1921, 1930 and 1933. Andy Pettitte now holds the record at 12 seasons (1995-2006).

Ruth retired to a life of golf, fishing, bowling, and public appearances. In November 1946, he checked into French Hospital on 29th Street in Manhattan, complaining of headaches and pain above his left eye. It was cancer, though the newspapers never printed the word.

Babe Ruth Day was held at Yankee Stadium (and every other major league park) the following April. A crowd of 58,339 was there and many of them, players as well as fans, were shocked at how frail and shrunken the mighty Babe had become.

Ruth returned to the Bronx one more time, on June 13, 1948. Yankee Stadium was celebrating its 25th anniversary and Babe’s #3 was being retired. Ruth was back in the hospital 11 days later. The cancer had spread to his liver, lungs, and kidneys. He knew he was dying.

Babe Ruth died at 8:01 p.m. on August 16, 1948. He was 53 years old. He is buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, next to his wife Claire.

Leigh Montville, author of The Big Bam, called Ruth "the patron saint of American possibility … The fascination with his career and life continues. He is a bombastic, sloppy hero from our bombastic sloppy history, origins undetermined, a folk tale of American success."
Robert Creamer's Babe: The legend Comes to Life is the definitive Ruth bio (Marshall Smelser's The Life That Ruth Built is also well-worth tracking down), but Montville's book is equally superb, as I noted here.


Unknown said...

Good stuff, man. I enjoyed reading that a ton.

One thing I don't think is commented on enough is Ruth's creativity as an athlete. Managers, players, writers, coaches... everyone at the time thought it was better to hit the ball on a line or hit it hard into the ground. A lot of factors contributed to this: Long, badly kept infield grass, gravely infield dirt, smaller, less reliable gloves (I don't think webbed gloves came into existence until the 20's, and I don't think they became popular until a little later). There's no data from then, but I don't think it's especially controversial to suggest that the batting average on ground balls was a lot higher then than it is now (and the batting average on groundballs now is still higher than flyballs).

So, then Babe Ruth came along, and figured out if you swing with an uppercut, you can take some of those flyball mistakes and turn them into four-baggers. In my mind, that's the reason why pre-1915 (even pre-1920) baseball wasn't played at as high a level as baseball afterwards. Baseball was such a different game in the era of Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson, that I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense to compare today's players with players of that era.

And it doesn't make any sense to compare anyone to the Babe, because no one compares to him.

Holy shit, Adrian Gonzalez just hit his third homerun of the day. Mexico 12 - DR 9 in the Caribbean World Series.

laura k said...

I heart Babe. Allan's writing really makes him come to life, in all his crazy glory.

allan said...

In my mind, that's the reason why pre-1915 (even pre-1920) baseball wasn't played at as high a level as baseball afterwards.

In the Deadball Era (1900-19), runs were more precious and team strategy for getting a guy around -- bunts, stolen bases -- was more intense. They called it "scientific" or "inside baseball".

Many people back then (like Cobb and McGraw, I believe) thought Ruth and the power game would be the death of baseball (see, someone is always claiming the game is dying!!) -- just cranking the ball was one-dimensional and required no brains.

allan said...

Good stuff, man. I enjoyed reading that a ton.

Now you're supposed to go buy the book!

Though the two Deadball Stars books might have a greater appeal on a general baseball level.

allan said...

Damn, I keep hitting publish too early.

Rounder also has bio/history books on the 1967 and 1975 Red Sox. And there are more in the pipeline.

tim said...

I also loved the read.

Allan's writing really makes him come to life, in all his crazy glory.

So true - finished the book last week, and this post is a perfect 'epilogue' to it!

I enjoyed reading every page of it - kept me hooked, and I agree with the comments I read (either on the back cover or on Amazon) that it was a great, complete and thorough analysis/story of the 1918 Red Sox.

I'm really glad that I read the book, and this post. While realizing "The Curse" / CHB was silly before, I now fully understand for myself just how full of shit it really is!