Ruth, George Herman ("Babe")

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RUTH, George Herman ("Babe")

(b. 6 February 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland; d. 16 August 1948 in New York City), baseball player who, with his home runs, free-swinging style of play, and media exposure, revolutionized the American national game.

Few athletes, past or present, have captured the public imagination like Babe Ruth. The child of a struggling working-class family in Baltimore, Ruth grew up over the saloon run by his father, George, Sr., where his mother, Kate Schamberger, also worked, despite a history of chronic illness. The Ruths had eight children but only George and a younger sister survived to adulthood. The parents, distracted by long working hours, left George to roam the streets, where he had several run-ins with the law. He was often truant. In spring 1902 the family committed him to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, and Ruth spent the next twelve years learning shirt-making and playing baseball under the tutelage of a Xaverian brother named Matthias. Ruth later called him "the greatest man I've ever known." When his mother died of tuberculosis in 1912, Ruth became a permanent ward of the school.

In February 1914 Ruth's prowess at baseball brought him to the attention of Jack Dunn, owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Dunn signed him for $600 and took him to spring training in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Ruth acquired his nickname when a coach warned veterans to go easy on the rookie, "one of Jack Dunn's babes." So impressive were Ruth's pitching skills that Dunn sold him in July of that year to the Boston Red Sox. After his first win and several rocky starts, Ruth was sent down to Providence for seasoning, but he returned to Boston at the end of the season. There he courted a waitress, Helen Woodford, and they married on 17 October 1914. After the ceremony, Ruth and his bride returned to Baltimore to tend bar in his father's saloon.

Between 1915 and 1919 Ruth excelled as a premier left-handed pitcher, winning eighty-five games with an earned-run average of 2.02 when the entire league averaged over 2.66. He won three World Series games in 1916 and 1918 with an earned-run average of 0.87, including a record-setting streak of 29⅔ shutout innings. He also hit 49 home runs during that period; when Ruth was not pitching, the Boston Red Sox manager Ed Barrow had him play in the outfield and at first base.

Although the team did poorly in 1919, large crowds came to see the new slugger. Before Ruth, home runs were rare, and teams played for one run at a time, bunting and stealing bases, placing the ball rather than swinging away. Ruth swung from the heels, powering the ball out of ballparks faster and farther than anyone ever before. Crowds loved it and rooted for the long ball. Even when Ruth struck out, fans cheered his energy and enthusiasm. At an exhibition game in Baltimore before the 1919 season, he slammed four home runs in one game, and that year he topped the single season record of twenty-seven, set in 1884, by hitting twenty-nine.

Despite crowd-pleasing play, Ruth quarreled with the team's owner Harry Frazee. Ruth made $10,000 a year but saw the crowds going wild for him and wanted more. Frazee, a Broadway producer always short of money and wanting to keep salaries down, sold Ruth to the New York Yankees on 6 January 1920 for $100,000 plus a personal loan from the Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. Ruth was reluctant to go, but the Yankees offered him $20,000 a year for the next two years, and Ruth signed.

Ruth became the darling of the New York City media when editors realized that he could sell papers and magazines as well as tickets. Writers dubbed him the "Sultan of Swat," the "Colossus of Clout," and the "Wizard of Wham"; sports pages were expanded to cover his feats. The news, in turn, swelled attendance, with the Yankees attracting record-breaking crowds in 1920. Fans watched Ruth club 54 home runs, hit a remarkable .376, and lead the league in runs batted in, walks, and runs scored.

Ruth found New York City to his taste off the field as well. In the spring of 1921 the Ruths bought a farm they named "Home Plate" in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where Helen lived during the season. This arrangement allowed Ruth to enjoy the New York City nightlife. Although his behavior led to conflicts with Yankee management, Ruth continued to produce on the field, hitting 59 home runs and driving in 170 runs, taking the Yankees to their first World Series. That same year, Ruth met Christy Walsh, an ex-sports cartoonist turned agent who began promoting Ruth's image everywhere, in advertising, magazines, movies, and barnstorming tours. Newspaper columns and articles, how-to baseball guides, even children's books were published under his name, ghost-written by the Christy Walsh Syndicate. That year Ruth made an extra $15,000 on newspaper income alone, and in 1922 his salary jumped to $52,000, making him the highest paid baseball player in the league.

But the 1922 season started poorly for Ruth; he ignored a ruling by the new commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, that prohibited members of a World Series team from barnstorming after the season. Knowing a fine was useless, Landis suspended Ruth for the first thirty-nine days of the 1922 season. The nightlife also caught up with Ruth—his production that season fell to only 35 home runs and 96 runs batted in (RBI). On 13 November Walsh held a banquet for the New York City sportswriters and others who roasted Ruth for his disappointing season. The keynote speaker, state senator Jimmy Walker, condemned Ruth for letting down the "boys of America" in a speech that reduced Ruth to tears. In response Ruth vowed to spend the winter getting into shape. In fact, he had another reason for settling down; that summer, Helen and Ruth appeared in public with a new daughter, Dorothy. She was in fact the result of one of Ruth's many affairs, but to avoid scandal, Helen agreed to raise the child as her own.

Yankee Stadium, dubbed "The House That Ruth Built," opened in 1923, and in the inaugural game Ruth christened it with a home run. He returned to form with 41 home runs, a .393 batting average, 170 walks (still a major league record in 2001), and an on-base percentage of .544, making him the unanimous choice for baseball's Most Valuable Player. His three home runs in the series over the Giants gave the Yankees their first World Championship. The Yankees failed to repeat as champions in 1924, but no one blamed Ruth, who had a sensational year.

The team's 1925 season was ruined early when Ruth collapsed before an exhibition game in Asheville, North Carolina. Newspapers as far away as London erroneously reported his death, but when it was revealed Ruth suffered from an intestinal disorder, the press called it "the bellyache heard round the world" and blamed Ruth's overeating. While some speculated that the illness was syphilis, medical records cited influenza combined with an intestinal abscess that required surgery. Ruth missed the first two months of the season and played below par for the rest of the year. He also struggled in his private life; he had met and fallen in love with an actress named Claire Hodgson two years earlier and was spending most of his free time with her. Helen wanted a divorce, but Ruth, a Catholic, would not agree, so the couple legally separated in June 1925.

The events of 1925 changed Babe Ruth, and for the first time he began to take spring training and his conditioning seriously. From 1926 to 1932 his success was unequaled in baseball; he averaged 49 home runs, 152 runs batted in, and a batting average of .353, leading the Yankees to a pennant and three World Series championships.

In 1927 Ruth's contract jumped to $70,000, and he celebrated by hitting sixty home runs, thus breaking his own record. In 1930 his $80,000 salary was double that of the next highest-paid player. An apocryphal story has a reporter asking Ruth if he thought it was right for the slugger to be paid more than President Herbert Hoover, to which Ruth replied, "Why not? I had a better year." Ruth's private life changed as well. Helen's death in a fire in January 1929 freed Ruth and Hodgson to marry on 17 April. The couple formally adopted Dorothy, and Ruth adopted Hodgson's daughter Julia.

The 1932 World Series produced Ruth's most famous home run, "the called shot." In the third game against Chicago, after heckling from the Cubs bench, Ruth supposedly held up two fingers (one for each strike against him) and pointed to the center field bleachers where he hit the next pitch for a home run. Only one paper, the New York World-Telegram, reported the called shot, and Ruth himself denied it after the game, but later, as word spread, Ruth, always the showman, changed his story. Despite denials from Cubs players and a film discovered in 1997 showing Ruth gesturing towards the Cubs bench and then pointing two fingers at the pitcher, the debate continues.

Whether or not he called it, this was Ruth's last home run in series play. As early as 1929, with the sudden death of the Yankees manager Miller Huggins, Ruth asked Ruppert for a chance to manage the Yankees, but Ruppert refused, noting that a man who could not control himself could not control a ball team. A disgruntled Ruth saw his numbers and salary drop in 1933, and again in 1934, his worst year in the majors. Ruth wanted to stay in baseball, but when Ruppert suggested he take the minor league manager's post in Newark, he refused. After the season Ruth toured Japan and vacationed in Europe but returned to a new contract for $1 a year. Ruppert wanted him to retire. When the Boston Braves offered Ruth the position of player/assistant manager for 1935, Ruth took the offer, believing that he would eventually become the manager, but as the season wore on he discovered they only wanted him as a gate attraction. After a spectacular day in Pittsburgh when he hit the last three home runs of his career (bringing the total to 714), he retired.

The last thirteen years of Ruth's life were financially comfortable—he had numerous corporate deals and even his own radio show—but Ruth missed being in baseball. At the new Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the sportswriters paid their respect by electing Ruth as one of the premier five members in 1936, but except for a brief stint as a coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, his days on the field were over. Fans still gathered wherever he went, but there was little to do but play golf, visit ballparks, and sign autographs. He played in his last game, an old-timers' exhibition at Yankee Stadium, on 28 July 1943.

While undergoing minor surgery in January 1947, doctors confirmed that Ruth had throat cancer, although he was not told of the diagnosis. He acted as a spokesman for the Ford Motor Company, continued working on his autobiography, and was excited by a Hollywood project to film his life story. Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler proclaimed 27 April 1947 Babe Ruth Day with a Yankee Stadium celebration broadcast to every major league ballpark. On 13 June the Yankees celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Yankee Stadium, where a visibly ailing Ruth made his final appearance. He died 16 August 1948 in Memorial Hospital in New York. His body was viewed at Yankee Stadium by from 75,000 to 200,000 people, while another 75,000 attended funeral services inside and outside at St. Patrick's Cathedral on a rainy 19 August. Still more lined the streets for the funeral cortege to Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, where a public ceremony was conducted. Ruth was buried in a private service on 24 October, more than two months later.

Ruth's importance to baseball and the nation cannot be overemphasized. His batting style marked the end of the scientific era of inside baseball and introduced new power and energy into the game, which translated into larger crowds and better salaries for the men who played in his shadow. Ruth and the long ball enhanced the commercialism of the game, which in turn fed the media boom of the 1920s. Many historians argue that Ruth saved the game of baseball after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox team, including stars Shoeless Joe Jackson and pitcher Eddie Ciccotte, were discovered to have taken bribes to throw the World Series against the Chicago Redlegs. Awards and memorials were numerous during and after his lifetime. In 1969, the centennial year of professional baseball, the Baseball Writers of America voted Ruth the best player in the history of the game, and in 2000 ESPN named him the second most valuable athlete in the United States during the twentieth century.

Ruth's influence reached beyond the playing field. He exemplified the emergence of the sports hero as national celebrity, in part because he understood and used the power of the media. His name has entered the language as a synonym for achievement, and he is better remembered today than many of his contemporaries, including presidents, scientists, military heroes, or fellow sports figures. Writers are still apt to invoke Ruth in connection with athletes who reach the top of their fields: when Michael Jordan first retired in 1999, he was hailed as the Babe Ruth of basketball. And the advertising and product markets continue to benefit from the strategies initiated by Ruth and Christy Walsh, with Ruth's continuing appearance as a public figure who stirs the imagination and captures public affection.

Ruth's autobiography, The Babe Ruth Story (1948), written with Bob Considine; and earlier biographies such as Tom Meany, Babe Ruth: The Big Moments of the Big Fellow (1947); and Dan Daniel, The Real Babe Ruth (1948); tend to be quite anecdotal and clouded in the mythical quality of their subject. There have been over a hundred books written about Ruth, but the two most influential and thoroughly researched are Robert W. Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (1974), and a psychological study, Marshall Smelser, The Life That Ruth Built (1975). Kal Wagenheim, Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend (1974) is also informative. There are also biographies by Claire Ruth, with Bill Slocum, The Babe and I (1959); by Dorothy Ruth Pirone, with Chris Martens, My Dad, the Babe (1988); and two by Julia Ruth Stevens: Babe Ruth: A Daughter's Portrait, with George Beim (1998), and Major League Dad: A Daughter's Cherished Memories (2001). Two books about Babe Ruth's place in American society are worth mentioning: Robert Smith, Babe Ruth's America (1974), and Ken Sobol, Babe Ruth and the American Dream (1974). An excellent source on Ruth's media influence is Lawrence Ritter and Mark Rucker, The Babe: A Life in Pictures (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Aug. 1948).

Patrick A. Trimblem

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Ruth, George Herman ("Babe")

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Ruth, George Herman ("Babe")