The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend

The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend

by Glenn Stout

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250064318
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/08/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 595,297
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

GLENN STOUT is the series editor for The Best American Sports Writing and a Casey Award finalist author of such titles as Red Sox Century, Yankees Century, and Fenway 1912.

Read an Excerpt

The Selling of the Babe

The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend


By Glenn Stout

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Glenn Stout
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7000-0



CHAPTER 1

George Herman Ruth


"I saw a man transformed from a human being into something pretty close to a god."

– Red Sox outfielder Harry Hooper


When George Ruth arrived at Boston's South Station to catch a train to spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on March 9, 1918, he carried two large bags, a set of left-handed golf clubs, and a smile that covered most of his cartoonish face from ear to ear. After spending much of the winter with his wife, Helen, at their farm in Sudbury, Massachusetts (called "Home Plate"), the notion of a month in Hot Springs almost made the long wait worthwhile. Oh, he looked forward to playing ball again, and a little golf and soaking in the steaming natural mineral baths, but it was everything else in Hot Springs that he really relished: the whores and the card games, the booze and the dance halls and the food. "Spring training" itself would consist of a little more than some long hikes and a few hours of fooling around on a ballfield each day — hell, the players didn't even get paid to do that. That left plenty of time for everything else, which was one of the reasons ball clubs tended to go to places like Hot Springs or Tampa or other resort and vacation towns for spring training. They needed the nice weather, sure, but they also needed to entice the players to show up on time and stay reasonably happy while they were there. You couldn't play baseball all the time.

Ruth had plenty of reasons to smile, anyway. By the end of the 1917 season, at age twenty-two, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. And if he was not, he was close to the top of a very short list, one that included the Senators' Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander of the Phillies, and perhaps one or two others — White Sox knuckleballer Eddie Cicotte, or perhaps the Indians' Stan Coveleski. But there is no question that Ruth was the best young pitcher in baseball, and it wasn't even close.

In a little more than three full seasons in the major leagues he had already won 67 games — 18 in 1915, when the existence of the Federal League diluted major league talent, making it an ideal time for a young pitcher like Ruth to break in and, significantly, learn to pitch against diminished competition, 23 in 1916, and another 24 in 1917. Moreover, he had helped Boston win the world championships in 1915 and 1916, collecting a legendary 14-inning, 2–1 victory in the 1916 World Series, giving up a first inning inside-the-park home run and thereafter tossing a shutout. And even though the Red Sox had missed out on the pennant by nine games in 1917, finishing second behind the White Sox, after three full big league seasons Ruth's performance finally earned him a big contract — $5,000, a $3,000 raise over what he had made in 1917. He would start collecting it as soon as the season started.

The young boys who gathered at South Station to catch a glimpse of Ruth before he left and their fathers who trudged to work every morning and passed around the newspapers during lunch break knew all that. But that wasn't what made Ruth interesting.

What did was everything that didn't make the papers and what wasn't told through statistics. He just wasn't like other players; he was an evolutionary leap. At six-two and more than 200 pounds, he was a giant at a time when the average American infantryman in the Great War stood only five-six or five-seven and weighed barely 140 pounds — for the time, Ruth was the equivalent of a man six-six or six-seven today, and strong beyond measure. Players any larger than Ruth, such as former Boston catcher Larry McLean, six-five, or the Browns' six-six Dick Davenport, were routinely referred to as "giants," and few clubs counted more than a player or two much above six feet. Although ballplayers tended to be bigger than the average American, Ruth still stood out. He was not only tall, but both rangy and barrel-chested, with massive forearms and thick wrists. One writer noted, "he bends things of metal in his hand as if they were switches and has a hand grip that crushes."

He was hard not to notice, drawing attention even when he wasn't trying to do so. Neighborhood boys shagging flies when Ruth took batting practice in Fenway Park before the games saw someone swinging a bat like no one else. He didn't push at the ball like most other hitters. They swung as if afraid of missing, their hands held apart for better bat control, and took a controlled, level swing, parallel to the ground, designed simply to make contact and slap ground balls or line drives between fielders. Ruth attacked the ball, swinging a baseball bat almost like a lumberjack wielding an ax, but loose and free with a pronounced uppercut, gripping it at the end, wrapping it around his neck before he swung, and then just unloading, swinging as hard as he could, the momentum of his swing causing him to twist and spin into the ground, almost toppling over.

And that was when he missed. When he connected — and in batting practice, he did far more often than he ever did during the games — the ball soared through the air and over the boys' heads deep into the outfield, sometimes even into the right field bleachers. While the fence in right at Fenway was only a bit more than 300 feet down the line, the bleachers, in what would now be termed the power alleys, were nearly 400 feet away. When it did, the crack of the bat was soon followed by the sound of the ball striking the pine benches, echoing through the park like two rifles shot in rapid succession. Moreover, Ruth actually tried to hit the ball over the fence, not stepping into the ball as much as leaning away and pulling his arms and hand through the strike zone so he didn't just make contact with a pitch, but so it hit the bat in a specific place, down toward the end. When it did, when he timed if just right ... well, the ball took off and there was no other feeling like it in the world. For both Ruth and his fans, it was almost orgasmic.

He didn't even use the same bat as other players. Most favored maple or hickory cudgels that weighed up to 40 ounces or so, thick in the handle, with barely any taper toward a heavy barrel. Ruth's bat was even heavier in weight, usually 44 ounces or 46, and in practice sometimes more than 50. But over time he began to shave and sand the handle down like the fungo bats coaches used to hit fly balls in practice. His hands made it seem even thinner, and he whipped the bat through the strike zone in a blur.

As he took batting practice, Ruth's coaches and teammates just shook their heads and rolled their eyes. You couldn't hit like that; everybody knew it. But since Ruth was a pitcher — and something of an incorrigible pitcher at that — they let him be. They had all learned that it was often easier to let Ruth do what he wanted than to hover over him like a schoolmarm. When he didn't get his way, he'd mope and moan around the ballpark and be a bother to everyone. It was easier just to let him have his fun. Besides, if they needed him to drop a bunt or hit behind the runner, he could do that when asked. There was no harm in letting him fool around, and every once in a while, even in a game, he'd connect with one, and even if it didn't clear the fence, it often carried so high into the sky it almost disappeared. The fans seemed to like that, and you could hear the gasps of wonder well up from the stands.

No one yet realized it, but Ruth's swing was revolutionary. The uppercut not only put the ball into the air, but as hard as Ruth swung, into the air for a long, long way. Moreover, the angle of his swing nearly matched the downward drop of the pitch toward the plate, meaning that Ruth's bat stayed in the hitting zone for a longer time than that of other hitters. That's just common sense, but baseball tradition and common sense have long been at odds as much as the game's history has been to its myths.

Yet even more drew the boys to Ruth. His personality was as compelling as his performance. He didn't keep them distant like the other players, spit tobacco on their shoes, brush them off, or lecture them like a teacher or a cop on the corner. His persona was as oversized as his physical dimensions. He laughed and joked and used language they didn't dare use around their own parents. He tossed them baseballs and nickels and took them out for ice cream and roughed their heads and let them follow him down the street. He seemed to enjoy all the things boys enjoyed as much as they did.

He was no less fascinating to their parents — fathers and mothers. In the neighborhoods near the ballpark, the Fenway, Governor's Square (now Kenmore), the South End, and Roxbury, Ruth was a familiar face — and so were the bottoms of his feet after he had too much to drink. His exploits were already legendary.

Although he had the Sudbury farm, during the regular season Ruth rarely hung his hat there. When he first arrived in Boston, he stayed in a hotel, but he soon moved to an apartment and by 1918 was living at 680 Commonwealth Avenue, the current location of Boston University's Warren Towers, a short walk from Fenway Park. Years later, his Yankees teammate Ping Bodie remarked, "I don't room with him. I room with his suitcase." Well, that was already true in Boston and the speaker could have been Ruth's young wife, Helen, the teenaged South Boston waitress Ruth met and married soon after making his first appearance in a Red Sox uniform in 1914 (a woman his teammates later speculated might have been Ruth's first sexual experience — at least the first he didn't pay for). Yet it wasn't long before Ruth discovered the privileges of being a professional athlete: not only were the drinks and meals free, so were the women. And even Puritan Boston offered more than its share of that. After all, Boston was a port of call and the "girls of Boston" were mentioned in more than one sea shanty.

The nearby South End already had a reputation as one of the most liquid neighborhoods in the country, with a bar on virtually every corner. The neighborhood popping up around the ballpark, the Fenway, already had a well-deserved reputation as a red-light district, one that lasted into the 1980s — Batavia Street became so notorious the city later renamed it the more sedate Symphony Road. Although many of Boston's larger cultural institutions, such as the Opera House and the Museum of Fine Arts, were only a few blocks away on Huntington Avenue, it was always tempting to take a turn off Massachusetts Avenue and stray into the darker thoroughfares, where in many local establishments the line between bar and brothel was notoriously thin. Ruth not only crossed that line but also tripped over it and virtually passed out on it on a regular basis. Bill Carrigan, Ruth's first manager in Boston, even found it necessary to pay Ruth on a per diem basis, or else he'd run out of money only a few days after cashing his check. Finding Ruth after a bender — usually sleeping it off somewhere, often in the back alley behind a brothel, his pockets turned inside out — became something of a pastime for his teammates. Stories of Ruth's nighttime escapades were well known among Boston working men ... and some of their wives.

Every woman he saw was as tempting a challenge as a fastball over the heart of the plate, and Ruth's advances were often as crude and direct as his approach at the plate. Married or single, beautiful or plain, it mattered little to him. Plenty accepted his advances, finding his unpolished approach almost irresistible. Besides, after the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, an awful lot of young husbands had boarded troopships for France, leaving an awful lot of young wives in need of companionship and eager for a night of fun. With the average yearly household income of less than $1,000, Ruth's wallet, combined with his celebrity, made him immensely popular. While Johnny was fighting the Hun, Ruth kept the home fires a blushing, randy red.

Regardless, with Ruth, almost everyone looked the other way. The basics of his biography were well known and it was hard to feel anything but sympathy toward him. Born in Baltimore to George Ruth, an American saloonkeeper of German Catholic heritage, and his sickly wife, Kate, George Jr. was born on February 6, 1895, one of eight children. But in those poverty- stricken times, all but two of the eight children, George and his sister, Katherine, died as infants.

Almost abandoned from the start by his father, who worked long hours, and mother, who was in near constant mourning and ill health, Ruth ran the streets around the Baltimore waterfront as a boy and rarely went to school. Eventually he was sent to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a church- sponsored institution for orphans, incorrigibles, boys abandoned, and those whose parents were just too poor or too overwhelmed to care for them. After first entering St. Mary's in 1902, Ruth spent much of the next twelve years under the watchful eyes and forceful hand of the Xaverian Brothers who ran the institution, learning to be a shirtmaker and playing sports in whatever free time he had. He was particularly impressed by Brother Matthias and Brother Hermann, both of whom took a particular interest in him and both of whom enthralled the boy with their prowess at hitting a baseball. Matthias, in particular, made a lasting impression by hitting one-handed fungoes far over their heads.

The game saved Ruth. Bigger than the other boys, and better coordinated, he excelled as a pitcher, making his mark first pitching against other area schools and institutions. He eventually caught the eye of Jack Dunn, owner and manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles, who more or less purchased his emancipation in 1914 at age nineteen (Ruth and everyone else thought he was only eighteen at the time) and took him from St. Mary's directly into professional baseball, where he split time between Baltimore and Providence in the International League and won 22 games in his first professional season, even making a few appearances in the majors for Boston.

Ruth's crude talent was undeniable, as was his naïveté of the ways of the adult world. He still acted like the hard-to-handle boy and spent his first-ever paycheck on every boy's dream, a bicycle. A year later, in 1915, despite lacking the education, social graces, and the manners of his fellow ballplayers, Ruth's talent brought him to the major leagues for good. By the end of his rookie year he was well on his way to becoming a star, and someone who had already learned the greatest lesson of his life — talent on the field forgave many sins and allowed him to indulge in behaviors that got regular fellows in trouble.

It was almost impossible not to like him. In turn, he could be funny, crude, rude, and tempestuous, but he was so unware, so guileless, so clueless that he was doing anything wrong that it was hard to assign him any blame. He just did what he wanted, impulsively, whether it was take a bite from another fellow's sandwich, use his roommate's toothbrush, or let out an enormous belch. And, let's face it, most of those who kept his company not only admired his talent but, if not his personal hygiene, his freewheeling, carefree attitude. Ruth lived for today — well, at least for the next ten minutes, and rarely gave the rest of it a thought. He did the things everyone else wanted to do but were stopped by either their conscience or their breeding.

An anonymous sportswriter in the Boston Post likely had all that in mind when he wrote before the start of spring training that "Ruth's power as a turnstile clicker is well-known. ... The Baltimore boy is a trifle temperamental. He does things in a 'different' manner from most ballplayers, He has a walk all his own. He has a way of talking all his own. When he comes to bat the outfielders drop back to the far barriers ... he is the type over which the small boy and the tired businessman go wild."

Yet by the start of the 1918 season, Ruth was still something of a local phenomenon, easily Boston's most popular player, but not yet a baseball figure on par with guys like the Tiger's Ty Cobb, the Indians' Tris Speaker, or the White Sox' Joe Jackson. Unless your name was Walter Johnson, the Washington Senators pitcher whose fastball made him stand out, or Christy Mathewson, the New York Giants star nearing the tail end of his career, pitchers, playing only every four or five days, generally didn't fill the seats. That was about to change — sort of.

Ruth was the only active player to embark from Boston that morning, joined by a few club officials and a contingent of Boston sportswriters and newspaper cartoonists nearly as eager to flee their families as he was. The train had barely left South Station before Ruth was already in his element. He discovered that he shared the train with a group of soldiers from Camp Devens, free on a weekend pass, and the party got under way.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Selling of the Babe by Glenn Stout. Copyright © 2016 Glenn Stout. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Prologue: September 11, 1918 5

1 George Herman Ruth 11

2 This Means War 31

3 1918 39

4 Hijinks and Heroes 71

5 Out of Left Field 95

6 Rebellion and Revolution 116

7 The Insurrectos 155

8 For Sale 169

9 Welcome to New York 185

10 The "Infant Swatigy" 197

11 A New Day 209

12 Making the Sale 219

13 The Babe 231

Epilogue: Closing the Sale 250

Notes 257

Bibliography 269

Appendix: Babe Ruth Home Run Log; 1915 Through 1920 277

Index 281

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