“BABE RUTH AND THE ISSUE OF RACE” – Bill Jenkinson

“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

Baltimore,Maryland in 1895. That was just three decades after Abraham Lincoln had to travel secretly through the same city on his way to being inaugurated inWashington,D.C.Lincoln’s anti-slavery platform was considered too volatile to allow safe passage below the Mason Dixon line. We must assume, therefore, that young Ruth realized that some white folks just didn’t like black people. However, it seems to have had no effect on his remarkably free spirit.

 

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 Havana were completing a successful tour of the

United States. They had won thirty of thirty-two contests against mostly white semi-pro and Minor League teams. Owner George Weiss of the Eastern League New Haven Colonials arranged for them to come to Lighthouse Field in theElmCity on Sunday, September 14, 1918.Weiss was even more familiar with Ruth than most Americans, since he had lured Babe and the Red Sox into a Sunday “off day” appearance inNew Haven on August 18, 1918. On that occasion, Ruth had smashed the stadium’s longest-ever home run with an epic blow over the woman’s bath house in distant right centerfield.

 

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

Boston after the just-ended World Series. The New Haven Register said this about Ruth’s status at that time: “He is truly the miracle player of baseball.” It added that Ruth was: “unquestionably the biggest baseball sensation of the year.” When Weiss extended the invitation for Ruth to return toNew Haven to play the “ebony skinned” Cubans, Babe “jumped at the opportunity.” Predictably, the Stars whipped the Colonials handily, but Ruth provided the only bright light in the 5-1 defeat with a mammoth homer beyond the flagpole in left centerfield. I believe, however, that the day’s events transcended sports.

 

At that moment, Babe Ruth was in the process of supplanting Ty Cobb (a well-known racist) as the preeminent baseball player in

America. When he unhesitatingly agreed to take the field against performers of African descent, he sent a powerful signal that could not be ignored. As was usually the case in whatever he did, Ruth kept moving forward in the matter of race relations. After being sold to the New York Yankees in 1920, Babe took the final step in becoming baseball’s unquestioned kingpin by walloping fifty-four homers. That was an astounding accomplishment for that era. When the season ended, Ruth received hundreds of invitations to barnstorm anywhere he wanted to go. Of the approximately fifteen games that Babe selected, five were against so-called Negro League teams. Ruth then sailed toCuba, where he joined John McGraw’s Giants to play nine more contests versus a combination of Latino and Negro ballplayers. Again, the message was clear: if the sports’ transcendent figure played without reservation against Black ballplayers, why shouldn’t everyone else?

 

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

New England. The result had been a “slap on the wrist.” The players were fined $100, and barred from wearing their World Series emblems. Big deal. Since the rule had never really been enforced, Babe assumed that Landis would handle the situation in like manner. However, part of Ruth’s 1921 barnstorming schedule included more games with Negro League teams. There was no way that Kenesaw Mountain Landis would abide that.

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

Scranton, Pennsylvania, and convinced him that the Judge meant business. Babe cancelled the remainder of the schedule, and awaited his fate. When Landis suspended Ruth for the first five weeks of the 1922 season, the country was shocked. Even President Harding voiced his support for the Babe. Everyone knew that the punishment far exceeded the crime, but Landis was riding high and no one dared to oppose him.

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 Kansas and

Oklahoma. He didn’t seem to care that he endangered himself by playing against Black ballplayers, then venturing into territory under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. It is important to recognize the premise of the last statement. Three years later on November 11, 1925, eight-hundred-sixty-six members of the Monmouth County Ku Klux Klan marched (mostly in robes and masks) in the Armistice Day Parade in Red Bank,New Jersey. That was a seaside community in the Northeast! So, when Ruth thumbed his nose at the Klan in the rural Mid-West three years earlier, he had risked much. For the record, Black ballplayers later reported playing against The Babe in Red Bank.

On September 12, 1923, Babe Ruth refereed a fight in

West New York, New Jersey between lightweights Emil Morro (black) and Larry Regan (white). At the end of the contest, according to the September 22 edition of The Chicago Defender, “Babe was covered with blood and a perfectly good white shirt had to be thrown into the ash can.” This happened at a time when many white Americans wouldn’t even drink from the same water fountain after an African-American had used the same facility. It is one of many examples of how Ruth was inherently disinclined toward any form of racial bias.

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

New York’s Polo Grounds. Predictably, Babe was seated at ringside, where Dempsey knocked out Firpo in a wild two round battle. During the contest, Dempsey’s brother, Johnny, was seen throwing a punch at Ruth. Was that because Johnny Dempsey was angry at Babe for publicly appearing with his brother’s chief rival? Nobody knows for sure, but it is a fact that Jack Dempsey never fought Harry Wills.

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

MotherA.M.E.ZionChurch. Other white celebrities had similarly committed to attend, but only Babe kept his word. He donated not only his valuable time, but also contributed some autographed balls along with twenty bucks out of his pocket. For Babe Ruth, this was not an unusual display of unbiased charity. During his fall barnstorming tour after his celebrated 1927 season, the Bambino visited the Guardian Angel Home For Negroes inKansas City on October 15.There is a delightful photo from that event showing a beaming Ruth holding a black infant in his arms. In addition, he personally hosted fifty orphans from that institution during the exhibition game on that same date.

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

IndustrialSchool in 1914, he was crude and vulgar. He referred to Italian-Americans as “Wops”, Irish-Americans as “Micks” and German-Americans (among whom he was included) as ‘Krauts.” Babe may have even used the “n-word”, but, as a young man, he was often referred to as “nigger lips” because of his facial features. He was a product of his time and his environment. However, he was NEVER deliberately malicious or hurtful. As he aged, he grew in wisdom and maturity, and established a remarkable record of tolerance and open-mindedness. He eventually touredJapan,China, thePhilippines,Mexico and other foreign lands, where he was universally loved and admired. In every location, he reciprocated the affection. He was a man of the people…all the people!

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

Kansas City in 1931 to compete with the Monarchs. That contest under the lights was rained out, but Ruth was there and ready to go. A few months later, in December, when Babe was relaxing with friends on a hunting trip toCamp Bryan,North Carolina, he included chef David Simpson in his group. Why is that significant? Mr. Simpson was a black man who had cooked for Ruth in the past, but he was terminally ill at the time. Despite being unable to work, Babe Ruth invited him to join an intimate assemblage at his hunting lodge. Within two months, David Simpson died.

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

Chicago, and, at each stop returning home, Babe and Bill entertained the jubilant crowds with their joint antics.

On August 14, 1933, Babe Ruth and the Yanks were in

Pittsburgh for an exhibition contest with the National League Pirates. The first-ever Negro League All-Star game was scheduled for September 10 in Chicago, and the Pittsburgh Courier sent a reporter to the Hotel Schenley to interview Ruth. After lavishly praising the quality and showmanship of Negro League baseball, Babe offered a powerful endorsement about the forthcoming game. Ruth stated: “The game inChicago should bring out a lot of white people who are anxious to see the kind of ball that colored performers play.”

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

New York area. With the exception of a police charity game in Minneapolis, he ignored them all until September 29. Where was the location that Babe Ruth chose to make his first post-retirement Big Apple appearance? It was at Dyckman Oval in Harlem against the New York Cubans. In anticipation of the event, The Amsterdam News (a so-called Black newspaper) referred to Ruth as “The Great Man himself”, and further stated: “as his popularity knew neither race, creed or color, the ‘Oval’ should present the most animated scene.” That’s exactly what happened. Over 8,000 fans, mostly folks of color, crammed into the little ballpark, while hundreds of others gathered on nearby rooftops. While rooting for a Cuban victory, they greeted Babe with warmth and affection. Was Babe Ruth paid for his efforts? Yes. However, he received many comparable financial offers throughout the summer, but, for his own reasons, turned them down.

I also regard a 1937 event as interesting. When heavyweight champion Joe Louis was training for his title defense against Tommy Farr in

Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, he invited Babe Ruth to visit as his special guest. Babe arrived on August 24, and was watching Louis box, when “The Brown Bomber” leaned over the ropes and said: “I’m going to hit one this time for you Babe.” Sparring partner Tiger Hairston soon landed on the floor as Babe acknowledged his admiration for Joe’s power. Soon after, The Chicago Defender (another Black newspaper) featured a photograph of the two great athletes during Louis’s official weigh-in atNew York. In that instant, Babe and Joe were smiling at each other as Ruth held the champ’s taped right hand in his own oversized paws.

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

Binghamton, New York area for a barnstorming game on October 22. Interviewed by the Binghamton Press, Ruth acknowledged that he had just been offered the job of player-manager by the Yankees. At age twenty-five, Babe was still a free spirit, and rejected the proposal. Jacob Ruppert shared ownership with T.L. Huston at that time, but it makes little sense that Ruppert would have consented to such an arrangement if he considered Ruth unqualified.For the record, when Colonel Huston talked about his prospect of purchasing the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1934, he definitively stated that Babe Ruth would be his manager. Plus, several club owners expressed their support for Babe Ruth as a manager, and the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers made overt efforts to sign him. So, what really happened? Why didn’t Babe Ruth ever get the chance to manage a Big League team?

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 Wilmington, Delaware, which allowed me to visit him often from my home in suburban

Philadelphia. I originally met him to discuss legendary slugger Josh Gibson, but, over time, Mr. Johnson offered many unsolicited remarks about his admiration and affection for Babe Ruth. He articulated his passion for the Bambino as both a player and a human being. On the matter of Ruth’s physical abilities, Johnson said: “We could never seem to get him out no matter what we did.” In fact, in the sixteen games for which we have documentation, Babe went 25 for 54 with eleven home runs.

That included an extraordinary performance on October 11, 1927 in Trenton, New Jersey, where Ruth blasted three consecutive tape measure home runs against the great Dick “Cannon Ball”

Redding. In fairness toRedding, he was past his prime, but Babe’s deeds that day were still exceptional. And, of course, there were those compelling encounters against the one and only Satchel Paige. Ruth’s daughter Julia Ruth Stevens still remembers a game inBrooklyn, where Satch got the better of her dad. However, Negro League luminary Buck O’Neil recalled a different outcome inChicago during the late-thirties. On that occasion, Babe pounded a monumental shot into the trees beyond the center field fence, after which, Paige stared at him circling the bases. Sadly, we do not have exact dates for either event, but both witnesses are highly reliable sources.

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

Hollywood in the spring of 1942, Ruth almost died of double-pneumonia. The reaction from Black America was intense. In the Atlanta Daily World on April 12, 1942, columnist Lucius Jones wrote: “Black or white, our common hero was George Herman (Babe) Ruth. Every kid was ready to knock down the friend or foe who denied his personal claim to being Babe Ruth.” Writing in the Pittsburgh Courier six days later, Wendell Smith said: “Thousands of sepia fans throughout the nation were pulling for his (Ruth’s) recovery. During the course of his unequaled career, the Great Bambino was lavish in his praise of Negro ball players. TheBaltimore orphan…was never accused of wielding the bat of prejudice. He was, and still is, revered by fans of all creeds and colors.”

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 America publish articles expressing profound grief and loss, there were comparable declarations from the Latino populations in Cuba,

Mexico and The Philippines. For example, in Mexico City, The Excelsior stated: “All epochs have their heroes. Babe Ruth was the hero of modern generations. He has died, but he is still with us.”

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

 

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