"It is part of our national history that all boys dream of being Babe Ruth before they are anyone else."
They called him the Babe, the Home Run King, the Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the Behemoth of Swing and the Colossus of Clout. John Kieran, one of the more cultured sports journalists, compared him with Paul Bunyan on one occasion and the giant Gulliver on another. Paul Gallico, much as he loved the big guy, was puzzled by his fame for an odd reason. "There has always been a magic about that gross, ugly, coarse, Gargantuan figure of a man and everything he did," Gallico wrote. "It is all the more remarkable because George Herman Ruth is not sculptured after the model of the hero . . . He was kneaded, rough-thumbed out of earth, a golem, a figurine that might have been made by a savage." Ban Johnson, president of the American League, had a vast respect for the man's talents but complained that "Ruth has the mind of a fifteen-year-old."
Johnson's statement reflected both the bitterness and concern the baseball magnates suffered over the Babe's conduct off the field. Ruth just couldn't be the Boy Scout type we look for in our sports heroes; he was cut from another mold. That kind of accident might not hurt too much in the case of run-of-the-mill athletes, but Ruth had millions of dollars in gate receipts riding on his broad back all through the Twenties. Without his big bat to keep the fans coming, the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 might have reduced baseball to a penny-poor bystander in the Golden Age of Sports. Thus, when Ruth stayed out all night sampling bootleg liquor, the club owners suffered the morning hangover. When Ruth ran around with flappers, the club owners fretted about the sagging morals of the time. W
hen Ruth overate, the club owners had the bellyaches. When Ruth gambled, the club owners wept for his strained purse.
The New York Yankees, the organization that held his contract, took more tangible action, naturally, over Ruth's frequent breaches of baseball etiquette. He was benched, fined, suspended, or just chewed out, as the circumstances warranted. The Yankees never stopped trying to get the playful oaf in lineand never succeeded, either. His appetite for the high life, for everything the dollar could buy, was too deep-rooted even for the vaunted Yankee organization to chop off by
front-office edict. Perhaps it was understandable.
Babe Ruth came up out of the streets and alleys of Baltimore. Folklore often worse than that. He was a cast-off. His German-Irish parents either didn't want him or didn't know what to do with him. "I was listed as an incorrigible," he said once, "and I guess I was." In any case, the Ruths put him in a reform school when he was seven, in 1902, and he spent the rest of his boyhood shuttling between there and the miserable slum flat over his father's saloon. He was "out," as he put it, when his mother Kate died in 1908, so the elder Ruth sent him back to the institutionSt. Mary's Industrial School.
He was "out" again in 1911 and then back for good. His father wanted him to quit brawling and fighting and learn a trade, such as tailoring or shirtmaking. The priests at St. Mary's despaired of making the overgrown rebel a tailor or a shirt-maker or a Little Lord Fauntleroy, but they saw a possibility for him in another directionbaseball.
The kid was at peace with himself when he was pitching a ball or knocking the cover off it with a bat. Brother Benedict was so impressed that he got owner Jack Dunn of the Baltimore Orioles to come and look at him. Dunn signed the nineteen-year-old at once, but he never finished his apprenticeship in the minors. The Boston Red Sox paid $2,000 for his contract in mid-season.
The boy from St. Mary's proved to be a pretty fair left-handed pitcher who could also hit. Ed Barrow, the Boston manager, converted him to an outfielder in 1919 and it paid off. Playing every day, Ruth hit twenty-nine homers, a new record, and Col. Jacob Ruppert put out $125,000 to bring him to New York. There the spindly-legged six-footer proceeded to change the face of baseball and write its most towering and enduring legends. He hit fifty-four homers in 1920 and fifty-nine the next year (well, the Colonel was paying him a bonus of $50 per). His big bat lured so many fans into the rented Polo Grounds that the team put up its own parkYankee Stadium, "The House That Ruth Built."
Ruth made the investment good. He was the heart of the New York club's celebrated "Murderer's Row" and he carried the game to new heights in 1927, when he smashed his own record and hit sixty homers.
In this process, the Baltimore urchin's salary$600 a season with the Orioles, $1,300 up to $10,000 with the Red Sox, 20,000 to $52,000 with the Yankeessoared to $70,000 and then to $80,000. And Ruth lived on the money all the way. He made $1,425,000 in baseball, counting his World Series shares, and at least another half-million on the outside in such ventures as vaudeville, movies and endorsements. He used it all. One season he made $40,000 and had to borrow money to get back to training camp in the spring. Another time he got $25,000 for making a movie in Cuba and stuck the check into his vest and forgot it; when he remembered to cash it the company had dissolved. Once he confessed losing $35,000 on a single horse race.
Some of the Babe's extravagances required late hours, of course, and that kept him in constant trouble with Miller Huggins. When Huggins slapped him with a record $5,000 fine and suspended him in 1925 for breaking training on the road, Ruth publicly denounced the Yankee manager as incompetent and blamed him for the loss of the pennant the year before. Later the slugger was contrite. "I was a Babe and a Boob," he said. Set down after his first season with New York, he went into the Palace with a vaudeville act and drew a blistering review from the World:
"All lip-rouged like a tight-wire lady, with a voice as sweet as a furnace shaker in action, hands that could not find a place on that whole stage to rest comfortably, a grace of carriage somewhere between John Barrymore and an elephant, Babe Ruth came out yesterday at the Palace. And the flappers flapped and the standees whooped her up until the poor chap stood on one foot, then the other, hoping they'd hurry and subside so he wouldn't forget his lines."
The Babe went back to baseball; battling Huggins and the umpires was easier than the two-a-day.
Through it all, and amid never-ending wails that his way of life might do irreparable damage to the nation's youth the boy from the reform school went right on rewriting the records and jamming the turnstiles. He went through the Golden Age into the thirties before his legs gave out. The Yankees cast him off in 1934, after fifteen years, and he wound up his career with the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. The fans stayed with him to the end; he never hurt them, apparently, as much as he had distressed the money counters among the baseball magnates. When cancer strangled him to death in 1948 eighty thousand grieving men and boysand women, toofiled past his bier in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees retired his famous No. 3. The memory would never be retired.
THE IRON HORSE
The pitcher who got by Ruth had another problem. Lou Gehrig. First baseman and cleanup batter in the Murderer's Row lineup, Gehrig hit the ball as hard and as often as Ruth but played out most of his career in the vast shadow cast by the Babe.He had forty-seven homers in 1927, only thirteen behind Ruth. His batting average dipped under .300 only in the first and last of his fifteen years in the game. His high marks were .379, .374, .373, and .363. A butcher's son, he came to the Yankees via the West Side sand lots, the High School of Commerce, and Columbia. The Yankee Iron Man took himself out of the lineup in Detroit on May 2, 1939. In fifteen seasons he set a record for consecutive games played-2,130. (A record that would stand until 1995 when the Orioles' Cal Ripken, Jr. would surpass Gehrig's featgoing on to set a new record of 2,632 in 1998.) Then a rare form of
paralysis hardened Gehrig's spinal cord and touched off a progressive shriveling of his muscles. Manager Joe McCarthy wouldn't bench him even when he began to miss easy grounders and his batting average dipped to .143. So Gehrig had to bench himselfin the saddest and most memorable day in baseball's history. Lou Gehrig was the first athlete to have his number retired. Upon his retirement in 1939, the New York Yankees retired his number 4 jersey, a practice that is still continued by virtually all sports. The great first baseman died two years later.
Lou Gehrig's farewell speech on July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium on "Lou Gehrig Day":
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?
"Sure I'm lucky. Who wouldn't have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrows? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.
"When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice-versa, sends you a giftthat's something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophiesthat's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughterthat's something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existedthat's the finest I know.
"So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for."