George Herman Ruth

Originally published in Sport and American Culture (ABC-CLIO), edited by Joyce Duncan, 2004.

George “Babe” Ruth Jr., baseball’s best-known player, transformed both his sport and the contours of professional athletics at the dawn of U.S. mass culture. “I was a bad kid,” Ruth once remarked of his childhood in Baltimore, Maryland (Ruth 1948, 1). Ruth, born to working-class parents of German origin in 1895, spent much of his early childhood in his father’s Baltimore saloon. The impish youngster was also frequently found wandering about the city’s streets and piers in search of mischief. Thus, when he turned seven, his parents, unable to keep him in school, had him labeled as “incorrigible” by city authorities, and he was sent to the nearby St. Mary’s Industrial School.

Although Ruth briefly considered the priesthood and although the teachers at St. Mary’s tried to train him as a shirt maker, his obvious talent for baseball altered those plans. As a teenager, the left-hander emerged as something of a local sensation. In 914, his amateur pitching exploits attracted the attention of Jack Dunn, a scout for the Independent League’s Baltimore Orioles. In fact, only sixteen days after Dunn’s visit to ST. Mary’s, Ruth was on a train to Fayetteville, North Carolina, the site of the Orioles’ training camp.

One of the youngest recruits at Fayetteville, Ruth earned the nickname “Babe” and a reputation for off-field misbehavior. Both the nickname and the reputation lasted, but his playing days for the financially unstable Orioles did not. In July 1914, he was sold to the powerful Boston Red Sox, for whom he amassed an impressive pitching record, throwing nearly thirty consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series of 1916 and 1918.

By 199, however, Ruth’s hitting prowess was earning even greater praise than his work on the pitching mound, and Red Sox manager Ed Barrow moved his young star permanently to the outfield. But it was Ruth’s home-run hitting that eventually secured his privileged place in sport lore. Standing four inches taller than the average major leaguer, he shocked the baseball world by smashing twenty-nine home runs during the 1919 season. The next year, after the New York Yankees had purchased his contract for a total amount in excess of $400,000, he hit fifty-four home runs, nearly three times as many as his closest competitor.

His rank as the most sensational sport attraction in the United States was assured, and the “Sultan of Swat,” with his corkscrew swing, went on to hit 714 career homers, including an astounding sixty in 1927. His reputation drew so many fans that the Yankees could finally build a stadium in 1923; in fact, Yankee Stadium has long been known as “the House That Ruth Built.” Ruth eventually played in ten World Series, claimed more than seventy batting and pitching records, and was among the first five inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.

During World War II, after his retirement from the diamond, the Babe gave radio talks and made public appearances in hospitals and orphanages as well as serving as a spokesperson for U.S. war bonds. In 1946, he was found to have throat cancer, but two years later, he attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of Yankee Stadium. He died in 1948.

Statistics and biography fail to convey the full measure of Ruth’s impact. Baseball before Ruth was a pitcher’s game. The 1880s and 1890s celebrated home-run baseball, but the new century emphasized a more deliberate strategy of play. Teams used a heavy, “dead” ball that was difficult to hit, no less because pitchers were permitted to doctor it. The well-placed single, mastered by stars like Ty Cobb, was extremely valuable, and managers were lauded for their ability to elaborate on complex game plans. In this contest of wits, one-handed grabs were considered unnecessary and spectacular.

So too were home runs: The league leader in home runs in 1915 swatted only seven—mostly by accident. Ruth’s “tremendous wallops” thus augured a new, sensational style of play. To the delight of fans—and with the help of a livelier ball—batters followed the Babe’s example and aimed for the bleachers. “Baseball, the past few seasons,” wrote a popular magazine in 1924, “has been transformed from a scientific pastime to a contest of brute strength.” (Smelser 1975, 299).

Furthermore, in this age of cultural heroes, baseball established itself as a professional, profitable industry. Owners, viewing their franchises as commodities, invented a salable tradition for the game, while prominent players like Ruth began to hire agents to market their “personalities.” Technical innovations like the newsreel and the radio, as well as increased newspaper coverage, were prerequisites for these developments. Those who objected to baseball’s reorientation blamed the Babe’s slugging revolution. Progressives and purists, who viewed sport as a means for self-improvement and an agent of moral rectitude, lamented that the home run burdened the game with empty showmanship.

Nonetheless, the public approved. The advent of mass transit and growing leisure time for urban workers—along with Ruth’s thrilling performances—led to skyrocketing attendance figures. Although episodes like the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal threatened the game’s newfound cultural authority, Ruth’s iconic status helped make the 1920s the golden age of baseball in the United States.