A SEASON TO FORGET
NEW YORK – With the addition of infielder Everett Scott, and pitchers Joe Bush and ‘Sad’ Sam Jones, the Yankees were primed for another run at the World Series in 1922. However, Babe Ruth’s season did not start the way he had wanted it to.
Early that spring, despite Commissioner Kenesaw Landis’ threats of severe consequences, he had played in a barnstorming tour with a team of All-Stars, including fellow Yankee Bob Meusel. By 1922, a statute had already been in place for years to stipulate that players who participated in the prior World Series were barred from off-season exhibition games. Originally, it was felt that said players needed to be prevented from restaging the championship games for their own personal financial gain, as the owners had no control of them during the off-season. These exhibition game profits were more often than not greater than a regular season’s salary, even including a World Series share. It was felt that all of these actions would undermine the Fall Classic. Out to further legitimize the importance of the World Series that had been so recently tainted, Landis saw Ruth’s actions as a direct insult.
Unfortunately for the team, the tour failed to make much money due to weather conditions and cancellations. Many minor league teams even forbade the All-Stars to use their fields for fear of Landis’ wrath. In December, both Ruth and his teammate were suspended for the first 39 games of the season – without pay. Additionally, their World Series shares from the year prior were withheld.
During the first month of the campaign, both players would be seen out with their fellow Yankees before the games, but then retreating to box seats or even going home. Though advised to beg for leniency, both Ruth and Meusel spent much of their free time hunting. They even had their tonsils removed for preventative measures.
The team managed to win 22 games in that time span and in first place by two games, no less, though, it was estimated that the absence of their hitting stars cost them more than $100,000 in attendance figures. No matter how offensive his off-season behavior may have been, it was abundantly clear that the public’s sheer fascination with Ruth was heavily contributing to the sports success.
His first game back on May 20 saw him assume the role of the Yankees’ on-field captain, as Roger Peckinpaugh had been traded the year prior. 40,000 fans filed into the Polo Grounds to see the great man make his triumphant return to the ballpark. In that first game however, he struck out, twice popped-out and grounded out. As more games passed, his performance continued to suffer. In those first few games, he was hitting .093, with only one home run. New York fans had also turned on him, booing with every plate appearance or fielding flub. Ruth replied with sarcastic doffs of his cap.
It took him a mere five days for things to come to a boiling point. After being thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, he threw dirt into umpire George Hildebrand’s face. Ruth was immediately ejected and upon walking back to the dugout, being heckled by the multitude, he was able to make out the words from two particular fans. Babe jumped over the fence and ran into the stands to confront one of them. The fan bolted back a few rows and continued to shout. Being gently restrained by a few fans, Ruth jumped onto the dugout roof, challenging anyone in the crowd to a fight. With no takers, he jumped back onto the field, took his cap and glove, and made his way to the centerfield clubhouse. The fans booed him vociferously.
This time, American League President Ban Johnson suspended him for a day. The next day, the Yanks were scheduled for a game against Washington and their tight-fisted owner Clark Griffith. Considering the standing of his own club, the magistrate often depended on the drawing power of stars like Ruth. In other words, it was in baseball’s best interest to keep the rabble-rouser in the game and playing as much as possible. Ruth was handed a $200 fine and his title of ‘captain’ was summarily removed.
One June 19, Ruth continued to outrage and BE outraged by the umpires. After a questionable base-running call that favored a notoriously slow Les Nunamaker, Babe came running in from leftfield to join the argument against Bill Dineen at second base. His vulgar language led to yet another ejection. The umpire’s call ended up being the turning point, as the game was won but to plays later – handing the Yankees their eighth consecutive loss. That very night, after a phone call from Dineen, Ban Johnson suspended Ruth again, this time for three days. The next day during batting practice, after Babe learned of Johnson’s ruling, he challenged Dineen to a fight underneath the stands. Johnson tacked on another two games.
At the end of August, Ruth was suspended for a fifth time that year, and again for three days. He had been ejected for arguing a third strike with umpire Tom Connolly, using much of the same language that Johnson deemed “shocking to every American mother who permits her boy to go to a game.”
Additionally, Babe continued to satiate his appetite for off-the-field conduct. Yankee owner Colonel Ruppert received daily updates of the star’s womanizing, drinking and many late nights.
In only 110 contests, Ruth managed to bat .315 and lead the league in slugging percentage. He scored 94 runs and batted in 96, well below his 1921 output. His thirty-five home runs were good for third place, behind Ken Williams and ‘Tilly’ Walker. However, when all was said and done, the Yankees were able to hold on and win the pennant by one game.
The ’22 World Series saw more frustration for the Babe. Facing the cross-town rival Giants, Ruth was stymied by a barrage of slow, low and outside curves. In seventeen at bats, he managed only two hits, a single and a double. Grantland Rice wrote, “He hit the ball out of the infield just three times, and during the remainder of the engagement he spent most of his afternoons tapping dinky blows to the pitcher or first. In his last 12 times at bat the once-mighty Bambino from Blooeyland failed to hit the ball hard enough to dent the cuticle of a custard pie.” His lone run batted in meant nothing either, as McGraw’s men swept the Yankees to take their second consecutive title.
Acting at the behest of his business manager Christy Walsh, Ruth made a gesture to the New York fans suggesting that he was mending his ways. The Babe was honored at a New York Elks Club dinner, which was to feature a question-and-answer session with the ballplayer.
In attendance that evening was State Senator Jimmy Walker, who was soon to become New York’s mayor. His own flaws notwithstanding, he proceeded to grill Ruth for his cavorting, late-night escapades, and appetite that kept him terribly out of shape. After scolding the Yankee, he asked whether he would “keep letting down those dirty-faced little kids?”
He vowed to go to his Sudbury farm with Helen and Dorothy, work hard, and swear off drink. Helping that cause was contract addendum from Ruppert, stipulating that Ruth was not to drink at all during the regular season or stay up later than 1 o’clock in the morning, unless given consent from the manager.
Ruth, turning 27 years old in February, was able to whip his tired body into first-rate condition in 1923. He reported to training camp in Florida weighing a healthy 215, a muscular size for his 6' 2" frame. By the time the team headed north, Babe had dropped 13 more pounds due to a spring flu. He was finally ready to take part in one of the team’s greatest triumphs - the opening of their very own stadium in the South Bronx.
The Babe went on to have one of his best seasons in 1923 and lead the Yankees to their first ever World Championship.
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