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Boxing The Great Bambino

In 1925, Babe Ruth’s career was in turmoil. Sick, overweight, and at odds with his manager, the Babe turned to trainer Artie McGovern, who salvaged the baseball player’s life and career—through boxing.

George Herman Ruth Jr—aka Babe Ruth, Bambino, The Sultan of Swat, The King of Crash, The Colossus of Clout, is one of the most famous American baseball players of all time. Born February 6, 1895, Babe Ruth played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball and until 1974, held the league record of most home runs at 714. Ruth was a hard-living athlete with a voracious appetite for the high life. He drank and ate copiously, spending money with abandon on a lifestyle embodied by so many professional athletes today. In his insatiable appetite for a life of exhilaration and vigor, Babe Ruth did everything in excess. And when his health and career was in turmoil, he turned to boxing to restore what would become his legendary life.


Babe Ruth's introduction to baseball took place at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, the reformatory school his parents sent him to when, at merely seven years of age, he had become too much to handle. He had a knack for the game and by 1914, was playing for the Boston Red Sox. Known for his extraordinary skill at hitting long balls, Ruth began setting records for most home runs hit, and then breaking his own record the following year. He was sold to the New York Yankees in 1919 where he became a superstar, and part of one of the greatest baseball teams in sports history.

Yet as early as 1919, Babe Ruth loudly articulated his desire to become a professional boxer. He longed for the excitement of the ring, and it seems, for the prize money afforded to champion fighters. But fight promotors and managers did not see the potential for the Colossus of Crash. Although Ruth's hard-hitter extended from the diamond to the ring, he did not possess strong hands or wrists. Years of slamming bats, throwing pitches and long balls from the center field had left Ruth's joints weak. And his voracious appetite for booze and rich food diminished his health and increased his waistline. At 6'2, Ruth was always a large man, but his weight vacillated frequently. Babe Ruth, one of the best baseball players of all-time, was also a man of excess. News reports bemoaned Ruth's lifestyle, claiming that he ate ten hot dogs in one sitting, or slept with six women in one night. How could young boys look up to such a man? However, he remained America's beloved batter, and the New York World wrote of him, "the whole world loves a bad boy."


He was bombastic, over-the-top in that fast-talking, hard-hitting way that seems particular to Ruth and professional athletes of his ilk. He womanized and caroused and finally, in 1925, five years into his tenure as a New York Yankee, partying caught up to the Babe. At just 30-years-old, Babe Ruth arrived at spring training bloated, sluggish, and flat broke. His teammate Joe Dugan famous reported that the Babe went "day and night, broads and booze." Despite becoming increasingly corpulent and ill, Babe played exceedingly well in spring training, batting .400 and giving the Yankees hope for another successful season ahead. Instead, Babe Ruth famous crashed, and crashed hard, fainting and hitting his head, which led to the false report that he died.

But Babe Ruth was decidedly tougher than that. He had an intestinal abscess, and after surgery and seven weeks spent in the hospital, he returned to his first game of the season on June 1st, a mere week after being released from the hospital. Rumor circulated that his abscess was due to overeating and alcoholism, and one more spurious account claimed it was actually venereal disease. Babe returned to the field, yet continued his old habits of drinking and womanizing that led to his forsaking the team's hotel stays for other digs. His playing suffered and his manager, Miller Huggins, famously fined Ruth the enormous sum of $5,000. Ruth was outraged, complaining to the team owner, Jacob Ruppert, and to the press, but eventually he sucked it up and paid the fine. The Yankee's dismal season and his brief encounter with his own mortality, encouraged the great slugger to make a change. And to do that, he turned to trainer-to-the-stars, Artie McGovern.


Artie McGovern, a former flyweight champion, opened a gym in 1925 that set a precedent for celebrity fitness facilities of the future. McGovern trained Ruth's fellow baseball star, Lou Gehrig, along with boxer Jack Dempsey, golfer Gene Sarazen, and, somewhat bizarrely, composer and conductor of American patriotic marches, John Philip Souza. McGovern, called the "Father of Fitness," approach training with a no-nonsense attitude of a drill sergeant. His clients underwent rigorous training sessions with their diets closely monitored. Excuses were not accepted and quick-fixes were vehemently opposed – McGovern dismissed fad diets and recommended eliminating sugar and other sweets for a balanced diet. McGovern's elite clientele included the muckety-mucks of Wall Street, who flocked to McGovern's gym on 42nd Street or hosted McGovern's trainers in their own homes.

McGovern's workouts consisted of stretching, weight-training, cardio training, such as timed rounds jumping rope or using the rowing machine or treadmill. But McGovern also specialized in training athletes using sport-specific exercises while simultaneously targeting muscles that are not developed through the sport alone. McGovern's training preceded today's 'functional training' obsession, emphasizing a well-rounded approach to gaining strength and flexibility. Because of his extensive fighting sports background, everyone at McGovern's gym, from professional golfers and baseball players to wealthy lawyers and millionaires' wives to a famous opera soprano, trained both boxing and wrestling. He boasted that his trainers had keys to their clients homes in order to let themselves in first thing in the morning and, if necessary, rip the blankets of those titans of finance in order to start their training.

McGovern's inclusion of boxing and wrestling may have been for the purpose of fitness for the majority of his clientele, but the training was not relegated to bag work alone. All of the clients sparred, which sometimes led to bizarre match-ups between athletes, celebrities, and businessmen. A recently auctioned photo shows Babe Ruth wrestling with J.G. Hall, the youngest member of the New York Stock Exchange, and in another, McGovern wrestles and boxes with Opera star Nanette Guilford in 1933. When Ruth arrived, McGovern got one of his biggest clients to date, and he approached the great man with an aggressive plan to rid Ruth of his extra pounds and to moderate his diet and drinking.

Right away, Ruth took the rigorous training seriously, knowing that if he did not improve his health, his career would end. McGovern trained Ruth four hours a day, putting him through a variety of strength-training exercises, but focusing on reducing his weight, which was nearly 260 pounds. He played handball and golf, and sweated next to Souza and other luminaries of New York. When asked if he had found "the fountain of youth," Babe famously replied, "no, I found Art McGovern's gym."

In 1925, professional athletes played their sport, but the vast majority of them did not perform any other type of supplementary training. McGovern's gym catered to some of the best athletes in the world and improved the careers of many. Babe Ruth's successful rehabilitation with McGovern legitimized the idea of training off the field. For the remaining ten years of his career, Ruth trained with McGovern, albeit not always consistently, and continued to include boxing as a large part of his conditioning. When reporters visited the gym to film Ruth and McGovern sparring in 1932, the Babe declared that he deserved a contract for $80,000 that year. "All I want to do is strengthen my legs and limber my muscles. In 1925 at this time I weighted 256. I feel fine and I'm liable to be around for a few more years."

Babe Ruth continued to be a boxing fan for the rest of his life, visiting his friend, Joe Louis, while the great boxer trained for a forthcoming fight in 1937. His personal dream of competing as a heavy weight boxer name came to fruition, but he was able to train the sport he loved while dominating in the sport in which he excelled.