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Ten Things You Didn't Know About Babe Ruth
George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe Ruth, is considered by many to be the best baseball player of all time. Numerous books have been written about his storied and colorful life. One of the most informative and entertaining is The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth by Leigh Montville. Here are a several key revelations from the pages of the book.
He was the best pitcher in baseball at one time
The Babe was signed by the minor league Baltimore Orioles in 1914 as a hard throwing left-handed pitcher. He threw with an easy, three-quarters motion and his fastball had late movement. He was also a little wild which helped keep batters honest and had a serviceable curve ball. After being sold to the Red Sox later in 1914 he developed into the best pitcher in baseball, the equal of the great Walter Johnson. His best years were 1916-1917, when he went 23-12 and 24-13, respectively. In 1918 he started to take off as a hitter and people realized he was better suited as an everyday player. It's still amazing to consider that the best pitcher in baseball later became the best hitter.
He had dozens of nicknames
The Babe played in the golden era of nicknames. Everyone had one, but the Babe had the most and the sportswriters seemed to churn out new ones every season. Some of his best include The Caliph of Clout, The Wizard of Whack, Bam, Big Bam, The Bambino, The Sultan of Swat, Jidge, and of course Babe, which he acquired during his first spring training after signing with the minor league Baltimore Orioles in 1914. Jack Dunn, the owner of the Orioles who had signed Ruth, was always bringing in fresh young talent for the team. When the one of the veteran players was asked about youthful looking Ruth he replied, "He's one of Dunnie's babes." The babe remark fit Ruth perfectly with his big round face and stuck, especially after the Baltimore newspapers picked up on it.
Exercise and discipline saved his career
Many people think the Babe was an out of shape slob, but exercise and fitness played in integral role in his success on the diamond. In the spring of 1925 the Babe had his infamous "Bellyache Heard 'Round the World" which was a mysterious ailment that hospitalized him at the beginning of the season. Some believe it was a combination of influenza, indigestion, and venereal disease. When he finally was able to return to the field he never really got going and he wound up having the worst season of his career batting just .290 with 25 home runs and 66 RBI. He was 30 years old and at an age when his drinking, eating, and hard living could have ended his career in a few short years. The Babe, however, made a bold decision that likely saved his career. He hired a personal trainer to work with him during the off season. He signed on with Artie McGovern, a charismatic former boxer who owned his own gym and trained other stars of the day like John Philip Sousa. Artie employed all kinds of methods with Ruth from running, boxing, handball, sprints, medicine ball throws, and jumping rope, all with the focus on strengthening the Babe's core regions. All of the hard work paid off. Ruth was in the best shape of his career prior to the 1927 season and because of it was able to set his long-standing record of 60 home runs. While working with Artie, he went on an extended run from 1926 to 1932 (from the ages of 31 to 37) that propelled his career numbers to stratospheric heights. During these seasons he averaged an incredible .353 with 49 home runs and 152 RBI at ages when most players were declining. The Babe still enjoyed drinking and overeating, but he dialed it back just enough during this time to keep playing at a high level. The Babe's second wife, Claire Hodgson, who was a bit of a ball-buster also helped to reign in the Babe's ravenous appetites. She brow-beat him into eating better and going to sleep earlier when he was at home, which also contributed to his success.
Growing up in an orphanage honed his baseball skills
From the ages of 7 to 20 the Babe lived at St. Mary's Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys, an orphanage run by the Xaverian Brothers in Baltimore. The place was filled with over 800 boys of all ages and consequently there was no shortage of buddies to gather together for a game of ball. The Babe estimated that he played over 200 games a year while at the school and typically 2 to 3 games a day. There was also an organized league with as many as 20 teams. So it was really a minor league system for developing baseball skills. The Babe's hitting style was also heavily influenced by Brother Matthias Boutlier, a 6' 6", 300 pound mountain of a man that used to put on power displays hitting fungoes to the boys. The Babe copied his swing, which was a great, sweeping, upward arc instead of the normal straight downward chop employed by professional players of the era. Day in and day out, as the weather allowed, he was able to refine all the little skills of the game and learn the nuances of myriad baseball situations and how to best handle them. As cold as it was emotionally, it appears he couldn't have grown up in a better environment for developing his baseball talent.
Is Babe Ruth the best baseball player of all time?
Not managing a team was his biggest regret
Ruth desperately wanted to manage a major league team, especially the Yankees, but it just never seemed to work out for him. Most offers were basically ruses to get the aging Ruth for the publicity, as a side show act to help fill the seats, and weren't serious offers. The worst of this type being his contract with Boston Braves where he played his last season at age 40. The Babe also had the mindset that people should come to him, that he was Babe Ruth goddammit, and that he shouldn't have to extend himself in the process. Team owners were also wary of hiring someone that led such an excessive lifestyle, afraid that it would badly influence the younger players. Alas, it never panned out and Ruth spent spent his retired years mostly bowling and playing golf before he died of cancer at 53.
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His first wife died under mysterious circumstances
The Babe's first wife, Helen Woodword, died in a fire under mysterious circumstances in 1929 in Watertown, Massachusetts. No foul play was found but she was living with another man at the time, a dentist named Dr. Edward Kinder and was identified in the newspapers as Helen Kinder, even though she was still legally married to the Babe. Helen and the Babe had been living separate lives for several years at the time of her death. She was at the dentist's house alone the night of the fire and died of what was determined to be smoke inhalation. Helen had a brother in the Boston police department and he demanded that the case be reopened. A second autopsy was performed on the body, specifically to look for traces of poison, and a second fire inspector was called in to reexamine the house. It was verified that the fire had been caused by an overloaded electrical socket and that the original cause of death was correct. When it first happened, she was identified in the paper with another name. If not for a relative noticing that the woman that died looked like Helen, the public may have never known.
He was terrible with names
The Babe found it impossible to remember names and it was an ongoing source of frustration for him and humor for his teammates. Because of this, he called everyone below a certain age "kid" (pronounced "keed") and above that age they were "doc." Women were either "honey", "baby", or "sweety" and his wife was "the wife" or "the missus". He was always being introduced to people and would respond with a "Glad to meet ya, kid" only to find later that "the kid" was a Yankees teammate the last three seasons or pitched against him the day before.
He was a horrible driver
The Babe was constantly getting speeding tickets or into fender benders. He crashed while driving another famous Babe, golfer Didrikson Zaharias, home after their legendary golf outing in November, 1937. In all of these mishaps he never seemed to get hurt, probably because speeding at the time was anything over 25 mph. However, he did spend a day in a New York City jail after being caught for speeding twice in a short period of time. Thankfully, he was released early enough to make it to Yankee stadium and play in the day's game, no doubt speeding all the way there.
He was one of the first major athletes to have a PR man
Shortly after being trading to the Yankees, the Babe met Christy Walsh, a fast-talking entrepreneur from Los Angeles and they developed a business partnership which became the prototype for the modern athlete/sports agent relationship. Christy's job was to keep the Babe in the public eye and cultivate an image of the loveable big kid that liked to have a little good-natured fun. He also pushed to the background the Babe's more unseemly behaviors like his insatiable infidelity, out of control drinking, and ravenous gluttony. Christy had ghostwriters penning all sorts of articles for the Babe and had him performing nutty stunts like catching baseballs dropped from airplanes or barnstorming across the country every off season.
His distant relationship with Lou Gehrig may have been caused by Gehrig's wife
It's well known that Ruth and Gehrig had a cool relationship. They were very different people. Ruth was the loud, boisterous life of the party and Gehrig was the quiet, reserved introvert. Consequently, it may have only been natural that they weren't the best of friends. However, what may have made the situation worse was that Gehrig's wife Eleanor was supposedly "friends" with Ruth prior to marrying Lou. "Friends" is in quotation marks because Ruth, a notorious womanizer, rarely had platonic relationships with women according to those that knew him. There was also an incident on an overseas trip to Japan after the 1934 season where Gehrig found his wife half-drunk in Ruth's cabin on the ship. After this incident Gehrig and Ruth didn't speak again until the day of Gehrig's famous Yankee Stadium speech in 1939 shortly before his death from ALS.