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 now a bonafide hero of the "Roaring Twenties," easily eclipsing Jack Dempsey and Red Grange, Knute Rockne and Bill Tilden. In New York City he would wheel his 12-cylinder Packard up Riverside Drive to the stadium and wheel back, carouse through town before an adoring public later that night and end up in the wee hours at his usual home during the season, the legendary Ansonia Hotel. On the road, Ruth roomed with a lineup of rookies and lesser players. The reasoning was that if he was going to keep someone awake all night, it shouldn't be a star. Ping Bodie, when asked what it was like to bunk with the Babe shrugged and said, "I don't know. I only roomed with his suitcase."
Ruth was growing abundantly fond of the good life, of food and drink and cigars. During his stay in Boston, he had put some of his money into a small local cigar factory that manufactured a Babe Ruth nickel number with his picture on every wrapper. "I smoked them until I was blue in the face," he once complained. Still, one of the reasons he was reluctant to leave Beantown was because of those cigars. But his real taste was for larger cigars.
"Twice he went to Cuba to bring back Havanas," notes Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Bill Jenkinson. Countless pictures show Ruth smoking in black tie, smoking in his car, even smoking while hitting a ball. The cigars could have different shapes and sizes, but the player who could swing a 54-ounce bat (easily the biggest in the major leagues) also preferred the biggest cigars.
Anecdotes about his smoking abound, but one randy tale is especially characteristic. One night on the road, Ruth smuggled a woman into the room; his teammate Ernie Shore tried to sleep, but the moans, groans and squeaking springs were impossible to ignore. Finally, with the sun nearly up, Shore dozed off. When he awoke, he recalls that Ruth was sleeping peacefully and the woman was gone. Shore noticed four or five cigar butts next to the bed. When he inquired later, the Babe smiled, saying, "oh, that! I like a cigar every time I'm finished."
After a while, Yankee officials gave Ruth a "sumptuous suite" on the road, recalled his teammate, pitcher Waite Hoyt. After games, Ruth would retire to his suite and change into a red moiré dressing gown and red Moroccan slippers. "A long 60-cent cigar protruded from his lips," said Hoyt, "[and Ruth looked] for all the world like the Admiration Cigar trademark." The king on his throne would receive as many as 250 visitors in a single night.
He also smoked pipes, cigarettes occasionally, and used enough snuff for any other two players. "He had the constant need to placate his mouth with food, drink, a cigar, chewing gum, anything," writes Robert Creamer.
If winning a world championship was his goal, then his appetites were constant obstacles. Ruth had a habit of eating before games and even between doubleheaders. It was not unusual for him to "inhale" six hot dogs and wash them down with three bottles of pop. He would then say to the clubhouse manager, "can you get me some bi?" (bicarbonate of soda, to relieve the gas). It became a ritual with Ruth--bouts of overeating followed by bicarbonate of soda. Teammate Jimmie Reese recalled that it was nothing for Ruth to eat doubles at every meal. "He'd eat two ham steaks at breakfast, have a snack before the game and then ask for the 'bi.' If he struck out three times he'd say, 'I'll get even tomorrow; don't worry about that.' "
In 1922, after a less-than-spectacular season, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker said that Ruth had let down the "dirty-faced kids." Their hero cried. He worked out all winter in 1923 and promised to return stronger than ever. It was the remark about the kids that really got him. Perhaps because of his own tough childhood, Babe always had time for children. He frequently returned to St. Mary's to play ball, and even the tuba, for fund-raisers. Jimmie Reese recalled how the slugger would stop his car near Central Park and tell Reese to wait while he got out and signed autographs. Two hours passed on one occasion: Ruth had to make sure that each and every kid got an autograph.
Despite indulging night and day, Ruth usually prevailed at the plate. But he couldn't overcome what was described as "the bellyache heard round the world," in 1925. When he finally collapsed with stomach problems, he was advised to hang it up and rest in the hospital. He missed 56 games that year, and the Yankees plunged to seventh place. Some people were saying he was washed up.
Yet Ruth proceeded to have his most productive years as a hitter from 1926 through 1931: he hit 302 home runs, for an average of 50.3 a year. The averages haven't been approached since. The addition to the Yankees of Lou Gehrig helped them win the World Series in 1927, 1928 and 1932. Ruth and Gehrig formed the greatest one-two punch in the history of the game. The pair spearheaded the 1927 lineup known as "Murderers' Row," still regarded as the greatest team in baseball history. Their team won 110 games and lost only 44, finishing 19 games ahead of Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. While Ruth led the league in home runs 12 separate years, Gehrig was building his own legend as baseball's "Iron Horse." Between 1925 and 1938, Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games. And his lesser-known distinction is knocking in 100 or more runs in 13 consecutive seasons.
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