“BABE RUTH AND THE ISSUE OF RACE” – by Baseball historian and author, Bill Jenkinson
Having written a book about Babe Ruth in 2007, I receive many questions about the Bambino and his extraordinary life. One of the greatest areas of interest centers on how the Babe interacted with the African-American community. In this matter, modern fans perceive Ruth inaccurately in two ways. They believe that he did not compete against the best Black players of that era, and they think that he did not enjoy a positive relationship with the general African-American population. Both of those beliefs are false.
Admittedly, it is difficult for any Ruthian scholar to definitively understand the exact evolution of Babe’s feelings about race. My personal judgment is that there was none. In keeping with his uncommonly natural persona, I believe that Ruth was simply “color blind” in the matter of race. In other words, I suspect that George Herman Ruth was born with literally no innate biases toward anyone. That’s just the way he was. Babe was certainly exposed to racial prejudice. Remember that Ruth was born in a tough waterfront section of
We have no clear data on the matter for the first twenty-three years of Babe’s life. But, in 1918, when Ruth was rapidly rising to the top of the baseball world, there was an event that contributed to the eventual desegregation of the National Pastime. Prior to that year, Ruth had been “merely” a great pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. However, due to the man-power shortage caused by World War One, Babe started playing in the field on days when he wasn’t pitching. The result was an American League lead-tying total of eleven home runs, which instantly set Ruth apart from all other players. Babe then led the Red Sox to the World Series championship, which concluded early because of the shortened schedule.
At that same time, the Cuban Stars from
So, when Weiss realized that his team was outclassed by the soon-to-arrive Cubans, he put in a call to Babe Ruth, who was resting in
At that moment, Babe Ruth was in the process of supplanting Ty Cobb (a well-known racist) as the preeminent baseball player in
However, at the same time, another powerful but opposing dynamic was taking shape. As a result of the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919, Judge Kenesaw Landis was being wooed by MLB owners to take over as commissioner. He assumed office on January 12, 1921, and was provided with nearly dictatorial power. Landis was a complex man of contrasting traits, but even his staunchest admirers find it difficult to defend his record on race relations. Essentially, he did nothing for twenty-four years (he died on November 25, 1945) to advance the cause of integration in Major League Baseball. Accordingly, while Babe Ruth was knocking down the color barriers in autumn 1920, Landis was seemingly content to maintain them. There was a rule in the books that prohibited World Series participants from engaging in post-season barnstorming activities, and Babe Ruth and the Yankees wound up playing in the Fall Classic in 1921.
When Ruth announced plans to engage in a prolonged tour at the conclusion of the Series, Landis forbad him to proceed. Babe had heard the same thing from American League President Ban Johnson after the 1916 Series, when he and many of his Red Sox teammates briefly toured
He decreed that Ruth would be severely punished if he barnstormed, and, when Babe tried to plead his case, Landis ignored him. Confident that any punishment would be comparable to his 1916 reprimand, Ruth embarked on his tour. However, after just five games, Yankee co-owner T.L. Huston intercepted Ruth in
American League owners were appalled by the subsequent loss of revenue caused by Ruth’s lengthy absence, and the ridiculous rule was soon rescinded. Undaunted, Babe Ruth then played against the renowned Kansas City Monarchs at their home field on October 22, 1922. He went 4 for 4 in a losing cause, and then resumed his tour in rural
On September 12, 1923, Babe Ruth refereed a fight in
Perhaps more importantly, despite being a close personal friend of heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, Babe shared referee duties that night with black top-ranked contender Harry Wills. That was not a casual co-incidence. As early as 1920, Dempsey was roundly criticized from many quarters for refusing to fight Wills. Ruth knew this, but still provided some measure of validation for Harry by stepping into the spotlight with him. Two days later (September 14, 1923), the historic Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo fight was staged at
One month later, on October 8, 1923 (two days before the World Series), Ruth was the guest of honor at a Harlem fund-raiser for the benefit of the
But that was Babe Ruth. He had a natural affinity for all people regardless of their social, financial, ethnic or religious background. Is that to say that he never did anything racially insensitive? Of course not. Babe was poorly educated, and, when he left St. Mary’s
At home, Babe Ruth never altered his positive approach to the African-American community. He played games against Negro League teams in 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, and showed up again in
One year later, after his dramatic “Called Shot” home run helped the Yankees sweep the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series, Babe and friend Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson enjoyed a raucous celebration on the train ride back to New York. Robinson was not only one of the country’s best dancers, but a part-owner of the New York Black Yankees. Robinson had been Ruth’s invited guest for the trip to
On August 14, 1933, Babe Ruth and the Yanks were in
By 1934, Babe was slowing down as a performer, and arrived at Yankee Stadium on June 24 in a prolonged slump. Before the game, in the dugout, Ruth met again with his old buddy, Bill Robinson. Bo Jangles sprinkled “goofer dust” on the Bambino, who then smashed a second inning grand slam. Afterward, Babe and Bill got together in the Yankee clubhouse, and laughed about the effects of the magical elixir, which was just plain old table salt. Is there anything more to this anecdote than good natured humor? I think so. One of Ruth’s teammates that day was Ben Chapman. He went on to manage the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947, and became famous for his bitter and vitriolic treatment of Jackie Robinson. As far as anyone knows, Bill Robinson was the first Black man ever invited into the Yankee clubhouse as a guest. Babe Ruth did that, and we can only guess what Ben Chapman was thinking at that pivotal moment.
When Ruth finally retired early in the 1935 season, he received countless offers to play exhibition games all over the country, including many in the
I also regard a 1937 event as interesting. When heavyweight champion Joe Louis was training for his title defense against Tommy Farr in
Although Babe Ruth enjoyed life in retirement, he also experienced some profound disillusionment. He had always expected to manage at the Big League level, but the job never materialized. Until his death in 1948, that was the single most painful experience of his amazing life. Why did it happen? Some refer to Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert’s alleged assertion that Babe couldn’t manage himself, so how could he expect to manage a Major League team? However, that bit of so-called history doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. If that quote had been attributed to Ruppert in 1925, when Ruth was both defiant and uncooperative, it would have some credence. But Babe didn’t seriously consider managing until 1931, which was two years after his second marriage had mellowed him significantly.
At the end of the 1933 season, when the issue of Ruth’s future became highly topical, Ruppert said: “I think Ruth will make a splendid manager. He’s settled down and is very serious about his future.” Writing for the New York Times a few days later (October 22, 1933), John Kieran spoke highly of Ruth’s qualifications, but offered reasons why someone else might disagree. Speaking rhetorically, Kieran wrote: “If he didn’t know how to take care of himself, how could he take care of a ball club?” The article continued with nothing but glowing support for Ruth’s candidacy to manage. Is it possible that Kieran’s earlier quote was later taken out of context and subsequently misrepresented?
Perhaps most telling was a little known incident back in the fall of 1920. After the conclusion of Ruth’s first season with the Yankees, he stopped in the
We should recall that during the 1930s, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was still the reigning czar of baseball. He knew that, if Babe Ruth became a Big League skipper, he would likely advocate the inclusion of African-American players. It has been theorized that it was Landis’s influence that kept Ruth from achieving his ambition to manage. I honestly don’t know if that is true. There have been recent treatises by well-respected historians arguing that Landis was not alone in perpetuating the segregation of Major League Baseball. To me, that theory seems reasonable. It is unlikely that Jackie Robinson would not have been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1945 without, at least, tacit support of the “gentlemen’s agreement” from many of the owners. Let’s put it this way: as a result of Babe Ruth’s benign interaction with Black ballplayers, it was significantly harder for him to achieve his most cherished wish.
How was Babe Ruth regarded by the African-American men with whom he took the field? In his definitive book on Negro League history, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars, author Richard Bak had this to say: “Babe Ruth, affable to a fault, was adored by Negro leaguers.” I personally interviewed many surviving Negro League veterans in the 1980s, and none of them had a bad word to say about Ruth. That is not to say that there weren’t some guys who didn’t like him. After all, Babe was just a man, and prone to misdeeds like all of us. However, I never encountered anyone who felt negatively about him. Among those with whom I spoke were Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, William Judy Johnson, Buck O’Neil, Newt Allen, Ray Dandridge, Monte Irvin, Double Duty Radcliffe, Willie Wells and Sam Streeter.
As discussed in my book. I had the privilege of becoming a personal friend to Judy Johnson. He lived near
That included an extraordinary performance on October 11, 1927 in
More importantly, regarding Babe the man, Johnson said: “He was quite a guy, always a lot of fun. All the guys really liked him.” In this matter of player relations, Johnson felt that Major Leaguers were divided into three separate groups. First, there were the hard cases, who would not take the field with black performers under any circumstances. Next, you had the guys who really didn’t like African-Americans, but agreed to play the games in order to make a buck. Finally, there were the fellows like Ruth, who genuinely enjoyed interacting with men of color, and displayed no inhibitions in showing it. Babe spontaneously exchanged jokes, handshakes and occasional hugs with his Black brethren. Ruth wasn’t alone in this category. There were others: men like Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean, but there weren’t many. And, according to Judy Johnson, Babe was the most personable of the entire lot. During an introspective moment not long before he passed in 1988, Mr. Johnson told me that Babe Ruth had been one of his few heroes.
Admittedly, it saddens me to learn that most contemporary African-Americans do not realize the friend they had in Babe Ruth. I encounter this unfortunate reality on a regular basis. At a local authors’ panel in 2007, I was seated with an erudite African-American gentleman, who had written a fascinating book about a Southern black family during the Civil War. We exchanged stories about our work, and he acknowledged that he hadn’t previously understood the essence of Babe Ruth as a person. The next day, he re-contacted me to advise that he had continued the conversation at his neighborhood barber shop. The men there were equally surprised to learn the truth about the real Bambino.
Similarly, I was contacted by Baltimore Sun writer David Steele in 2008 for information about Ruth. As a young man in 1974, he was aware of the racial antipathy aimed at Henry Aaron as “Hammerin’ Hank” took aim on Babe’s career home run record. He naturally developed resentment toward Ruth, which had carried over (at least in part) to this day. However, when I explained what I knew about Ruth, David wrote a complimentary article about the Babe in his newspaper. In my opinion, that took guts and integrity. It was an important step in overcoming this lingering misrepresentation, which unnecessarily and negatively impacts our cultural history.
Obviously, there are many questions about Babe Ruth that I can not answer. However, there is one for which I feel confident in my response. How would Babe have handled that episode in 1974 when Henry Aaron was passing him on the all-time home run list? First, Ruth would have been furious with anyone invoking his name to denigrate Aaron in any way. Second, being an unusually natural and honest individual, I don’t think that he would have engaged in the standard disingenuous but politically correct practice of saying that he was happy. My guess is that Babe would have said: “Well, I can’t say that I’m happy about my record being broken. But, if somebody is going to do it, I’m glad that it is a swell fellow like Hank Aaron.” He would have supported Aaron’s efforts without reservation. And here is the heart of the matter: if anybody had tried to harm Henry Aaron because he was breaking the Bambino’s record, he would have had to fight his way past Babe Ruth to do it. On this, I have absolutely no doubt.
There is one reality that is beyond speculation. During his lifetime, Babe Ruth was revered by the African-American community as well as all other minority groups. When filming the life story of Lou Gehrig in
When The Babe actually passed six years later in 1948, the response from minority communities all over the world was extremely emotional. Not only did every African-American newspaper in
What does it all mean? To me, when you add everything together, we see a life well lived. Despite his repressed early life, George Ruth developed a highly caring disposition. He genuinely loved children of all colors and creeds, and would do almost anything to aide a youngster in need. His charitable work now seems fictional in retrospect. In the matter of race relations, it is fair to categorize him as a pioneer of integration. He certainly helped set the stage for what Jackie Robinson so courageously accomplished in 1947. In the overall context of his life, born into near-poverty in 19th Century Baltimore and placed in a reform school at the age of seven, Babe Ruth accomplished much. He became a true humanitarian, and was so much more than a great ballplayer.
Bill Jenkinson, Baseball Historian-2009