Babe Ruth: The Politics of Celebrity

With little education, a questionable lifestyle, and meager interest in politics, Babe Ruth was hardly a civic leader.  But his oversized celebrity status periodically brought him into the world of politics where his presence was almost as entertaining as his exploits on the baseball diamond.

Politics, it has long been noted, makes for some unlikely bedfellows, and this truism was perhaps never more apparent than in 1915, when the Babe, perhaps unwittingly, joined forces with the women’s suffrage movement.

In an effort to gain support for their right to vote, the suffragettes brought their campaign to the ballparks.  One suffrage organization offered to pay players on the Boston Red Sox for every home run they hit in their home park.  Their goal was to promote the equal suffrage movement “in the minds of all lovers of our national game.”

It was a cost-effective publicity effort in the dead-ball era.  In that age, a slugger might lead the league with 10 home runs, and hapless pitchers were largely expected to bunt and stay out of double plays.

At that point in his career, the Babe had not yet earned the title “The Sultan of Swat.”  He was a pitcher, winning 18 games that year for the Red Sox.  But he was far from hapless with the bat.  He hit .315, and his four home runs—one of which he hit at home—led the team.

Ruth was an inveterate skirt chaser and philanderer, and many of the suffragettes that paid him for his home run would undoubtedly look askance at many of his off-the-field escapades.  But in 1915 Ruth could say that he, quite literally, hit a home run for women’s rights.

Politics also formed the backdrop for Ruth’s participation in the 1918 World Series.  With the “Great War” raging in Europe, attendance was down for the Series.  Gate receipts weren’t adding up, and the players—just prior to the start of game five—were informed that their playoff bonuses would be slashed.

The players balked, insisting on their agreed-upon share.  With thousands of unruly fans awaiting the start of the game, negotiations were tense, a situation exacerbated when American League President Ban Johnson showed up drunk to represent the league.

Thankfully, former Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald—the grandfather of future President John F. Kennedy—was on hand to take action.  He called in Boston police to keep order.  He helped negotiate.  The players, realizing that a hold out for more money in the midst of a war would be a public relations disaster, relented.

The Series resumed that afternoon, beginning with the first-ballpark rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (it would not become the National Anthem until 1931).  Behind Ruth’s pitching, the Red Sox won the 1918 World Series.  Alas, however, the Babe would be traded to the Yankees after the 1919 season, and the Red Sox would have to wait 86 years for another World Series victory.

The United States, on the other hand, waited only a couple of months for victory: the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

Babe Ruth, 1920

Not that Ruth took a whole lot of interest in the war effort.  A few years after the Armistice, Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, took a victory tour of the United States, where he met the Yankee slugger.  Ruth greeted the great general by asking: “I suppose you were in the War?”

To the extent that Ruth was political, he was a Democrat, albeit one who neither voted nor held fast to his political principles—especially when money was involved.  Thus, in 1920, when Warren G. Harding sent an emissary to request Ruth’s participation in his “front-porch campaign” for President, the ballplayer’s first response was, “Hell, no, I’m a Democrat.”  His second response, according to Ruth biographer Robert Creamer, was “How much are they offering?”   For $4,000, Ruth went to Harding’s front porch.

Perhaps it was Ruth’s campaign interactions with Harding that explains his relaxed manner in subsequent meetings.  In the summer of 1923, for example, Harding was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.  Just before game time, Ruth greeted the President with, “Hot as hell, ain’t it, Prez?”

Ruth returned to his party principles in 1928, when Al Smith, the Democratic Governor of New York, ran for President.  For the only time in his career, Ruth proactively campaigned for a politician.  He made appearances with Smith, he gave speeches for Smith, and he took to the radio for Smith.

One day, he recruited his teammate, Tony Lazzeri, to the radio booth.  After giving his standard spiel for Smith, he handed the microphone to the Italian Lazzeri while asking, “So, Tony, who are the wops voting for this election?”

Ruth wasn’t asked to campaign a lot after that, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a political audience.  In fact, perhaps the Babe’s greatest moment was witnessed by soon-to-be President Roosevelt and future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

It was 1932 and the World Series, with the Yankees facing the Cubs.  By game three, the tension was high, and the Cubs seemed to particularly target Ruth.  When Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning to face Charlie Root, the Cubs’ bench gave the Yankees’ slugger a particular razzing.  The Babe gave Root two strikes and then made a waving motion toward centerfielder (or the Cubs’ bench, or toward Root, accounts vary), and promptly deposited the next pitch into the centerfield bleachers.

The Babe had called his shot.  FDR laughed when he saw it.  It made such an impression on future Justice Stevens, that he was able to recall it vividly almost 80 years later: “He took the bat in his right hand and pointed it right at the center field stands and then, of course, the next pitch he hit a homerun in center field and there’s no doubt about the fact that he did point before he hit the ball.”  It is, noted Justice Stevens, “the one ruling that I won’t be reversed on.  I’m sure of that.”

Even in his declining years, Ruth’s legend grew, extending beyond the U. S. borders.  Following the 1934 season—Ruth’s last as a Yankee—he was the player-manager for a group of major leaguers on a barnstorming tour of Japan. Other than Ruth, the team included Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez, Jimmie Foxx and, mysteriously, a little-used catcher for the Cleveland Indians, Moe Berg.

The all-stars won, the Babe hit home runs, and Berg took a lot of pictures—so much so that Japanese authorities searched his room to find out what, exactly, Berg was photographing.  They never found the film.

They did, however, find Ruth’s camera, on which he had taken recreational photographs.  When he developed the film, he found that the Japanese had accessed the film and blotted out the background buildings and structures.

Berg, as it turned out, provided his film to the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA) for bombing raids in World War II.  He was, it was later learned, a spy.  And Ruth, with his larger-than-life personality and global status as a celebrity, was the perfect foil for a little-known catcher conducting espionage.

In the world of politics, Ruth was a novice, a simple commoner in the company of activists, spies, and presidents.  In the pantheon of the national pastime, however, Babe Ruth is royalty, baseball’s home-run king.

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One response to “Babe Ruth: The Politics of Celebrity

  1. Pingback: Babe Ruth's Religion and Political Views | The Hollowverse

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