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Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball's Campaign Against Its Biggest Star (Sports and American Culture) Kindle Edition
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Wehrle begins with an overview of the problems plaguing baseball in the late 1800s and early 1900s, ranging from the prevalence of gambling, even at the ballpark, to rowdyism, both on the field and in the stands—players on players, players on fans, and fans on fans. Chaos and disorder pervaded the entire sport. This was not a game that attracted middle class clientele or women. By the early 1900s, a group of reformers emerged that wanted to clean up the game and create a healthy, profitable, and orderly institution. Among the reformers mentioned are Ban Johnson, American League president; John K. Tener, National League president; Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees; Ed Barrow, who worked first for the Boston Red Sox and then the Yankees; and later, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball commissioner.
Babe Ruth’s popularity and slugging ability aided these men in overcoming the Black Sox scandal and making baseball extremely profitable. However, Ruth was also a threat to the game. He challenged authority, especially at contract time, and spoke about players’ rights. He rebelled against authority, the very hierarchy that the reformers wanted to construct. Also, what would happen if the game’s biggest star jumped to a rival league? On the other hand, Ruth brought fans to ballpark wherever he played, and attendance brought in huge amounts of revenue for the owners. Nevertheless, Wehrle asserts, “The brazenly outspoken star threatened the order in the sport as much as he drove its popularity and profitability.” (224)
Thus, Ruth was exploited, while at the same time, the establishment sought to break or humble him. When he defied the rule that prohibited players from World Series teams barnstorming after the season, a rule that had been violated several times with impunity, Landis forbade Ruth’s participation. At first, Ruth planned to defy the commissioner and proceed with the tour, but Yankee officials talked him out of it. Nevertheless, the commissioner forfeited Ruth’s World Series share and suspended him for the first 39 games the following season. Even an apology from the Yankee slugger failed to move Landis to lessen the punishment.
At the beginning of the 1925 season, Ruth developed an intestinal problem that led to hospitalization and an operation. Needless to say, the Yankees collapsed that year, falling to 7th place. Management blamed Ruth for the team’s failure, exonerating the manager and leadership. The front office pointed to Ruth’s overeating as the cause of his physical problem, which further demonstrated a lack of moderation and self-discipline. Barrow even privately suggested to a reporter that Ruth had contracted a venereal disease. This episode served to humble Ruth, tear down the “superman” star. The same thing happened when Huggins fined Ruth $5,000 and suspended him for violating team rules; Ruppert and Barrow supported the manager against their star. In the end, Ruth had to publicly apologize to Huggins—an apology to Ruppert proved insufficient—which the Bambino did. This humiliation demonstrated who was boss on the Yankees as well as established that one player was not above the game.
Later in his career, Ruth abided by the power structure, worked out in the off-season to stay in shape, and lived a less-rambunctious life in the hope that he could manage the Yankees or some other major league team. This was not to be. Ruppert, Barrow, and others had made Ruth look-like an uncontrollable kid in a candy store. How could such a person manage other players when he failed to control himself. These executives were aided in their disparaging of Ruth by the sports’ reporters, whose travel expenses were covered by the various teams. These writers portrayed Yankee slugger as “the talented, alluring, overgrown, adolescent who never grew up.” (185)
All the stories about gambling, outbursts of temper against umpires and occasionally boozing and womanizing, many of them exaggerated according to Wherle, would be used against him. Once Ruth was out of the game, his huge salary would be gone, a salary that had driven up the pay of other players, and payrolls across both leagues could now be slashed. (It was not until 1949 that another player made $80,000 a year.) Once his usefulness at the box office expired, the author argues, Ruth was driven out of baseball. The New York club did not give him a day until he had contracted cancer. In the end, “Babe Ruth forged modern professional baseball, but the business of baseball, in return, broke the man.” (233)
This is a well-written, well-argued revision of Ruth’s life and career that will intrigue baseball fans. It demonstrates a darker side of the game, one in which ownership demanded complete control of the players through the reserve clause (a slave-like system), and anyone who questioned the player’s inability to shop his talents to the highest bidder was a threat to the system. Baseball perceived Ruth as such a man. If one wants to read about a season-by-season approach to Ruth’s career, this book is not for you, but if you want an insight into baseball in the early 20th century, a look at the complex employer-worker relationship, and Ruth’s impact on the game, this is a must read.