Beyond the simian insults were rougher epithets built around the word "nigger." He was called nigger, nigger this, nigger that, all the vituperative changes on the theme that Jackie Robinson was to endure three decades later. Ruth was called nigger so often that many people assumed he was indeed partly black and that at some point he, or an immediate ancestor, had managed to cross the color line. Even players in the Negro baseball leagues that flourished then believed this and generally cheered on the Babe, whom they considered a secret brother, in his conquest of white baseball. Ruth, from Southern-oriented Baltimore, found the allusion an insufferable calumny, the worst insult of all; this even though his personal relationship with blacks over the years was amiable. His occasional evidences of bigotry for the most part were casual and unthinking reflections of the age. A New York judge noticed that Ruth was a spectator in court one day and when the case was over spoke to Babe from the bench and invited him to give his reactions. "It was interesting," Ruth boomed from the back of the court, "but I thought that little kike over there should have won the case."
As he made and spent money he tried to pick up social graces, sometimes with hilarious results, particularly after he joined the Yankees and began to live in New York, where he was drawn into the social whirl. He met fashionable hostesses and one day, inevitably, referred to the husband of one of the ladies as the hoster. A society matron asked a
New York Times
baseball writer if he could possibly get Ruth to appear at a benefit she was running. The sportswriter said he would try, but he warned that he could not guarantee Ruth's appearance. He asked Babe, who said sure but added, "Listen, I have to go out to Jersey first. What time do you want me there?" At the appointed time Ruth drove up in his big car, was introduced to the elegant lady, beamed on the moneyed throngs who gently pressed around him and helped make the affair a smashing success. When it was over his hostess thanked him profusely for his time and effort. The Babe waved his hand. "Oh shit, lady, I'd do it for anybody," he said.
Another time, he accompanied Ford Frick, later the Commissioner of Baseball, to a formal dinner party. Frick said Babe would always move slowly at first when he was at affairs of this sort, watching, noting, finding out how you did things before doing them himself. A rather splendid asparagus salad was served. Babe's eyes sidled around until he saw which fork was to be used. He casually lifted the fork, poked at the salad and then without touching it put the fork down and pushed the plate an inch or so away in dismissal.
"Don't you care for the salad, Mr. Ruth?" his hostess asked.
"Oh, it's not that," he replied, his voice elegant and unctuous. "It's just that asparagus makes my urine smell."
It was toward this world of wealth and social activity that Ruth began to move in 1919. He had acquired an agent of sorts, a Boston friend named Johnny Igoe, and he told Frazee he wanted his salary raised from $7,000 to $15,000. Only Ty Cobb, then in his 15th season, was being paid more than that. Ruth also said he wanted a two-year contract at that exalted figure. In other words, a $30,000 deal, astronomical in a day when a six-room house rented for $60 and a full-time "hired girl" received room and board and a few dollars a month.
Frazee said no, absolutely not, and for the first time in his career Ruth became a holdout. For Frazee it was not just a matter of his will and personality against Ruth's. It was a major battle in his struggle for economic survival. Frazee knew he needed Ruth, both for his play on the field and his draw at the box office. But Harry, who was a prominent theatrical producer, had overextended himself in 1918 and had lost a great deal of money. Attendance at Red Sox games had fallen off badly in 1917, and in 1918, even though Boston won the pennant, it dropped another 35%. The shrunken wartime World Series receipts of 1918 had been a financial disaster for Frazee. Nor were his theatrical ventures going well. He was desperately in need of cash, so much so that during the winter he shifted from his earlier policy of buying ballplayers and began to sell them instead. Prewar stars Ernie Shore and Duffy Lewis had been released from service, and Dutch Leonard was back from a war job in a shipyard. Frazee sent all three to the Yankees in deals that netted him $50,000.
Frazee resisted Ruth's demands. They met in Boston one day, but otherwise the only contact between the two was through the press. Babe said he might quit baseball and devote all his time to improving his farm, which now had 20 head of cattle, a couple of dozen pigs, three horses, 50 hens and a collie named Dixie. He made a production of chopping wood left-handed and wandering through the woods of the farm in a big fur coat. Frazee grinned and said, "Can you imagine him not playing baseball?"
But Ruth was adamant. He said he had been promised $2,000 when he returned to the club after threatening to join a shipyard team during the war, but that the new contract he received from Frazee did not show even this. Through Igoe he issued a statement saying he did not think he was unreasonable in asking for $15,000 and hoped that the fans understood that all he was doing was trying to get what he was worth. He said now he wanted either $15,000 for 1919 or a three-year contract at $10,000 a year. Frazee offered him $8,500. Ruth also said he did not want to both pitch and play left field anymore. Ed Barrow, asked to comment on this, said, "If Ruth plays for the Red Sox in 1919, he will probably pitch and pinch-hit." Ruth answered by saying that he wanted to play left field only and that he felt he would hit better if he were in the lineup every day. "I'll win more games playing every day in the outfield than I will pitching every fourth day," he said.
Because of postwar turmoil the season was beginning late that year (the schedule called for only 140 games instead of the then-standard 154), and the Red Sox did not leave for spring training until the middle of March. Late in February, Babe said he was thinking of becoming a professional boxer. He claimed a Boston promoter had offered him $5,000 to fight Gunboat Smith, a prominent heavyweight, and he came in from Sudbury to work out in a Boston gym, supposedly for the fight.