SI Vault
 
AND ALONG CAME RUTH
Robert W. Creamer
March 18, 1974
Out of a fascinating new book on America's best-remembered sporting god strides the young Babe. It is 1919, the World War is over, and the country, like Ruth, is euphoric. The Babe has an enormous appetite for baseball—and the pleasures of the night. In his zest he becomes a hero whose like had never been seen before, and may not be again.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 18, 1974

And Along Came Ruth

Out of a fascinating new book on America's best-remembered sporting god strides the young Babe. It is 1919, the World War is over, and the country, like Ruth, is euphoric. The Babe has an enormous appetite for baseball—and the pleasures of the night. In his zest he becomes a hero whose like had never been seen before, and may not be again.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1894. He was not an orphan (his mother died when he was 16, his father when he was a major-leaguer) but at eight he was put in St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys for "incorrigible" behavior. He spent most of his youth behind the walls of St. Mary's, where he developed into a splendid baseball player. In 1914 he was released to join the minor league Baltimore Orioles as a pitcher. He was an instant success, and in July that year moved up to the Boston Red Sox. By 1916 he was the best left-handed pitcher in baseball, with a 23-12 record, and an impressive slugger, too. During the 1918 season he began his transition from mound to outfield, from pitching to hitting—and in 1919 launched his dazzling assault on the game's home-run records.

Two months after the 1918 World Series, the World War was over. It had relatively little impact on Babe Ruth, and to him its ending meant hardly more than that baseball would be played in 1919 after all, despite threats to the contrary. And that meant money. Ruth was well aware of his commercial appeal—a Boston cigar manufacturer had taken him in as a "partner" for the right to capitalize on his name—and he made it clear to Ed Barrow, manager of the Red Sox, and Harry Frazee, the owner, that he wanted a substantial raise in 1919. Aside from the esthetic appreciation of his own worth, Ruth needed more money because he was spending more and more of it—on clothes, on automobiles, on girls, on partying. And, yes, on Helen.

Even though she had been married to Ruth for four years, Helen was barely 21 years old and found herself increasingly unable to comprehend her husband's exuberant ways. She felt less and less a part of his life. They had bought a "farm" out in the country in Sudbury, 20 miles west of Boston, and the two quondam waifs played at being happy together back on the land. But it was Helen who was more often on the land, alone, while Babe was on the road with the team or on the town with his night people. Only rarely was she able to bring home to him her loneliness and distress, and he assumed that his generosity with money and gifts made up for that. In truth, he was never greatly concerned. He was primarily interested in himself, and his young wife's unhappiness rarely penetrated his restless questing after fun and games.

He was very much a celebrity now as the country turned away from war and toward peace. On the Red Sox ball club he was the king, the unquestioned star of the best team in baseball, winners of the World Series three times in four years. He was not yet 25 but, except for Outfielder Harry Hooper and Shortstop Deacon Scott, he was senior man on the club in point of service and far and away the best paid.

Wherever he happened to be, he was the focus of attention. During the 1918 season he drew louder and more sustained applause than anyone else. The other players, teammates and opponents both, liked him, or at least enjoyed being around him. He was such an outspoken, engaging extrovert they could not help being amused and entertained by him. And they were in genuine awe of the way he could hit, the way he could play baseball. Nonetheless, they rode him constantly, his teammates relatively gently but his opponents often viciously. They mocked him, jeered him, made pointed insults about his round, flat-nosed, heavily tanned face. They called him monkey, baboon, ape, gorilla. The terms were not used with rough affection; they were insults, harsh comments on his homeliness, his ignorance, his crudity. When he was still relatively new to the major leagues someone noticed in the clubhouse that he had the distressing habit after taking a shower of putting back on the same sweaty underwear he had taken off after the game, and of wearing the same underwear day after day. Baseball wit is seldom subtle, and Ruth, who only a few years before had come out of St. Mary's home for boys, took a cruel barrage of heavy-handed comment for this singular lack of personal fastidiousness. He reacted by abandoning underwear completely and for years thereafter wore nothing at all beneath his expensive suits and silk shirts.

Loud, profane, outspoken, supremely confident in most things, he returned insult for insult, although he sometimes was not sure whether he had been insulted or not. He was frequently called Tarzan, after Edgar Rice Burroughs' recently published bestseller. Ruth rather liked being called Tarzan, sensing that it had something to do with his nearly superhuman feats on the ball field, but he did not know what it meant. He asked a teammate, "Hey, what's this Tarzan stuff? Why do you guys keep calling me Tarzan?"

"You know, Babe," the teammate answered in some surprise. "It's from that book."

"What book?"

"The Tarzan book. Tarzan of the Apes."

"Apes?" snapped Ruth. "You're calling me an ape?" He was suddenly furious. It took fast talk and adroit dissembling to calm him down.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14