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It's Back to the Bambino

Bring on the Brinks truck, boys—Babe Ruth is a free agent

More Flashbacks
by Leigh Montville

Issue date: December 18, 1989

Sports IllustratedThe agent was on the telephone. He told the general manager that he had the most spectacular offering on the wide-open baseball market of December 1989: Babe Ruth.

"Babe Ruth is dead," the general manager said.

"Not exactly," the agent said. Then he explained. Had the general manager ever heard of time travel? Had he seen any of those Back to the Future-type movies? "It turns out," said the agent, "time travel is real." The Babe was in the agent's office, wearing a pin-striped baseball uniform and complaining of a great hunger. The agent had sent out for food.

"The Babe looks great," the agent said.

"Time travel?" the general manager asked.

  Babe Ruth
What would the Babe be worth today?    (National Baseball Library Cooperstown, NY)
The agent said he had been finishing up a few million-dollar contracts for utility infielders when his desk drawers began to open and close on their own. Then the hands on an antique grandfather's clock spun wildly. A flash of light was followed by a puff of smoke. The Babe appeared. "I was stunned," the agent said. "It must have taken 30 seconds before I found a contract in my desk and gave it to the guy to sign. What a sweetheart. I've represented a lot of players, but the Babe is all class." The agent said he was looking for a billion dollars a year for his newest client. He said he knew this was going to break all salary records, but records were made to be broken. It was hard even to talk in monetary terms about the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. This was the gate attraction of all time. A billion dollars was a steal. A billion per year for five years. Guaranteed, of course. "I know what you're going to ask," the agent said. "You want to know how old he is. Is he the worn-out guy who finished with the Boston Braves, or is he in his prime? Well, he came here straight from the 1927 World Series. He's 32 years old and just hit 60 dingers, knocked in 164 runs and batted .356. He's never been better."

"The 1927 World Series?" the general manager asked. The agent said that after the Yankees whipped the Pirates in four straight, the Babe was afraid of being mobbed by the happy fans. A stranger grabbed him by the hand and promised safety. The Babe followed to an odd-looking automobile. He thought he was being taken to a nice chophouse on Broadway for dinner and a few frosties. He somehow wound up in the future.

"You should have seen his face when I told him how much Kent Hrbek and Rickey Henderson and all of these guys are making," the agent said. "He said he wished Lou Gehrig were with him to hear this. Gehrig would have been astounded."

"Lou Gehrig?" the general manager asked.

The agent said he knew that a billion sounded a bit steep, but the Babe was ready to work for the money. In fact, he had promised to work twice as hard. Did the general manager remember that the Babe had started out as a pitcher? Well, his best season was 1916, when he finished 23-12, with a 1.75 ERA. What kind of money would those numbers earn today? What was Mark Langston, a 16- game winner, getting from the Angels? Sixteen million for five years? The Babe promised he would pitch every fifth day and play rightfield the rest of the time. So, his new team would be receiving the value of two players instead of one. Two players with far better stats than anyone on the entire free-agent board.

"You think Bo Jackson is creating a stir with his football-baseball thing?" the agent said. "Wait'll you see how the people react to this. I'm going to have the Babe endorsing every product with a bar code on it. There'll be Babe Ruth athletic shoes and Babe Ruth actionwear and Babe Ruth home videos. How much bigger do you think he will be than, say, Robin Yount? A billion is a bargain."

The agent said the Babe did not want to get into "an unseemly bidding war." Everything would be handled in a hurry. The Babe wanted to do some fishing and play some golf before the start of spring training.

"Let's get it done," the agent said. "No newspapers. No nonsense."

"Is this a joke?" the general manager asked.

The agent was upset. A joke? He put the Babe on the phone. The Babe repeated everything the agent had said and more. The Babe promised to try harder for his new team than he ever tried in his life. He said he had heard about a thing called "expansion" and a lack of lefthanded pitchers. He said he was ready to "tear some horsehide off some baseballs." He sounded great.

"So?" the agent asked.

"I'll have to talk to my people," the general manager said, "but I think we've got a deal. A billion dollars a year for Babe Ruth certainly isn't out of the ballpark in the present-day economy."

A press conference is scheduled for tomorrow.

 More flashbacks:
Casey Stengel | Maris and Mantle | Joe DiMaggio
Thurman Munson | Reggie Jackson | Babe Ruth
Mickey Mantle | Lou Gehrig | Chuck Knoblauch
1998 Yankees | David Wells | El Duque



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