Ruth, George Herman "Babe" Jr.
George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr.
"I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."
The Roaring Twenties was a decade of heroes. In search of proof that human effort still mattered in a time of great change and technological advances, the U.S. public was eager for celebrities. Aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974; see entry) earned the public's admiration for flying solo over the Atlantic Ocean, and movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939) and Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) caused women to swoon. But in a decade that many called the "Golden Age of Sports," it was George Herman "Babe" Ruth who captured the imagination of sports fans. He is credited with having transformed baseball from a game of bunts, pitching, and base running to a more exciting realm of long balls and spectacular home runs. An athlete of dazzling talent and a man with very human weaknesses, Ruth won the hearts of people all over the nation and the world.
A "bad kid" makes good
George Herman Ruth Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to George Herman Ruth Sr. and Katherine Schamberger Ruth, who were both of German ancestry. His father was
sporadically employed as a bartender and slaughterhouse worker and could barely support his family. Of the eight children born to the family, only young George and his sister Mamie survived past infancy. According to The Babe Ruth Story as Told to Bob Considine, from a very young age, Ruth was a self-described "bad kid" who cursed, chewed tobacco, and ran wild through the streets, hanging out in saloons and pool halls.
Unable to control the boy, Ruth's parents signed over custody, when he was seven years old, to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. He would remain a ward of this Catholic reform school until he was nineteen and would very rarely see his family members again. The program at St. Mary's featured hardwork—with the boys learning to make shirts, cabinets, and cigars—and strict discipline. Ruth had a difficult adjustment but found a friend and father figure in one of the monks who ran the school, Brother Mathias.
Brother Mathias encouraged Ruth to channel his energies into sports. Baseball was then the most popular sport at St. Mary's, and it quickly became obvious that Ruth had exceptional skills. He soon became the star player on the school's team. At first he played the position of catcher, but eventually he became a pitcher. It was also at this time that he began to imitate Brother Mathias's unusual style of walking with his toes turned slightly inward, which would become a Ruth trademark in the years to come.
When Ruth was in his late teens, his remarkable abilities came to the attention of Jack Dunn, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team (then part of the International League, and a minor-league team of the Boston Red Sox). In February 1914 Dunn agreed to become Ruth's legal guardian so that he could leave St. Mary's and become a pitcher for the Orioles. When Ruth joined the team, someone noted that he was Dunn's latest "babe" (the term for the young, up-and-coming players that Dunn recruited), and the nickname stuck. From then on, he would be known as Babe Ruth.
Becoming a legend
That same year, Dunn sold Ruth to the Red Sox for $2,900. Playing under manager Bill Carrigan (who was Ruth's favorite among all his managers), Ruth won his first two games. But since it was clear that the Red Sox did not have a chance to win the pennant (awarded to the top finisher in each league; in this case, the American League), Ruth was sent down to Providence, Rhode Island, to assist the Red Sox minor-league team there. He performed brilliantly and helped the team win the International League pennant.
Over the next three years, Ruth's pitching helped the Red Sox win three American League pennants and three World Series titles. A left-hander with terrific speed and a good curveball, he pitched a shutout (a game in which the opposing team scores no runs) in the 1918 World Series, the first in a long string of scoreless World Series innings in Ruth's career.
Ruth's ability as a pitcher was matched by his skill and power as a hitter. Describing his attitude to hitting (and life), as quoted in a biography by Robert Creamer, Ruth explained that "I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can." The fact that Ruth was also an excellent fielder and, despite the skinny legs attached to his bulky body, a good base runner is often overlooked. This wide range of talents, in fact, ended Ruth's pitching career. In 1918 manager Ed Barrow decided to put him in the outfield so that he would be able to play in more games than he would have if he had continued to pitch.
That same year, Ruth had a .300 batting average and hit eleven home runs while also winning thirteen games (and losing seven) that he pitched. During spring training in 1919, he hit a baseball nearly 600 feet (183 meters), which was farther than anyone had ever hit a ball before. That season, Ruth's average was .322, and he hit an amazing twenty-nine homers. Ruth was rapidly becoming a superstar, and in their enthusiasm for him the public seemed to forget all about the scandal, when several Chicago White Sox players were banished from the game for intentionally losing the World Series, that had rocked baseball only a few years earlier.
Yankee fans rejoice
A major turning point in Ruth's life came at the end of the 1919 season, when Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who needed money to finance a Broadway show, sold Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 and a $350,000 loan. Red Sox fans were enraged, but New York's fans and press corps were ecstatic. During the 1920 season, Ruth hit fifty-four home runs (the runner-up in the American League hit nineteen, and the National League contender hit only fifteen); the next year, he hit fifty-nine home runs. It was now clear to everybody that he had taken over the spot once occupied by Ty Cobb (1886–1961) as the nation's leading baseball hero. His hard-hitting, so-called "Big Bang" style of play was being imitated by other players. Many legends would be told about him over the years. The most famous was that, during the 1932 World Series, he had pointed toward the fence and then hit a home run that landed in that same spot.
Ruth would dominate baseball from 1920 to 1935, leading the Yankees to seven pennants and five World Series championships. His rising salary figures reflected his success: in 1917 he made five thousand dollars per year, in 1919 that figure had doubled, and in 1920 he made twenty thousand. By the time Ruth's salary peaked in 1930, he was making eighty thousand a year, which was then a higher salary than that of the president of the United States. Altogether he earned a career total of about one million dollars in salary, and another million in endorsements and public appearances.
To the Yankees, Ruth was worth the expense. His fame reached to every corner of the United States, as he proved when he took a trip to the far West and was greeted by huge crowds. At home, Ruth brought in record numbers of fans, so that the Yankees were able to build a new stadium with room for sixty thousand. Yankee Stadium, fondly referred to as "the House That Ruth Built," opened in 1923, the same year that Ruth was named the American League's most valuable player.
Private life attracts attention
Throughout his career, Ruth's private life attracted a lot of attention. He was known for his excessive eating, drinking, womanizing, and spending. But all these weaknesses were forgiven by the public, especially in view of his frequent appearances at the bedsides of sick, baseball-loving, Ruth-idolizing boys. He usually arrived wearing a big overcoat and a hat, along with a wide grin and a cigar hanging out of his mouth.
In October 1914 Ruth married Helen Woodford, a Boston waitress. The two would have no children but would adopt daughter Dorothy in 1920. In the mid-1920s they would separate, and Helen would be killed in a fire in early 1929. That same year Ruth married Claire Merritt Hodgson, a former actress and model, and adopted her daughter, Julia.
In addition to his big appetites, Ruth was famous for his frequent disputes with managers and baseball officials and for his brawls with other players, resulting in numerous fines, curfews, and suspensions. He missed two months of playing time when he was hospitalized and operated on for an intestinal abscess. Upon his return, Ruth got more serious about disciplining himself, even hiring a trainer to help him lose weight. He came back stronger than ever.
Best season ever
Ruth had what most agree was his best season in 1927, when he played on a team that has been labeled the finest ever assembled. Opposing players had to face the famous "Murderers' Row" of stellar players, led by Ruth, of course, as well as his fellow slugger Lou Gehrig (1903–1941). Ruth hit sixty home runs that year, plus two more in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which the Yankees swept in four games.
Grand Slam Golfer Bobby Jones
Prominent among the athletes who became celebrities and heroes during the Roaring Twenties was Bobby Jones, a golfer with remarkable natural ability who won many prestigious tournaments in the United States and Great Britain.
Born to a wealthy family in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1902, Jones was often ill as a child. His family lived at the edge of a golf course in the resort community of East Lake, and he began playing the game at a very early age. In fact, Jones won his first children's tournament at the age of six. He continued to win tournaments, and when he was only fourteen he reached the third round of the U.S. Amateur Tournament.
Between 1923 and 1930, Jones won thirteen of the twenty-one major championships he entered. Because he had a violent temper and a strong desire for perfection, he decided to avoid the pressure of professional play by remaining an amateur. This meant that he earned no money from any tournament in which he played. Jones also hated to practice and often went for fairly long periods without playing golf at all. Nevertheless, he managed to capture five U.S. Amateur titles, four U.S.
Opens, three British Opens, and one British Amateur.
In 1930 Jones won a series of tournaments called the Grand Slam: the British Amateur, the British Open, the U.S. Amateur, and the U.S. Open. Having accomplished this feat, the twenty-eight-year-old decided to retire from competitive golf. During his playing years, he had somehow been able to earn an engineering degree from Georgia Technical University and a degree in English literature from Harvard University. Jones started work on a law degree at Emory University but passed the bar examination early and joined his father's law firm.
Jones remained active in the golf world, designing golf clubs, overseeing the construction of the Augusta National course in Augusta, Georgia, in 1933 and helping to establish the Masters Tournament, which is still held every year at Augusta. He also wrote about golf and appeared in a series of films in which he gave movie stars golf lessons.
In the late 1940s, Jones began to suffer from symptoms that were later diagnosed as syringomyelia, a serious disease of the nervous systems that causes muscle deterioration and pain. By the end of his life in 1971, Jones was confined to a wheelchair.
Ruth set many records in his fifteen years with the Yankees, some of which have since been broken. The best known was his home run tally of 714, which stayed intact until 1974, when Atlanta Braves slugger Henry "Hank" Aaron (1934–) hit 715. Ruth's lifetime batting average of .342 ranked ninth, and he came in third in strikeouts, with 1,330.
By the middle of the 1930s, Ruth's abilities were waning. The Yankees released him to the Boston Braves in 1935. He soon realized that this had just been a ploy to increase ticket sales, and he quit midseason, but not before hitting three home runs in his last Major League game. Ruth had hoped to become a team manager when his career as a player was over, but this is one dream that never came true for him. Although he was hire dasa coach by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, he left before the end of the season for the same reason he had quit the Braves.
Ruth continued to be a beloved public figure. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, and he appeared in movies. He sold war bonds during World War II (1939–45), and he served as director of the Ford Motor Company's junior baseball program.
In 1946 Ruth was diagnosed with throat cancer. Surgery and radiation therapy failed to halt the progress of the disease. In June 1948, two months before his death, he appeared at Yankee Stadium to bid farewell to his fans. He died in August at the age of fifty-three. In the days before his funeral, Ruth's casket was placed outside Yankee Stadium, and an estimated one hundred thousand fans filed by to pay their respects.
For More Information
Bains, Rae. Babe Ruth. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1985.
Berke, Art. Babe Ruth. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
Creamer, Robert. Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974.
Gilbert, Thomas. The Soaring Twenties: Babe Ruth and the Home Run Decade. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
Macht, Norman. Babe Ruth. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Ruth, George Herman. The Babe Ruth Story as Told to Bob Considine. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1948.
Wagenheim, Kal. Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend. New York: Henry Holt, 1992.
"About Babe Ruth." The Official Web Site of the Sultan of Swat. Available online at http://www.baberuth.com/flash/about/biograph.html. Accessed on June 29, 2005.