Monday, June 23, 2014

The Ugly Side of Babe Ruth

In the annals of baseball history, there has never been another player like Babe Ruth. After compiling an 89-46 record over a six-year span as a pitcher for Boston, the Babe began his assault on the record books while patrolling the outfield for the Yankees. Ruth was in a class all by himself. In fact, the term “Ruthian” is still used to describe extraordinary batting feats. When the Bambino retired in 1935, his 714 homers were four-hundred more than the closest runner-up. He still holds the all-time mark for slugging percentage. A one man traveling circus, Ruth lived fast and died relatively young. He signed autographs, promised homers to sick kids and gave back to the community at large. His daily exploits both on and off the field were chronicled in the papers and generated more copy than most of his teammates combined.

But Ruth had a dark side that was often eclipsed by his more pleasing attributes. When it became apparent that he could hit just as well as he could pitch, he began clamoring for more playing time and griping about having to take the mound. He engaged in fiscal disputes with Red Sox owner Harry Frazee on a regular basis, threatening to leave the team more than once. Frazee justified Ruth’s transfer to the Yankees by referring to him as “one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a uniform.” Multiple sportswriters agreed, including Boston Post columnist Paul Shannon, who wrote: “Popular as Ruth was on account of his big-heartedness, the men nevertheless realize that his faults overshadowed his good qualities.”

The Babe had an inexplicable contempt for small men. Researcher Leigh Montville discussed the topic at length in his biography, The Big Bam. Montville asserted that Ruth “tended to bully them, to make them the butt of his many practical jokes. He paid small men no heed, as if physical size were the answer in all arguments, the small man’s opinion worth nothing without the bulk to back it up.” At five-foot-two, 122 pounds, Yankee manager Miller Huggins got little respect from the Babe. The two clashed regularly and Huggins’ input was largely ignored.

Huggins was not the only superior that Ruth held in light regard. He had a problem with various umpires as well.  While pitching against the Senators on June 23, 1917, he became exasperated with the calls of Brick Owens. After issuing ball four, Ruth confronted the arbiter. According to the Boston Globe, the dialog was as follows:

“Open your eyes and keep them open!” barked Ruth.

“Get in and pitch or I’ll run you out of there,” Owens retorted.

“You run me out and I’ll come in and bust your nose,” the Babe threatened.

When Owens ejected him, Ruth rushed to the plate. Catcher Pinch Thomas tried to restrain the angry hurler, but a blow was landed behind the arbiter’s left ear. Ruth was ejected and his replacement, Ernie Shore, retired all twenty-six batters he faced.

In the fall of 1921, Ruth blatantly disregarded the orders of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, going on an all-star barnstorming tour with two of his teammates. Landis showed his disapproval by suspending all three players until May 20—roughly seven weeks into the 1922 campaign. Ruth returned to much fanfare, receiving the honorary title of team captain. He would serve in that capacity for less than a week. The layoff hadn’t done him any good. Through the first five games, he was hitting below .100 with just one homer. On May 25, Ruth hit a single in the third inning and was tagged out trying to stretch it into a double. Exasperated with the call, he got up and threw dirt on umpire George Hildebrand. Hildebrand promptly ejected him from the game.
A chorus of jeers greeted Ruth on his way back to the dugout and he tipped his cap sarcastically. He might have exited without further incident had he not been subjected to a barrage of objectionable comments from two fans on the way out. The Babe leaped over the wall into the seats and went after one of them. The man backed away, drawing Ruth further into the crowd. Frustrated and angry, Ruth hopped up on the dugout roof and openly challenged anyone in the stands to a fight. There were no takers. Miller Huggins later responded by stripping Ruth of his honorary title.

Many of Ruth’s on-field adventures are recounted in my latest book, Mudville Madness, which was recently released by Taylor Trade Publishing. Spanning three centuries of baseball history, the work offers detailed accounts of the game’s wildest moments. In addition to Ruth, readers will get the dirt on dozens of other colorful characters, among them Germany Schaefer, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Jimmy Piersall. While you’re at it, you can pick up a copy of my first novel, The Bridgeport Hammer, which is a fantasy baseball memoir set in WWII against a backdrop of Nazi espionage. It was published in May by Black Rose Writing.   

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