Sunday, July 19, 2015

Babe Ruth: The One and Only

Name: George Herman Ruth Jr.
Date of Birth: February 6, 1895
Place of Birth: Baltimore, Maryland
Grew Up In: Same
Nationality: German
Position: Right field, also pitched and played other outfield positions and first base
Batted: Lefthanded
Threw: Lethanded
Nickname(s): More than James Brown, many of them alliterative like Sultan of Swat, King of Crash, Mandarin of Maul, etc.. His best-known nickname was the Italian version of "baby," Bambino (or "The Great Bambino").

Family: Father, George Herman Ruth Sr., owned a saloon, Ruth's Cafe, which was located in what's now center field of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mother, Katherine Schamberger, was a housewife -- most poor women worked only in the home in those days. The Babe's birthplace, a rowhouse at 216 Emory Street in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, was the home of Kate's parents, who were German immigrants.

George Sr. and Kate had 8 children, but only 2 survived infancy: The Babe and a sister, Mary Margaret Ruth, known in adulthood as Mamie Ruth Moberly, born in 1900, died in 1992, living long enough to be interviewed about her big brother by Ken Burns for his Baseball miniseries, but not long enough to see it air on PBS.

Married Helen Woodford, a waitress at a coffee shop in Boston, shortly after he arrived. He cheated on her constantly, and his daughter, born in 1921, legally adopted by the Babe and Helen and known in adulthood as Dorothy Pirone, was the result of an affair, which she didn't find out until 1980.

The Babe wasn't so Catholic that he wouldn't cheat on his wife, but he was too Catholic to get a divorce. Helen left him, moved in with another man, and died in a house fire in 1929. Shortly thereafter, the Babe married Claire Hodgson, a model and actress he'd been seeing on and off for a while. Claire was born in 1897, but her gravestone says 1900 -- and, apparently, vanity wasn't her only vice (although it's one of the few that the Babe didn't seem to have). Claire had a daughter, Julia, born in 1916, and the Babe adopted her. It's been alleged that Claire heavily favored Julia over Dorothy, but the sisters appear to have gotten along fine.

Dorothy would have 6 children and write a book titled My Dad, the Babe, before dying in 1989. Julia, at this writing, is still alive at age 98, and alternates between New Hampshire and Arizona. Before the last game at the original Yankee Stadium, the "house her dad built," she threw out the ceremonial first ball. She has a son named Tom. The Babe has at least 13 grandchildren, although since he had only daughters, and no surviving brothers, there is no more male Ruth line.

Before He Was a Yankee: George Sr. and Kate didn't send him to St. Mary's Industrial School because they thought he was, to use the word so often used to describe him in his childhood, "incorrigible." They sent him there because a new State of Maryland law mandated that all children between the ages of 5 and 16 go to school -- designed to cut down not so much on truancy as on child labor. But George Jr. refused to go to a regular school, so the Catholic Ruths sent him, on the order of a city magistrate, to St. Mary's, which has been described as an orphanage and a reform school. A fairer description would be to say it was what we would now call a vocational-technical, or vo-tech, school.

He was trained to be a tailor, but one of the teachers, a 6-foot-6 French Canadian named Matthias Boutilier, who went by the name Brother Matthias, was the school's baseball coach and a lefthanded hitter. "As soon as I saw Brother Matthias swing a bat, I became a hitter," the Babe would later say.

By 1913, he was the best hitter and the best pitcher among Baltimore schoolboys, and Jack Dunn, owner of the International League's Baltimore Orioles -- a Triple-A team by today's standards -- made a deal for him, apparently (with the Babe's mother having died the year before and his father having no more interest in him) legally adopting him. Thus he was nicknamed "Jack Dunn's Baby." This became just "Baby" and soon "Babe."

(George Sr. died as a result of a fight outside his bar in 1918. St. Mary's closed in 1950, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore opened Cardinal Gibbons High School on the site, but closed it in 2010. The future of the campus buildings is in doubt as of this writing.)

Farm systems hadn't yet been developed but the Boston Red Sox already had a working relationship with the Orioles, and they bought the Babe's contract. He made his major league debut on July 11, 1914, and was the winning pitcher in a game at Fenway Park against the Cleveland Naps, 4-3. (Named for their manager, Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie, they became the Indians the next season.) He went 0-for-2 against Cleveland pitcher Willie Mitchell, a decent pitcher but unremarkable beyond being the first pitcher the Babe ever faced.

Ironically, he hit his 1st career home run against the Yankees, off Jack Warhop, a massive shot over the right-field roof at the Polo Grounds on May 7, 1915. He helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 1915, 1916 and 1918. In 1915, had there been a Rookie of the Year award in those days, he would have won it for the American League (going 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA). In 1916, he was the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball (23-12, a league-leading 1.75). In 1917, he was the best pitcher, period (24-13, 2.01). In 1918, with World War I taking away a lot of players, he was pitching less and playing the outfield more, but still went 13-7, 2.22. He went 9-5, 2.97 in 1919. As a Yankee, he would make just 5 pitching appearances, but would win them all. His final pitching totals: 94-46, 2.28, WHIP 1.159, ERA+ 122. He might well have been elected to the Hall of Fame if he had stayed a pitcher.

In other words: For 4 years, he was as good a lefthanded pitcher as Randy Johnson. Then, for the next 16 years, he was as good a lefthanded hitter for average as Ted Williams and for power as Barry Bonds -- and the substances he was ingesting (booze and junk food) were by no means performance-enhancing. In 1918, still mainly a pitcher, he led the AL in home runs with 11. In 1919, he broke all existing records by hitting 29.

Acquired By Yankees: The Babe remained "incorrigible" into his 20s -- some would say into his 30s. His off-field life remained wild, and his salary demands got out of control. Sox owner Harry Frazee knew that if he gave in to the Babe's demands, it would look like Ruth was running the team. He had little choice: He had to get rid of him.

The myth that it had anything to do with Frazee's main pursuit, musical theater production, has long since been shattered. Frazee's plays were doing well, and from then until his death in 1929 -- including after he sold the Sox in 1923 -- he was far from broke. His greatest success, No, No, Nanette, didn't hit the Broadway stage until 1925, and the sale of Ruth had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Due to a split in the American League, Frazee could only make deals with 2 other team owners. One was Charlie Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox, and he was a cheapskate, unwilling to pay the Babe what he wanted. The other was Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees, who, like George Steinbrenner over half a century later, didn't care what he had to spend, as long as he won (which would get him his money back). It helped that, in those days before team's had their main offices at the ballpark (due to space limitations), Ruppert's team office and Frazee's theatrical office were in the same building off Times Square.

The deal was made on December 26, 1919, and announced on January 5, 1920. Ruppert got Ruth's contract, while Frazee got $125,000 -- about $1.7 million in today's money -- and a $300,000 personal loan. As collateral for that loan, Frazee put up the Sox' stadium. That's right: From 1920 to 1933, technically, the New York Yankees owned Fenway Park. (The loan was paid back when Tom Yawkey bought the Red Sox.)

His first game as a Yankee was on April 14, 1920, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. He went 2-for-4, but drove in no runs, and the Yankees lost to the Philadelphia Athletics 3-1.

Uniform Number(s) as a Yankee: 3. He was with the Yankees in 1929, when they first wore numbers, then set according to their place in the batting order. Ruth batted 3rd, and Lou Gehrig batted 4th. Pitchers and bench players were then arranged according to seniority. By the time he left the Yankees prior to the 1935 season, this had been dropped. He played his last season with the Boston Braves, and they also gave him 3. As a coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, they gave him 35.

Yankee Achievements Include: Where do I start? He holds the Yankee records for batting average in a season (.393 in 1923) and in a career (.349 -- .342 overall). He holds the Yankee records for home runs in a season (60 in 1927) and in a career (659 of his 714). He never won the Triple Crown, but he did win a batting title, batting .378 in 1924. He led the league in home runs 12 times. He led it in RBIs 5 times, although that stopped when Gehrig blossomed -- Gehrig had Ruth to drive in, the Babe didn't. But he still drove in at least 100 runs 13 times. His career slugging percentage of .690, his career OPS of 1.164, and his career OPS+ of 206 are tops all-time.

It wasn't just how many home runs he hit, it was how far: Ruth hit homers with greater regularity and distance than anyone had ever seen before. He hit what may have been the longest home runs in the histories of the old Yankee Stadium (though that also could have been Mickey Mantle), the Polo Grounds (though that also could have been Mel Ott), Fenway Park (though that also could have been Ted Williams), Comiskey Park in Chicago (thought that also could have been Mantle or Jimmie Foxx), Shibe Park in Philadelphia (though that also could have been Foxx or Dick Allen, and the park was later renamed Connie Mack Stadium), Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, League Park in Cleveland, what would eventually be named Tiger Stadium in Detroit (though that also could have been Mantle), Wrigley Field in Chicago (his "called shot" was said to be the longest home run ever hit in Chicago to that point, although Dave Kingman has been credited with a longer one there since) and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh (his 714th and last).

Bill Jenkinson, a baseball historian, compared the fence distances of the 8 AL parks of 1921 to those used by the same franchises in 2006, and said that, with the 2006 distances, instead of 59 home runs, the Babe would have hit 104. So Jenkinson titled his book The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs.

His career on-base percentage of .474 is 2nd all-time to Ted Williams, who, in his book Ted Williams' Hit List, named the Babe Number 1 on his list of the Top 25 Greatest Hitters. In other words, the man who wanted people to point to him and say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived" said that the greatest hitter who ever lived was Babe Ruth. (Though it's worth noting that Ted did not rank himself on his own list. He was vain, but not that vain.)

As for team achievements: Before the Babe, the Yankees had finished a close 2nd in 1904, and distant 2nds in 1906 and 1910, but had never won a Pennant. They finished a close 2nd in 1920 and 1924, and won Pennants in 1921, 1922, 1923, 1926, 1927, 1928 and 1932. The Babe was proud of appearing in what was then a record 10 World Series, and he won 7 of them. In addition to the 3 he won in Boston, he won 1923, 1927, 1928 and 1932 in New York.

While the original Yankee Stadium wasn't literally "The House That Ruth Built" -- he wasn't a construction worker of any kind, not a carpenter or a steelworker or a truck driver -- the tickets the Yankees sold to see him hit home runs at the Polo Grounds in 1920, '21 and '22 brought enough revenue that Ruppert could afford to spend the money necessary to build it. It is worth noting that Ruth didn't play in Yankee Stadium with the shape familiar to so many newsreels: The triple decks weren't extended around the left-field pole until 1928, right after his 60-homer season; and they weren't extended around the right-field pole until 1937, after he'd retired.

Highest Salary: $80,000, first received in 1930. That's worth about $1.14 million in today's money. At the time, the President of the United States was Herbert Hoover, who'd just presided over the stock market crash. He was making $75,000 a year. (About $1.07 million -- compare to Barack Obama's $400,000.) Told he would be making more money than the President, the Babe said, "Hell, I had a better year than he did." He was right.

Something you should know about him, if you don’t already: Babe Ruth was Amish! Okay, "Amish" indicates he practiced their faith, and he certainly didn't: However short of its ideals he frequently fell, the Babe was a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church, from birth to last rites. But his family, on both sides, were German immigrants who had settled in Pennsylvania before moving down the Susquehanna River to Baltimore, He may not have been of the Amish faith, but, ethnically, he was "Pennsylvania Dutch."

Left Yankees: Given his release prior to the 1935 season, so he could play for, become assistant manager of, and become a small part-owner of, the Boston Braves. The Yankees made it clear that he would never managed them, so he asked for his release so he could find another team to manage one day. The Yankees and the Braves worked it out. 

His last game as a Yankee was on September 30, 1934, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, going 0-for-3 in a 5-3 Yankee loss to the Washington Senators.

After He Was a Yankee: It soon became obvious that the Braves were only using him to sell tickets, and they had no intention of letting him manage, either. The Babe's elbow was injured, restraining his hitting. Although he hit 3 home runs in a game in Pittsburgh on May 24, 1935, that was it. He retired a few days later, after tripping in the outfield in a game in Philadelphia.

He coached with the Dodgers in 1938, and batted in exhibitions for war bond drives in 1942 in 1943. In the former, he went up against Walter Johnson, and hit a drive down the right field line, the only time he ever hit one into the fully-extended upper deck at Yankee Stadium -- but it was just foul. Realizing that was probably as good as it was going to get at his age, he rounded the bases anyway. He went to a lot of games, and played a lot of golf. He also loved to bowl, and, in those days, it was rare for men to bowl or swing a golf club lefthanded, but he did both.

But in 1946, he developed cancer. It wasn't the drinking, or the womanizing, or the awful driving that did him in: It was the smoking. He was never actually told he had cancer -- the word was considered a death sentence and completely demoralizing then -- but when he was admitted to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, he said, "Isn't that the hospital for cancer?" He was told, "Cancer and allied diseases." The Babe wasn't particularly sophisticated, and he had what we would now call attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but he wasn't stupid. He was told that there were experimental treatments available, that might not help him much, but could be adapted to help others, and he agreed to accept them, including a combination of chemotherapy and a derivative of folic acid.

Among the treatment he received was the removal of a vocal chord. Commissioner Albert B. "Happy" Chandler declared April 27, 1947 Babe Ruth Day throughout the game, and the Babe was invited to a ceremony at Yankee Stadium. He opened by saying, "You know how pained my voice sounds? Well, it feels just as bad." But that was the end of him feeling sorry for himself in front of the massive crowd. He spoke of how important baseball is to boys, and he called it "the only real game, I think, in the world" -- in spite of his being a fan of football, and enjoying golf and bowling. He closed by thanking everyone for the "so many lovely things said about me."

On June 5, 1948, he went to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to donate his personal papers to the school. He met with the Captain of the Yale baseball team, 1st baseman and future President George H.W. Bush. The Babe had previously played in exhibition games at Yale Field, now one of the oldest remaining current or former professional ballparks (opened in 1926).

He made one more appearance at Yankee Stadium, on June 13, 1948, as part of ceremonies for The Stadium's 25th Anniversary. He wore his uniform for the last time, and his Number 3 was retired -- having been worn in the interim by George Selkirk (1935-42), Bud Metheny (1943-46), Hal Peck (1946), Eddie Bockman (1946), Roy Weatherly (1946), Frank Colman (1947), Allie Clark (1947) and Cliff Mapes (1948; Mapes would also be the last Yankee to wear Number 7 before it was given to Mickey Mantle).

On July 26, 1948, he attended the premiere of The Babe Ruth Story, based on his recent as-told-to memoir. It's been called one of the worst baseball movies ever made, and even the Babe agreed, leaving halfway through. After that, he said, "All my obligations are over. I'm going to take it easy now." But soon, he was back in the hospital for good.

Died: August 16, 1948, at Sloan-Kettering in New York, from throat cancer, at 53. His open casket was placed in the home plate gate of Yankee Stadium, and, despite 100-degree heat, over 100,000 people viewed it, including young men who had been boys seeing him play, holding up their own sons, some of them babies who would never remember, just so they could tell their sons, "You saw Babe Ruth." The next day, it poured, but another 100,000 people lined the streets outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan -- which would also host the funeral of Billy Martin.

Ruth -- as is Martin -- is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, Westchester County, New York. Next door, albeit in the next town over, Valhalla -- is Kensico Cemetery, where Gehrig, Ruppert and Yankee general manager Ed Barrow are laid to rest.

Monument Dedicated: April 19, 1949, on Opening Day of the season after he died.

Baseball Hall of Fame: Elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America in their first-ever vote, in 1936.

Other Honors: 161st Street outside Yankee Stadium -- first the old, then the new -- was named Babe Ruth Plaza. Statues of him are outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards and inside the lobby of the Hall of Fame. Just a 5-minute walk from Camden Yards, the rowhouse where he was born is now the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Baltimore Orioles Museum, dedicated to the Babe's life, the major league version of the Orioles (the former St. Louis Browns replaced the minor-league version in 1954), and baseball in general in the State of Maryland. A plaque in the Babe's memory was placed in the lobby of the major league Orioles' 1st home, Memorial Stadium, and has been moved to Camden Yards. In 1973, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp of him -- making him the 1st American athlete so honored.

In 1969, in connection with the 100th Anniversary of professional baseball, a poll was taken, and the Babe was named the Greatest Player Ever. In 1999, The Sporting News named him Number 1 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- their editor admitting that the debate was always about Numbers 2 through 100, never Number 1. That same year, he was easily named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Depictions: Played himself in The Pride of the Yankees. Played by William Bendix in The Babe Ruth Story, Stephen Lang in the 1991 NBC-TV movie Babe Ruth, and John Goodman in the 1992 theatrical release The Babe. Goodman may have been the only actor who ever had to lose weight to play Babe Ruth. Art LaFleur, who also played Chick Gandil in Field of Dreams, played the Babe's ghost in The Sandlot.

Quote of Note: "There's been so many lovely things said about me, and I'm glad that I've got the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you."

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