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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Selling of the Babe

The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend

Glenn Stout

Thomas Dunne Books



Babe Ruth is arguably the biggest figure in baseball history, the one player who, since he first stepped on a major league diamond just over one hundred years ago, has cast a deep and still lengthening shadow over all things baseball, both its most cherished icon and one of its most transformative figures.

Nothing has ever damaged or cheapened his legacy. Somehow, the more we learn about Ruth, even of his colorful and occasionally unsavory personal history, he is never diminished. Even those who have since challenged his records or even broken them fail to touch him. In comparison, their deeds seem smaller, while Ruth’s achievements, given his era, become even more impressive. He did not just break records—he created records where none existed before, for feats never imagined, for doing what no one thought possible.

In a very real way, Ruth took a two-dimensional game, baseball, and gave it two additional dimensions, first by lifting it from the ground and launching it into the air, and secondly by giving baseball its history, by creating space in the game for history to live apart from the present, and for a limitless future to seem possible. He is the figure who took baseball from its distant, daguerreotyped past and made it into the game we still see on the field today. As much as any other figure in the game, he is both a pioneer and an enduring presence.

Yet at the same time, Ruth is also elusive. Perhaps no other personality in sports has been so exalted, mythologized, and obscured by history. Ruth’s public persona, certainly by the time he made it to New York in 1920, and even for several years prior to that, has always been presented through a filter, a ghostwritten sieve that sought to smooth his rough edges, cloud his true behavior, and simplify his biography. There are thousands upon thousands of words credited to Ruth’s lips, but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, Ruth himself never said most of the things he said, and to pretend otherwise is to present a false portrait. His ghostwriters did his talking for him, his various autobiographies and columns under his own name written by others without any input on his part. Fortunately, in regard to Ruth, it is not so much what he said that intrigues us, but what he did, and how he did what he did, that is most captivating. This book focuses on the latter, rather than trying to parse through Ruth’s “statements,” to determine which are his and which are the words of others. How George Ruth became “the Babe” is the essential question we try to answer.

But there is one thing that, even today, has towered over Ruth himself, something he himself created that nevertheless has cast a shadow over him, one so deep and so dark that at times it is barely even possible to discern the mighty Babe—or at least impossible to seem him clearly. Even Ruth is subservient to something more: the home run. Baseball’s biggest hit, perhaps sports’ most dramatic and instantaneous event, as first propagated by Ruth, became the most significant outcome in the game. Almost every other American sport has adopted the home run as a descriptive metaphor, “going for the home run,” as both the ultimate risk and the ultimate reward.

Yet the home run wasn’t always there, at least not in the way it was when unveiled by Ruth. Although the home run has been a possibility since the very beginning of the game, for decades it was a rare and almost accidental occurrence, a happy accident no one would dare actually try to accomplish. Outfield fences were meant to keep crowds off the field, not to keep the baseball in, for the notion of hitting a ball over the outfield fence was, in most instances, absurd, the fences too distant and the ball too soft.

And then came Ruth, the catalyst during a unique time and set of conditions, when baseball was moribund and war was changing America faster than any time before or since. Without warning, suddenly and unexpectedly, the home run became baseball’s most exciting and defining moment, disruptive, inspiring a profound change in the way the game was played and viewed and written about, dramatically impacting players and fans, leaving no one untouched. Even today, young boys still dream of being Ruth, and his story still touches them in a way no other ballplayer’s does.

No one was more affected by the home run than Ruth himself. He was like a new species overrunning the environment and remaking the landscape. The home run at once both created him and defined him, making it almost impossible to extract Ruth from it, to view him separately, to see him clearly before that moment, even at a time when the home run had yet to determine the course of his life, or the course of baseball. The home run has rendered the earlier figure of Ruth almost invisible, so overwhelming that it has distorted his biography ever since.

Nowhere is this more true than during the transition, during those few brief months from the beginning of the 1918 season through 1920, when Ruth evolved from George Herman Ruth, a pitcher of considerable ability for the Boston Red Sox, to the Babe, the Yankees’ mighty Bambino, a legendary and almost mythic Colossus of the game, the greatest home run hitter of all time, which according to a new definition, also made him the greatest player of all time. This makeover was so thorough, so complete, that it has been almost impossible to see Ruth in any other context, to separate the man and the player before the home run from what the home run turned him into: the Babe, the unbridled King of Swat. Previous biographers have usually become so enthralled with the results of this transformation, so blinded by the white heat of the home run, that the precise details of the change have almost been entirely overlooked. The sale of Ruth from Boston to New York is almost inevitably viewed with the kind of hindsight reality does not provide, leaving Ruth’s evolution during this time period, essential to understanding the dynamics of the sale, virtually unexamined.

That is what this book does. By examining the selling of the Babe as both a historic event in real time and as a historical metaphor at this moment of change, when Ruth and the home run—together—changed everything, The Selling of the Babe explains why and how this happened, and why and how the figure of the Babe came to be. In these pages we learn what became of George Herman Ruth, precisely why he was sold by the Red Sox to the Yankees, and how an entirely new game, built around the home run, with Babe Ruth as the catalyst, was sold to the American public.

It remains the most important transaction in the history of the game, touching everything, even today.

Copyright © 2016 by Glenn Stout