Babe Ruth's Illnesses
Babe Ruth spent the post-season of 1924 in usual form: overeating and over-partying. His marriage to Helen was on the rocks. Frail, sensitive, and naive to begin with, she was less and less able to cope with the well-publicized gargantuan habits of her famous baseball player husband. And despite his lifestyle seeming to continue as usual, a series of illnesses lay in store for Babe Ruth.
The 1925 Yankees
When the Yanks obtained pitcher Urban Shocker from St. Louis, manager Miller Huggins confidently announced that the 1925 Yankees were the strongest team he had ever managed. He couldn't have been more wrong.
The team was old. Young Lou Gehrig would begin his career as a Yank that year, Earle Combs was a flashy centerfielder, and Bob Meusel could still hit, but there was little else to admire. Worst of all, they had to begin the season without Babe Ruth.
Ruth had signed a two-year contract extension for the same $52,000 per year of his old contract. He headed for Hot Springs to sweat off the 40 or so extra pounds he was carrying, but it didn't work. Then, in March, a pitch broke the tip of one of Ruth's fingers.
Babe's Big Sickness
When he reached the training camp in St. Petersburg, Florida, he looked awful, and Huggins told him so. Babe replied, inimitably, "I've got a temperature of a hundred and five and eight fifths." The annual battle with flu seemed to be back, only much worse this time.
He was still out of shape when the team began its northward exhibition swing against the Dodgers. After a game in Atlanta, Ruth saw a doctor, who advised against his continuing with the team. His fever really hadn't subsided much, and he was weak.
Typically, Ruth ignored the advice and played the next day in Chattanooga. Despite the cold, rainy weather, and his still-frail condition, he slugged two home runs. They said one of them traveled more than 400 feet. At the time he was hitting .449, even though he had lost 21 pounds because of the illness.
The next leg of the rail trip was to Asheville, North Carolina, a winding, difficult tour through the Smoky Mountains. Ruth wasn't the only one who was feeling poorly. Several other players were nauseated by the twists and turns of the track. When the relieved players disembarked to the solid platform in Asheville, Ruth collapsed. Catcher Steve O'Neill caught the slugger before his head cracked against the marble floor.
Newspapers in the United States reported that the Babe had a case of the "grip," then a common term for influenza. The London Evening News, however, reported his death and presented an obituary which mentioned, among other things, that because of his portliness Ruth chose to wear braces (suspenders) rather than a belt, and "this started the fashion for braces in the U.S."
Babe was sent to New York in the care of Yankee scout Paul Krichell. When their train was late making a connection in Washington, Canadian papers also announced that Ruth had died. Ruth's illness, at first nothing special to sports reporters (he got the flu every spring), soon made front page headlines. The Babe had done it again, they claimed: He had overindulged on pop and hot dogs, and all the bicarb in the world couldn't put him back together. It was dubbed "The Bellyache Heard 'Round the World."
On the train from D.C., Ruth was able to force down a large breakfast, the first decent meal the usually voracious hero had been able to stomach for days. It was too much for his sore gut, however, and he collapsed, vomiting. When he came to, he collapsed again, in the men's room, and hurt his head on the washbasin as he fell.
It was a distressing scene when Ruth and Krichell arrived at Penn Station in New York. One biographer estimates there may have been as many as 25,000 people waiting for them. The stretcher they brought was too large to turn around inside the train, so they had to cut out the side of the train between two windows and make a huge hole to carry the Babe out that way. He had three more frightening convulsive attacks while on the stretcher. It took six men to hold him down.
He met his wife there and could only manage to say,"Helen, I feel rotten," before they loaded him into the ambulance. Three times more during the ride to St. Vincent's Hospital the Babe's large body was thrown into convulsions.
At the hospital, the doctors were sanguine about his situation, claiming it was not serious, just a case of the flu, and that all he needed was rest. However, the next day they performed surgery for what was described as an "intestinal abscess," a brief but highly painful operation requiring two deep incisions. After such a medical procedure, Ruth couldn't return to the Yankees for seven weeks.
Speculation of all kinds has arisen as to what the "true" nature of Ruth's illness was. Of course the familiar children's story that he overdosed on hot dogs is absurd. Whatever it was, the nature of the illness was embarrassing enough that all the newspapermen in the country couldn't get any further clarification than "intestinal abscess." The Big Guy had had a Big Sickness.
Ruth's remarkable recuperative powers demonstrated themselves soon after the operation, but the situation with his wife was worsening. Helen joined Babe in the hospital, and two weeks after his operation checked herself in. She had what was described as a nervous breakdown. There are photos showing Ruth sitting at her side, holding his teary face in his hands as he watched her deterioration. It was the final chapter in their relationship. For all intents and purposes, their marriage was over.
Babe left the hospital late in May and spent several days at the ballpark readying himself before he made his reappearance on June 1. By then the Yankees were already 10 games below .500, lost in seventh place. The day he made his re-entry into the lineup, however, is a day that will live in baseball history for another reason.
Everett Scott, the long-time shortstop, had played himself out of the lineup at age 32, ending his string of 1,307 consecutive games played, a record which pundits of the day (as they always do) predicted would never be broken. Scott's replacement was the hardly memorable Pee Wee Wanninger. The day Ruth returned, Lou Gehrig pinch-hit for Wanninger and began his streak of 2,130 consecutive games.
The team's overall poor play and the lack of the league's number one drawing card, however, cost AL clubs "at least" $200,000 in gate revenues. With his new lease on life, Ruth joined his fellow Yankees in creating new postgame highlights. The two-ended candle was burning brightly, and Ruth complained about his health.
Ruth Clashes with Management
"I might as well be 550 years old," he said late in June. The next day Huggins slapped a $1,000 fine on him for unspecified reasons. (Perhaps the fine had something to do with ongoing curfew violations.) However, when the Babe swatted two homers the next game, Huggins rescinded the fine.
Ruth's health must have caused concern for Huggins. Ruth began to suffer from a series of bothersome, if minor, ailments, including an ankle he injured twice in the space of a week. On August 9, Bobby Veach pinch-hit for Ruth, a first since the Babe had left the pitching mound.
By August 1, no less an authority than Fred Lieb felt that "it is doubtful that Ruth will again be the superstar he was from 1919 through 1924." Lieb's logic sounded solid: Ruth was said to be 31 years old (he was actually 30; both he and the people of the time thought he was a year older; Babe had remembered his birth date incorrectly), but his body had much more wear and tear on it than Eddie Collins and Ty Cobb had at the same age, and they went downhill after that point.
The Huggins-Ruth relationship was always stormy. The Babe loved ragging the diminutive Huggins at every occasion. Babe's favorite nickname for his manager was the hardly complimentary "Little Boy." The tale is told that Ruth once grabbed the manager by the heels and hung him upside down off the back of a moving train, but that smacks a bit of sportswriter mythmaking. However, the situation between the two men came to a sour head late in August.
It seems that Ruth had spent three consecutive nights in St. Louis away from the team's hotel. When Huggins's private eye reported that the Babe had been holding court in a St. Louis bawdy house, the manager could take no more. The team was in trouble, and his leading star (currently batting just .245) was ignoring every rule in the book.
After getting approval from both Jake Ruppert and Ed Barrow, Huggins confronted Babe as he entered the clubhouse on August 29. "Don't bother getting dressed," the manager informed him. "You've been fined $5,000 and suspended indefinitely." In huge disbelief, Ruth spun out of control. He threatened the small man physically and chewed him out in salty language.
The fine, an unheard-of amount, took everyone by surprise. Nobody could remember anyone being fined more than $500 before. At nearly 10 percent of Ruth's salary, today's equivalent would be fining Barry Bonds for half a million dollars. Although Ruppert and Ruth remained friendly during the suspension (they even attended a few games together), Ruppert stood behind his manager.
Ruth sought the highest court of appeal he could think of: Baseball Commissioner Judge Landis. Landis, however, was unavailable.
After a few days, the contrite Babe cooled off, and apologized, and apologized again. Huggins remained adamant throughout all the Babe's efforts. "I've heard that before," the manager said. It was not until nine days after the suspension that Huggins granted permission for the Babe to suit up and play again, on September 7. In retrospect, Ruth admitted he had overstepped the mark. "I was a babe and a boob."
The great Ruth had stumbled as only a man of his immense proportions could -- hugely. He would, however, come back. Those prognosticators who doubted or predicted otherwise were in for a surprise. The "experts" were wrong about Babe Ruth again; he would come back greater than ever.
Get the details of Babe Ruth's comeback on the next page.
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