Wednesday, April 27, 2016

America's Game: The Bambino

America's Game: The Bambino

Baseball began as an informal game of rounders, and gained popularity during the Civil War era. By the turn of the 20th century, the game had become more organized, with official leagues and teams forming. However, baseball as we remember it now really began in the 1920s when Babe Ruth came to the plate.

George Herman Ruth Jr. on February 6, 1895, in Baltimore, Maryland, and was raised in a poor waterfront neighborhood in Baltimore, A troublemaker as a child, his parents decided 7-year-old Ruth needed more discipline than they could give him. They sent him to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a Catholic orphanage and reformatory that became Ruth's home for the next 12 years. Ruth particularly looked up to a monk named Brother Matthias, who became a father figure to the young Ruth. Mathias introduced Ruth to baseball, a game at which the boy began to excel.

Babe Ruth at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, Maryland - 1913
Babe Ruth (top row, center) at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, Maryland - 1913
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

By the time he was 15, Ruth had shown exceptional skill both as a strong hitter and pitcher. It was his pitching that initially caught the attention of Jack Dunn, the owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. At the time, the Orioles groomed players for the Boston Red Sox, and Dunn saw promise in Ruth's athletic performance. Only 19, the law at the time stated that Ruth had to have a legal guardian sign his baseball contract for him to play professionally. As a result, Dunn became Ruth's legal guardian, leading teammates to jokingly call Ruth "Dunn's new babe." The joke stuck, and Ruth quickly earned the nickname "Babe" Ruth.

Babe Ruth, publicity photo, 1919, Boston Red Sox
Babe Ruth, publicity photo, 1919, Boston Red Sox
By National Photo Company [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Ruth was only with the club for a short time before he was called up to the majors in Boston. The left-handed pitcher proved immediately to be a valuable member of the team. Over the next five years, Ruth led the Red Sox to three championships, including the 1916 title which saw him pitch a still-record 13 scoreless innings in one game. With its titles and "the Babe," Boston was clearly the class act of the major leagues. All that would change in 1919, however, with a single stroke of a pen. Faced with financial hardships, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee needed cash to pay off his debts. He found help in the New York Yankees, which agreed in December of 1919 to buy the rights to Ruth for the then-impressive sum of $100,000.

The deal came to shape both franchises in unforeseen ways. For Boston, Ruth's departure spelled the end of the team's winning streak. It wouldn't be until 2004 that the club would win another World Series, a championship drought that later sportswriters dubbed "The Curse of the Bambino." For the New York Yankees, it was a different matter. With Ruth leading the way, New York turned into a dominant force, winning four World Series titles over the next 15 seasons and racking up home runs. Ruth, who became a full-time outfielder, was at the heart of all the success, unleashing a level of power that had never been seen before in the game.

Yankee Stadium, New York, main entrance
Yankee Stadium, New York, main entrancePublic Domain, via Wikipedia Commons 
In 1919, while with the Red Sox, Ruth set a single-season home run record of 29. This turned out to be just the beginning of a series of record-breaking performances by Ruth. In 1920, his first year in New York, he knocked 54 home runs. In his second season, he broke his record by hitting 59 home runs and, in less than ten seasons, Ruth had made his mark as baseball's all-time home run leader. However, the athlete seemed determined to continue breaking his own records. In 1927, he outdid himself again by hitting 60 home runs in a season's time—a record that stood for 34 years. By this time, his presence was so great in New York that the new Yankee Stadium (built in 1923)
became known as "the house that Ruth built." Over the course of his career, Ruth went on to break baseball's most important slugging records, including most years leading a league in home runs (12); most total bases in a season (457), and highest slugging percentage for a season (.847). He hit 714 home runs in his career, a mark that stood until 1974 when Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves surpassed him. Ruth's success on the field was matched by conduct that catered perfectly to a pre-Depression America hungry for a fast lifestyle. Rumors of his conspicuous appetite for food, alcohol, and women, as well as his tendency toward extravagant spending and high living, were as legendary as his exploits at the plate. This reputation, whether true or imagined, hurt Ruth's chances of becoming a team manager in later life. Ball clubs, wary of his lifestyle, didn't want to take a chance on the seemingly irresponsible Ruth. In 1935, he was lured back to Boston to play for the Braves and the opportunity, so he thought, to manage the club the following season. The job never materialized. On May 25, 1935, an overweight and seemingly diminished Babe Ruth reminded fans of his greatness one last time when hit three home runs in a single game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The following week, Ruth officially retired. He was one of the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.

Babe Ruth Hall of Fame Plaque
Babe Ruth Hall of Fame Plaque
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While he eventually earned the title of coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, Ruth never achieved his goal of managing a major league team. Known throughout his life as a generous man, he gave much of his time in his last years to charitable events instead. On June 13, 1948, he made one final appearance at Yankee Stadium to celebrate the building's 25th anniversary. Sick with cancer, Ruth had become a shadow of his former, gregarious self. Two months later, on August 16, 1948, Babe Ruth died, leaving much of his estate to the Babe Ruth Foundation for underprivileged children.

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