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The King of Swings

Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball while indulging a passion for wine, women and cigars.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

While major league baseball ebbs and flows in 1995, losing fan appeal as it flounders on the shores of greed, a century ago a saloon keeper's son who set the standards was born. Though George Herman Ruth Jr. was born in 1895 and died in 1948, his life passed into immortality long ago. The reason is simple: for anyone who ever played the game, Babe Ruth remains the measuring stick. Every debate that raises the question, Who is the greatest ball-player? must soon switch to, Who is the second-greatest ballplayer? There is really no doubting the first. In the self-inflicted misfortune surrounding major-league baseball this year, on the 100th anniversary of Ruth's birth, his legend continues to grow.

Babe Ruth is unquantifiable. In mathematical terms, Ruth's exploits are beyond measure, since no one has even approached them. When starting out, Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly said, "I thought that Babe Ruth was a cartoon character." And why not? His life seems too large to be real. But Ruth defies the common wisdom that scrutiny exposes the failings of even the greatest legends. The details of Ruth's life--his kindness to children and good cheer, his excesses with cigars and food and drink, his uncanny athletic gifts and olympian power--make him even larger. And if he didn't carry a cigar to the plate, a good smoke was an ever present talisman on his infamous rounds of the bars and restaurants of every major-league town he visited.

To anyone who cares to look, Ruth's numbers tell the tale. The first record he established--and the one he later said he was most proud of--is the 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless World Series innings in 1916, established while he was still a Boston Red Sox hurler. Then he hit a record 29 home runs in 1919. Then 54 in 1920, then 59 in 1921, then 60 in 1927. In his third full year as a hitter--1921--he had already established a home-run record when he hit his 137th. When his slugging percentage reached .847 in 1920, that too was a record. But his most miraculous and rarely heard achievement is that during two seasons--in 1920 and 1927--Ruth hit more home runs than any entire team in the American League. No one--in any time, in any place or in any sport--has stood that far above his peers.

George Herman Ruth Jr. was born on February 6, 1895, at 216 Emory Street in south Baltimore. The house was rented by his maternal grandfather, Pius Schamberger, a German immigrant who eked out a living as an upholsterer. Babe's mother and father, Kate and George senior, lived above the saloon they owned and operated on Camden Street. Kate made the two-and-a-half-block journey to her father's home each time she gave birth--to Babe and seven other children. Six of Babe's siblings died at birth or in infancy.

To say young George was mischievous would be an understatement. He was always getting into trouble roughhousing and tossing tomatoes at police officers in the hardscrabble neighborhood surrounding his father's saloon. By age seven, he was impossible for his parents to control or for his father, who put in long hours at the saloon, to discipline. As Babe's daughter Dorothy recalls, his parents sent him to St. Mary's Industrial School to ensure that he learned a vocation. The strict institution--a combination orphanage and reform school--was run by an order of Xavierian Brothers who taught Ruth how to make shirts and roll cigars.

In time he met Brother Matthias, a soft-spoken giant whom the young boys of St. Mary's respected. Matthias coached the baseball team. Ruth caught for the team, pitched and spent hours taking batting practice. Baltimore native and fan John Kremlisch recalls a game in which Ruth pitched for St. Mary's against annual rival Mt. St. Joseph's. "The game was so big that my father told me to take off from school to see it," Kremlisch recalls. "Ruth struck out 14 boys that day, and St. Mary's won." Kremlisch still recalls the line drives and "rainbows that defied gravity" that Ruth hit.

By 1914, Ruth had carved out a reputation for pitching and distance hitting. Then Jack Dunn, owner of the International League Baltimore Orioles, signed Ruth to his first professional contract. To sign Ruth, Dunn had to assume Ruth's legal guardianship--Ruth was 19 at the time--and Dunn kept a protective eye on the rambunctious youth. As a result, Ruth's teammates called him Jack Dunn's "baby," which local scribes recorded as "Babe."

By midseason, Babe went to the Boston Red Sox in a cash transaction that enabled the Orioles to stay competitive with the Baltimore Terrapins of the upstart Federal League, baseball's self-dubbed "third major league," which was siphoning talent from the National and American leagues.

Hurling for the Red Sox, Ruth soon became the league's best lefthanded pitcher. In his first three full seasons with the team he won 65 games and led it to a World Championship in 1916. While Ruth earned a 94-46 career win-loss record, pitching was discovered to be the lesser weapon in his arsenal. His arm was golden, but his bat was too thunderous to see action only every four days. So the Red Sox made him an outfielder. Before 1919 the modern record for homers in a season belonged to Gabby Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies, who had clouted 24 in 1915. But Ruth disposed of that in 1919--his first full season as a hitter--by belting 29.

Evidently it wasn't enough. While Ruth was changing the way baseball was played, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who loved the theatrical stage more than the baseball diamond, was looking for a way to finance his Broadway plays. On December 26, 1919, he signed a contract with Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Colonel Huston to sell the phenom to the New York Yankees for $125,000 plus a personal loan of $300,000. The $125,000 was more than double the price that had ever paid for a ballplayer.

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