Babe Ruth was no babe in the woods

Baseball season is a welcome diversion in this era of political divisions and angst. Baltimore, of course, has contributed its share to the mythology surrounding the game. Baseball’s greatest hero, Babe Ruth, in particular, remains forever connected to his birthplace. Babe’s power hitting, his instantly recognizable wide-face, his warmth and sheer charisma are ingrained in baseball lore. Of course, other less-endearing images of Ruth persist as well: his supposed womanizing, gluttony and Prohibition-era imbibing. If Ruth had a boy’s love for baseball, in popular memory, he also had an adolescent’s passion for self-indulgence. A league official’s assessment in 1925 that Ruth bore the mind of a 15-year-old, was “probably the best appraisal of the man in all of the words spoken or written,” concluded a Ruth biographer in 2006.

For over a century, we have been infantilizing Ruth. It’s time for a reassessment. In truth, league leaders and team owners, including Yankee management, loved the revenue Ruth generated but feared Ruth’s outspokenness. Even before joining the Yankees, the Babe established himself as an independent operator, supporting a players’ union and walking out on the Boston Red Sox during a dispute in 1918. Throughout his career, Ruth decried the draconian reserve clause that wedded players to one team and held down salaries. He did things his own way — including off-field carousing, at least early in his career.

Baseball’s establishment fretted over this independent streak. They resented the rising tide effect of Ruth’s salaries on payrolls. Above all, owners and league officials feared the Babe would break away and launch or join a rival league. So began an often vicious campaign to control and contain Ruth. Early on sportswriters — an arm of the establishment at the time, since teams heavily subsidized the media — began depicting Ruth in childlike terms.

The real opening shot, however, came in late 1921 when the newly appointed commissioner of baseball slapped a long suspension on Ruth for supposedly violating restrictions on off-season barnstorming — rules routinely violated in the past with virtual impunity. Later, in 1925, Ruth grew gravely ill during spring training. A national flu epidemic had swept the country, and the Babe most likely contracted the “grip,” as it was known. Yankee management, however, resisted resting its ailing star, fearful he would miss exhibition games. The Babe grew ever more ill and had to be raced back to New York where he endured a long convalescence. Without him, the Yankees collapsed, and management jumped to blame Ruth, insisting his illness resulted from overeating. Team Secretary Ed Barrow, a known Ruth hater, peddled a more sinister storyline: Ruth had a sexually transmitted disease. No evidence backs Barrow’s story, but it’s often repeated today.

After 1925, Ruth discovered the value of conditioning and sharply moderated his eating and partying. Yet, the Babe never moderated his critical view of baseball’s power structure. In 1930 during tense salary talks with Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, the Babe issued a stinging public letter. Under the reserve clause, players were “obliged to sign at any terms.” The only alternatives players had was to quit, and Ruth threatened to do just that. The press mocked the threat. “Deep down in this boy’s heart,” wrote one columnist, “he would play for nothing.” Ruth eventually settled for $80,000 (hardly nothing), but all parties knew he was worth considerably more.

The establishment went after Ruth in more subtle ways as well. Sportswriters and others traded in shadowy rumors regarding his racial heritage. He was “that gorilla glanded baby” or the “big baboon.” Ruth’s protective and outspoken second wife also provided fodder for the press. Claire Ruth’s intense support allowed her husband to focus on baseball, but to sportswriters Ruth now was the hen-pecked husband under a domineering wife.

As his career wound down, Ruth hoped one day to manage the Yankees. Owners and league officials, however, had long memories. “You can’t manage yourself, Ruth. How do you expect to manage others?” Ruppert dismissively told his star. Yankee officials not only refused to give him a try in New York, but they conspired to thwart opportunities for Ruth elsewhere. In the end, he was essentially drummed out of baseball.

None of this is to suggest that Ruth was some closet intellectual or crusading activist. Nevertheless, he should be remembered today as an adult who made a seminal contribution to building modern sports. He was also subjected to a nasty campaign aimed at demeaning and discrediting him. He deserved better then, and deserves better now.

Edmund Wehrle (efwehrle@eiu.edu) is a history professor at Eastern Illinois University; his book “Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball’s Campaign Against Its Biggest Star” is due out next month from University of Missouri Press.

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