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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 418

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This is the grave of Babe Ruth.

George Herman Ruth, Jr., was born in Baltimore in 1895 to a German speaking family. For some reason that is not clear, Ruth was sent to an orphanage at age 7, even though his parents were still alive. This was actually pretty common in the early twentieth century. The rise of social work in the Progressive Era led to a lot of pretty awful interventions into homes, taking away children who weren’t actually being abused or neglected, but whose unwed mother might have gone on dates and spent money on clothing herself or who were a bit troublesome. This was effectively this era’s version of the Trump administration separating migrant children from their parents and “accidentally” forgetting to find out where they were sent. Thousands of families were ripped apart in this way. The historian Linda Gordon has a couple of good books that touch on these issues. Ruth himself wasn’t sure why he was taken away from his parents. He wasn’t a very controlled kid, roaming the streets. His father owned a saloon and that alone could lead to Progressives stealing him. In any case, he spent most of the next 12 years there. It was a pretty rough time. This was an extremely strict Catholic orphanage. The kids had to work hard in addition to go to school and Ruth became a carpenter and shirtmaker.

Of course, Ruth also started playing baseball as a child. He was, uh, kind of good. He started playing around the city–though he could not leave the orphanage without explicit permission–and signed a contract in 1914 with the Baltimore Orioles, then a team in the International League. He was outstanding, a completely dominant two-way player. The major leagues wanted him bad and the Boston Red Sox won the sweepstakes. Mostly a pitcher at this time, he may or may not have been Hall of Fame quality, but he was certainly very good, especially in 1916 and 1917. In 1916, he led the AL in ERA, shutouts, games started, and ERA+, racking up an 8.8 WAR according to Baseball Reference. His 1917 was a shade less successful. Ruth however wanted to play every day. Boston management initially resisted this, but he was also a pretty good hitter, even only do so occasionally. In 1918, he was partially transitioned to the field and then that went almost full-time in 1919. Management predicted he would want to return to the mound once he had a bad slump at the plate. But he was Babe Ruth and that wouldn’t happen. He was only very good at the plate in 1918, but in 1919, he shined, his first true star year, where he hit .322/456/657 with 29 home runs and 113 RBIs.

It isn’t entirely sure why Boston sold Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season. There’s the long rumor that the owner needed cash for his theatre productions, but that’s not at all backed up with solid evidence. In any case, it was the worst move ever made in all of major league baseball, both on the merits and because it created the Yankees, a previously unsuccessful franchise, as one of the greatest dynasties in the history of professional sports. Damn it.

Why even explain Ruth as a Yankee? Everyone knows this story. He was awesome. Amazing. Probably the best player who ever played the game, though Barry Bonds and a few others have a right to at least contest the claim. He led the AL in OPS+ every single year between 1918 and 1931 with the exception an injury-marred 1925. That is 13 out of 14 years. Unbelievable. He led in home runs and walks most of those years, runs in many of them, OBP in several, and batting average once. Probably his best year was 1923, when he hit an obscene .393/545/764 with 41 home runs, 130 RBIs, and a mere 170 walks, leading to WAR of 14.1!!!! He crested the 10 WAR barrier on nine different occasions. As a comparison, Willie Mays and Roger Hornsby each had six 10 WAR seasons, Bonds and Ted Williams hit this mark 3 times, Lou Gehrig twice, and Stan Musial once. Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, and Joe DiMaggio never did. Then of course there were the home run records, which he set several times, first in 1920 with 54 home runs, then in 1921 with 59, and then of course in 1927 with an amazing 60. He finally began to slip slightly in 1933, at the age of 38, then significantly more in 1934, though he was still above average, with a 5.1 WAR. By 1935, he was still a functional player and might have lasted another year or two, but he wasn’t going to play as an average player. Moreover, the Yankees had sold him to the Boston Braves. And while Ruth really wanted to manage, he wasn’t thrilled about playing for the Braves. When he found out that the Braves’ owner had led him on about becoming manager, he decided to retire. The owner talked him out of it for awhile, but he was finally struggling at the plate and he was through. The whole reason the Braves wanted him was so that the owner could make some money; the team was the worst in National League history and the NL took over ownership by the end of the season.

Ruth never became a manager. A big part of the reason is that he was such a big star himself, drawing all sorts of attention. This is of course a big part of the Ruth myth. He was a larger than life, a drinker, carouser, and jerk. He and Gehrig came to hate each other over personal matters and they did not speak off the field for many, many years, not until Ruth gave his speech during Gehrig’s sad retirement day. He even starred in his own film based on his myth. This is the 1920 film Headin’ Home, which is an early myth-making film. My favorite scene: Ruth is still in Baltimore. There’s this butcher. The butcher rounds up local stray dogs and turns them into sausage. The film shows him putting a dog in the meat grinding vat. The next scene is meat coming out of the grinder. This is my kind of content. But Babe Ruth saves the day and the dogs of the local neighborhood kids. You can watch this on Kino-Lorber’s Reel Baseball collection, which also has a film called His Last Game, about a Native man who is about to be executed for killing a white who had stolen from him. But he’s the star baseball player, so the local team saves him. He then pitches them to a huge victory, there is a celebration, and then he is executed. Ah, silent film. I’ve shown that latter one in classes before, but sadly, I’ve never had a reason to show the Ruth film.

The rest of his life he really wanted to manage. But the only thing he got was the job of the first base coach of the Dodgers in 1938, and it’s pretty clear that only happened because the team figured people would come out just to see the legend in person. He wasn’t even instructed to give baserunners any signs or advice. He was replaced by Leo Durocher the next season, on his way to a legendary managerial career. He also continued his drinking and carousing. His weight grew and doctors told him to knock it off. But he had no interest in that. By the mid-40s, he was clearly in decline. But whether his lifestyle led to his cancer is impossible to say. In any case, he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, though he was never actually told, even to the point of his death. Because of his fame he had access to experimental treatments, but he died in 1948, at the age of 53.

There’s plenty more to say about Ruth the legend and Ruth the player, but I will leave that to comments.

Babe Ruth is buried, along with his second wife, Claire, in Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven, Hawthorne, New York.

If you would like this post to visit other of the greatest baseball players of all-time, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stan Musial is in Creve Coeur, Missouri and Mel Ott is in New Orleans. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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