Babe Ruth: The Making of a Myth

By the beginning of the 1930 Major League Baseball season, George Herman Ruth—better known by his nickname Babe—had already firmly established his status as the greatest player the game ever saw. The statistical evidence supporting that claim began in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox as he quickly became one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League. By the end of the 1920s, he was the most feared hitter on the most fearsome team in the league; the central figure of the New York Yankees Murderer’s Row lineup that helped the Babe put together the most dominant decade at the bat in history: a .355 batting average, 467 home runs, and 1338 RBI. Despite that prodigious productivity and claim to the sport’s greatest claim, the Sultan of Swat would be 35 years old as baseball moved out of the Roaring Twenties for good. Nobody expected Ruth to continue as the dominant athlete of the game into the 1930’s and many questioned whether he could even maintain his role as the game’s most recognizable celebrity. He was one of the game’s best pitchers in the 1910’s and the game’s best hitter in the 1920’s so the real question on every fan’s mind was what was the Babe going to be in the baseball of the 1930’s?

The Babe had his own answer to what role he was going to play in baseball in the 1930′ s: the first professional athlete to have a higher salary than the President of the United States. The decade kicked off for the Bambino with a brand new two year contract paying him $80,000 a year. When informed that this figure was, indeed, more than the President’s salary, Ruth’s answer is indicative of what he expected from himself in the new decade: “Why not? I had a better year than he had.” The fact that even the worst player in the game had a better year than President Herbert Hoover does nothing to undermine the significance of this moment in the history of not just Babe Ruth, but America. The role of Babe Ruth in the 1930’s officially moved beyond baseball the minute that contract was signed; it unofficially marks the creation of the modern athlete as entertainment celebrity.

The transformation of Babe Ruth from mere athlete into athletic celebrity may somewhat ironically have been stimulated by a concerted rejection of his ambition to continue trading on his declining athletic skills in the most natural role available: managing the team rather than playing for the team. By 1933, Ruth had already made it clear he wanted to move from the field into the front office of the New York Yankees.

The transition would seem to have made perfect sense to just about anyone in America. The only people in the country who apparently did not see the sense in this evolution of Ruth’s role for the team in the 1930’s was the Yankees front office itself which made their view on the situation very clear when the team released him before the 1935 season. Ruth promptly signed a contract with the Boston Braves with the intent of taking over managerial duties, but soon dismissed the wisdom of that move. After just 28 games, he decided it was finally time to retire. The decade that started out so full of hope and expectation quickly deteriorated. The Babe’s role in baseball in the 1930’s turned out mostly to be one in which he “played in exhibition games and made public appearances while he waited for the call to manage a team.

Such a role may seem like a sad ending to such an illustrious career, but it turns out that the people were asking the wrong question at the end of the 1920’s. The question people should have been asking is what role baseball would have in the Babe Ruth of the 1930’s. For it was during that decade that George Herman Ruth transcended the game he helped save from the abyss of the 1919 World Series scandal threatening to cast a shadow over the integrity of the game forever. The 1930’s began with Ruth revolutionizing the monetary value of pro athletes with his new contract. In October 1932, Ruth transcended the boundaries of fact to pass fully into myth. The legend remains firmly intact that Babe Ruth actually called his next home run by pointing to the spot where it was going to land immediately before doing exactly what he promised. Even though it supposedly took place during a World Series game, contemporary reports make no mention of the call.

Whether or not the called shot actually took place might have been significant to the Ruth of the early 1920s. By the time the Babe was playing in those exhibition games and making public appearances while waiting for that call to manage, it was already beside the point. In the matter of a few short years in the twilight of his career as the once fearsome statistics began to dwindle in size, Babe Ruth went from being the greatest player the game of baseball ever saw to transforming the professional sports player into the celebrity athlete before his final 1930s transformation of the celebrity athlete into American folk hero. That contract paying him more than the President to merely take the field and play the game he loved would come to see like peanuts during this transitional phase of the Babe. All those personal appearance and tours exhibiting that he still had the power to knock balls pitched with a little speed and finesse out of ballparks around the country may well have added as much as a million dollars to the money his contracts earned him as a player. Because Ruth avoided the common trap of spending money as fast as he earned that would plague future celebrity athlete, if it is true that the former slugger spent his final years waiting for a phone call asking him to come manage a team, that waiting would be done in the luxurious comfort of a large apartment on New York’s West Side and a monthly income of $2,500 by the time he had reached 45.

If the 1910’s was the decade of Babe the Pitcher and the 1920’s was the decade of Babe the Slugger, then the 1930’s was the decade of Babe the Myth. A year after Ruth was released from the Yankees, a young player named Joe DiMaggio took the field for the team for the first time. Before too long, the Yankees had another hero to root for and the game continued on successfully without him. The 1930’s would not, however, produce a player capable of hitting more home runs in a single season than the Babe and would not produce that player until the 1960’s. It would take until the 1970’s before a player would hit more home runs or drive in more runs in his entire career than Babe Ruth. Amazing, Babe Ruth still maintains a number of career records for playing baseball and ranks in the top five in others. The may have gone on without missing a beat when Ruth finally left it in the 1930’s, but the progression of history has proved that the 1930’s was exactly the decade when the Babe became bigger than the game itself. With each season that passed without any of the stars and future legends who came in his wake proving capable of matching his achievements, the legend only grew bigger and bigger. The fact that so people believe the Babe capable of predicting exactly where he was going to hit the next pitch he go is almost certainly due to the fact that starting with his exit from the game in the 1930’s, it came to seem as if he was capable of doing things that no player could do.