Babe Ruth and the Moment American Baseball Changed Forever

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith on the Making of a Legend

Forever restless, Babe Ruth had a serious case of cabin fever. After a dreary winter spent with his wife Helen at “Home Plate”—their farm in Sudbury—he was ready for a change. Spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, promised to be the perfect remedy. It was Babe’s kind of town—small enough to be cozy, big enough to find some action, and thoroughly wide open. It boasted a racetrack and several casinos, and though it didn’t advertise its brothels, they were easy enough to find and their doors were open all night. After the dull winter, he anticipated stretching his legs and loosening up his arm on the baseball diamond, while also finding some fun. What he didn’t expect—what no one imagined—was that simply by having more fun, he would transform the game of baseball.

On March 9, around noon, when Ruth arrived at the South Station, snow dusted the Hub. A blizzard sweeping across the Great Lakes threatened the first leg of the trip as the team headed west toward Albany. Loaded down with two large bags and a set of left-handed golf clubs, Babe greeted his traveling companions. Most of the players had made other travel arrangements, but a bevy of sportswriters, cartoonists, and photographers boarded the train

When the Boston Red Sox arrived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for spring training in 1918, new manager Ed Barrow expected that Babe Ruth would serve almost exclusively as a pitcher. Yet with a roster decimated by the draft, Barrow desperately needed hitters, and Ruth was ready to fill the void. When it reached Albany, Harry Frazee and his new manager Ed Barrow, along with infielder Johnny Evers and several other players, joined the Boston group. In the club cars, journalists and players planned on passing the time drinking, smoking, and gambling. Edward Martin of the Globe wrote, “No arrangements had been made for any golf matches on the train, but it is understood that there may be other games played.”

While Babe and his group settled into their seats, the weather worsened. West of Albany, heavy snow and winds created drifts along the route, delaying the train’s arrival in Buffalo by five full hours. Missing the connection for the Hot Springs Special, one writer blamed the holdup on an engineer who drove as though he were commanding a tank through the trenches on the Western Front. Instead of rolling west toward Akron and St. Louis, the Red Sox contingent pounded the cold off their feet inside the station, waiting for a 2 a.m. connection. Making matters worse, especially for nighthawks like Ruth, Ed Barrow gave a first indication of what kind of manager he would be when he announced that he would run a strict, no-nonsense training camp. There would be “no late sleepers,” he said. Every player had to be out of the dining room by nine. “Babe Ruth was very dejected when he heard the sad news,” Paul Shannon reported.

Once past Buffalo, the mood lightened again. The players bantered and laughed. Some read, others gambled, but most drank. Heavy drinking and alcoholism has always been part of the “drink hard, play hard” culture of baseball, but it was probably worse before 1918 than after. The stories of such heavy drinkers as Rube Waddell fill pages in the history of the sport, and reporters of the era generally treated them as a source of humor rather than pathos. In Boston and on the road, Ruth was a heavy, usually gregarious drinker. As the train plowed west toward St. Louis and then south toward Little Rock and Hot Springs, he was the center of the action—consuming feasts in the dining car, dropping money at the card table, and greeting virtually everyone who boarded, especially the soldiers who got on at every stop. He “was the life of the party and fraternized with a lot     of soldier boys from Camp Devens,” commented Martin. Ruth “passed around his cigars and did not overlook any of the lads in khaki.”

Babe enjoyed his role as the bell cow, even when he was the object of the humor. According to one newspaper account, when a member of the Red Sox group commented on the beauty of the landscape, Babe cut in, hoping to get the final word on any subject—“This is nothing,” he said. “The best scenery goes by when we are sleeping.”

If sportswriters occasionally reported Ruth’s gaffes, it was all in good fun. The pleasure they took in his uninhibited behavior gave life to their columns, and they regarded themselves as hero builders, not myth busters. The Globe’s thirty-four-year-old “Eddie” Martin, born and raised in South Boston, led the group of Ruth’s acolytes in the press. He was an authority concerning Babe and baseball, a master of the most arcane trivia. “If Eddie says so, it is so,” was the saying around the Globe’s office. At the same time, he was apt to exaggerate and engage in some harmless “godding up” of Boston’s star—and his reports from spring training and the coming season were instrumental in shaping the popular image of Babe Ruth.

Ruth discovered more joy from hitting the ball than from anything else he did on the field, and he entertained his teammates and spectators alike.

Not everyone shared in the mirth of the ride to Hot Springs. Even in the best of times, Ed Barrow rarely cracked a smile or appreciated a joke, and March 1918 was not the best of times. Frazee departed for the Ozarks feeling uncertain about how his reconstructed team would perform under a new manager. When his former manager Jack Barry had enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1917, Frazee knew he needed a baseball man who could help him rebuild the team. This was when he turned to Barrow—informally at first—who was serving at the time as the president of the International League. Then, early in 1918, after several disagreements, the International League team owners effectively forced Barrow out of his position when they cut his salary by two-thirds, and Frazee formally hired him as the Red Sox’s manager. As the skipper sat on the train to Hot Springs, mulling over how to forge a winning squad out of desperate parts, he found little comfort in the childish antics of his best pitcher.

Though he shared few characteristics with his star player, they did have two things in common: both were products of a grim childhood and a love for baseball. Edward Grant Barrow—named after his father and the victorious Union general—was born in Springfield, Illinois, while his family was in the process of moving to Nebraska. After six bleak, unproductive years farming on the Great Plains, his family moved to Iowa, near Des Moines. Barrow spoke little about his early years—the struggles of his family, the hardships of farm life, his efforts to contribute to the family income, and an early, brief marriage. But he did open up on the subject of baseball. He claimed he had been a good high school and sandlot pitcher; that is, until he injured his arm throwing on a cold, wet day. After that, he stayed in the game the best he could by organizing barnstorming tours, managing or buying a stake in minor league squads, and working in various front office positions. For a short time, he even managed the Detroit Tigers.

Barrow often moved from town to town and job to job because of his abrasive, nearly dictatorial personality. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley wrote, “He was a big, broad-shouldered man who feared no one and could argue as forcefully with his fists as his tongue.” With an eye for typecasting, Frazee referred to him as “Simon,” after Simon Legree, the cruel slave driver who enjoyed beating and breaking the spirit of his chattel in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Barrow certainly looked the part. He had a pugnacious face—weary eyes, boxer’s nose, and smirking lips framed between a square chin and bushy, black eyebrows. He frequently spoke of his love for the sport of boxing—second only to baseball—and claimed that no man had ever bested him in a fight. His look, fiery temper, and heavyweight physique encouraged few to test his record. No doubt, he knew baseball, but his brutal managing style ensured conflicts with such lawless players as Babe Ruth.

Under his regime, Barrow announced, rules would be strictly enforced. All card games, he proclaimed, would be nickel-and-dime affairs that ended no later than 11:00—no high-stakes contests that lingered into the early mornings. Shortly after noon on March 11, when the train arrived in the Valley of the Vapors, the boss issued several other edicts. He refused, for instance, to let the players take a car to the ballpark. He insisted that they walk the two miles from the hotel to the practice field. After three hours of work on the diamond, they trekked back to the hotel over the mountain trail. They followed the march through the afternoon heat with hot spring baths and an hour and a half break before dinner. Lights were to be out by 11:30.

His puritanical rules struck Ruth as a mite extreme. For Red Sox players, spring training was a highly anticipated opportunity to escape the frigid, New England winter for the more hospitable climes of southern resort towns like Hot Springs and Tampa. As much as a time to shed winter weight and regain the previous season’s form, for many players—and Ruth was certainly among them—spring training meant gambling on cards and horses, spending nights with prostitutes, and enjoying a bachelor’s life, whether they were single or married. Barrow’s rules, then, were a disappointing setback, to say the least, and Ruth bristled under them. If he could resist the casinos and the brothels and the racetrack on the edge of town, he did not try. His only problem, he told the Globe’s Martin, was that the racetrack and the golf course were on opposite ends of Hot Springs, making it impossible to enjoy both activities in one afternoon.

Realizing that with an ersatz team with so many recent arrivals, he had to give—at least for the moment—some maneuvering room to his best player, Barrow ignored infractions by Babe and a few others. Soon after his boot camp regimen began, he eliminated the mountain trail hikes, giving his boys more free time in the afternoons. And he stopped enforcing bed checks. Harry Hooper recalled that despite Barrow’s rules, Ruth continued losing money at the track and courted venereal disease in the brothels. Yet his nighttime activities didn’t seem to interfere with his work on the diamond. His pitching was sharp, and he attacked training sessions, and even the few mountain hikes, like a hungry rookie.

Swinging a bat, Ruth discovered more joy from hitting the ball than from anything else he did on the field, and he entertained his teammates and spectators alike, hitting deep shots to the outfielders. He hit long, high balls, difficult for the fielders to judge, and he “had the boys racing around for a lot of leg exercise.”

At the start of the exhibition season on March 17, the full Red Sox squad was not in camp, and Barrow humored Babe by starting him at first base against the Brooklyn Dodgers. “His play at first was sensational,” reported Martin, who compared him with Hal Chase, the great Chicago White Sox first baseman. “The big fellow plucked [baseballs] from the ozone, dug them from the dirt and reached everywhere for them in real Chase fashion.”

Babe “calmly announced” that he was going to hit one out of the park. No sooner had he said it than he did it, driving the pitch over the fence.

Babe made his most spectacular impression at home plate, not first base. In the fourth inning, he launched a ball high toward deep left center where it landed in a pile of lumber for a home run. He came to the plate again in the sixth inning. This time, he hit the ball even farther. It traveled over the right-field fence and finally landed in the middle of an alligator farm. “The intrusion kicked up no end of commotion among the ‘Gators,’” noted Martin.

It also stirred the imaginations of the spectators. Admittedly, Brooklyn did not use its first-string pitchers in the contest, and it was a meaningless exhibition, but the distance of Ruth’s blasts defied the standards of the day. There was palpable excitement among spectators who watched Ruth pound the ball. Martin could hardly contain the rush he felt when he wrote his lede: “What a wallop when the lid was pried off the 1918 baseball season here this afternoon!” Although Barrow saw the performance as a lark, Ruth and several other teammates had a glimmer of something more significant. Babe could do more than just throw a ball across the plate. He was an athlete who could field, and he could hit the ball farther than any other player. Harry Hooper must have sensed the shift. He had just arrived in town and only watched the contest, but would soon become Barrow’s leading advisor for on-field strategy and the greatest champion of making Babe Ruth a full-time hitter.

Hooper—along with teammates, reporters, and spectators—kept watching Ruth. At the plate, he generated interest with every twist of his body, turning dull, routine swings into a carnival performance. A few days after his barrage of home runs, the Red Sox worked out on a chilly, damp afternoon. Low clouds threatened rain, and playing baseball smacked of misery. Then Babe stepped to the plate for batting practice. After taking a few swings, he “calmly announced” that he was going to hit one out of the park. No sooner had he said it than he did it, driving the pitch over the fence.

The audacity of the called shot staggered the imagination. No one before that time tried to hit a home run. The game in the dead ball era was one of limited expectations. Players choked up on their thick-handled war clubs, took short, chopping, flat swings, and concentrated on making contact. They bunted singles, moved a runner from one base to the next with sacrifices, and occasionally slashed line drives into the gaps for doubles or triples. It was a game of hitting behind the runner and guarding the strike zone like a lion does her cubs. Players and fans alike treated home runs as gifts from the baseball gods, when in fact they were often the result of an outfielder who played too close to the infield or tripped pursuing a deep fly ball.

In truth, the swings of such great batsmen as Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner were not conducive to hitting home runs because the baseball used in the games was difficult to hit with a long, powerful, uppercut stroke. It was the job of pitchers to punish the baseball before putting it into play. They took the clean, white, round ball and simply abused it—nicking it with their nails or belt buckle, smearing it with dirt, tobacco-laced saliva, or some other agent, transforming it into a dark, misshaped, almost spheroid, object that they could throw with a variety of spins to make it move, drop, and curve with great accuracy. It was that forlorn “ball” that they would throw one hundred or more times a game. Actually trying to connect with such a maltreated object for a home run was lunacy.

Yet that was precisely what Ruth did, transforming the conventional batter’s swing in the process. Instead of choking up on the bat and chopping at the ball, Babe gripped it low, his right hand down to the knob, unleashing a whipping undercut swing that could launch a baseball farther than any man ever had. When he swung the bat with all his might, he fully intended to crush it. His majestic home runs—and the very threat of his power—would soon redefine the way that batters played the game, journalists reported it, and fans understood it. His hitting philosophy was simple: “Just bust ’em,” he said. “Take a good cut and bang that old apple on the nose.”

On March 23, Babe showed off his revolutionary approach toward hitting before several hundred doughboys when he and the team played an exhibition against the Dodgers. Both teams left their quarters in Hot Springs early in the morning, took a train through the hills of Arkansas to Little Rock, and then traveled by automobile to the army cantonment at Camp Pike for the game. No sooner had the Red Sox arrived at Camp Pike and taken the field to warm up than dark clouds swept in and the skies opened, followed by lightning flashes and low rumbles of thunder. Although the managers cancelled the contest, they still held a batting practice, and Babe’s performance was thoroughly entertaining for “the khaki boys.” He swung like Brother Matthias had at St. Mary’s. To the immense enjoyment of the soldiers, in a Homeric session he drove five balls over the right-field fence. The feat was so unusual that a Boston American headline blared: Babe Ruth Puts Five Over Fence, Heretofore Unknown to Baseball Fans.

The next day he added to his growing reputation as a hitter in another game against the Dodgers. In the third inning, facing Brooklyn’s pitcher Al Mameau, with the bases loaded—a full house—Ruth hammered the ball over the right-field wall. Writers had not yet invented the phrase “grand slam,” but Ruth would inspire a whole new language to describe his exploits on the field. All the players who witnessed the hit agreed it was   the longest they had ever seen. “The ball not only cleared the right field wall,” reported Martin, “but stayed up, soaring over the street and a wide duck pond, finally finding a resting place for itself in the nook of the Ozark hills.” Paul Shannon of the Post disagreed only on a few of Martin’s finer points. He claimed the ball cleared the fence by about two hundred feet and dropped in a pond beside the alligator farm. In either case, “the spectators yelled with amazement,” much to Babe’s pleasure. As he rounded first, he laughed and said, “I would liked to have got a better hold of that one.”

Scattering ducks, astonishing soldiers, angering alligators— Babe Ruth at the plate was becoming a figure of folklore. He was Paul Bunyan with an ax, Davy Crockett with a rifle, Mike Fink on a keelboat—an American capable of accomplishments beyond mortal man. A Boston Herald reporter claimed that if an alert trolley driver had not seen one of Ruth’s home runs sailing over the fence and taken evasive actions, the ball “would have knocked the trolley car off the tracks.” Clearly, several journalists concluded, the army needed heroic “Colossuses” like Ruth.

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war fever

Excerpted from War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. Copyright © 2020. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Randy Roberts is distinguished professor of history at Purdue University. An award-winning author, he focuses on the intersection of popular and political culture, and has written or co-written biographies of such iconic athletes and celebrities as Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Bear Bryant, Oscar Robertson, John Wayne and Muhammad Ali, as well as books on the Vietnam War, the Alamo, the 1973-1974 college basketball season, and West Point football during World War II. Johnny Smith is the Julius C. “Bud” Shaw Professor in Sports, Society, and Technology and an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Tech. He is the co-author of Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X (with Randy Roberts) and the author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball. Roberts and Smith are the co-authors of War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War.





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