CHAPTER 1 You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
If the people who ran baseball could have created a superhero to come and save the day, Babe Ruth would have been their guy.
In appearance, in personality, and in ability, he was almost like a comic-book creation. Even his nicknames—the Babe, the Sultan of Swat, and the Bambino—made him seem like he wasn’t real.
But he was real, and his name would have come up over the dinner table at the fancy New York restaurant where the owners of the New York Yankees—Jacob Ruppert Jr. and Til Huston—dined with their friend, Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Red Sox.
It was Christmastime in 1919. Fans and newspapermen and people who worked in baseball were still talking about the World Series that year, in which the heavily favored Chicago White Sox had lost badly to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. There had been rumors that players on the White Sox might have lost on purpose—bribed by gamblers to “throw” the series. That way, those gamblers could cheat and bet against the White Sox, knowing they would lose, and collect on bets.
It would be another year before the players were arrested for doing just that. They came to be called the Black Sox, and the Black Sox scandal was the worst to ever hit baseball. If gamblers could take over the games by bribing players, then the public trust was gone and the future of the major leagues was in doubt. It was baseball’s worst moment since it had become a professional game in 1869.
So of course Ruppert, Huston, and Frazee would be talking about it. Everyone was.
Frazee not only owned the Red Sox, but he also produced Broadway shows and lived on Park Avenue in New York. It was not uncommon for him to socialize with the Yankees owners. Might they have a few beers with their dinner? Of course! Ruppert, after all, was not only co-owner of the Yankees, but owner of the Jacob Ruppert Brewing Company, one of America’s largest beer producers.
Babe Ruth was baseball’s biggest star from the time he joined the Yankees in 1920. (Rogers Photo Archives)
The Yankees and the Red Sox had just begun making trades with each other. Five months earlier, in July, the Sox sold a suspended pitcher—Carl Mays—to the Yanks, a deal that the league president, Ban Johnson, tried to stop. Johnson said it wasn’t right to sell a player, and to reward him with a new contract while he was under suspension. It wound up being decided in court, making the Yanks and the Red Sox allies against Johnson. Johnson lost, Mays became a Yankee, and he won nine games in the final two months of the season.
The Red Sox were the more successful team at this point—they had been to the World Series five times since the American League was founded in 1901. They were playing in an eight-year-old ballpark, Fenway Park, where their “Royal Rooters” were very loud and very supportive.
The Yankees had yet to win a pennant, much to the frustration of their fans and their owners. They didn’t even have their own ballpark. They were much less interesting to New York sports fans than the New York Giants baseball team, and the ballpark the Yankees shared with the Giants—the Polo Grounds—was much more crowded when the Giants were playing. Ruppert, in fact, had first tried to buy the Giants before “settling” for the Yankees in 1915, bringing in Huston as a partner.
“So, Harry,” Ruppert might have said, “what are you working on these days?”
And Frazee might have responded, “I’ve got a dandy Broadway musical in the works called No, No, Nanette, but I’m still short of funding for it. It’s always about raising the money when you’re in this business.”
“How about your baseball team, Harry? What’s going on with the Red Sox?”
“Well, I’d like to get back to the World Series, of course. I think we can do it, and I think we can do it with or without this big lug Ruth. He’s such a discipline problem. No rules seem to apply to him. Frankly, he’s asking for too much money, and my patience is wearing thin with him.”
When it came to training rules, like eating the right foods, getting to sleep on time, and generally staying in shape and behaving himself, Babe was not always a model of perfection.
Babe Ruth. Ruppert and Huston probably glanced at each other, maybe winked. They were baseball men, and they knew all about him. He was becoming the biggest box office attraction in the game and had just moved to the outfield, so his bat could be in the lineup every day. He had always been a pitcher—and a terrific one at that—but the team’s manager, Ed Barrow, saw something special there: the ability to hit home runs like nothing that fans had ever seen. Long ones. High ones. Dramatic ones. A lot of them. How could he be doing this, when the baseball itself was considered a “dead ball,” incapable of soaring great distances? Hardly anyone was hitting home runs. Maybe eight or ten a year could lead the league, many of them of the inside-the-park variety.
Imagine trying to hit a pillow two hundred feet, if you want to know what the dead ball felt like! You would soon stop trying and learn to hit it a shorter distance, but between fielders.
Ruppert, although born in New York, came from a German family and sometimes spoke with a German accent. He pronounced Ruth as “Root.”
“Would you ever consider selling Root?”
“Oh, I might indeed,” would have been the response. Frazee was probably already counting the money, realizing he could finance his Broadway productions with it.
This was not a total surprise to Ruppert and Huston. They had earlier dispatched their manager, Miller Huggins, to talk to Frazee, and Huggins had reported that Ruth might be available, perhaps for the huge sum of $125,000.
Ruppert had at first been taken aback by the cost, but he wound up sweetening the deal and making it even more irresistible to Frazee. He would also lend him $300,000, with Frazee putting up Fenway Park as collateral to secure the loan.
Saying “This could be a Merry Christmas for us all,” they toasted the deal with another round of Ruppert beer. They would announce it after the New Year. Frazee would be rid of his disciplinary problem, and the Yankees would have a new star to advertise.
He would be the biggest star baseball had ever had. Wait until New York fans got a load of this one, Ruppert and Huston thought. George Herman “Babe” Ruth was going to be a Yankee.
And the history of the Yankees, the history of the Red Sox, and the history of baseball would never be the same.
• • •
Ruth had come to baseball from an unlikely beginning. Considered by his parents to be too difficult to handle, he had been placed in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore when he was only seven. How difficult could he have been at age seven that his parents felt he needed to be placed in a home for unruly boys? In his autobiography, Ruth began by writing, “I was a bad kid.”
Really? So bad as to be placed in a home for the next twelve years?
No one ever really understood why he was sent to St. Mary’s.
His mother was thought to be ill, either physically or mentally. His father, who owned a saloon, deposited him at St. Mary’s in 1904. It must have been frightening for young George, and we know little about visits from his parents, or time away from the home, which also served as an orphanage.
The best thing that happened to him at St. Mary’s was meeting a priest named Brother Matthias Boutlier, a six-foot-six-inch Canadian who happened to love baseball. He organized and coached school teams and encouraged George to play. And so the young Ruth first tried out baseball equipment and learned to play the game.
He was a natural. Gloves for lefties were not always easy to find, and large uniforms not always available, but Brother Matthias knew that this was the game that made George feel important, made his life at St. Mary’s fun. It even gave him some discipline. At the time, he was mostly a pitcher who threw hard and had good control.
In his twelfth year at the school, he got a lucky break. His skills had been noticed by scouts, and on January 14, 1914, he was offered a contract to pitch for the local minor league team, the Baltimore Orioles. (This was a different
team from today’s major league team with the same name.) He was placed under the guardianship of Jack Dunn, owner of the Orioles, and someone said, “Oh, that’s Ruth, he’s just a youngster—he’s Jack Dunn’s babe.” And thus, if we are to believe that story, he became “Babe” Ruth.
He pitched only one year in the minors, winning twenty-two games, dividing his season between Baltimore and Providence, Rhode Island. He even got called up to pitch in five games for the Red Sox, who purchased his contract from Dunn in July. It would be his first of six seasons in Boston, where he helped win two world championships, set pitching records, and became one of the best pitchers in the game.
And yet, his hitting was so good that the Sox needed his bat in the lineup every day. And so on days he didn’t pitch, he played the outfield. And in 1919, his last year in Boston, he hit an unheard-of twenty-nine home runs—a new record!—and pretty much wrapped up his pitching career to focus on hitting. On the Yankees he would be an everyday outfielder.
Some people didn’t like his style of ball. Baseball had always been played by “building runs”—getting singles and doubles and walks, stealing bases, and coming through with sacrifice bunts. The best players in this style had been Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, and people who loved baseball loved Cobb and Wagner and the way they played.
The way Ruth played—socking balls over fences and producing one, two, three, or four runs at once on a regular basis—was thought by those older fans to be somehow improper, not the way you play the game. But it didn’t take long for everyone to marvel at Ruth’s power. How could anyone do this? It was changing everything—attendance, fan interest, and strategy. And Babe was such a colorful character that film footage of him would regularly be featured as part of newsreels in movie theaters—which is how people saw their news in the days before television. If you went to see a silent movie, there would be the Babe, tickling some young tykes, meeting presidents, grinning for the cameras, wearing funny hats, visiting kids in hospitals, and moving his broad body
at pretty good speed around the bases. (The newsreels played in fast motion.)
Babe was a perfect character for what came to be known as the Roaring Twenties. The 1920s was a carefree time in America. The Great War (later called World War I) had ended, and Americans were enjoying the feeling of victory and of being an important nation. People were buying cars, roads were being paved, there was radio in the homes, jazz music was cool, and the economy was good. There was a law called Prohibition, which made it illegal to manufacture or drink beer, wine, or whiskey, but it didn’t seem to bother most people—they found a way to get alcohol. And if you happened to run into Babe Ruth at night, chances were good that it was at a saloon, or a “speakeasy” as they were called, where you could order a drink just like before Prohibition. But you had to be very quiet about it. (Prohibition lasted until 1933.)
If there was a baseball player in an advertisement in the 1920s, it was probably Babe Ruth. (Marty Appel Collection)
America was falling in love with the Bambino. And by the time the Black
Sox players were thrown out of baseball in 1920, people’s attention had shifted to the heroics of the Babe. To this day, many people feel that the arrival of Babe Ruth right after the betting scandal probably saved baseball from ruin. Who cared about eight nitwit cheaters in Chicago when people could marvel at the feats of the Mighty Bambino?
He became the idol of every American boy. He made the Yankees into baseball’s most glamorous franchise and made every boy want to grow up to wear the Yankee uniform.
Beginning with the Babe’s arrival in New York, the Yankees would go on to win twenty-six world championships over the rest of the twentieth century.
Boston won none. None!
Almost a century has passed since he joined the team, but his name remains the best known in baseball history, and he is usually still considered the best player of all time. He was, at once, the best player in the game playing in the biggest city in the country, and stardom was his for the taking. He didn’t let the opportunity pass him by.