When Babe Ruth started hitting home runs, the US started to change. Baseball fans both diehard and dilettante were dazzled by this singular figure who propelled the ball harder and farther than anyone else and rounded the bases with unimagined frequency, more often than entire teams. In 1919, when Ruth hit a record 29 home runs, attendance soared at games both in his home city of Boston and on the road. Observing Ruth’s marketability, baseball’s overseers changed the very machinery of the game; they introduced a livelier ball, more tightly wound, that would facilitate home runs, which began to occur at unprecedented rates. Baseball was shaken to the core, and the aftershocks were felt well beyond the sport. Home runs in baseball—like horn solos in jazz and close-ups in movies (other revolutions of the time)—focus attention on the individual at the expense of the collective. Baseball’s change and Ruth’s popularity were part of a reshaping of US attitudes toward individuality, a new emphasis on persons, not people, and on the transcendent beings among—but not of—us.
It was an era of transition: New York was displacing Boston on the US cultural scene, moving pictures and recorded sound were substituting for live performance, and the culture of mass-reproducible celebrity was infiltrating all facets of society. Babe Ruth’s renown, skills, and canny business sense—manifesting in his dramatic trade from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees—illuminate these shifts. The story of this most modern of celebrities highlights the emergence of an individuality we live with to this day.
All of these changes can be seen, in microcosm, on January 5, 1920, when the Yankees announced that they had bought Ruth from the Red Sox. Ruth’s fame would explode in the media hothouse of New York, landing him on vaudeville stages and movie screens. The city’s first tabloid, The New York Daily News, not yet a year old, assigned a reporter just to cover Ruth. For the intensifying celebrity culture, Ruth was an ideal specimen: larger than life, vaguely scandalous, possessed of seemingly superhuman abilities, and always good for an irreverent quip to the sportswriters. His physique helped make him instantly recognizable, iconic. People who had never seen a baseball game knew what he looked like, as people who had never seen a motion picture knew what Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp looked like. During Ruth’s first season in New York, Dorothy Parker wrote a theater review mentioning “a Russian dancer who looks startlingly like Babe Ruth”; she could expect her readers to instantly get the picture, and the joke.1
Ruth embodied a very new, and yet very old, phenomenon—celebrity—at a time and place and technological era poised to capitalize on him. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, renown was fundamentally changing, constructed through an admixture of images, publicity, and marketing—and a teasing of the line between public performance and private lives. Above all, the rise of first photography and then moving pictures introduced a cognitive contradiction: reproducible images of unique people who were supposedly unreproducible, their inimitability becoming a marker of value in a marketplace where people were now commodities. For the newly mass-technologized society, celebrity served to recenter the individual against the backdrop of the anonymous crowds.2
In Ruth’s time, the most recognizable version of celebrity was the Hollywood star system, which relied on a combination of marketing materials and fan magazines that reminded audiences about the star’s life and fame beyond the movies—what Walter Benjamin called “the artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio”3—and cinematic plots that would invoke and even enlist that public persona. Another major component of Hollywood film stardom was the device of the close-up, which D. W. Griffith called a way of “photographing thought”—suggesting that the image can capture the inner life of the individual.4 Close-ups in particular invite the audience to set aside story and focus on the star, bigger than the movie plot.
Ruth’s celebrity paralleled cinema stardom. From 1919 onward, every home run he hit was marveled at by fans, emphasizing the individual whose abilities were so exceptional that he could transcend baseball. When he hit a home run it was tantamount to a close-up, a pause for admiring the person. A ball hit over the fence is no longer in play; the hitter performs a victory lap. Home runs freeze the action and showcase the player, not the team, a rare example in sports where one accrues points by rendering the other players on the field momentarily irrelevant. More than any other player, when Ruth was at bat he became more than a participant in the game’s unfolding narrative, instead existing outside that time—as the Babe, a luminous signifier of the 1920s US zeitgeist.
George Herman Ruth, Jr., was born in Baltimore in 1895 to tavern keepers George and Kate, who quickly realized their incapacity to handle their son’s wayward behavior. At seven, Junior was sent to Saint Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where for the next 12 years the Xaverians were tasked with containing him. The brothers taught him baseball, and it took; as a teenager pitching for the school’s team, Ruth became a local hero. His repute stemmed from his dominating play and his striking physical features: he grew to be six foot two, tall and broad-shouldered for his day, the torso tapering into shockingly spindly legs. On top of this, he kept his baby-face cheeks, and therefore was christened “Babe.”
In 1914, Ruth was scouted and signed by the Baltimore Orioles (no relation to the current organization), who played in the International League—professional, but subordinate to the major leagues. Ruth immediately outmatched hitters, catching the eye of the Red Sox, who bought his contract. From 1915 to 1918, Ruth helped Boston win three championships as a star pitcher.
He was meant for more. Pitchers have never been expected to contribute much offense. But Ruth, batting roughly one-quarter as often as nonpitchers did, was making hay of his turns at the plate. So in 1918 manager Ed Barrow had Ruth start 60 games in the field, and as a part-time hitter, Ruth managed 11 home runs, a tie for most in the sport. The rest of his team hit four. In 1919, still not getting a full season of at bats, Ruth hit 29. The rest of his team hit four.
As the disparities suggest, home runs were rare before Ruth. At the time, many baseball fans and observers thought of home runs as tawdry, preferring the traditional style of offense that relied on stringing together hits and stratagems that would cumulatively advance runners. Whereas stars like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had excelled at knocking balls around the field, rarely striking out, Ruth was willing to frequently miss altogether in order to occasionally hit pitches hard and far. He sacrificed control for force, gripping the bat at its end rather than sliding his hands up the barrel as was customary. Many sportswriters, league officials, managers, and players objected, in print, in jeers, and in more sinister devices such as attempts to denigrate Ruth with rumors that he had African American ancestry, and epithets to that effect.
Establishment antipathy toward Ruth was obscured by the undeniable draw of the home run; he served as a magnet for crowds and press attention. With success came conflict. Ruth had always been known for impulsiveness and immaturity both on and off the field. Since his departure from the Xaverian brothers, his unruly propensities had flourished, and as his stature grew his nonconformity put him at odds with his team. An inveterate carouser, Ruth ignored curfews, routinely squabbled with Red Sox owner Harry Frazee over money, and fought with Barrow, leading to multiple suspensions from the team, usually followed by public reconciliations. Ruth was not the first athlete to party, act out against management, or demand raises (Cobb had done so), but these episodes, combined with his skill set, made it easy for his detractors to categorize him as a selfish player unconcerned with the team’s fortunes.5 Boston newspapers enjoyed pointing out that Ruth’s increased home run output had coincided with a disappointing finish for the team in 1919.
After the 1919 season, Ruth announced that he would not play in 1920 unless Boston doubled his $10,000 salary. It forced Boston’s hand; Frazee reached out to the Yankees to talk trade, and, anticipating a possible backlash, began a smear campaign against Ruth, whispering to newspapers that his selfishness was unbecoming a player in a team sport, and questioning whether a team could win championships with a home run–hitting centerpiece. In December, Frazee and Barrow met at the bar of the Knickerbocker Hotel at 42nd Street and Broadway. Frazee, presumably feeling that Barrow should hear it directly from him, hinted that a trade was all but done. The two teams signed the paperwork on December 26, 1919.
On January 5, Yankees president Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Jr., announced that he had bought the rights to Ruth. It was a 10-day-old story. Though some reporters had been in on the secret, all waited to write about it until Ruppert’s statement to the press, as if collectively sensing that the fact of the transaction was less momentous than its public unveiling. The reports reveal celebrity culture in operation, treating Ruth as a commodity; his cost, not his ability or his future effect on the standings, seemed the most newsworthy item. The New York Times’s first sports page blared, “Ruth Bought by New York Americans for $125,000, Highest Price in Baseball Annals,” in an eight-column headline, and continued with smaller headers that reemphasized the money. Other newspapers disagreed on the dollar amount, thus setting in motion the discourse of guesswork and mythologizing of Ruth’s price. The Boston Globe stated the cost as “probably $100,000 and possibly more.” The News had it at $150,000—an early exercise in tabloid extremism—but the extremism was apt: any six-figure price would have been an outlier amount for a baseball deal.
The papers were astute to treat Ruth as a business asset. Ruppert wanted to make the Yankees more profitable, as Prohibition was about to severely impair his business empire. The day the Ruth deal was announced, Ruppert was hit with bad news. Representing the United States Brewers Association, he had challenged Congress’s constitutional right to define intoxicating beverages, a final legal wrangle before the Volstead Act would go into effect on January 17. At stake for Ruppert was the imminent shuttering of his family’s Ruppert Brewery, sometimes called Knickerbocker Brewery after its most successful beer brand. He lost, and it made the Times’s front page.6
Ruppert was banking on Ruth to rebrand the Yankees and help them compete for attention. Figuratively, the Yankees toiled in the shadow of the older, more successful New York Giants (the baseball team that would relocate to San Francisco 37 years later).7 Literally, the Yankees played on the older team’s turf, the Polo Grounds. The Ruth deal made sense in the context of the postwar rise of public relations as a concern and a business. Ruth himself, late in 1920, would meet Christy Walsh and agree to a professional athlete–agent arrangement that is considered history’s first. Walsh would ghostwrite columns for Ruth, place him in advertisements and film roles, and generally conduct the business of trading on his stardom.
Ruth had been doing all right, though. His friend Johnny Igoe, a Boston drugstore owner, had served as a sometime business representative for years. The day after the trade was announced, from a Los Angeles golf course, Ruth sent Igoe a telegram: “Will not play anywhere but Boston.” Igoe spread the word. This was an act, and a transparent one; baseball players had no real power to refuse trades in those days. Ruth’s display of resistance was a canny use of the media that soon led to a raise and an announcement that he had changed his mind.
Frazee, meanwhile, was continuing to justify the deal by characterizing Ruth as a detriment to the notion of a team, to the culture of the Red Sox franchise, in both his playing style and his offstage antics.8 There is some irony to Frazee’s positioning himself as a guardian of old-school New England aesthetics. He ran the Red Sox from his New York offices and his New York home at 565 Park Avenue, spending little time in Boston. A native midwesterner born into a working-class family, Frazee had become a Chicago theater mogul in his twenties. Moving to New York, he built the Longacre Theater, had several hits, and accrued enough wealth by 1916 to buy the Red Sox.9
Known as a fast-talking wheeler-dealer of a Broadway producer, like Florenz Ziegfeld but without the budget, Frazee was rumored, wrongly, to be Jewish. There were no Jewish baseball owners at the time, but fear of Jewish control of the major leagues was rampant; the racist Henry Ford railed at the “smothering influence of the chosen race” in baseball. Frazee, associated with New York’s multicultural modernity—its entertainment industry, spectacle, new money, and new Americans—had drawn his ire. But Frazee’s own history was irrelevant when his remarks to the press cast Ruth as too brash, too big, too individual for the Red Sox. Thus, the owner helped solidify the popular understanding of the divide between antiquated, stuffy Boston and brash, big, and individualist New York.
It is likely that 1920s New York would have become the world’s capital of arts and entertainment culture regardless of Babe Ruth, but Ruth helped seal that deal.
The relocation of Ruth capped decades of transition in which Boston ceded its place as the nation’s cultural capital to New York. Through much of its history, the country had looked to Boston for developments in literature and the arts. By 1920, that must have seemed eons ago. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York City overtook Boston in these areas, as it had previously done in population, industry, finance, and modernization.10 While Boston passed an 1891 ordinance preventing the construction of buildings higher than 10 stories, New York allowed developers to build modern high-rises, soon to be called skyscrapers, “restricted only by the amount of elevator service.”11 In 1920, New York was eight times the size of Boston; its population had reached almost 6 million, in contrast with the roughly 700,000 back in Boston.
New York had become recognized as the cultural epicenter by leading the way in popular entertainment (theater, popular song) and entertainment technology (photographic and print reproduction, including inexpensive books and magazines and innovations like book-of-the-month clubs) and eventually catching up in the spheres of art considered more elite. It could afford to fund a new symphony, the Philharmonic, in 1909, and import Gustav Mahler as its first conductor.
It is likely that 1920s New York would have become the world’s capital of arts and entertainment culture regardless of Ruth, but Ruth helped seal that deal. In February 1920, he returned to the East Coast. Arriving in New York on February 28, he dropped off his stuff at his new digs in the Ansonia Hotel on West 72nd Street, met up with the rest of the Yankees, and got on a train for spring training. Embarking on a career that would make him an icon, he was ready for his close-up. Taking advantage of baseball’s new, livelier ball, Ruth proceeded to hit 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 in 1921; meanwhile, other players’ totals started creeping toward his level. Prompted by Ruth, baseball changed utterly, as did the world.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
- “The Season’s Greetings,” Ainslee’s, November 1920. Reprinted in Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Complete Broadway 1918-1923 (Donald Books, 2014), p. 162. ↩
- I write about this phenomenon in more detail in Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity (University of Texas Press, 2011). ↩
- “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1968), p. 251. ↩
- Qtd. on p. 68 of Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers (Fromm International, 1986). ↩
- Glenn Stout, The Selling of the Babe (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), pp. 65-66. ↩
- Front-page ink was not new for him. The Times had mentioned Ruppert on Page One in previous years for running for Congress, for selling racehorses, and for injuring himself while heroically failing to corral a runaway horse. He had been a public New York figure for two decades, prominent in Tammany politics and high society. While running the family brewery, Ruppert could see prohibition coming and started diversifying his financial interests. On December 31, 1914, he and his partner, Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, bought the Yankees. With a keen eye for branding, Ruppert proposed that the team be renamed the Knickerbockers. Newspaper editors felt that the name was so long as to be unwieldy. The trade for Ruth was cannier marketing. ↩
- The Giants were known in the early 1900s as “Tammany’s Team,” having been owned by Andrew Freedman, a Tammany politician; the name resonated as a signal of the team’s dominance over the local market. ↩
- In response, Ruth told reporters that Frazee was “not good enough to own any ball club.” Robert C. Cottrell, Blackball, the Black Sox, and the Babe: Baseball’s Crucial 1920 Season (McFarland, 2002), 138. ↩
- There is no truth to the legend that Frazee sold Ruth to finance No No Nanette, the 1925 musical that became one of Frazee’s most successful ventures. ↩
- See Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), pp. 13-14. ↩
- Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham (Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 170. ↩