Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
The greatest service heroes can provide, after becoming heroes in the first place, is failing. A perfect standard is inimitable. We need heroes to astound us so we know that great things are attainable, but we also need them to disappoint us so we understand that no one is perfect, and that our demigods can be as thwarted as anyone else. In 1922, Babe Ruth was thwarted for an entire year. His solution was to lash out. It didn't work. He was less than admirable that season, and while he still comes down to us as an all-American hero, he paid a high price for that year in his lifetime.
The events that brought Ruth to 1922 should be taught in every school: He was born in Baltimore in 1895 to parents who couldn't, or wouldn't, control his petty thievery and repeat truancy; they were cold enough to have their son legally declared "incorrigible or vicious" at the age of seven, and gave him up to St. Mary's Industrial School, where he largely remained until he was 19. The Xaverian Brothers who ran the school taught him sewing and baseball, and he turned out to be very good at the more lucrative of the two trades. Signed as a pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, Ruth was quickly purchased by the Boston Red Sox. Though great on the mound, he hit his way into the outfield and immediately became the game's preeminent slugger, topping himself every year: a league-leading 11 home runs in 1918; then 29 in 1919.
That winter, he was sold to the New York Yankees by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, and with the arrival of the lively ball Ruth set hitting records of which no one had ever dreamed. His .376/.532/.847 with 54 home runs in 1920 is still on the short list of greatest offensive performances in history; those 54 homers were more than any other team in the league hit. Ruth was almost as good the next year, when he hit 59 home runs. The Yankees won their first pennant that season, although they were beaten in the World Series by their Polo Grounds landlords, the New York Giants. It wasn't necessarily reasonable, but still greater feats were projected for 1922.
Throughout his rise, Ruth ate and drank and screwed and cursed and did everything you would expect a kid who had spent his life in a state of enforced discipline to do upon becoming a wealthy celebrity. Imagine Annie, except after singing "Tomorrow" she eats a stack of 17 pancakes, blows all of Daddy Warbucks' money on bathtub gin and prostitutes, and is thrown from her car while driving drunk. Ruth was pretty much like that; it's telling of how much excess he packed into this period that him being thrown from his car while driving drunk somehow blends into the background. For some reason, possibly a hangover from his religious upbringing, Ruth impulsively acquired a wife during this period, too; he cheated on her and ignored her in about equal measure.
As famous as Ruth was, television was still far away and commercial radio was just catching on in 1922. If you wanted to follow the majors you either read about it in the newspaper or, if you were lucky enough to live near one of the 16 teams (very near—there were still a good number of people driving horses, not Fords), you went to the park. Other than the odd bit of newsreel footage before the latest Douglas Fairbanks picture, that was pretty much it. Seeing Babe Ruth was a bit like trying to see Hamilton. If you lived in or had the means to travel to New York or one of seven other ballparks, great. If not, you had to hope the cast stopped off in your town and put on an impromptu performance.
As it happens, that was generally what players did in the fall. Stars like Ruth aside, they weren't paid particularly well, and a "barnstorming" exhibition tour could greatly supplement their incomes. This was what Ruth and some Yankees teammates, including fellow outfield corner-man Bob Meusel, proposed to do after the 1921 World Series. Ruth did this in defiance of a rule the owners had adopted that forbade members of the pennant-winning teams from barnstorming.
The rationale behind the rule was never quite clear; somehow it was thought to distract from the specialness of the World Series if the players could be seen in Poughkeepsie soon after, or perhaps it damaged the brand when a barnstorming team advertised itself as "The World Champion 1920 Cleveland Indians," and rolled out Doc Johnston and Harry Lunte instead of Tris Speaker and Bill Wambsganss. Even the commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, thought the rule unfairly prevented players from making a few extra bucks and refused to endorse it. Still, he said, a rule is a rule:
"I did not write the rule against barnstorming, but I am the enforcement office of that rule and I am a stickler for obedience in such cases. To violate the rule is to challenge the authority of the commissioner… this case resolves itself into the question of who is the biggest man in baseball, the commissioner or the player who makes the most home runs."
Landis asked the players who intended to go on tour to come to a meeting. Ruth stood him up. "If he insists on making this a personal issue with me," Landis said, "then he will find every satisfaction." All the Yankees aside from Ruth, Meusel, and a fringe pitcher named Bill Piercy dropped out. "I am doing this with the full knowledge of what it may mean," Ruth said. "When the bell rings after the World Series, why should I or any other player be kept from earning money?" He said the Yankees owners had offered to pay him not to play on the tour. He refused it. "Why should I receive a gratuity for doing nothing? I do not want money I do not work for. I can earn money and I am doing it…. I will not take it to abandon a principle."
The tour lasted about a week, after which Ruth had second thoughts, quit, and tried to make peace with Landis. He called the Judge at his office in Chicago; Landis hung up on him. After keeping the players waiting into December, Landis announced that Ruth and Meusel would be suspended for the first 40 days of the 1922 season and fined their full World Series share, about $3,500. Ruth's only comment, said either to reporters or the waiters present, was "Lots of potatoes."
Oddly enough, this is where things got bad.
Ruth was allowed to go to spring training with the Yankees, who were working out in New Orleans. Yankees manager Miller Huggins named him team captain as a kind of consolation prize and a guarantee of future responsible behavior. Landis, who seemed to enjoy toying with Ruth, came down to check things out. Reporters were told he would make an announcement. Would he reduce or rescind Ruth's sentence? The reporters crowded in. "Are they all here?" Landis asked. Assured they were, he said, "I have nothing whatever to add to my former statements on the case." Landis then participated in a pregame charity auction benefitting the Salvation Army. He was the winning bidder on a ball signed by the Babe and posed for photos standing between the two outfielders he had banished as "mutinous."
Landis had stipulated that Ruth would not automatically be reinstated when his suspension was up. He'd have to apply. As the May 20 date drew near, reporters asked Landis whether he would reply to Ruth right away. "I'm not going to draw any diagrams for you," he said, drawing out the torture. "There's a telegraph wire from New York to Chicago and another one from Chicago to New York. You've told me about Ruth's plans to use one of them. When I use the other I'll let you know at once."
At about this time, Grantland Rice noted, "Mr. George Herman Ruth, the well-known dilettante, after a prolonged absence, will return home shortly, touching first, second, and third on the way 'round." Alas, it didn't happen that way. The expectation was somehow that Ruth would show up having missed more than a fifth of the season and immediately bash away until he set a new home-run record. He didn't. He scuffled and the team, which had got out to a great start, started losing. After the first week or so, he was himself, hitting .332/.450/.706 over 102 games, but before that he had been three-for-30. Somehow the image of that first week stuck—for the rest of the year, Ruth was pegged as a disappointment.
He lived down to the part. On May 27th, umpire George Hildebrand called him out when he tried to stretch a third-inning single into a double. Ruth threw a clump of dirt at him. The crowd let him have it, particularly some fans sitting behind the home dugout, later identified as a couple of Pullman conductors. Ruth somehow picked out their words and jumped into the stands. The conductors fled ahead of him, climbing over rows of seats to get away. Ruth stood on the dugout roof and dared the entire park to take him on. No one was brave enough.
"They can boo and hoot me all they want," Ruth said afterward. "That doesn't matter to me. But when a fan calls insulting names from the grandstand and becomes abusive, I don't intend to stand for it…. I don't see why I should get any punishment at all. I would go into the stands again if I had to."
Ban Johnson suspended Ruth for a day, fined him $200, and stripped him of his captaincy, which is still listed in the annual Yankees Media Guide as having lasted six days. Johnson tried to make excuses for him, though they were of the backhanded variety; he pointed out that after his long suspension Ruth was perhaps a bit rusty, and as a result, "the hero of a year ago was 'ridden' by the fans and at times sharply abused. Ruth plainly did not possess the mental strength and stability to brave this sudden reversal of public adoration…. For days he has been nervous and irritable."
Ruth said that Johnson had been fair. "I was angry, not with the umpire, but with the New York fans, who haven't given me a square deal since I returned and I foolishly tried to take it out on Hildebrand," he said. "If I wasn't doing my best their continual razzing wouldn't bother me, but I am."
On June 19th, Ruth came all the way in from left field to argue a call at second base with umpire Bill Dinneen. Ruth wasn't involved in the play, in which Dineen ruled that a runner had beaten a Meusel throw to second. Ruth, the umpire said in his report to the league, had called him "one of the vilest of names." This brought on his third suspension of the season. The next day, Ruth again confronted the umpire during batting practice, threatening, "If you ever put me out of a game again, I'll fix you so you will never umpire again, even if they put me out of baseball for life." Only the intervention of several Cleveland Indians players prevented the two from coming to blows.
What had been a two-day suspension became a five-day suspension without pay; the forfeited amount was about $1,500. This time, Johnson was more direct. The Yankees were on an eight-game losing streak, he noted, "but with Ruth out of the game perhaps they'll turn around and win a few now." Privately, he told Ruth, "It seems the period has arrived when you should allow some intelligence to creep into a mind that has plainly been warped."
"When a fellow is down and out [the punishment] seems to be a case of holding him down," Ruth said. Still, he added, "You can bet it's the last time I ever will be suspended for wrangling with an umpire. In the future I will keep out of the arguments, especially if they involve another player…. I really don't need the money, [but] I want to be in there every minute because I love to play baseball." On August 30th, Ruth was put out of the game after arguing a called third strike with umpire Tommy Connolly. Johnson suspended him for another three games. That was Ruth's fourth suspension of the season.
The Yankees edged the St. Louis Browns for the pennant and played the Giants in the World Series for the second straight year. The Giants beat them again, and Ruth, battling injuries and John McGraw's strategy of having pitchers feed him nothing but off-speed stuff in the dirt, hit .118. This was the nadir of an American institution's popularity: Washington, Lincoln, Ruth—they all had moments when it was not at all obvious they would go down as anything but reviled losers.
In November, Ruth's press agent arranged to hold a private dinner for the New York baseball writers so he could get a little positive coverage. He admitted he had had a rough year:
"Listen, boys. I know I didn't knock as many home runs as people expected last season nor as many as I expected myself. Maybe it was my own fault. I'm not going to fight with anyone who looks at it that way. I'm only going to say this… I'm going to try to keep my head up and my stomach down, and I'm not kiddin' anybody when I say it, either. I'm going to work hard all winter. I'll be back next spring in the best shape I can and I'm going to swing at that old ball from the heels up every time it comes within reach. If I hit them you can do the counting. If I don't, it won't be for lack of trying."
He also promised that he had had his last drink until the next October. He opened the floor to questions. State senator Jimmy Walker, soon to be the highly controversial mayor of New York, stood up. "Babe," he said, "a kid just stopped me on the street and asked me for a dime. He wanted to make up a quarter and buy a Babe Ruth cap. Don't you think you owe something to that kid and others like him?" He implored Ruth to keep "those dirty-faced kids" in mind. "Are you going to keep on letting those little kids down?"
Ruth wept openly.
And Ruth was, if not perfect from then on, vastly improved. With the exception of 1925, when a still-mysterious illness sidelined him for 56 games and cut his production, Ruth was the star everyone expected him to be until age caught up to him in the early 1930s. Still, you pay a price. Ruth wanted to manage, because baseball really was his whole life. He didn't get to. The cliché, repeated everywhere, was that "Ruth couldn't manage himself, so why would you trust him to manage anyone else?" It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it stuck, just as surely as the memories of his 1922 did. It takes a great man to show us how to lose that badly.
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