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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America was in social revolution as the 1920s began—Prohibition went into effect on Jan. 16, 11 days after the announcement of Ruth's sale to the Yankees—and baseball was altered as radically as any other aspect of national life. The game changed more between 1917 and 1921 than it did in the next 40 years. Despite the high-profile presence of such outstanding batters as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson and a few others, during the first two decades of the century hitting was a lesser art in a game that honored pitching and low scores. The term "inside baseball" was almost sacred, and John McGraw was its high priest. It meant playing for a run, a single run. You bunted safely, stole second, went to third on a sacrifice and scored on a fly ball to win 1-0. An exaggeration, of course, but that was the ideal. Even after a livelier cork-center ball was introduced in 1910, tight baseball continued to dominate.

All this changed after the war, after Ruth's breakthrough in 1919. It was not a gradual evolution but sudden and cataclysmic. Baseball statistics give dramatic evidence of this. For 15 seasons before 1919 major league batters as a group averaged around .250. By 1921 that average had jumped above .285, and it remained steadily in the .280s throughout the 1920s. With this increase in hitting came an increase in scoring. Before 1920 it was a rare year when more than two or three men in both leagues batted in 100 runs, but, in 1921, 15 players did it and the average for the '20s was 14 a year. Earned run averages, the measure of a pitcher's run-suppressing ability, shot upward. Before 1919 the average annual ERA was about 2.85. In 1921 it was more than 4.00, and it stayed in that neighborhood through the decade.

What caused the explosion? The end of the war, Ruth, money and the lively ball. Attendance in 1919 rose for every one of the 16 major league teams, in some instances doubling and tripling. The release from war was largely responsible for the first burst of interest, and then Ruth's home-run hitting came along. Babe was the most exciting aspect of the 1919 season, even more so than the pennant races. New fans bubbling into the ball parks could not begin to appreciate the austere beauty of a well-pitched game, but they thrilled vicariously to the surging, erectile power of the Ruthian home run. They wanted more. They wanted hits and they wanted runs, lots of hits and lots of runs. They wanted homers. The owners, delighted by the windfall at the ticket windows, were happy to give them what they wanted. Legislation was instituted against the myriad trick pitches, like the spitball, that tended to befuddle batters, and the ball itself was pepped up. No hard, irrefutable facts exist to verify what happened to the baseball—indeed, a laboratory test in August 1920 "proved" the ball had not been changed—but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that it suddenly became livelier.

Ruth's full, free swing was being copied more and more, and so was his type of bat—thinner in the handle and whippier, in principle something like a golf club. (Early in his career Ruth used a massive 54-ounce bat, but this was slimmed down as Ruth himself ballooned.) Strategy and tactics changed. A strikeout heretofore had been something of a disgrace—reread Casey at the Bat. A batter was supposed to protect the plate, get a piece of the ball, as in the cognate game of cricket. In Ruth's case, however, a strikeout was only a momentary, if melodramatic, setback. Protecting the plate declined in importance, along with the sacrifice and the steal (the number of stolen bases in 1921 was half the prewar average). The big hit, the big inning, blossomed.

With them, so did attendance. It had been good in 1919, but 1920 was marvelous. Attendance went up in every city in the majors except Detroit (the Tigers fell to seventh place that year) and Boston, where there was bitterness over Ruth's sale to New York. Seven clubs established alltime attendance highs in 1920, and the Yankees set a major league record. The old record was 910,000, achieved by the 1908 New York Giants. No other club had ever drawn as many as 700,000, and for most of them yearly attendance was usually well under 500,000.

In 1919 the Yankees had been like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord. They were a powerful team; their pre-Ruth lineup of Home Run Baker, Wally Pipp, Duffy Lewis, Ping Bodie, Roger Peckinpaugh, Del Pratt, et al. was dubbed Murderers' Row by a newspaper cartoonist. The name seemed justified when the Yanks led the major leagues in home runs—with 45, only 16 more than Ruth himself hit for Boston. They were in the race for the pennant a good part of the season, finished a respectable third and drew 619,000, more than 20% above their previous high. But in 1920, with Ruth, they were in the pennant race all season long, finished a much closer third, hit 115 home runs (Babe had 54 of them) and drew phenomenally. The Polo Grounds had a seating capacity then of 38,000, and capacity was reached and surpassed time and again. The Yankees passed the Giants' old record in midsummer, became the first team ever to draw a million and ended the season with 1,289,422, almost 380,000 better than the previous major league high. The Giants drew well, too, exceeding their 1908 mark themselves, and all in all the two clubs attracted 2,219,031 to the Polo Grounds, almost a million more than ever before.

Ruth was made for New York. It has been said that where youth sees discovery, age sees coincidence, and perhaps the retrospect of years makes Ruth's arrival in Manhattan in 1920 seem only a fortuitous juxtaposition of man and place in time. Nonetheless, Ruth in that place at that time was discovery. And adventure. And excitement. And all the concomitant titillations. One of his famous nicknames, the Bambino, came about because New York's polyglot immigrants and their children found themselves strangely excited by Ruth and baseball. Many of those riding the subways and elevated trains and streetcars up to the thin northern neck of Manhattan to the Polo Grounds, or who talked about Ruth on street corners and in the neighborhood stores, were Italian. The rhythm and alliteration and connotative impact of the Italian word for babe, bambino, made the nickname a natural. In time, headlines would say simply, BAM HITS ONE.

Ruth did not come to New York as a Yankee until the day the club left for Jacksonville and spring training. He had dawdled in California, occasionally sounding off about getting more money from the deal, and sidestepped New York on the way back to Boston, where he tried to wangle a percentage of the sale price from the Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee. He smoked cigars in a show window to promote his cigar factory, even handling three at the same time.

Finally, on Feb. 28 he took a train for New York to join the rest of the Yankee contingent at Pennsylvania Station, where the team was to catch a 6:20 sleeper to Florida. He did not appear in the station until 10 past six, but when he did a mob of fans crowded around him, trying to touch him or shake hands. Autograph hounds happily were still a rarity in those days. Ruth, hulking over the people around him, beamed, shook hands, exchanged greetings and obviously enjoyed the stir he was creating. He was wearing a heavy leather coat and was clinging to a new set of golf clubs he had bought in California.

The affable Ping Bodie, a Yankee outfielder, took him around and made a great show of introducing him formally to each of the Yankee players, even though Babe knew most of them already. When a club official parceled out $5 in expense money to each player, Bodie said it would add up to just about enough for one fair-sized poker pot. Ruth grinned and said, "Let's get a game going." On the train he passed around Babe Ruth cigars and smoked some himself, as well as pulling at a handsome meerschaum pipe he said had cost him $12. He chewed gum incessantly ("He always had something in his mouth," Lee Allen, the baseball historian, wrote) and talked freely about his switch from the Red Sox to the Yankees. He cursed Frazee. When someone asked if he had managed to get part of the sale price, he roared that Frazee wouldn't even see him.

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