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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

(continued from page 1)

Despite Frazee's plaintive efforts to explain his decision in the Boston press, there was no disguising his idiotic and short-sighted decision. He had traded the most promising player in the major leagues, the man who would revolutionize the game. The Red Sox won five of the first 15 World Series, but the team hasn't won since 1918, when Ruth pitched them to two victories. The loss of Ruth would be so crushing to the team that it would be 15 years before it achieved even .500 mediocrity again. More than 75 years later, die-hard Boston fans speak of a curse on their Sox. The team does seem to be cursed: Frazee's stupidity in trading Ruth may have offended the baseball gods forever.

In 1920, Ruth would not only eclipse his mark of 29 homers, he would blow it into outer space. He slugged a miraculous .847, a mark not since approached by anyone. The entire Red Sox team hit only 22 homers, while Ruth hit 54--about 15 percent of the American League home runs--that year. To compare, consider that Barry Bonds' 46 homers in 1993 equaled 2 percent of the National League's home runs. Ken Griffey Jr.'s 45 homers that year for the American League also equaled 2 percent.

Ruth's timing could not have been better. Coming on the heels of the 1919 "Black Sox Scandal," in which eight Chicago White Sox players "threw" the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, Ruth made the fans fall in love with the game again. He single-handedly moved it from the "dead ball era," a time when runs were scored with a walk, a stolen base, a single and a cloud of dust. He jazzed up the national pastime, in which the trajectory of the home run was baseball's supreme art. Ruth strode and spun into a pitch with abandon. "Some folks say I was responsible for the development of 'swing hitting,' " he later observed. "Maybe they're right. Other fellows, particularly the big, burly, powerful chaps, began taking their bat at the end and 'swinging from the heels,' as the boys say. And 'swing hitting' came into prominence."

The period of Ruth's ascendancy and his impact on the game corresponded with the close of the great Ty Cobb's career. A maniacal, give-no-quarter competitor, Cobb despised Ruth. The rivalry is understandable. Cobb was the game's greatest player from the early 1900s. But Cobb saw in Ruth a man who put an end to his spikes-first, 90-feet-at-a-time brand of baseball. Cobb took every opportunity to disparage the Babe, calling him "nigger" because of his broad nose. When teams would gather around the cage before a game, Cobb would ask, "What smells?" "Things like that didn't seem to bother Ruth," says his biographer Robert Creamer. "He just didn't worry; he was much more adjusted to life than Cobb was. Ruth had a lot more fun playing ball than Cobb."

When the titans Cobb and Ruth finally met head to head on June 11-14, 1921, in a series billed as a grudge match, Ruth got the better of the competition. In the four-game series with Detroit, Ruth pitched and won and had six home runs. The Cobb-managed Tigers lost all four games (and went on to lose five more in a streak that sent them into sixth place).

That same summer, Ruth hit 59 homers. The second-place finisher in homers was Ken Williams, who hit 24. "He was like an Everest in Kansas," says ABC commentator and columnist George Will. "In just the third year in the league he already held the career record in home runs (137) and went on to break his own record 577 more times." The gap between Ruth and the second-place finisher was even wider than the year before, when Ruth hit 54 homers to George Sisler's 35.

The Yankees ran into trouble with their pitching in the June 13 game in their 1921 series with Detroit. Miller Huggins called a clubhouse meeting and asked, "Who can pitch today? There isn't anyone left." "I'll pitch, Hug," Ruth volunteered. Huggins gave Babe the ball, even though he hadn't pitched a single inning in more than a year. Ruth went five innings against a potent Detroit lineup, striking out one man, Cobb. The Yankees won. Ruth's record that year as a pitcher was 2-0.

Ruth was invited to Columbia University for a battery of tests. The findings of doctors Albert Johanson and Joseph Holmes were illuminating. They discovered that the pitch he could hit hardest was just above the knees, on the outside corner of the plate. And when he hit perfectly, in still air, with the bat moving at 110 feet per second, the ball would carry 450 to 500 feet. In a clinical test of steadiness, by inserting a charged rod successively into small holes of different sizes, Ruth was proved to be the best of 500 volunteers. Ruth's eyes responded to flashing electric bulbs in a darkened chamber 2/100 of a second quicker than did the average person's--very valuable for picking up a moving ball as it left a pitcher's hand. Medical science corroborated what the fans already knew: Babe Ruth possessed preternatural eyesight and equally impressive hand-eye coordination. Perhaps his teammate Jumping Joe Dugan was right: "Born? Hell, Babe Ruth wasn't born! The son of a bitch fell from a tree!"

Crowds were streaming through the turnstiles to see Ruth. His teammate Waite Hoyt recalled that in the Yankee clubhouse the telephone was always busy, and so Ruth had requested that a pay telephone be installed. Near his locker sat a basket for the thousands of letters that arrived at the stadium. And while he had complained that the $10,000 salary he received in Boston wouldn't go far in New York, he began with the Yankees at $20,000 a year. Then, because he drew such large crowds at the Polo Grounds in 1920 and 1921, the Yankees rewarded him with a $10,000 bonus. In addition, in a series of "barnstorming" exhibition games, Ruth received an additional $17,000.

In 1920, Ruth made the Yankees the first team to draw 1 million paying customers in the season. The team's new stadium was called the House That Ruth Built. That was also the year that the Yankees paid back the New York Giants for inflicting consecutive World Series defeats in 1921 and 1922. Giants Manager John McGraw had instructed his pitchers to feed Ruth a steady diet of slow stuff and brushback pitches in those series. It worked, for Ruth hit just .118 in the 1922 Series. But in 1923, Ruth struck with a vengeance, belting three homers and knocking in eight runs, leading the Yankees to the team's first world championship.

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