George Herman “Babe” Ruth, born in 1895, is the greatest baseball player to have ever to play the game. He would go on to hit 714 home runs, 2,213 RBI’s, over 2,000 bases on balls, with a slugging percentage of .690 and an OPS of 1.164, two records that still stand today. He was not only a great baseball player but still, today, stands as one of America’s greatest sports icons in American culture.
So goes the story of the real Babe Ruth that few may know of. Ruth was born in Baltimore, Maryland. With his father working long hours in his saloon and his mother often in poor health, Little George (as he was known) spent his days unsupervised on the waterfront streets and docks, committing petty theft and vandalism. Hanging out in his fatherâ€™s bar, he stole money from the till drained the last drops from old beer glasses, and developed a taste for chewing tobacco. He was only six years old.
Most biographies of Ruth say: Having been declared incorrigible at the age of seven by the Baltimore courts, his parents sent him to St. Maryâ€™s Industrial School. After a month passed, they brought him back home to see if he had changed, and reconciliation could have been achieved, he hadn’t, and it would lead to several attempts by his parents. That is only partially true, the truth is that his parents had a very ugly divorce. His mother left leaving his father George Sr. with young George, a boy he did not want to deal with, he sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School. His father would later die in a family fight at one of his saloons. During the fight, George Sr. would be thrown out the front door and would hit his head on a curb and die from a fractured skull.
In 1904, at the age of nine, Ruth would meet the Roman Catholic Brother Matthias at St. Mary’s. Later in life when asked about Brother Matthias, Ruth would say. He changed my life, â€œHe taught me to read and write and he taught me the difference between right and wrong, He was the father I needed and the greatest man Iâ€™ve ever known.â€ Ruth would end up living his young life at the school until the age of eighteen. During that time his mentor would throw balls at the boys to catch. Young George was thrilled to catch and throw the ball. He imitated the Brother’s hitting style, holding the bat at the knob and taking big swings. As he grew older he began to actually play baseball at St. Mary’s. In one of St. Maryâ€™s games in 1913, Ruth, then 18 years old, caught, played third base (even though he threw left-handed), and pitched, striking out six men, and collecting a double, a triple, and a home run.
Ruths start in baseball:
That summer, he was allowed to pitch with local amateur and semipro teams on weekends. Impressed with his play a Baltimore scout Jack Dunn signed Ruth to his minor-league Baltimore Orioles club the following February. The Orioles short on money sold the young Ruth to the Boston Red Sox. Just five months after leaving his home at St Mary’s, he was on the mound for his major league debut at Fenway Park. He won that game 4-3 but lost his second game. Ruth was benched and finally sent down to the minors. Ruth returned to Boston for the final week of the 1914 season. On October 2, he pitched a complete-game victory over the Yankees and doubled for his first major-league hit.
During the offseason, the Babe married his girlfriend and Boston waitress Helen Woodford. In the following season, he shined for the Sox, winning three complete games in a span of nine days in June. Between June 1 and September 2, Ruth was 13-1 and ended the season 18-8. The personality of the younger Ruth began to show it’s head as he caroused at night and began to argue with umpires. In one game feeling squeezed by home plate umpire Brick Owens, Ruth stormed off the mound and punched Owens in the head. He had to pay a $100 fine ($1,600 in today’s money) and had to endure 10-day suspension. In that game, he combined for a no-hitter even though he didn’t strike out a hitter. He only pitched to two hitters, the first he walked, then came the Owens altercation. After which Ruth was thrown out, his replacement, Ernie Shore, retired the next 26 batters in order. In his six seasons with Boston, he won 89 games and recorded a 2.19 ERA. He had a four-year stretch where he was second in the AL in wins and ERA behind Walter Johnson, and Ruth had a winning record against Johnson in head-to-head matchups. But also during the time, he fought with management and was as a headache. His continued outright refusal to adhere to the teamâ€™s curfew earned him several suspensions and his non-stop salary demands infuriated owner Frazee.
The big sale:
Just after New Year’s 1920, the worst deal in Major League history would be made. The Boston Red Sox would sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000. Frazee would comment that Ruth was one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a baseball uniform. He also said Ruth ate and drank excessively, frequented prostitutes, and had been involved in several car accidents. He was jailed for speeding twice in Manhattan in the same month and sentenced to spend the rest of the day in jail. Released 45 minutes after the start of that dayâ€™s game, Ruth put on his Yankee uniform underneath his suit and sped off with a motorcycle escort in time to play for the Yankees. It would have surprised no one if, for whatever reason, Ruth was out of baseball in a year or two. It was a gamble that the Yankees were willing to take.
Jane Leavy, in her recent best selling biography of Ruth, stated that he spent his entire life gorging on beer and hot dogs. She gave the fact that he was allowed meat only once a week at his St. Mary’s reform school as the reason. That meat was always hot dogs. He was even noted for eating hot dogs during games throughout his career.
According to Marty Appel in his history of the Yankees, the transaction, “changed the fortunes of two high-profile franchises for decades”. The Red Sox, winners of five of the first sixteen World Series, those played between 1903 and 1919, would not win another pennant until 1946, or another World Series until 2004, a drought attributed in baseball superstition to Frazee’s sale of Ruth and is sometimes dubbed the “Curse of the Bambino”. The Yankees, on the other hand, had not won the AL championship prior to their acquisition of Ruth. They won seven AL pennants and four World Series with Ruth and led baseball with 40 pennants and 27 World Series titles in their history. Previous to the sale, the Babe would start his transition from being a pitcher to being a hitter. In 1919 he pitched in 17 games and hit in 130 games.
Ruth would be cheated:
In 1920, the Curtis Candy company launched its new Baby Ruth 5 cent candy bar. It was nothing new it was their old Kandy Kake bar with a new wrapper taking advantage of Baby Ruth’s fame. The candy bar was a staple and led in sales for the company for the next 70 years. The Curtis Candy company was eventually sold to the Nabisco company and then to the present owner, Ferrara Candy company who still earns money off the Ruth name. Back in the day, there were not the protections in place that there are today. Ruth sued the Curtis Company but lost his suit as the company attributed the name to President Cleveland’s dead daughter. Ruth would never see a penny from the candy bar that bore his name.
In 1920 Ruth led the league with 54 home runs, 158 runs, and 137 runs batted in (RBIs) for the Yankees. Ruthâ€™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 ten times, walks nine times, on-base percentage eight times, and runs scored seven times. His batting average topped .350 eight times. In exactly half of those 12 seasons, he batted over .370. Ruthâ€™s effect on the national game was nothing short of revolutionary. Leigh Montville, the author of The Big Bam, wrote that Ruthâ€™s teammates reacted with the same sense of wonder like everyone else in America. â€œThey never had seen anything like it. The game they had learned, was being changed in front of their faces.
Ruth the fighter:
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, â€œCome on down and fight! Anyone who wants to fight, come down on the field!â€ Ruth was fined $200 and was replaced as captain by shortstop Everett Scott. In mid-June, for his part in an obscenity-laced tirade against umpire Bill Dinneen, he was suspended for three games. When Ruth got the news the following day, he challenged Dinneen to a fistfight, and his suspension was increased to 5 games. In 1923 in their 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. The Yankees won the World Series. Ruth won his only batting title in 1924, easily topping the AL at .378. Between 1923 and 1925, Ruth’s hard life was starting to take its toll. He collapsed several times and would be hospitalized several times. He had convulsions and had surgery. Many of his teammates intimated that his illnesses were all caused by his alcoholism. Ruth, by his point, had reached 260 pounds. Ruth spent part of the offseason of 1925â€“26 working out at a gym, where he got back into shape.
In 1926, 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 it had been done in a World Series game. But in the deciding game 7, Ruth was caught stealing; it was the out that ended the game and the series for the Yankees. The 1927 Yankees were 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 976 runs, 131 more than second-best Detroit Tigers. But in 1927 Lou Gehrig out hit Ruth .373-.356, he led the major leagues in doubles, RBIs, and total bases and was second in the American League in triples, home runs, hits, and batting average.
In 1928 the Yankees were not quite as good but still got the AL pennant. The Yankees swept the Cardinals that year, and Ruth hit 54 home runs on the year. During this time the Yankees were known as Murderers’ Row because of the power of its lineup, In January 1929, Babeâ€™s first (estranged) wife, Helen, died in a house fire in Watertown, Massachusetts. It was reported that Ruth wept uncontrollably. Babe married Claire Hodgson on April 17th just four months later. 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, wearing his new #3, 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.
Ruth’s fraudulent job change:
At the end of the 1929 season, Yankee manager Miller Huggins passed away, and Ruth applied for the job but was never seriously considered for it. 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. In 1931, at age 36, Ruth had one of his finest seasons. He hit .373/.495/.700, with 46 home runs, 162 RBIs, 128 walks, and 149 runs scored. The Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series, giving them wins in 12 straight World Series games. For the previous few years, Ruth’s hard living and injuries were catching up with him. In 1934 due to his declining health and stats, Yankee’s owner Ruppert gave Ruth a pay cut of 50%. Ruth accepted knowing his 20-year career was coming to an end. On July 13, against the Detroit Tigers, Ruth would hit his 700th home run.
Ruth had always wanted to be a manager, so Yankees manager Ruppert worked out a secret deal with the Boston Braves manager to offer Ruth a contract that would include the titles of Assistant Manager and Vice President. When Ruth would present the deal to the Yankees owner, he said he wouldn’t stand Ruth’s way, so Ruppert’s trick worked. In 1935 with the Braves, Ruth would play in only 28 games batting .181. Ruth did get the final six home runs of his career that year. Ruth is the only major leaguer to pitch in at least ten 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 13 seasons (1995-2007). Ruth concluded he was finished even as a part-time player. As early as May 12, he asked Fuchs to let him retire; Ruth retired on June 2 after an argument with Fuchs.
Life after retirement:
In the years after his retirement, Ruth would make appearances both paid and for charity. He would schmooze with fans and sign autographs. On September 30, 1945, baseball superstar Babe Ruth delighted 2,500 fans in Hartford, Connecticut, by participating in an exhibition game between two local semi-pro teams: the Savitt Gems of Hartford and the New Britain Codys. On that morning, the Hartford Courant breathlessly announced that â€œthe greatest attraction ever known in baseball and the home run king of all time, Babe Ruth,â€ was scheduled to appear â€œin personâ€ at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford. He was to â€œgive a demonstration of hitting the ball over the fenceâ€ before pinch-hitting for the Savitt Gems.
That afternoon, wearing a brand-new Gems jersey with a bright red baseball cap and matching stockings, the 51-year-old Ruth managed to hit off a handful of home runs before the game, much to the delight of everyone in attendance. His game-time performance, however, resulted in a few unexciting balls and strikes while at-bat. Later he would tell reporters, â€œSome days the pitches look like watermelons and other days like peanuts.â€ No one would know it at the time, but it would be the last time Ruth would ever wear a baseball uniform. A few months later, he was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer in 1946 and died from the disease in 1948. A living legend took the plate for the last time in front of thousands of adoring fans that September in Connecticut history.
What few know about Ruth is that despite his drinking and his other personality problems, the Babe was an inherently kind man who never forgot from where he came. During his prime in baseball, he frequently would visit orphanages to hang out with the boys, to tell stories, to play ball with them and take some of them on field trips. At games, at the Stadium, and around baseball, he would always sign autographs and stand for photos, especially with children. Ruth loved children. In 1947 when he was dying from cancer, that Christmas, he met with children in Santa garb, listening to them and giving them gifts. Far before it was acceptable to engage with black ballplayers, Ruth was an advocate.
Ruth’s many accolades:
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 as one of the first to ever be chosen. In November of 2018, Babe Ruth was awarded The Medal of Freedom, which is considered the nationâ€™s highest civilian honor by President Trump. His Grandson Tom Stevens accepted the award for Ruth. Trump said in an extended riff about the trade from Boston that brought Babe Ruth to the Yankees. â€œPeople donâ€™t know that Babe Ruth was one of the best pitchers. He still has records today,â€ Trump said. â€œIn 1920, he started with the New York Yankees. And I have heard for many years, whatâ€™s the worst trade in the history of sports? Babe Ruth, a 19-year-old pitcher, for $100,000, and a 35-year-old third baseman. That was not a good trade. Who was out of baseball the following season? That was not good. Of course, $100,000 is probably like $25 million today, but it was still a lousy deal.â€
Micheal Gibbons, the director emeritus and historian at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, said: â€œHe became the brand of America.â€ Jane Leavy, the author of “The Big Fella,” said it best when she said: â€œHe carried this country on his back during the Great Depression.â€ Babe Ruth will always be remembered as the best baseball player ever to play the game. Hopefully, my biography has enlighted you as to who the real man was behind the legend.
EmpireSportsMedia.com columnist William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.