April 27 is National Babe Ruth Day, when baseball fans worldwide celebrate baseball’s all-time greatest player. It originated on April 27, 1947, when the new Commissioner of Baseball Albert “Happy” Chandler proclaimed it, and a major celebration of Ruth’s career was held at Yankee Stadium. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an expert archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio (left) presents Babe Ruth a Sporting News Trophy for meritorious service to American youth at Sportsman’s Park in St Louis, June 19, 1948. (National Archives Identifier 219776006)

He’s been bestowed many nicknames over the years: the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, the Behemoth of Bust, the Big Bam, Jack Dunn’s Baby, and the Big Fellow. Out of those many emerged one that became immortal. The one that evoked awe-inspiring achievements, star power, and a name synonymous with the sport of baseball: “Babe” Ruth. 

The storied career of Babe Ruth is far removed from his early life. The phrase “from humble beginnings” seems to fall short to describe the world into which Ruth was born.

On February 6, 1895, in the Pigtown section of Baltimore, Maryland, Katherine and George Ruth welcomed their baby boy, George Herman Ruth Jr. His German immigrant family worked a variety of jobs to keep the family afloat. Ruth’s grandparents were immigrants from Prussia and Hanover, and the family spoke only German at home. Ruth’s mother, Katherine, did not have an easy life—of the eight children she bore, only Ruth and his younger sister Mamie survived past infancy.

His father, George Ruth Sr., opened a saloon in Baltimore where Ruth spent much of his childhood, walking around on the sawdust-covered floor, smelling tobacco smoke, and occasionally sneaking behind the bar when his father wasn’t looking. With the family all working long hours, Ruth fell in with a less-than-savory crowd of youngsters. He skipped school, caused mischief, and even stole beer from the saloon. 

His delinquency was likely the reason his parents sent him off to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (known today as the Cardinal Gibbons School). Other sources claim that, following a violent incident between father and son, city authorities intervened and placed him in the school for his safety. Regardless, if anyplace could straighten out Ruth’s “incorrigible qualities,” it was St. Mary’s. 

The Xaverian Brothers, the Catholic order that operated the school, believed in both education and developing practical skills. Every student was expected to carry out job duties around the school: cleaning, cooking, maintenance, etc. Ruth was a skilled tailor and carpenter but was still a less than ideal student. Corporal punishment was routine, and Ruth recounted years later that he received his fair share of abuse. 

One bright spot in his school years was playing on St. Mary’s baseball team. A turning point arrived in the form of Brother Mathias, who coached the young Ruth in perfecting his pitching, catching, and hitting. Mathias saw something in Ruth and taught him how to direct his raw energy into baseball.

Many biographers later credited Brother Mathias for his influence on Ruth, who emulated much of Mathias’s hitting style. Ruth managed to master nearly every position on the St. Mary’s team, but his primary skill was pitching, and in the dead ball era of baseball, stellar pitching was sought after by professional teams. 

In 1914, Ruth signed his first professional contract with the minor league Baltimore Orioles (several Baltimore-area teams were labeled “Orioles”) managed and owned by Jack Dunn. In his first real paying job since St. Mary’s, Ruth earned $100 a month, and his time with the Orioles became what many believe was the source of his nickname. “Babe” was a common substitute for “baby” and referred to his young appearance, raw energy, immaturity, and that he was a pet project for Dunn (adding the nickname “Jack Dunn’s Baby”). 

Ruth made his first professional appearance on March 7, 1914, and his pitching power soon attracted a major following from sports journalists. In the summer of 1914, Dunn was experiencing financial difficulties with the franchise, and in an effort to keep afloat, he entertained trades with the Philadelphia Athletics, Cincinnati Reds, and the New York Giants for Ruth. Each expressed interest, but the Boston Red Sox won out, and Ruth reported to Boston on July 11, 1914. 

Ruth made his major league debut the day he arrived in Boston, pitching against the Cleveland Naps and winning 4-3. Bill Carrigan, the Red Sox catcher and manager, wanted to cautiously limit the number of professional games for his brash new pitcher, but Ruth’s pitching ability could not be ignored. He easily won back-to-back exhibition games, and by 1915, he made the starting rotation on a regular basis. 

With the United States’ entry into World War I, many professional baseball athletes were drafted into the Armed Forces, which depleted many rosters and batting lineups. This presented a unique opportunity for Ruth, who wanted to do more than just pitch. Red Sox management noticed that more spectators attended games when Ruth was on the field, so he was given freedom to play more positions than pitcher. 

Ruth secured a high rank in the batting lineup, and by the end of the 1918 season, he retained a .300 batting average and scored 11 home runs. The Red Sox even won the 1918 World Series, where Ruth pitched possibly his best game ever with a shutout in Game 1. Following the World Series, Ruth arranged a nominal job at a steel mill, which exempted him from the draft.

By the beginning of 1920, Ruth’s meteoric rise put him on the same level as star pitchers like Walter Johnson, and his career now garnered national attention. Red Sox owner Henry Frazee, however, was struggling financially. In December 1919 Frazee sold Ruth’s contract to the New York Yankees.

Laborious contract negotiations and other expenses were hurting Frazee, and he ended up selling many player contracts; Ruth’s being the most prominent. He sold the rights to Babe Ruth for $100,000, and many Boston fans were incensed at the sale. This transaction had one of the biggest effects in sports history, launching the Yankees’ domination and the Red Sox World Series drought, giving rise to the “Curse of the Bambino.”

Between 1920 and 1934, Babe Ruth achieved more baseball milestones than many other players who came before him. His time with the Yankees, along with other hitters such as Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri (the aptly named “Murderers Row”), ushered in the era of power hitting and home runs. Now the batter, not the pitcher, dominated the game and racked up runs and bases. 

Ruth signed some of the most lucrative contracts in baseball at the time, earning tens of thousands of dollars and becoming one of the most highly paid athletes in North America. He donated generously to Catholic charities, schools, orphanages, and hospitals. 

Underlying it all, however, was a man with an intense appetite for life and its pleasures. Ruth was known by many to be a heavy drinker, eater, and philanderer. Back in 1914 he married Helen Woodford shortly after arriving in Boston, but his numerous infidelities and carousing eroded their marriage. They adopted a daughter, Dorothy Ruth, the child of Ruth and his mistress Juanita Jennings. They were living separately by 1926, and in 1929, Helen died in a house fire in Watertown, Massachusetts. 

While traveling with the Yankees, Ruth spent many nights drinking and carousing—so much so that by 1922, Ruth’s renewed contract included a morals clause that he would abstain from alcohol and imposed a 1:00 a.m. curfew.

The first three years Ruth played for the Yankees were exciting but fraught with issues. Despite having over .300 batting averages, high-slugging percentages, and hitting over 50 home runs a season, Ruth clashed with many in management and ownership. He was suspended by baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1922 for spring barnstorming (prohibited by World Series winners at the time) and was ejected from games for arguing with umpires. He was made the Yankees’ on-field captain in 1922, but losing the World Series that year to the Giants was a harsh blow to Ruth. Many journalists by that time thought that he was a short-lived phenomenon who would fade away. 

Nothing about Ruth was predictable, though. He refused to fall back into obscurity. The next season, Ruth trained harder than ever; he lost over 30 pounds and ran faster than he ever had before. The Yankees dominated the 1923 season, winning the World Series against the Giants, and the Babe achieved an unheard of .386 batting average. That same year, the Yankees moved to a new stadium in the Bronx, which earned the nickname “The House that Ruth Built” after Ruth hit the first home run there. 

Two world-famous events happened during Ruth’s Yankees career. In 1926, as the Yankees prepared for another World Series, a story emerged that an injured boy named Johnny Sylvester, a baseball fan, wanted Ruth to hit a home run during the World Series. The story caught national attention, which got back to Ruth and after hitting a home run, he visited Johnny in the hospital. The story shed light on Ruth’s philanthropy and charitable work. 

The next event though, on October 1, 1932, was one that would be fiercely debated among sportswriters, journalists, athletes, and baseballs for decades. In Game 3 of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, Ruth went to bat and endured taunts and jeers from the Cubs dugout. Cubs pitcher Charlie Root pitched two strikes against Ruth and right before the third pitch, Ruth extended his hand, pointing out toward the field. Ruth slammed the pitch, hitting a home run to centerfield, past a flagpole. This famous “called shot” was a media sensation. Conflicting contemporary accounts claim that Ruth was pointing at the Cubs dugout or indeed out to centerfield. Whatever the factual record may be, Ruth’s stardom was unparalleled with other baseball players of the golden era.

All the fame carried financial opportunities for the Babe. He was one of the first athletes to hire a publicity agent, Christy Walsh, who handled many of the lucrative endorsement deals: baseball cards, chewing gum, cigarettes, baseball gear, candy, and other goods. He became the face of numerous products, advertisements, and popular entertainment. Vaudeville songs and silent films featuring Ruth were commonplace, and he was the ideal American athlete to millions of children. 

Beneath the popularity however, was a rambunctious and near hedonistic lifestyle. Many people tried to rein in Ruth, like Yankees manager Miller Huggins. Ruth’s second wife, Claire Hodgson, whom he married in 1929, implemented further structure on his personal life, but it only lasted briefly. Babe’s doctor told him repeatedly to limit his drinking and smoking, but Ruth put forth only a nominal effort. 

By 1933 Ruth’s career had begun to slip. His performance during spring training was waning, and he was even unable to field. In his final season, he ended with a .288 batting average, a big dip from his career average of 0.342. His days as a player were ending, but his other dream, becoming a manager, kept him going. For years, Ruth lobbied heavily to be the Yankees’ manager, but his personal life and discipline were the main factors blocking the opportunity. He was offered manager positions for minor league teams but turned them down.

While on a barnstorming tour, Yankees management sold Ruth’s contract to the Boston Braves in 1935. The Braves wanted Babe as a gate attraction to increase ticket revenue, and the owner, Emil Fuchs, floated the possibility of making him a manager. Ruth never obtained the level of hitting and pitching power he had with the Yankees, and his one season with the Braves was his last in professional baseball. He learned that Fuchs would never make him a manager, and Babe retired as a full-time player.

His contribution to baseball didn’t end there however. The Brooklyn Dodgers hired him as a first base coach, but due to disagreements with the managers and other coaches, Ruth left after one year. In 1936, Ruth won the distinct honor of being one of the first five elected into the newly created Baseball Hall of Fame (the other four being Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson).

Ruth’s remaining years, while partially removed from the spotlight, were still full of activity. Golf was another sport Ruth enjoyed, and he played in several professional and charity tournaments. During World War II, he participated in war bond drives, exhibition games, and other home front efforts. Celebrity athletes like Ruth and Joe DiMaggio worked hard to not only raise money for war bonds but to keep the great American pastime a source of comfort during the war years. 

He had also begun working on an autobiography, The Babe Ruth Story, but eventually his poor health prevented him from finishing it, and the task was passed to a series of ghostwriters. 

In 1946, Ruth’s health rapidly deteriorated. Doctors for years had argued with Ruth to slow down his drinking, smoking, and overindulgence. One day Ruth began experiencing pain in his eyes and throat. Doctors learned it was cancer, specifically nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Doctors treated him with the latest cancer treatment, chemotherapy, but by 1947 and despite a brief remission, the cancer was terminal. On June 13, 1948, Babe Ruth visited Yankee Stadium for the last time, where his jersey was retired. 

Babe Ruth died on August 16, 1948, in his sleep at New York Memorial Hospital. Thousands of fans mourned him outside, and over 75,000 attended his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

Since that day, the country’s obsession with Ruth continued. Ruth’s athletic achievements came at a low point in the country’s history with the end of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic. His stardom gave rise to the celebrity athlete who inspired people to watch and play baseball.

Ruth is consistently ranked among some of the best American athletes, alongside Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Many of his career achievement rankings are still held today—all-time slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging percentage. Others weren’t broken until decades later (career home runs broken by Hank Aaron in 1974, home runs in a single season record broken by Roger Maris in 1961). 

The name alone evokes memories of the golden baseball era. Babe Ruth is synonymous with the sport, and many have striven to be like him. The legacy of Ruth is not just his career achievements and statistics, but how a great baseball player can come from anywhere.

Happy Babe Ruth Day!

Visit the National Archives website for more resources related to America’s Favorite Pastime!

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