Babe Ruth's Bad News
Defying logic and the numbers once again, in 1933 Babe Ruth delighted the 49,200 spectators on hand at Chicago's Comiskey Park for the first midsummer classic: The All-Star Game.
The American League held a 1-0 lead when Ruth came to bat in the third inning with Detroit's Charley Gehringer on base. The Bambino promptly stroked a two-run homer off Bill Hallahan -- the first home run in All-Star history. He singled later in the contest, and when Cincinnati's Chick Hafey hit a liner to right in the eighth, Babe made a great running catch to snuff out the final National League rally. The AL claimed a 4-2 victory, with Ruth's hit the game-winner.
Obviously the old man wasn't quite through yet, although a series of bad news was yet to come for Ruth. Babe added eight home runs in July -- including three in a doubleheader at Detroit -- but now it was the team around him that was slumping. The Senators passed the Yanks to take over first on June 24, and after a brief New York rally, Washington was back in front for good.
Salvaging the 1933 Season
The pitching-thin pinstripers no longer seemed so imposing to rivals, and Ruth faded in the summer heat with just three August homers. On the third of that month came a moment that perhaps more than any other symbolized the change taking place; when Lefty Grove of the A's shut the Yankees out that afternoon, it marked the first time in 309 games the Yanks had failed to score at least one run in a contest.
New York wound up in second place with a 91-59 record, seven behind the Senators and a 16-game drop off from the previous season. The year's last game against the Red Sox meant nothing, but for many fans at the Stadium it was probably the most entertaining of the season.
Babe was given the start versus Boston, his first pitching assignment since 1930 and only his second in 12 years. General manager Ed Barrow played up the contest as a fitting climax to Ruth's 20th season -- what better way to end it than facing the team for whom he had starred as a pitcher? Some 25,000 fans were on hand to watch.
True to old form, baseball's former No. 1 lefty had a 6-0 lead through five innings, thanks in part to his own home run in the fourth. Joe McCarthy asked if he wanted to come out, but Ruth the pitcher had never been one to leave games early. Boston reached him for five singles (four in a row) and four runs in the sixth.
Gulping water for strength between each inning, Babe held on for a 6-5 complete-game victory. He had allowed 12 hits (including 11 singles) and developed a stiff and painful arm he couldn't lift for a week, but he had finished what he started. Ruth left the Stadium to polite applause from thousands of fans who had stayed behind. He would never pitch in the majors again.
Since the AL pennant race was basically decided by early September, individual performances like this garnered most of the Yankees spotlight. The most notable of all was turned in by Lou Gehrig, who in August broke Everett Scott's major league mark by playing in his 1,308th consecutive game. The Iron Man had the new record up to 1,350 by season's end and finished with a .352 batting average, including 41 doubles, 32 homers, and 139 RBIs. The numbers again placed him high among the league leaders (he led everybody with 138 runs scored), and for the first time in his career he actually outslugged Ruth (.605 to .582).
Babe Ruth's Fading Glory
The Babe was definitely entering the twilight of his career. His 34 homers were two more than his teammate and second in baseball behind AL leader Jimmie Foxx's 48, but the total marked Ruth's first time under 40 since the less-than-stellar "bellyache" season of 1925. A .301 batting average, 103 RBIs, and 97 runs were very respectable figures for almost anyone else, but next to the Babe's name they seemed out of place (just as Gehrig's fine 1938 statistics would seem once the effects of the disease that killed him began to set in).
Slow and lumbering in the field, Ruth had become a defensive liability; only three of 24 regular outfielders in the American League made fewer putouts than he did, and only eight regulars made fewer errors.
Things had really changed for the Babe. He was no longer the best slugger in the game, and he wasn't even the best on his team anymore; that distinction now clearly belonged to first baseman Gehrig. Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx had become the game's elite power hitters, and by capturing the AL batting, homer, and RBI crowns, Foxx achieved a distinction that had always eluded Ruth -- the Triple Crown.
When the Baseball Writers' Association of America continued its three-year-old tradition of naming a Most Valuable Player following the season, the honor went to Foxx for the second consecutive time, with Gehrig finishing fourth. Babe did not receive a single vote.
Ruth had often speculated openly that he would retire following his 20th season, and this certainly seemed like a good time to get out. His skills were reduced but still somewhat respectable. New York had slipped a bit as a team, and more changes would likely be needed before another pennant would fly over Yankee Stadium. He could leave now with his head held high -- and nearly 400 more home runs than anyone else in history.
There were, however, some things Ruth still yearned to achieve in the game. He had already accomplished his long-stated goals of playing for 20 years and in 10 World Series, but he still wanted both to hit 700 home runs (he was 14 short) and take over as Yankees manager. The homers would undoubtedly come were he to hang in another year, but the second wish was another story.
Ruth's Quest to Manage
Other stars had made the transition to managing successfully, including many with no minor-league apprenticeship. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Cronin had all been offered the post while still active players, and by 1933 this had become somewhat of a trend: Five of 16 big league clubs employed player-managers. Ruth wanted the same chance, but Yankee bosses -- especially Ed Barrow -- didn't believe he was the right person to handle such responsibility.
On the surface this doesn't make sense. After he had achieved greatness as both a pitcher and hitter, it could be argued that Ruth was more qualified than anyone to lead a team. Over the course of his career thus far (two decades of playing), he had encountered just about every situation he was likely to face as manager.
Possibly just as important, his off-field escapades had declined steadily under the watchful eye of his second wife, Claire. Yet those same qualities that had endeared him to fans and teammates over the years -- his color, enthusiasm, and lack of regard for convention -- seemed now to be working against him.
He couldn't remember signs, it was true -- but what player had ever hit better with or without them? He still enjoyed his food, drink, and fun on occasion but had a reputation for the most part as a hard-nosed player who knew how to win. Even at his heftiest he had been the best slugger around, and he was slipping now because of age -- not accumulated poundage.
It was often said by reporters and other players that Ruth never made a base-running mistake or threw to the wrong man once in his long career. Even if this was an exaggeration, nobody could deny his knowledge of the game.
It all seemed to add up to managerial timber, but Barrow felt otherwise. Maybe he was just sick of all the heartaches and salary squabbles Ruth had given him and Colonel Jacob Ruppert over the years, but Barrow felt no loyalty whatsoever when it came time to reward Babe for making himself and many others in the organization wealthy.
"At no time during the years he was with the club, from 1920 to 1934, was Ruth ever considered a candidate for manager of the Yankees," Barrow said in his autobiography published after Babe's death.
Never knowing he had no shot at the job, Ruth had first envisioned becoming manager when Miller Huggins died. The position was given instead to former New York pitcher Bob Shawkey -- Barrow's fourth choice -- who finished third his one season (1930) before being fired. Once again Ruth thought his chance was at hand, but when the Cubs released 1929 pennant-winning skipper Joe McCarthy, the Yanks quickly snatched him up.
McCarthy signed a new three-year contract in 1933, and false rumors began circulating that Babe would get the post when it ran out. The naive, trusting Ruth believed them; it seemed he was determined to stay on as an active Yankee player until he got his due.
If anything, his desire to stay in the Bronx probably cost Babe a chance at other managerial openings. Still floundering in the second division, the Red Sox had gone through five managers in six years and were desperately looking for ways to improve both their fortunes and dismal attendance. Bringing back the most popular player in team history would almost guarantee at least the latter, and with this in mind Ruth was supposedly offered the Boston job in 1932.
Babe refused, due to his high standing with the Yankees (en route to a pennant at the time). When 33-year-old multi-millionaire Tom Yawkey bought the Sox a year later, he too apparently wanted Ruth. Just like Barrow, however, Boston general manager Eddie Collins had reservations about the choice. Collins talked Yawkey out of making an offer, and the Sox wound up going with former Senators pilot Bucky Harris.
Another chance for the Babe to manage arose when Tigers owner Frank Navin discussed a deal for Ruth with Barrow at the 1933 World Series. Barrow was anxious to get rid of the aging slugger and urged Babe to meet with Navin and finalize things as soon as possible.
At the time, Ruth was about to leave with his family on a long-awaited trip to Hawaii, where he was slated to play in a series of exhibition games. It was a tight schedule -- the ship and game reservations were already set -- so Babe called Navin and said he would meet him after he returned. It was still nearly five months until spring training, and Ruth figured there would be plenty of time to work things out.
A frustrated Barrow warned Ruth he was making a mistake, but Babe departed for the islands ready for fun and confident of his future. Navin didn't appreciate his action and regarded it as a snub. When Connie Mack began breaking up his latest great Athletics team shortly thereafter, the Tiger owner snatched up Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane as his new player-manager.
Ruth returned from Hawaii, called Navin, and was politely told the position had now been filled. Detroit would win the pennant the next two seasons under Cochrane, topped off by a world championship in 1935.
"I pulled one of the great boners of my career," Babe admitted in his autobiography. "I don't know if I could have done as well as Mickey, but I would have had pretty much the same material... I can't help but wonder whether those pennants would have gone to me instead of Mickey if I had run out on the first part of my Hawaiian contract."
Barrow had an offer of his own waiting after Babe got the bad news from Navin. Ruth could manage the top Yankees farm club in Newark, New Jersey, thereby getting the experience he needed to handle a big league post. Barrow figured Ruth would jump at the chance, assuming it to be a stepping stone to the Yankees job Barrow never intended to give him. To sweeten the deal, an incentive was even thrown in where a driver would pick Babe up each day from his Riverside Drive apartment and take him to work. Ruth rejected the offer.
"I'm a big leaguer," Babe said, not impressed when Barrow pointed out that Shawkey had also gotten his start at Newark. "Why should I have to go down to the minors first? Cobb and Speaker didn't. Why do I have to? How about that kid in Washington [Cronin, who had become player-manager of the Senators the year before at age 26]? Did he have more experience than me?"
Barrow's response is unknown, but apparently Ruth was still inclined to stick around. He was sent a $25,000 contract for the 1934 season (less than half his 1933 pay), and Barrow made sure to release the figures to the press before Babe even knew them. When Ruppert and Ruth met at the brewery for the signing -- there was no holdout this time -- the colonel announced to reporters he was "accommodating" Babe's request for a $35,000 salary. The Yanks were probably willing to offer the higher amount all along, but when explained this way, the deal left Ruppert looking like a good sport.
"The management of the Yankees was not discussed," the colonel said of the negotiations. "McCarthy is still our manager and will remain so for the next two seasons. I have no plans beyond that."
Once more there was talk of a managerial spot for Ruth with another club -- this time in Cincinnati, where future Yankee executive Larry MacPhail was in charge -- but again nothing came of it. Babe would remain in New York at least one more year.
Ruth's salary had been cut $45,000 in three years, but he was still the highest-paid player in the majors. Cochrane was getting $30,000 for his duel duties in Detroit, and Chuck Klein of the Phillies was baseball's only other $30,000 man. Even Lou Gehrig was making just $23,000 for the second straight year, with no cut from Ruppert as his only reward for an outstanding season. All things considered, though, Lou was making about half Ruth's salary but was now twice the ballplayer.
Passing the Torch
The previous two years had hinted at it, but the 1934 season truly signified a passing of greatness at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig had the finest year of his career -- winning a Triple Crown of his own with a .363 batting average, 49 homers, and 165 RBIs while stretching his record playing streak to 1,504 straight games.
Despite these fantastic numbers and a great performance from pitcher Lefty Gomez (a league-best 26 wins and 2.33 ERA), the Yankees finished second again, with their 94-60 record seven games behind Cochrane's Tigers. Looking for the main cause, fans had to search no further than the man preceding Gehrig in the batting order.
Ruth's demise had accelerated, and his .288 batting average ranked him just fourth among Yankee regulars. In a year when 10 major leaguers hit 25 or more home runs, he managed just 22. There were 19 hitters with over 100 RBIs, but Babe finished with 84 -- only the second time he had ever played 100 games and not topped the century mark.
The power style he had seemingly singlehandedly ushered in was now in full force, but he was no longer a significant part of it. He rarely finished games and missed 29 contests completely (including several in May with a bad back). He hit just five homers after July 31. His legs almost completely gone, he was of little help in the field and sluggish on the basepaths.
When the Associated Press named its All-Star team following the season, Ruth did not receive a single vote. He was also shut out of the MVP balloting for the second consecutive year. Before the season was over, he was drawing boos at Yankee Stadium. Watching this last event unfold, one reporter wrote respectfully, "Tear down Faneuil Hall. Rip up the Constitution. They hooted Babe Ruth yesterday."
After establishing more records than any other hitter over his 15-plus seasons as an outfielder, the only significant mark Ruth helped set in 1934 was as the first of Giants screwballer Carl Hubbell's record five straight strikeout victims in the All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds on July 10.
For the others (Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Cronin) the event was just a brief failure in the midst of great careers; in Ruth's case it seems, in retrospect, to symbolize how far he had fallen. Had the event occurred a few years earlier, Babe would undoubtedly have been the fifth batter, taken two strikes on purpose -- counting them out on his fingers for effect -- then swatted a shot into the upper deck.
He became increasingly discouraged as the season progressed, both with his waning skills and the daily reminder in the dugout that McCarthy held the job he felt should be his. Then 10 days following the All-Star game, he was running to second base when a ground ball by Gehrig hit him on his right shin. He fell quickly to the ground, and while waiting for an ambulance in the clubhouse, he lamented not having taken the day off.
Although Major League management continued to elude him, Babe Ruth would hit the 700 home run mark before the end of the 1934 baseball season. Get the details in the next section.
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