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March 10, 2008
You Could Look It Up
The Babe and Beau James
I had a tough time choosing a topic for today's bit of baseball time travel, not because I couldn't think of something but because there was simply too much from which to pick. At first I thought I might do something inspired by a moment on this year's book tour. Last week, Joe Sheehan and I appeared on a New York-area television station. Among the questions it was proposed we answer was, "WILL THE YANKEES SURVIVE THE LOSS OF JOE TORRE?" My instinctive response was, "No. There will be some kind of mass-suicide event by May." Joe quickly dared me to use that line on the air, and I was eager to comply, but somehow it didn't come up quite that way on the actual broadcast and like so many good lines, it remained unsaid.
The unasked question has lingered in my mind, because no doubt there are many casual fans for whom this is a legitimate concern. Knowing that Joe Torre was associated with winning teams but not quite understanding a manager's limited impact, the changeover from the only manager many Yankees fans had ever known (fans who were small children when Torre donned pinstripes are now college-bound) to the relatively untested Joe Girardi might be a bit mysterious and frightening. It might be fun, I thought, to give a series of worst-case scenarios in which good teams won for bad managers and bad managers wrecked good teams.
Unfortunately, that's not a topic that can be done without some work on definitions (principally, what would "bad" be) and the complicated business of untangling injuries, front-office work, aging curves, and the other things that go into building and un-building a team from the skipper's on-field and clubhouse work. Looking at the brief record of Vern Rapp, it occurred to me that perhaps the whole concept is flawed. Rapp was a successful minor league manager who took over the St. Louis Cardinals in 1977, and quickly earned a reputation as one of the great anti-motivators, a sour martinet despised by his players. And yet, in that first season Rapp presided over an 11-win swing in the Cardinals' fortunes, with his team rising from 72-90 to 83-79. If a bad manager can do that, then we need to redefine what we mean by "bad manager."
Another matter from the tour that stuck with me was a quick exchange I had with Derek Jacques over Satchel Paige's midnight ride to the Dominican Republic, where he helped pitch the dictator Trujillo's team to a championship while being held at gunpoint. I averred that this was the greatest baseball story ever. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, and I thought about compiling a necessarily subjective top ten list of the greatest baseball stories of all time, but again, this proved to be slippery work without definitions. Paige's trip is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, a novel. So many other great baseball tales are mere anecdotes, hardly even short stories.
There is one anecdote that kept trying to make my short list, jumping up and down like a pushy child, and the reason is that it's so ironic and so topical. The story's now nearly 86 years old, and concerns Babe Ruth. Ruth had a rough year in 1922; he batted .315/.434/.672 with 35 home runs, which was and is tremendous by just about anyone's standards, but his 1920-1921 rates averaged out to .377/.522/.847 with over 50 home runs in each season (59 in the latter), so comparatively 1922 looked like the work of a prehistoric Pete Incaviglia. More significantly, Ruth got into only 110 games, mostly because of bad behavior and provocations of authority that led to several suspensions.
After the 1921 World Series, Ruth, Bob Meusel, Wally Schang, and Carl Mays had plans to go barnstorming as the "Babe Ruth All-Stars." Ruth personally stood to gain as much as $25,000. What Ruth and the other Yankees involved chose to disregard was that as members of a World Series team they were disqualified from barnstorming. The owners felt that barnstorming detracted from the prestige of the World Series-no one ever said precisely how-and forbade members of the pennant winning teams from touring. It was an arbitrary rule, and Ruth's violation of it might have come to nothing but for the fact that 1921 was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis's first year in office as commissioner of baseball. Landis was still establishing his authority, and he could not afford to let any rule go unenforced, not even one with which he did not actually agree. This was particularly true after Ruth insisted on defying him. "If you do, it will be the sorriest thing you've ever done in baseball," Landis thundered during a heated phone call. Schang and Mays wisely dropped out, but Ruth and Meusel went anyway.
"This case resolves itself into a question of who is the biggest man in baseball," Landis said, "the commissioner, or the player who makes the most home runs." Calling Ruth and Meusel "mutinous, " Landis fined them their complete World Series shares ($3,362.26) and suspended them for the first forty days of the 1922 season; in light of the financial hardship imposed by this dual punishment, Landis later returned the Series shares. Ruth would be out for a quarter of the season, but this seemed a slap on the wrist given what Landis had just done to the Black Sox.
On May 27, only a week after returning from his suspension and six days after being named team captain, Ruth was ejected after throwing dirt at the umpire while arguing a call. "You goddamned big bum," a heckler shouted, "why don't you play ball?" Ruth responded by going into the stands; the heckler fled, leaving an impotent Ruth standing on the dugout roof and daring the crowd to start something. American League President Ban Johnson suspended Ruth for one game, fined him $200, and stripped him of his captaincy.
Less than a month later, Ruth came all the way in from left field to argue a call at second base with umpire Bill Dinneen, earning his third suspension of the season. After Ruth learned of the suspension, he again confronted Dinneen, threatening him physically. This brought suspension number four, Johnson telling Ruth that, "It seems the period has arrived when you should allow some intelligence to creep into a mind that has plainly been warped." Finally, on August 30, Ruth was put out of the game after arguing a called third strike. This time, Johnson suspended him for three more games.
The upshot of all of these run-ins with baseball law was that Ruth was not only considered a disappointment, but was, for perhaps the only time in his career, unpopular. That winter, Ruth's press agent, Christy Walsh, set up a dinner at the Elks Club for Ruth to cozy up to the New York sportswriters and other local dignitaries. Among those was James J. Walker, the popular New York State Senator who in a few short years would become mayor of New York City. Walker rose, and facing Ruth on the dais, implored Ruth to remember "those dirty-faced kids" who worshiped him, and to get his life together. "Are you going to keep on letting those little kids down?" Ruth, weeping openly, swore off alcohol until after the end of the coming season, vowed to get in shape, and for good measure promised to break the home run record.
The thing that makes this snippet of story extraordinary is this: who the hell was Jimmy Walker to lecture anyone on personal discipline? Walker would be an extremely popular mayor who ran his administration into the ground on charges of corruption and sloppy personal habits, a man who was as likely to be seen with a chorus girl at a speakeasy as at Gracie Mansion with his wife. By the 1930s, Governor Franklin Roosevelt was working to maneuver him out of office and investigators were closing in as the air filled with allegations of bribery. On September 1, 1932, Walker resigned and fled to Europe, hoping not to be extradited back to the States.
Babe Ruth was temperamental, put on weight, and ate and drank way too much, but at least he never had to flee the country. Walker's appeal to Ruth was one of the first times, but certainly not the last, that a politician of dubious moral standing lectured a ballplayer on being a poor moral influence-not to mention various other Americans, from homosexuals to communists, whose views or behavior were easy pickings for grandstanding demagogues at a particular moment in time. One is reminded of New Jersey Representative J. Parnell Thomas, an early Republican chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) who persecuted the Hollywood Ten. Convicted of fraud, he was jailed right alongside some of the screenwriters whose lives he had ruined.
Maybe "The Babe and Beau James" shouldn't qualify as one of the greatest baseball stories of all time, but it certainly ranks as the one that's been reenacted the most often, right down to the present day, staged in modern dress with undiminished hypocrisy.