SI Vault
Robert W. Creamer
March 25, 1974
The lights go up in the Big Town, and Babe Ruth speeds into the record book, into the affections of the multitude and, on one memorable spring day, smack into jail
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March 25, 1974

Hit Opening In New York

The lights go up in the Big Town, and Babe Ruth speeds into the record book, into the affections of the multitude and, on one memorable spring day, smack into jail

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It rained the afternoon of Chapman's death, and the Yankee-Indian game was postponed. They played the next afternoon, but Mays was not in uniform nor was he the day after that. Despite the accident, the Indians held off the Yankees and left New York still in first place. Then they faltered, and the White Sox, who were the subject of a grand jury inquiry into reports that the 1919 World Series had been fixed, took the lead. Mays pitched exactly a week after Chapman's beaning. Following a welcoming round of applause from the New York crowd, he shut out Detroit 10-0. That made anti-Mays feeling rise again, but the anger subsided, and he worked regularly for the rest of the season, ending with an impressive record of 26 victories against 11 defeats.

The Yankees challenged for the lead in September, and Ruth's home-run production picked up, although No. 50 was a longtime coming. (Babe was the first man ever to hit 30, the first to hit 40, the first to hit 50 and the first to hit 60. The Yankees in their great years were always power hitters, and Yankee Stadium—opened in 1923—was famous for home runs. Yet only four Yankees other than Ruth ever hit as many as 40 in one season. Lou Gehrig did it five times; Mickey Mantle four times. Joe DiMaggio did it once, and Roger Maris once, when he hit his 61. Ruth hit 40 or more 11 times, 50 or more four times.)

When Babe finally reached 50 in 1920, in the first game of a doubleheader a week before the season ended, he donated the bat he hit it with to the Near East Relief Fund to be auctioned off for the benefit of starving Armenians in Turkey. He hit his 51 st in the second game, added two more a couple of days later and had his 54th and last in the final game of the year.

The season over, with the Yankees third behind the Indians and the White Sox, Ruth joined a party of players from the Giants sailing to Cuba for a series of exhibitions. Babe commanded extravagant fees in Cuba. He earned nearly $40,000 in the several weeks he was there, but lost most of it betting on horse races in Havana, and when it came time to buy boat tickets to go home he had to borrow money that Helen had lucked away.

The following year, 1921, was exhilarating from spring training all the way to the World Series—the first in the Yankees' unparalleled record of 29 Series appearances. Ruth hit 59 home runs to break the record he had set a year earlier. He improved in every category. He batted .378. He had 204 hits, 119 of them for extra bases (59 homers, 16 triples, 44 doubles). He scored 177 runs and batted in 170. His slugging average, .846, was one point lower than the record he set in 1920, which still stands, but he had 457 total bases, far beyond his 1920 figure. He had 144 walks; it was better than even money he would reach base each time he came to bat.

Ruth's three-year contract expired after the season and Colonel Huston met him early in 1922 to talk about a new one. Babe was no intellectual, but he understood two things well: baseball and his own worth. He was a sharp, smart ballplayer, and he knew that he was the prime reason why 2� million people had paid between 55� and $2.20 to see the Yankees in the Polo Grounds in 1920 and 1921. He may not have taken a pencil and paper and figured out precisely what the Yankees made—they probably netted more than $1 million a year after expenses in Ruth's first two seasons—but he wanted more of it than he had been getting, a lot more.

Rumors said Babe would be raised to $30,000, with bonus clauses that would give him an extra $20,000. If that offer was made Ruth rejected it out of hand. Huston did propose $40,000 on a straight salary, but Babe turned that down, too. Huston eventually came up to $50,000 on a five-year contract, a quarter-of-a-million-dollar package.

Ruth's big black eyes stared at Huston.

"Make it $52,000 and it's a deal."

"Fifty-two thousand dollars?" Now it was Huston's turn to stare. "All right, agreed. But why $52,000?"

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