The King of Swings
Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball while indulging a passion for wine, women and cigars.
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95
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Babe Ruth was 37 years old in 1932, but he still had time for one more heroic moment on baseball's greatest stage, the World Series. Before game three, anti-Yankee feeling was high in Chicago, at Wrigley Field in particular. Mark Koenig, White Sox shortstop and former Yankee, had been brought up from the minors to help Chicago win the National League pennant. But when the Cubs met before the series to decide how they would divide the World Series money, they decided to cut Koenig only a half share. The Yankees and Ruth got wind of the half share and used it to rally their spirit against the Cubs. "Hey, Mark," Ruth shouted before game three. "Who are those cheapskates you're with?" The Cubs shot back with the usual insults at Ruth: that he was fat, old and finished.
Ruth hit a three-run homer in the first inning. Gehrig led off the third inning with another home run. But the Cubs had rallied to tie the score 4-4 when Ruth came to bat in the fifth. Charlie Root, the Chicago pitcher, got two strikes on Ruth, and now the Cubs bench and the crowd jeered him mercilessly. Ruth then held up his arm and signaled two with his fingers. Gehrig would later say that Ruth shouted at Charlie Root, "I'm going to knock the next pitch down your goddamned throat." When Root came in with a slow curve on the outside corner, Ruth belted it high and far to center field, and it landed deep in the center-field bleachers, nearly 500 feet from home plate. It was the longest home run ever hit in Wrigley Field.
Writer Roger Kahn recalls that several Yankees claimed that Ruth did call his shot: "Wally Pipp said he did do it." Says Creamer: "My feeling is that he never actually pointed, but he did gesture and said he would hit one, and he did. It's really not important whether he pointed or not." And Yankee Waite Hoyt said that Ruth had made this sort of prediction several times. Before the end of that game, Gehrig hit a second home run, and the Yankees won 7-5 and swept the Cubs four straight. The story is exemplary, for Gehrig's great feats were always overshadowed by those of Ruth. When Ruth was the highest paid player in baseball, making $80,000 per year in 1931 and 1932, Gehrig made only $25,000. Rogers Hornsby, the second-highest paid, received $40,000 a year.
When Ruth retired with the Boston Braves in 1935 he had hit 714 home runs, with Gehrig in second place, having not yet reached 400. Ruth spent his retirement with his second wife, Claire, in a more placid manner than he had spent the 1920s. But he wanted to manage a baseball team. "He waited by the phone for a call that never came," recalled Claire. "I was as big as any of them," Ruth complained. "Did Frisch manage in the minors before he managed the Cards? Or Hornsby? Or Terry? Or Ott? Or Traynor? What a line." Instead he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers to coach first base and take batting practice to draw fans. But he grew disgusted of being used and ended up quitting.
Ruth began to decline in 1946 after it was discovered that he had a malignant growth in the left side of his neck. Most of the cancerous growth was removed, but some remained. It affected the left side of his head and his larynx. He would make several more appearances at Yankee Stadium, his voice pained and hoarse. He died on August 16, 1948. The next day some 50,000 people filed past the Babe's bier in the Yankee Stadium rotunda. Said one man who brought his three-year-old son, "I just wanted to say to my child that he had seen Babe Ruth."
"Ruth was Rabelais," says Roger Kahn, smiling. "Somebody who wanted to drink up all the ale in New York and not let a cocktail waitress pass by untouched. He was a huge, excessive, barely believable fellow. That's the first thing. And then there were the home runs. Not just the numbers of them, but the distance. When he was with the Red Sox he hit one in spring training in an exhibition game at the Tampa fairgrounds. He hit it out of the racetrack, into a farmer's field, and it stopped in a furrow. Several New York writers got a surveyor's glass and said it had traveled 630 feet. While that distance taxes credulity, writer Bill McGeehan said he didn't know how far it traveled, but when it came down it was covered in ice."
"There were so many numbers," says Barry Halper, drawing on a Churchill Natural. Halper owns one of the largest baseball memorabilia collections in the world, and it's full of Babe Ruth artifacts. "The most incredible thing is that he won a batting title, homer titles and an earned run average title!"
There is not now, never was and never will be another ballplayer like Babe Ruth.
"I never heard anyone say he was a son of a bitch or anything bad about him," says Ralph Kiner. "And Hank Greenberg [Kiner's teammate with the Pittsburgh Pirates] used to say that Ruth was head and shoulders above anyone else. He was, in my opinion, the greatest ballplayer that ever lived."
And anyone in doubt can look it up.
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