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Ruth's auspicious first two years in New York were followed by a dispute with the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Landis. Babe was suspended for the first six weeks of the 1922 season and was in trouble repeatedly after his return. When that difficult year ended he promised to reform, and in both 1923 and 1924 he played superbly. But then things began to go badly again. He and Helen were unhappy together, and he made little effort to hide his contempt for Manager Miller Huggins and the ball club's rules.
In 1925 Ruth's behavior was as flagrant as ever, and his marriage was disintegrating. Helen was no longer able to cope with him. As Babe's teammate Joe Dugan said, "She was just a kid when she got married, and now Babe was bigger than the President." Helen and Babe had angry quarrels and they separated. A Catholic priest, Father Edward Quinn, effected a reconciliation, but it was only a surface peace. For Babe had met, among all the women he had known, The Other Woman. Her name was Claire Merritt Hodgson, Mrs. Claire Hodgson. She was beautiful: dark hair, snapping dark eyes, pert face, red lips, a superb figure. She came from Athens, Ga., and at 14 she had run off and married Frank Hodgson, who was twice her age. The marriage did not work, and a few years later, after World War I, she came to New York with her baby daughter. Hodgson died, and Claire became the epitome of early 20th century glamour: a beautiful young widow.
In New York she lived at first with her baby and a maid, but a few years later, about the time she met Ruth, her mother and her brothers Eugene and Hubert came to live with her, too. She worked for a while as a model for illustrators, including Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher. She appeared on the stage and she had bit parts in silent movies. She was not a chorus girl, nor a singer, nor a dancer, nor even an actress; she was simply a striking girl who wore clothes well and knew the right people.
When Ruth met her she was no teen-ager overwhelmed by the aura of a big-league baseball player. She had known Ty Cobb, and among her New York acquaintances were other members of the Yankees. She first met Babe in May 1923, at a ball game in Washington, where she was on tour in Dew Drop Inn, a show starring James Barton, who later played the leading role in the smash hit Tobacco Road. She and a girl friend were taken to a Senators-Yankees game by Barton, and when Ruth came over to their box to say hello to Barton they were introduced. Ruth was impressed, as he often was by a pretty girl. Later he sent a note to the theater asking her to dinner. He suggested his hotel suite, and she reacted coldly. "I can't go out to a restaurant," he explained. "I always get mobbed."
Claire said she would come only if she could bring along her roommate, and Babe agreed. In turn, she asked him to come see the show, and he did, bringing along two or three teammates. (Claire was slightly miffed because she had to pay for all the tickets.) Dugan was one of those with Babe. "See that black-haired girl on the end?" Ruth said. "She's coming to the hotel for dinner later. I want you guys to meet her." After the show, they came to Ruth's suite and met Claire, and then Babe said, briskly, "All right, get the hell out," and they left. "God, she was a pretty girl," Dugan said.
After the Yankees left Washington, Ruth kept in touch with her by telephone, and in New York they met again. This was far different from the usual Ruthian fling; Babe fell in love with her. They were seen together in public. He had a fight over her with another Yankee in the clubhouse, the two players grappling naked before they were pulled apart by teammates. Babe's big Packard was seen parked near 219 West 80th Street, where she lived. One day someone stole the ornamental radiator cap from the car, and after that Ruth parked it in the Apthorp Garage across the street. Helen was hearing stories and she was getting suspicious.
She had good reason to worry, because Babe wanted Claire and Claire wanted him. But when the subject of marriage came up, Babe told Claire, "I can't get a divorce. I'm a Catholic, and she's a Catholic. We can't get divorced." So he and Helen stayed married, and he and Claire stayed friends.
That was the year, 1925, when Ruth collapsed in spring training—his illness was called "the bellyache heard 'round the world"—and underwent abdominal surgery in New York. When he finally rejoined the Yankees in June he was still weak and he played badly.
He came back too soon. Dugan said, "It made you sick watching him slide into third with that wound in his belly." The club, meanwhile, had been having a terrible year and was in seventh place. Dugan had a bad knee and played only 96 games at third base. An inconsequential rookie named Pee Wee Wanninger became the regular shortstop and is remembered today only because Lou Gehrig began his famous streak of 2,130 consecutive games by batting for Pee Wee on the day Ruth returned to the lineup. Wally Pipp, who had been hit on the head with a pitched ball, was being phased out and Gehrig replaced him as the club's regular first baseman. Even so, Gehrig was still an untried rookie, and his .295 average in 1925 was no more impressive than .255 would be in the 1970s.
The team was bad, and Ruth was not much help when he returned. Physically he was below par, and psychologically he was a mess. His personal life was badly confused. While he was in the hospital, Helen and their adopted daughter Dorothy, now four, had been the only visitors he was allowed for a while, and he chafed under the monotony. Helen was so upset by his attitude that she had a nervous breakdown and was put to bed, too, while Dorothy was sent back to the Ruths' farm in Sudbury, Mass. in the care of friends. Later in the season Ruth and Helen had a loud quarrel in a Boston hotel. She packed her bags and left for Sudbury, telling the wife of another player, "I'm through." She discussed a legal separation with a lawyer, but nothing came of it, and later in the summer she was back in New York, living at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, close to Yankee Stadium.