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Summary Article: Ruth, Babe (1895–1948) from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Babe Ruth was one of America’s most popular and loved baseball players of all time. His outstanding baseball career and flamboyant private life engrossed the American public throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, transforming Ruth into a cultural icon.

Ruth was born George Herman Ehrhardt on February 6, 1895, in Baltimore, Maryland. It remains unclear how he adopted the last name of Ruth. Widely reported to be an orphan, Ruth’s parents were actually poor, working-class people who raised Ruth in difficult conditions. When he was seven, Ruth was sent to board at the Catholic St. Mary’s Industrial School. At school, his large size and athletic ability brought him to the attention of Brother Gilbert, a staff member. Gilbert encouraged Ruth’s interest in sports and eventually wrote to Jack Dunn, manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles baseball team, convincing Dunn to come watch the 18-year-old Ruth play. Dunn was so impressed by Ruth’s pitching ability that he hired him on the spot. When Ruth reported to the Orioles’ clubhouse, the coach stated, “Well, here’s Jack’s newest babe now!” The nickname stuck, and from then on, Ruth was known as “The Babe.” In 1914, Ruth married Helen Woodford, a 16-year-old waitress from Texas.

After only a few months with the Orioles, Ruth was picked up by the major league Boston Red Sox team. He quickly became a star with the Red Sox, excelling at both pitching and hitting. Ruth played pitcher, outfielder, and first base for the team. It was during this period that he developed his skill for hitting, leading the league with 29 home runs in 1919. Highlights from his time with the Red Sox include pitching and winning the longest game in World Series history; the game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1916 lasted 14 innings.

In 1920, Ruth’s contract was picked up by the New York Yankees, and he embarked on a 14-year stint that would make him internationally famous. During his time with the Yankees, Ruth broke dozens of records, consistently leading the league in home runs during the 1920s, as well as remaining a formidable pitcher and fielder. In 1920, he hit not only more home runs than any other single player but also more than any other team. In 1923, he was selected by the American League as most valuable player, and he played on the league’s all-star team from 1926 to 1931 and again during 1933–34. Fans worldwide adored Ruth and relished his obvious delight in playing baseball. The attendance at Yankee Stadium doubled on days when Ruth played, and the public rejoiced at his frequent home runs. Yankee Stadium began to be referred to as “the house that Ruth built” because of the revenue he generated for the ball club. He also became the highest-paid player in baseball history during the 1920s, at one point earning $80,000 a year as his base salary from the Yankees, which was more than the president of the United States earned at the time.

One of the most famous Ruth legends is based on an incident that occurred when the Yankees were playing the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series. The Cubs had the home team advantage, and their fans were obviously hostile to the Yankees, taunting Ruth in particular for most of the game. Ruth hit one home run early in the game, but when he came to bat again, he swung and missed twice—much to the delight of the Chicago fans. Before the third pitch, however, Ruth stepped back from the plate and pointed with the bat to the flagpole at the far end of centerfield, indicating that this would be the spot where he would hit his next home run. To the intense jeering of the fans, Ruth swung at the third pitch and hit a home run exactly where he had said he would.

Ruth’s private life was also a great source of public interest. He was known for his general good humor and gentle disposition, but he was also famous for maintaining an excessive lifestyle. He spent most of his large salary and had an insatiable appetite for gambling, fast cars, food, and women. His wild lifestyle was often featured in newspapers across the country, as was his charitable work for children. His name quickly became a household word in the 1920s, as he endorsed several products and licensed his name and image to multiple companies. He also published several books about his life and baseball, appeared in films and radio programs, and made countless public appearances. Ruth became an American legend within his own lifetime.

In the early 1920s, Ruth and his wife separated. She died a few years later in a fire, leaving their daughter Dorothy in Ruth’s care. Ruth remarried in April 1929 to former Ziegfeld Follies girl Claire Hodgson, who proved to be a remarkably stabilizing influence in Ruth’s life. Claire raised her own daughter, Julia, as well as Dorothy. She also served as an excellent manager for Ruth, encouraging him to save some of his enormous salary and tone down his wild lifestyle.

Ruth initially retired in 1934 after 20 years as a baseball player. In April 1935, he became vice president, assistant manager, and part-time player with the Boston Braves. His time with the Braves was short, however. He left after only three months, citing ill health and disagreements with the management of the club. He briefly coached the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, but he left after realizing that he drew more attention from the fans than the team did. In addition to setting numerous records, Ruth is credited with revitalizing and popularizing baseball, especially after controversy rocked the sport in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, Ruth remained a prominent public figure, lending his name to charitable causes and appearing in domestic United Service Organizations shows for troops during World War II. He died of throat cancer in New York on August 16, 1948.

References and Further Reading
  • Smith, Robert. 1978 Pioneers of Baseball. Little Brown Boston.
  • Smelser, Marshall. 1975 The Life that Ruth Built: A Biography. Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co New York.
  • Trachtenberg, Leo. 1995 The Wonder Team: The True Story of the Incomparable 1927 New York Yankees. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
  • Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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