Despite the well-documented womanizing and drinking habits of the Babe, for some reason — cultural nostalgia, or just his utter dominance in his era perhaps — there stands a perception of George Herman Ruth as something of a baseball golden child.
But if you look at the mythic slugger’s career statistics, you see he sat out 42 games in 1922, a year after the Yankees won the World Series. The reason? He was suspended for the first six weeks of the season. And this didn’t even have anything to do with his regular off-field habits. (He did face suspensions for those shenanigans throughout his career.) The Babe sat because he was looking to get paid.
Y’see, today athletes are pretty well chained to their organizations, but they’re also compensated like whoa. Way back when, athletes often worked offseason jobs. And look at the type of digs kept by MVPs as late as the ’50s.
So in early American sporting lore, athletes would sometimes take to touring the country for extra cash once the official season was over. This was called barnstorming. And following the Yankees’ World Series win, Ruth and a few other players sought to hit the road.
Players weren’t forbade from barnstorming, per say. But players from the World Series teams were, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much stopping the teams from just replaying the World Series on a traveling tour and eliminating the grandeur of baseball’s nascent world championship. That’s reasonable enough, but the amount of bonus money a player could get from playing in the World Series could pale in comparison to potential barnstorming earnings.
Ruth was warned not to tour by baseball’s first commissioner, the outrageously named Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. (That ‘judge’ part represents an actual title; Landis served as a federal judge. He was originally brought into the game to lay down the law after the Black Sox scandal.) But Ruth, already established as one of the sport’s most shining stars, scoffed at Landis’s edict and took to the road.
Landis followed through and not only suspended Ruth for the first 39 days of the 1922 season without pay, but also withheld his World Series share from the year before. Still, when Ruth finally made his way back to the team, he was installed as captain. But the suspension probably set the tone for Ruth’s season, and that honor was short-lived. As explained by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR):
On May 25, he was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double and, furious at the call, threw dirt in umpire George Hildebrand’s face. On his way towards the dugout, he spied a heckler and jumped into the stands, ready to fight. The fan ran away and Ruth ended up standing on the dugout roof, screaming, “Come on down and fight! Anyone who wants to fight, come down on the field!” Ruth was fined $200 and was replaced as captain by shortstop Everett Scott.
Ruth saw one more suspension that season, accounting for the rest of the games he missed, and that seemed to ground him some.
Babe was suspended for three days in mid-June for his part in an obscenity-laced tirade against umpire Bill Dinneen. When Ruth got the news the following day, he challenged Dinneen to a fist fight—and the suspension was increased to five days. In the wake of the suspensions, Ruth made an effort to check his temper. On June 26, as some of his teammates argued with Dinneen, Babe merely sat down in the outfield grass and watched.
The Babe still managed to post 35 homers and a 1.106 OPS in his roller-coaster-fuck-authority 1922 season.
photo credit: Chris Evans, Creative Commons/flickr