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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.

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.

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.

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.

Kenneth Shouler, a freelance writer based in White Plains, New York, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

Special thanks to Tim Wiles, Tom Craig and Patrick Donnelly at the National Baseball Hall of Fame for research assistance.

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