Babe Ruth's Life After Baseball
Once Babe Ruth determined that his contract with the Boston Braves held no management potential, he ended his active baseball career and was subsequently released.
Now faced with life after baseball, he did the same things many ex-ballplayers do. He bowled, he hunted (where his great eyes made him a crack shot), and with an average in the high 70s, he pondered a career as a professional golfer.
One thing he did not do much of was go to baseball games. His request for Yankee Stadium passes may or may not have been turned down by general manager Ed Barrow (another tale passed down through the years), but Babe always claimed he was told by one Stadium operator he would have to send in a check for tickets to the 1936 opener at "The House that Ruth Built."
The Babe as Doting Father
Spurned by the game, the domestic life he had been settling into during the last years of his career now became more of a priority. As his daughters grew older, Ruth became a stereotypical overprotective father -- examining their dates and enforcing a midnight curfew.
When Julia was suffering from severe strep throat in 1938 and needed a blood transfusion, Babe hurried home from an exhibition game in Albany to supply what was needed once it was discovered he had the same blood type as his adopted daughter.
Julia recovered soon thereafter, and Babe was there to walk her down the aisle at her wedding three years later. He looked quite dapper in black tails and a top hat.
Living comfortably on the money Claire, Babe's wife, had carefully saved and the new cash still coming in from endorsements, the Ruths maintained the same core group of friends from the old days and had frequent visitors to their Riverside Drive apartment in New York City.
They played cards, hosted parties (including one each year on Babe's birthday), or Claire simply read aloud to her husband -- a habit she had picked up when Ruth was still with the Yankees and didn't want to strain his eyes. He enjoyed beating his mother-in-law at checkers, and if Julia and her friends needed a fourth for bridge, Babe was always accommodating. He never missed an episode of his favorite radio programs -- especially The Lone Ranger and Gangbusters.
Babe the Golfer
Golf was now his main athletic release. He was a very strong player who once beat future U.S. and British amateur champion Dick Chapman in a tournament, but erratic drives and a weak putting game curtailed his dreams of a pro career. He was forever working at his game, however, and trips to the St. Alban's course on Long Island (with a stop at the butcher's along the way for steaks to eat later in the clubhouse) became a regular part of his routine.
It was a seemingly happy time. Babe was a cheerful, humorous golfer, able to poke fun at the shortcomings of his own game and always capable of drawing a crowd. When he participated in a New York charity match with famous athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias and two others, it drew a gallery of 12,000. Play had to be stopped when crowds rushed the fairways each time Ruth prepared to shoot.
It was a comfortable life, but it lacked the adventure and challenge Ruth had previously enjoyed. He would drive by spring training sites on his winter jaunts to Florida and playfully yell, "Hiya, slaves!" to the ballplayers, but in reality he longed to be one of them. He often seemed discontent and depressed in his early years of retirement, and Claire later wrote of the period, "Oh, how I hated baseball and everything in it in those days."
One acknowledgment that he had not been completely cast aside came in 1936, when Ruth was one of the original five inductees into the still-uncompleted National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
A total of 226 sportswriters voted from a list of 10 for those players they felt most deserving the honor, with 170 votes needed for election. The final tally: Ty Cobb 222, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner 215 each, Christy Mathewson 205, and Walter Johnson 189. His archrival Cobb had barely beaten him out, but Ruth still had the distinction of being the youngest of the original inductees.
On one of his rare trips to the ballpark with Claire, Babe drew the usual crowds and autograph hounds for a June 15, 1938, game at Brooklyn. Ruth wasn't the real story that night; the Dodgers-Reds contest was the first major league night game in New York City, and Cincinnati's Johnny Vander Meer chose the occasion to pitch his second consecutive no-hitter.
Dodgers executive Larry MacPhail, however, noticed the attention the Ruths received. He had first thought of signing Babe while with the Reds three years before, and now the thought crossed his mind again. Brooklyn was in a three-way battle for baseball supremacy in New York; maybe Ruth's drawing power could put the Dodgers over the top.
MacPhail approached Babe with a $15,000 contract to serve as first base coach. Once again, Ruth naively saw the offer as a stepping stone to bigger things. The Dodgers were a mediocre ballclub, and manager Burleigh Grimes apparently knew it was his final year. MacPhail had brash veteran shortstop and team captain Leo Durocher (another Ruth nemesis from the Yankees days) in mind as a replacement, and even stated openly that Ruth was not a candidate for the post. Anxious for any chance to be back in the game, Babe took the job anyway.
"Babe Ruth belongs in baseball," MacPhail told the press, but just as in Boston, Babe was not given any major responsibility. His job was simply to be a gate attraction. He was to take batting practice, play in exhibitions, and stand at first base smiling. Looking more well-rounded than ever in his stark white uniform, the 240-pounder handled these "duties" well and had soon won over everyone on the team with his clubhouse banter and storytelling on the bench -- except Durocher.
Attendance improved dramatically, and when he starting shooting balls into the seats during warm-ups, the 43-year-old Ruth began pondering a comeback.
The process of becoming an active player again was as simple as tearing up his coach's contract and signing a new one, but Grimes was against it. "He's 43 and he can't see," said the 45-year-old former 20-game winner. "If he can hit, I can still pitch."
Grimes threw batting practice for the Dodgers himself, but Ruth couldn't even handle his stuff. He warmed up instead with the soft serves of former catcher Merv Shea. Grimes feared Babe might get injured by an inside fastball were he to appear in a real game.
So, Ruth kept on coaching. Grimes obliged MacPhail by going over signs and occasionally his pitching choices with the Babe. The fans couldn't get enough of the big guy. Babe spent an hour or more signing autographs outside Ebbets Field after games and always made sure even the smallest kids in the back row went away happy. When the Dodgers returned to Braves Field, Ruth made a fan for life out of 13-year-old clubhouse boy (and future traveling secretary) Donald Davidson when he asked, "Hey kid, you like to play catch?"
Durocher was not quite as enamored of the big fellow. His old contempt for Ruth -- who had snubbed Leo when he was a cocky rookie with the 1927 Yankees -- surfaced regularly. Ruth never bothered learning the signs Grimes showed him; whether he found it difficult or unnecessary is unknown. He never needed them as a player and didn't intend to start now.
Grimes usually handled such duties for Brooklyn anyway while coaching at third, but one day a young writer erroneously reported that Ruth had given the Dodgers a 1-0 victory by calling for a successful hit-and-run play in the eleventh inning. Grimes (who had called the play himself) yelled at the reporter for the mistake, and Durocher used it as an excuse to taunt Babe in the clubhouse. The two scuffled briefly before Grimes pulled them apart, and Ruth wound up with a mark under his eye.
MacPhail heard about the fight second-hand, and if he had ever given consideration to Ruth as more than a gate attraction, his mind was set now for good. At year's end, he found a way to let him depart with dignity.
There wasn't enough room for both Durocher and him on a seventh place team anyway, and when Durocher was given the manager's job three days after Grimes's October 10 firing, a reporter asked about Ruth's status. "Ruth was never considered by us for the post as manager," said MacPhail. "He could have remained with us as a coach, but he told me that he would not be available."
Once again, Babe Ruth was out of work. The talk of his trouble with signals had clinched it; there would be no more big league chances for the Babe. He was left now to golf, bowl, and hunt; to live comfortably on his own terms; and to occasionally serve as a showpiece for baseball.
Losing Old Friends
Babe Ruth may or may not have "waited by the phone" for a managerial chance to come, but he always held out hope. He was still under 45, but all around him the people and things he had known were changing.
Then, in January 1939, Colonel Jacob Ruppert -- owner of the Yankees -- died. Ruth went to see him in the hospital and was moved when Ruppert whispered, "Babe, Babe" during the visit. It was the first time he hadn't called him "Root" during their long and often tumultuous relationship, and Babe left the dying man's room in tears.
Lou Gehrig was also dying, although for a while nobody knew it. After what was considered a "down" year in 1938 (.295, 29 homers, 114 RBIs), 35-year-old Lou had stumbled through the start of the 1939 season batting .143. A trip to the Mayo Clinic determined that he was barely able to get around on the ball or handle routine grounders at first. He was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare and incurable nerve disease that would later bear his name.
The Feud Folds
Gehrig's consecutive game streak ended at 2,130 when he pulled himself from the lineup on May 2, 1938; he was never to play again. "Lou Gehrig Day" was held at Yankee Stadium on July 4, and a packed house turned out to pay homage to the noble hero. There were plenty of wet eyes during Gehrig's moving speech, which concluded, "I might have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
Ruth, too, was terribly moved by Lou's speech. The Babe went over to shake his old friend's hand but wound up impulsively hugging him instead -- ending the long and petty feud between them. It was the first time Gehrig smiled all day. As they embraced, a tearful Babe couldn't have imagined he would be facing a similar crowd under very similar circumstances less than a decade later.
Gehrig died in June 1941, and that fall Ruth was invited to play himself in Pride of the Yankees -- a film telling the story of Lou's life in baseball. Although he weighed close to 270 pounds and had suffered a pair of mild heart attacks in the past two years, Babe was determined to make a strong and realistic performance. Putting himself on a strenuous diet, he shed over 45 pounds before filming started in early 1942.
His portrayal was so realistic, in fact, it got him in a little trouble. During one scene the Yankees are shown celebrating yet another pennant with some playful wrestling on a train, and when Ruth put his hand through a Pullman car window during the melee, he suffered severe cuts that required stitching.
He also battled pneumonia during the filming and wound up back in the hospital for two weeks. Rumors circulated that he was dying (even doctors claimed he was "fighting for his life"), but he soon recovered and was out playing golf by April.
Ruth's War Effort
Ruth also did more for the World War II effort than bust up his Japanese souvenirs on Pearl Harbor Day. That same summer of 1941, he came up with the idea of teaming with old rival Ty Cobb in a best-of-three golf match -- the proceeds naturally going to war charities.
Playing before large crowds in Boston, on Long Island, and in Detroit, the duo raised plenty of dough as well as their own competitive juices. Cobb eventually won two of the three matches. Babe generated even more revenue with volunteer work on behalf of the Red Cross and bought an additional $100,000 worth of war bonds himself.
In 1943, Giants slugger Mel Ott was the teammate as he and Ruth went on the air with WABC radio in New York, "batting out" $25 and $100 war bonds to fans willing to lay down cash to talk to the greatest home run hitters in American and National League history.
Babe also visited four or five military hospitals a week, and in an act almost impossible to fathom today, appeared onstage at New York movie matinees in the summer of 1943, urging audiences to contribute salvageable material to the war cause.
Of all his acts of kindness during this period, none pleased the Babe more than his 1942 "duel" with Walter Johnson, Washington's great fireballing Hall of Famer who had gone 417-279 in his major league career but just 3-6 in pitching matchups with Ruth.
The two agreed to face each other again (Babe batting this time) between games of an August 23, 1942, doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. While waiting to be announced, the two had a humorous exchange:
"Babe, I just want to ask one thing; don't hit any back to me," Johnson asked.
"Hell, I'll be lucky to hit one at all," Ruth answered with a laugh. "But I'll try to pull 'em down the line."
As 69,000 fans cheered on, the 47-year-old slugger came through twice -- first hitting a line drive into the lower right field stands on his third swing and then connecting on the 20th pitch for a huge smash into the third deck in right; as he rounded the bases and hugged Johnson at home plate, nobody seemed to care that the ball had hooked foul at the last moment.
He appeared in two more charity contests at the Stadium that summer. He would appear in no more formal games. His hair turning gray, Ruth said to one New York writer in the summer of 1944, "It's hell to grow old." Still, he was magic. When Esquire magazine ran a poll to name the greatest living sports personality that year, Ruth outdistanced runner-up Joe Louis 4 to 1.
After yet another hospital stay to remove knee cartilage (which he playfully inspected with a forceps for the benefit of photographers), a stint as a wrestling referee, and a brief fling in Mexico City (being wined and dined by promoters of the doomed Mexican League), Ruth got his futile managerial hopes up a final time following the war.
The Yankees were sold by the Ruppert estate to a syndicate headed by MacPhail. Babe phoned his old friend in the fall of 1946 offering to manage the Yankees or even the Newark farm team -- a job he had proudly turned down as being beneath him a decade before.
MacPhail said he would get back to him, and about a month later a letter came. "They write the bad news and telephone the good," Ruth said to Claire. He was right. Explaining that former Yankees catcher Bill Dickey would be taking the Newark job, MacPhail went on to add: "While I cannot recommend your appointment as manager of the Yankees I believe there is a place in baseball on a basis which should be acceptable to you... There is an important job to be done in the Metropolitan New York area in connection with the promotion and development of sandlot and amateur baseball."
It was a final, powerful message. Ruth loved kids and would do anything for them. When you're inquiring about a major league managerial job, however, being offered a similar post with nine-year-olds is downright insulting.
"Babe walked into the kitchen, numb," Claire later wrote of her husband's latest and last snub. "It was the same kitchen where he had sat before on a chair, head in hands, and wept in fury and frustration. He wept once again."
Babe Ruth's next medical emergency occurred around the same time. Continue to the next section to learn more.
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