After well-loved New York Yankees manager Miller Huggins died of erysipelas in September 1929, Babe Ruth saw the opportunity to realize a highly powerful personal dream. He wanted to be the manager of the Yankees.
He asked Yankees general manager Ed Barrow but was rejected. The Yankees instead turned to their former pitcher and current coach, Bob Shawkey. Unlike the irascible and dyspeptic Huggins, Shawkey was a quiet and gentle man noted for both his pitching skills and also his ability to teach young hurlers. He seemed like the perfect choice for a pitching-poor team tired of Huggins's snappish style.
Ruth grudgingly agreed that his former teammate deserved the job. He and Claire headed south to spring training in St. Petersburg, but Ruth had not yet signed a contract. He had made $70,000 a year under his old one, and wanted $100,000; Team owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert offered a $5,000 raise to $75,000. Ruth surprisingly responded that it wasn't the money; it was the principle.
Christy Walsh composed a letter for him which asserted that if Ruth quit baseball at that moment, he'd still make $25,000 a year for life because of his investments and endorsements. The braggadocio made loud news in the press. Ruth relaxed his demand to $85,000 a year for three years; Ruppert offered $80,000 a year for two.
Meanwhile, Ruth kept playing during spring training. Until, that is, one of the writers following the Yankees pointed out that the Babe's bargaining position would greatly deteriorate if he were hurt while playing. Babe got the message. He announced that unless Ruppert came through with an $85,000 contract by noon the next day, Ruth would quit baseball forever. Now the newspapers were boiling with the inflammatory news.
Never one to worry about what the papers wrote about him, Ruth abruptly changed his mind the next morning and signed on Ruppert's terms by noon. When someone pointed out that now Babe was making more than Herbert Hoover, president of the United States, he commented, "So what? I had a better year." He was right.
In addition, Ruppert rebated the $5,000 Ruth felt Huggins had unjustly fined him in 1925.
The Yankees in Action
The 1930 Yankees got off to a slow start under their new manager. Ruth was injured several times during April. He hurt his foot sliding into third, and when he tried to score on a fly ball by the next hitter, he knocked himself cold diving into home. It took four men to tote him off the field.
On May 21, 1930, Ruth came to the plate in Shibe Park in Philadelphia and clouted three home runs in his first three at bats. No one in major league baseball had hit four homers in a game since 1896. (The four-homer feat is still more rare than pitching a perfect game.)
For some inexplicable reason, Ruth decided to bat righthanded his last time up, and against a righthanded pitcher at that. After two strikes he jumped back to the lefty side and struck out.
Shawkey's personality wasn't meshing with those of his players. Some of the New York Yankees openly felt Ruth should have been named manager and undermined the easygoing Shawkey.
Shawkey and star pitcher Waite Hoyt didn't see eye to eye, and Hoyt and Mark Koenig were dealt to the Tigers at the end of May. The Yankees went on a tear that moved them to within 2.5 games of the Athletics, but when Ruth tried to snag a long fly ball before it left the park, he ripped off a fingernail on the wire fence. The Yankees ended the season 16 games back.
Another New Manager
Shawkey was fired and replaced by Joe McCarthy, who had been dumped by the Cubs with four games left in the season. (Interestingly, McCarthy, who never played a day in the majors, had been the second batter Babe pitched to as a professional in 1914.)
Again, Ruth let it be known to Ruppert, Barrow, and anyone else within earshot that he felt he deserved a chance to be the Yankees manager. He and some of his teammates openly questioned why New York would hire a National Leaguer to manage them.
The 1931 Season
The big news of that year's spring training was the feat of female pitcher Jackie Mitchell striking out Ruth and Gehrig back-to-back in an exhibition game. The accomplishment was discredited a bit as the event had the feel of a publicity-boosting charade.
On Opening Day in 1931, Ruth tried to score from third on a short fly ball and collided furiously at home with sturdy Boston catcher Charlie Berry, a former All-American football player. Babe returned to the outfield for the next inning but collapsed in pain shortly thereafter when he tried to chase down a fly ball. Nerves in his thigh were paralyzed. His injuries were serious enough that he had to be hospitalized and missed 10 days.
The Yankees were never in the 1931 pennant race, falling behind Philadelphia and Washington early in the season. As the year wore on, however, they began to click under new manager McCarthy. By June 1, they were eight games over .500; one month later, they were 17 over. By the end of the year they had sneaked past Washington to finish second, 131/2 games out. At the core of their steady improvement were two significant factors.
One was the emergence of Lefty Gomez as a star pitcher. The rookie went 21-9. The other was the way the strict discipline of Joe McCarthy took effect. McCarthy set inflexible rules: His team had to wear jackets and ties on the road, and every player had to arrive for breakfast in the dining room by 8:30 in the morning. (The Babe, of course, was excused. If he showed up in a public eating place, the crowds would overwhelm the situation.)
McCarthy's toughness was always fair, and it worked. In 30 years of minor and major league managing, McCarthy-led teams would finish in the second division only once; his lifetime managerial winning percentage, .614, is the highest ever.
Offensively, the Yanks were back to their old form, leading the American League in hits, runs, homers, RBIs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average. At age 36, Ruth batted .373, second in the league. Lou Gehrig and Ruth tied for the home run lead with 46 long balls. Gehrig set the all-time American League record with 184 RBIs.
The problem, again, was Yankees pitching. Only one pinstripe hurler (besides Gomez, who appeared in more than 18 games and had an ERA of 2.63) managed an ERA below 4.28.
On August 21, in St. Louis, Ruth hit his 600th career home run. At $80,000, Ruth made twice as much as any other active player. Next was playing manager Rogers Hornsby. (It is said that Ty Cobb made $80,000 in 1927 as an Athletic.)
Now, though, Ruth was not the free-spending person he had once been. Sportswriters marveled at how he became the unofficial financial consultant for the other Yankees; the man who had been the team (and world) leader in expensive hijinks was now offering free advice on the wisdom of investing in trust funds.
That December, Ruth played Santa Claus for 300 kids at city hospitals. When a reporter asked him to describe his "greatest feat" of 1931, Ruth candidly replied, "Shooting a 73 at St. Alban's golf course in December."
The Depression Arrives
While the Babe was enjoying the rewards from his well-handled income, the Depression was deepening for the rest of the nation. Baseball's owners, who had livened up the ball for the 1930 season and promptly set attendance records, de-juiced the ball for 1931. American League home runs fell by nearly 100; the league batting average plummeted 10 points. Not surprisingly, attendance fell, too.
But there was method to the owners' madness. Players with lower batting averages could not demand higher salaries.Crying poor-mouth, the owners set out on a cost-cutting spree for the 1932 season. Even Judge Landis took a salary reduction -- from $65,000 to $50,000. The Yankees wanted to slice off a sizable chunk of Babe Ruth's salary, too -- $10,000 -- to $70,000.
The disingenuous avarice of such a move is absolutely beyond reason. Ruth was still the game's largest drawing card, the biggest profit-making machine any team would ever have. In an unguarded moment, former Yankee co-owner Colonel Tillinghast Huston once estimated that Ruth added, on the average, 2,500 paying admissions to every game.
One commentator calculated that that meant an additional $280,000 per season to the Yankees. A contemporary writer took out his abacus and stated, "Ruth [has] earned $3,500,000 for Colonel Ruppert in the last twelve years...over and above what the club would have taken in without him."
Another averred that the money Ruth brought in from exhibition games (regular and preseason) alone had been enough to pay his salary every year since 1927. Ruth, in a less acquisitive mood than he had been two years earlier, signed a blank contract, which Ruppert filled in with $75,000, plus a bonus of 25 percent of the net receipts of exhibition games.
Despite the wear and tear on his aging body, Babe Ruth's most dramatic and legendary moment lay ahead -- in the 1932 World Series. Continue to the next page for details.
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