The Selling of the Babe

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Babe Ruth is arguably the biggest figure in baseball history, the one player who, since he first stepped on a major league diamond just over one hundred years ago, has cast a deep and still lengthening shadow over all things baseball, both its most cherished icon and one of its most transformative figures.

Nothing has ever damaged or cheapened his legacy. Somehow, the more we learn about Ruth, even of his colorful and occasionally unsavory personal history, he is never diminished. Even those who have since challenged his records or even broken them fail to touch him. In comparison, their deeds seem smaller, while Ruth's achievements, given his era, become even more impressive. He did not just break records—he created records where none existed before, for feats never imagined, for doing what no one thought possible.

In a very real way, Ruth took a two-dimensional game, baseball, and gave it two additional dimensions, first by lifting it from the ground and launching it into the air, and secondly by giving baseball its history, by creating space in the game for history to live apart from the present, and for a limitless future to seem possible. He is the figure who took baseball from its distant, daguerreotyped past and made it into the game we still see on the field today. As much as any other figure in the game, he is both a pioneer and an enduring presence.

Yet at the same time, Ruth is also elusive. Perhaps no other personality in sports has been so exalted, mythologized, and obscured by history. Ruth's public persona, certainly by the time he made it to New York in 1920, and even for several years prior to that, has always been presented through a filter, a ghostwritten sieve that sought to smooth his rough edges, cloud his true behavior, and simplify his biography. There are thousands upon thousands of words credited to Ruth's lips, but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, Ruth himself never said most of the things he said, and to pretend otherwise is to present a false portrait. His ghostwriters did his talking for him, his various autobiographies and columns under his own name written by others without any input on his part. Fortunately, in regard to Ruth, it is not so much what he said that intrigues us, but what he did, and how he did what he did, that is most captivating. This book focuses on the latter, rather than trying to parse through Ruth's “statements,” to determine which are his and which are the words of others. How George Ruth became “the Babe” is the essential question we try to answer.

But there is one thing that, even today, has towered over Ruth himself, something he himself created that nevertheless has cast a shadow over him, one so deep and so dark that at times it is barely even possible to discern the mighty Babe—or at least impossible to seem him clearly. Even Ruth is subservient to something more: the home run. Baseball's biggest hit, perhaps sports' most dramatic and instantaneous event, as first propagated by Ruth, became the most significant outcome in the game. Almost every other American sport has adopted the home run as a descriptive metaphor, “going for the home run,” as both the ultimate risk and the ultimate reward.

Yet the home run wasn't always there, at least not in the way it was when unveiled by Ruth. Although the home run has been a possibility since the very beginning of the game, for decades it was a rare and almost accidental occurrence, a happy accident no one would dare actually try to accomplish. Outfield fences were meant to keep crowds off the field, not to keep the baseball in, for the notion of hitting a ball over the outfield fence was, in most instances, absurd, the fences too distant and the ball too soft.

And then came Ruth, the catalyst during a unique time and set of conditions, when baseball was moribund and war was changing America faster than any time before or since. Without warning, suddenly and unexpectedly, the home run became baseball's most exciting and defining moment, disruptive, inspiring a profound change in the way the game was played and viewed and written about, dramatically impacting players and fans, leaving no one untouched. Even today, young boys still dream of being Ruth, and his story still touches them in a way no other ballplayer's does.

No one was more affected by the home run than Ruth himself. He was like a new species overrunning the environment and remaking the landscape. The home run at once both created him and defined him, making it almost impossible to extract Ruth from it, to view him separately, to see him clearly before that moment, even at a time when the home run had yet to determine the course of his life, or the course of baseball. The home run has rendered the earlier figure of Ruth almost invisible, so overwhelming that it has distorted his biography ever since.

Nowhere is this more true than during the transition, during those few brief months from the beginning of the 1918 season through 1920, when Ruth evolved from George Herman Ruth, a pitcher of considerable ability for the Boston Red Sox, to the Babe, the Yankees' mighty Bambino, a legendary and almost mythic Colossus of the game, the greatest home run hitter of all time, which according to a new definition, also made him the greatest player of all time. This makeover was so thorough, so complete, that it has been almost impossible to see Ruth in any other context, to separate the man and the player before the home run from what the home run turned him into: the Babe, the unbridled King of Swat. Previous biographers have usually become so enthralled with the results of this transformation, so blinded by the white heat of the home run, that the precise details of the change have almost been entirely overlooked. The sale of Ruth from Boston to New York is almost inevitably viewed with the kind of hindsight reality does not provide, leaving Ruth's evolution during this time period, essential to understanding the dynamics of the sale, virtually unexamined.

That is what this book does. By examining the selling of the Babe as both a historic event in real time and as a historical metaphor at this moment of change, when Ruth and the home run—together—changed everything,
The Selling of the Babe
explains why and how this happened, and why and how the figure of the Babe came to be. In these pages we learn what became of George Herman Ruth, precisely why he was sold by the Red Sox to the Yankees, and how an entirely new game, built around the home run, with Babe Ruth as the catalyst, was sold to the American public.

It remains the most important transaction in the history of the game, touching everything, even today.



September 11, 1918

In the eighth inning of the sixth and final game of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, with the Red Sox nursing a 2–1 lead and only six outs away from their fourth world championship in seven seasons, the Cubs' Turner Barber cracked a short line drive to left.

Boston's left fielder, playing shallow, tore in. As the ball sank toward a base hit, he did not hesitate. Instead of playing it safe, he lunged, left his feet, and stretched out for the ball. Bare inches from the turf, he gathered it in two hands, landed heavily, then tumbled, somersaulting over the rough ground, the worn, gray ball still tight in his glove.

Barber, visions of heroic headlines evaporating, kicked the dirt and turned toward the Cubs dugout. The crowd at Fenway Park shot to its feet, all 15,238 souls roaring and cheering, slapping each other's backs and holding their heads in wonder. He had done it AGAIN. The outfielder rose, threw the ball softly back in to the shortstop, then, grimacing, did not bask in the applause or tip his cap, but twisted his head back and forth and rolled his shoulders as he slowly walked back to his position.

The delay only increased their ardor. For a full three minutes, the crowd cheered as the outfielder tried to shake off the effects of his tumble, bending to clutch his knees and trying to stretch out his neck and upper back. He continued to flex and bend in between pitches as Boston hurler Carl Mays set down the next hitter, but he could not continue and would not risk remaining in the game and maybe costing his team a win, and perhaps even the World Series. He was not that kind of player.

He waved toward the bench and when the umpire held up his hand and called time, started trotting in. The crowd noticed and with each step more of them stood and applauded again, this time with the respect and admiration accorded to a hero. He had been the unabashed star of the Series, his timely hitting—moving runners along, then taking an extra base—sparking several Boston rallies and his glove squelching several Cub comebacks. His selfless removal of himself from the game underscored his contribution; this was a team victory, and here was a man who thought only of his team, and not of himself.

As he approached the Boston bench and manager Ed Barrow rose to greet him, he gave a brief nod to his replacement. Then George Whiteman entered the dugout to the cautious but warm embrace of his fellow Red Sox.

As Whiteman sat heavily on the bench and Boston's trainer attended to him, a teammate, almost unnoticed, grabbed his glove and bounded up the dugout steps to take his place, running heavily out to left field.

George Herman Ruth had already pitched, and won, two games in the Series, but apart from a few innings as a defensive replacement, had not appeared in the lineup of the other three Series contests, something that had surprised observers at first but also something that Whiteman's spectacular play throughout the Series rendered moot. For much of the year, with rosters reduced due to the American entry into the Great War, Ruth, out of necessity, had sometimes played outfield, usually Fenway Park's short left field, where the earthen embankment known as Duffy's Cliff and the wall behind it kept spectators from peering in from atop the garage across the street and left the emergency, part-time outfielder little room to cover. As manager Ed Barrow went with the hot hand, Ruth had more or less split time in left with Whiteman, a thirty-five-year-old career minor leaguer playing his first full year in the major leagues. For much of the season, Ruth had hit far better than anyone expected—in stretches, he seemed like one of the best hitters in the league, and led all baseball with 11 home runs. But he had only hit well in spurts, and over the final weeks of the season he had struggled, particularly against left-handed pitching, leading Barrow to decide to stick with the right-handed bat of Whiteman in the Series against Chicago's predominantly left-handed pitching staff.

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