Babe Ruth had emerged in New York in 1920 at just the right time: America was ready for a new type of hero, and baseball was in need of a savior. Now, more than a decade later, the country was going through its greatest internal crisis since the Civil War, and a day at the ballpark was seen more as an escape from hard times than as a frivolous adventure.
The excesses that had made Babe Ruth so endearing a figure during the Roaring Twenties -- his power at bat, his appetite, his gusto for life -- no longer seemed quite as magical. Times were changing, and so was the Babe. Indeed, hard times were on the horizon for Babe Ruth.
Folks had been hardened by the Depression, and photographs from the period show beaten people staring into the camera with eyes that seem at once weary and wise. Many people had lost everything overnight, and the circumstances demanded a new outlook on life and its travails.
Babe's Declining Performance
Even after producing one of the most dramatic moments in a career full of them, Ruth had to know he was nearing the end of the line entering the 1933 season. His "called-shot" home run off Chicago's Charlie Root and another World Series win could not hold off Ruth's advancing age. Babe would later admit in his autobiography that he felt "the old legs were getting tired" as he began his 20th year in the majors.
Babe's 41 homers the previous year had been his lowest since the disastrous 1925 season and broke a string of six straight American League titles in the category. For the first time ever in a season where he played in over 100 games, Ruth failed to lead the league in the statistic that most clearly defined power hitters -- slugging percentage.
Although he had batted .341 (just one point below his career average and fifth in the league), it was his lowest mark in four years. Not since 1925 had he notched fewer RBI or scored less runs. While his totals of 137 and 120 in those respective categories would be considered spectacular for any other player, in his case they signaled a decline.
Babe Ruth's season record of 60 home runs had been threatened for the first time in 1932, but by a player (Jimmie Foxx) other than himself. Young sluggers like Foxx and Ruth's own teammate Lou Gehrig were now grabbing most of the headlines.
After 10 home run titles in 12 seasons, the Babe would never lead the league again. His legs bothered him often, and he was regularly relieved in late innings or the second games of doubleheaders by second-stringers that writers dubbed his "caddies" or "Babe Ruth's legs."
The tide was turning, but there was still time for fun. Ruth followed up the 1932 World Series with a 10-day November hunting trip to North Carolina with friend and concessionaire magnate Frank Stevens. Babe seemed in grand spirits. He brought three guns, a portable phonograph, and his entire record collection on the excursion, leaving Claire in New York with 30 pounds of cakes. (He needed the round tins the baked goods came in to pack his long-playing discs.)
The trip went well. On one Sunday he shot a turkey for his dinner, then washed it down with roast and boiled ham, potatoes, collards, cake, pie, and a few other goodies. When he returned home to shed his added girth with his annual workouts at Artie McGovern's gym -- including some playful sparring with his daughter Julia -- he had no idea what was in store for him.
Babe's Contract Troubles
Still the game's highest-paid player, Ruth was learning he was no longer capable of demanding raises while much of the country stood in bread lines. The irony of New York's convincing four-game Series sweep over the Cubs was that team owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert and general manager Ed Barrow used it as an excuse to further cut Yankees salaries for 1933.
Babe was no exception. Barrow estimated that the lack of both a sixth and seventh Series game at the Stadium had cost the club over $100,000 in refunded tickets. Management was also quick to remind players that the Depression gripping the country showed little sign of subsiding.
Even with the repeal of Prohibition (and increased beer profits for his brewery) just months away, Ruppert was being more frugal than ever. Whereas the season before Ruth's salary had been cut from its two-year high of $80,000 down to $75,000, his new contract called for $50,000 -- a cut of 331/3 percent.
Ruth was livid. Shortly after receiving the contract in January, he called Barrow to say he was sending it back. Ed asked him not to go to the newspapers, but a few days later Babe was voicing his gripes in a meeting with reporters.
"I don't mind telling you and the world that the offer is $50,000," he said. "That's a cut of 25 grand, and that's some wallop. I don't believe Colonel Ruppert ever saw the contract, and I told Barrow that... I expected to receive a cut, but I can't believe Jake would go so far as a third off. I'll never sign for that."
Ruppert had seen and approved the cut (although he never admitted this to reporters), and when he ignored Ruth's lamentations, another battle between the two was underway. "I can see a 10 percent cut or even a 15 percent cut," Babe conceded after having time to calm down. "But $25,000 is no cut, that's an amputation."
Arguing that even in a Depression year he had helped the Yankees turn a profit by packing the Stadium -- where attendance still hovered around one million annually -- Ruth left for the South and some golf dates with his old optimism back. "We'll work this out in Florida. We always do."
Times, though, they were a-changing. Fairly or not, Babe could no longer enter negotiations with Ruppert possessing the bargaining power he had in the past. The owner knew he had hitters the likes of Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and Ben Chapman on the roster, and Ruth was clearly not the dominant player he once had been.
He still could, however, draw headlines, and as Babe waited out his bosses in Florida yet another rumor began circulating. In big, bold type, some papers reported that he was dead -- this time in a plane crash. "Nah, I haven't been in a plane in weeks," a confident Ruth joked. "The worst accident I've had is that Yankees contract."
Ruppert wasn't amused, nor was he budging. After the two started meeting, Ruth eventually offered to come down to $60,000 -- then $55,000. The exhibition season got underway, and Ruppert's only response was a threat of his own to lower the original offer and not take Ruth north with the team if he remained unsigned by March 29. "I cannot possibly sign him for more than $50,000," the colonel said.
Ruppert could, and did, sign Ruth for more -- but the final contract for $52,000 agreed to on March 22, 1933, signified a large step in Babe's decline. The Colonel had granted his fading star a concession, but only a slight one; clearly the power in this tug-of-war now belonged to ownership.
After all, Ruppert pointed out, Ruth was still the best-paid player in the game. Al Simmons, the great center fielder who had led the A's to three consecutive pennants between 1929 and '31, was making less than $40,000.
For perhaps the first time, some fans found it tough to back the Babe up. Although he had blossomed into baseball's greatest star just when the game needed him, his timing now was off. Folks just didn't want to hear complaints from a guy making over 50 grand, especially when their own money was long gone or tied up in a failed bank.
Of course, there were still plenty for whom such circumstances didn't matter in the least. A Salvation Army official asked 1,174 destitute men living in a Manhattan shelter if they could name any Americans who deserved to be making $80,000 (Babe's old salary).
When the votes were counted, Ruth trailed only "any President of the United States." Some of the runners-up in this informal survey included a pretty impressive group, among them the likes of President Roosevelt, Professor Albert Einstein, and William Randolph Hearst.
The 1933 Season
Once the season got underway, Yankees fans had to be wondering if the stocky 38-year-old in right was worth paying at any price. Babe hit just nine homers through May (all but two at home) and was looking appreciably slower in the field. Still, the team now seemed able to win without him; Gehrig and others picked up the slack, and New York took a comfortable lead in the American League race while playing at close to a .700 pace.
When Ruth was named in a shared vote of fans and AL manager Connie Mack to start in the first interleague All-Star game on July 6, many felt it was more a gesture of goodwill than anything else. Ruth's skills had clearly waned even more since the previous season, and his numbers paled in comparison to other sluggers chosen for the game.
But more bad news lay ahead for the Babe. Find out on the next page.
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