Babe Ruth

Reckless Babe Ruth

Although the Yankees failed to win the 1920 American League flag, it certainly hadn't been Babe Ruth's fault.

Taking advantage of the improved baseball-making technology that had tightened the ball's core, Ruth's offensive stats for the 1920 season have been called the greatest individual offensive performance of any player -- ever.


Baseball, traumatized by the September beaning death of Cleveland infielder Ray Chapman, made rule changes before the 1921 season that had the effect of making the ball even livelier: Pitches that involved defacing the baseball (meaning everything from spitballs to emery pitches) were banned, and once a ball got dirty it had to be removed from the game.

The Babe would delight in banging the bright, shiny new balls all over the place, putting up even bigger numbers than in 1920, and the Yankees would reach the World Series for the first time in their history. However, off the field, Babe Ruth could be reckless.

Ruth's Financial Woes

Outside of his weight (he was an imposing 240 pounds at the time), the biggest problem Ruth had as the 1921 season began was money. Raised without money and lacking the self-discipline to manage it, he spent what he earned moments after it reached his hands.

People paid him for endorsements, he had articles for newspapers ghost-written under his name, and he was always broke. Leaving $50 tips for ham sandwiches wasn't uncommon. He fell for a reported horse-racing scam in Cuba after the 1920 season (a terrible mistake in judgement that cost him $25,000), and he gambled away nearly all of his $40,000 earnings while on the trip. He invested money in a series of movies that never saw the light, or even the camera.

Even worse, when he sued the Curtiss Candy Company because they had released a candy bar called "Baby Ruth." Curtiss claimed it had been named for the young daughter of former President Cleveland, not for him. "Baby Ruth" Cleveland had died 17 years earlier. Incredulously, the judge believed the company, and even worse, declared that Babe's own candy company could not market a bar called "Ruth's Home Run." The Sporting News ran an article tut-tutting Ruth's behavior, making reference to "giants with the brains of a boy."

Enter Christy Walsh, the businessman's Brother Matthias, the second person to save Babe Ruth from himself. A clever promoter who wanted to syndicate ghost-written sports columns under the names of famous athletes, Walsh found a ruse (delivering beer) to speak to Ruth, promised him a fortune if he would sign up, and guaranteed him a check for $1,000 before spring training. Ruth agreed.

Walsh borrowed $1,000 for the up-front money, and a long and highly profitable relationship began. Ruth had received around $500 for his pre-Walsh ghostwriting efforts; in 1921 he would receive $15,000. With the Babe as his centerpiece, Walsh went on to build an empire of syndicated sports columns, "written" by everyone from Knute Rockne to John McGraw.

Even more importantly, Walsh became Ruth's financial adviser and put his money into safe investments -- investments that would pay off for Ruth even during the Depression. Financially, it was exactly what the Babe needed.

Spring Training High Times

Even though Ruth was able to sweat off 10 pounds in the baths of Hot Springs, more high times were the order of the day for the 1921 Yankees' spring training in Shreveport, Louisiana. A local car dealer let Babe have free use of a classy car during spring training. The auto had no license plate; its identification was the spare wheel cover brightly emblazoned "Babe Ruth's Essex."

The Essex and its owner had great fun out and about in Shreveport. The rest of the Yankees seemed to be following his lead: long, raucous parties were followed by days of highly successful baseball. The Dodgers and Yankees traveled north together after spring training, playing 14 exhibitions en route. The Yanks emerged victorious nine times.

Several players acquired during the offseason improved the team. Frank "Home Run" Baker was cajoled out of retirement to become a Yank. Waite Hoyt, on his way to an excellent pitching career, and muscular catcher Wally Schang arrived in the same deal from the Red Sox, as the Yankees continued their pillaging of the once-glorious franchise. The Sox seemed hypnotized when they dealt with Colonels Ruppert and Huston.

Perhaps the most significant arrival from Boston was not a player but a suit named Ed Barrow. Barrow, who had been the Red Sox manager when the Ruth-led pitching staff won the Sox the 1918 World Series, was a gruff, tough baseball man with bushy eyebrows and a rugged countenance. The Yankees hired him because his eye for talent was keen; an early signer of Honus Wagner, he was instrumental in the many deals that would make the Yankees legends and the Red Sox impoverished. He helped build the first Yankee farm system.

Starting the Season

As the season started, Ruth was killing the ball. By the middle of June, he had belted 24 homers, including seven in a five-day stretch. In the first 18 days of July he slugged eight more. Keep in mind, these were not cheap shots; local writers gave him credit for hitting the "longest balls ever" in D.C., St. Louis, Detroit, and Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Much to his credit, Babe was demonstrating baseball smarts, too. When infielders played him too deep, he was not averse to a clever bunt for an infield single.

His antics were not confined to the field. Various legal spats caused him grief. He was sued for not paying automobile taxes for his newest car, a Stutz Bearcat. On June 8 he was pulled over for speeding in the Bearcat for the second time that year. The judge fined him $100 (which Babe paid by peeling off a single C-note from the wad of bills in his pocket), but the judge demanded he spend the day in jail; it was a second offense, after all.

Forced to stew in a cell for several hours, Ruth sent for his game uniform and dressed there. When he left for the game, a thousand fans cheered him on, and newspaper and newsreel photographers recorded the event.

While his other excesses have become part of baseball lore, his wildest may have been his driving. The sight of Ruth speeding down Riverside Drive in the most expensive car he could buy was common in New York. He was as reckless behind the wheel as he was anywhere. He was always paying for cars he had rammed or for speeding tickets he had been charged with.

He did not always emerge from these exploits unscathed. Learn about Babe Ruth's injuries during the 1921 World Series on the next page.

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