A tale of two Ruths

April 5, 2019

Baby Ruth cropped

Writing in recent posts about the namesakes of peach melba and chicken tetrazinni got me to thinking about another food that was named after a celebrity, but which celebrity I cannot say for sure. I refer to Baby Ruth, the candy bar—and a particular favorite of mine.

For many years, I was under the impression that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of Grover and Frances Cleveland, Grover being the 22nd and 24th president of these United States. I may have been wrong, and I’ll probably never know, but the manufacturer made that claim in a legal action.

Baby Ruth Cleveland

RUTH CLEVELAND

Cleveland, who was a bachelor when he first took office in 1893, became the only president to marry in the White House when he exchanged vows with Frances Folsom. Cleveland was 49 and his wife was 21, but the American people couldn’t have been happier about the match. Ruth, the first of the Clevelands’ five children, was born between her father’s two terms as president, but the public still was very enthusiastic about her arrival. Her name for a time was a household word, but she was not a healthy child, and she died of diphtheria at the age of 12.

That was in 1904. In 1921, the Curtiss Candy Company reinvented its Kandy Kake candy bar as the Baby Ruth, with its chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and nougat. The five-cent treat was heavily marketed by Curtiss and was a big success. The company actually had airplanes drop thousands of Baby Ruths, each with a little parachute, over American cities.

Baby Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Coincidentally, some would have us believe, George Herman Ruth, who had established himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball with the Boston Red Sox between 1914 and 1919, had been sold to the New York Yankees. And in 1920, having forsaken the pitcher’s mound for the outfield, he hit the unheard-of total of 54 home runs, and became a national sensation. In 1921, he hit 59. Babe Ruth was well on his way to becoming one of the most widely recognized  and most enduring celebrities in human history. People of a suspicious nature speculated that Curtiss had named the candy Baby rather than Babe to avoid having to pay the ballplayer for the use of his name.

Baby Babe Ruth CandyPerhaps as a counter thrust, Babe Ruth, in 1926, gave the George H. Ruth Candy Company the right to use his name, and the company applied to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Curtiss sued the company on the grounds of  copyright infringement and claimed that Baby Ruth candy was named after the president’s daughter, who by that time had been dead for 22 years. In 1931, a patent court ruled in favor of Curtiss.

Baby Ruth signAfter the 1932 World Series, during which Ruth reputedly pointed to centerfield at Wrigley Field in Chicago and then hit a home run to that spot, Curtiss had an enormous illuminated Baby Ruth sign erected across from the ballpark, which was down the street from the candy firm’s plant. No doubt, the sign was a monument to “baby” Ruth Cleveland.

 

 

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

 

My brother often shares with me his irritation with the broadcasters who describe Yankee baseball games on television and radio.  We were, after all, raised in baseball by Mel Allen and Red Barber, in whose care baseball play-by-play was an art. In a way, no announcers can satisfy us with Mel and Red as a standard. This week, my brother complained that John Sterling, who does the radio broadcasts with Suzyn Waldman, has repeatedly called attention to the fact that the 1927 Yankees used only 25 players over the whole season. I guess that was an implied criticism of, or at least a contrast to, the multiple roster changes — making trades, buying contracts, and bringing kids up from the minors — the Yankees have made during this season in which, incidentally, eighty percent of the starting rotation is on the disabled list.

WAITE HOYT

WAITE HOYT

In fact, however, making comparisons between baseball in the 1920s and baseball in the 2000s is a tricky business. Sterling was right about the number of players on the Yankees’ roster in ’27, and my cursory tour through the statistics for that season suggest that 25 was a low number even then. But Sterling didn’t pick the ’27 Yankees at random. He picked that team because that team won 110 games and rolled over the Pirates in four games in the World Series. He picked that team because that team is often identified as the greatest team ever. That’s an indefensible ranking because — very much to my point here — baseball was so much different before that era and has become so much different since.

WILCY MOORE

WILCY MOORE

But certainly the 1927 Yankees were one of the greatest teams ever, and that was due in large part to the presence of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, and Tony Lazzeri. The major league season in 1927 was 154 games. Because of a game that ended in a tie, the Yankees that year played 155 games, and those four players each appeared in more than 150. Gehrig played in 155. So there was a significant element of stability built into the roster. I don’t know if this has been analyzed scientifically, but I often hear it said that players then were less injury prone and less likely to sit down because of an injury. Gehrig carried this last propensity to extremes, which helped to account for his appearing in every Yankee lineup for fourteen years.

The Yankees that year also had five starting pitchers who among them won 82 games. The ace, Waite Hoyt, who won 27 games, threw a total of 256 innings. And in those days before specialization, Wilcy Moore, a reliever, pitched a total of 213 innings and won 19 games. So the rest of the pitching staff had to account for only nine wins. Moore threw 213 innings in 1927. What with the modern system of middle relievers, set-up men, and closers, the most innings a Yankee reliever threw last season was 77.

 

 

a

Pete Sheehy in the clubhouse of the real Yankee Stadium

I don’t think many journalists ever interviewed Pete Sheehy, but I was among the few who did. Pete, who was the clubhouse man at Yankee Stadium for about seven decades, didn’t like to talk, and I suppose that accounts for the fact that he made only rare appearances in print. I arranged an interview through a mutual friend, and I wasn’t with Pete for very long before I realized what a challenge I had taken on. In fact, Pete was forthright about it — in his way. He told me that he figured he had kept his job for so long, being in the confidence of members of the Yankees and, for a time, the football New York Giants, because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Whatever he knew about Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle, he kept it to himself.

So I asked Pete if it were possible that a man who had had such intimate contact with the Yankees of the ‘twenties to the ‘eighties could have a favorite. This was how Pete answered: “Joe.”

He didn’t have to say any more. “Joe” meant DiMaggio, and his choice didn’t surprise me. My father had been a Yankee fan since the Ruth era, too, and although I never asked him, I am confident that he would have said “Joe” too — despite a reverence for Lou Gehrig.

DiMaggio had an outstanding career. He was among the very best hitters, baserunners, and outfielders of his time or any time. Not the very best, necessarily, but one of the best. As Kostya Kennedy mentions in his book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a poll taken in 1969 named DiMaggio the “greatest living baseball player.” DiMaggio believed it; he was that kind of a guy. But there were skeptics who noted, for instance, that Ted Williams, DiMaggio’s contemporary, outstripped the Yankee in every major hitting category and had a longer career, despite combat duty tours in two wars.

If there is an inequity in the way DiMaggio is regarded, it may be attributed at least in part to the fact that he played for the New York Yankees while they were the preeminent team in baseball if not in sports in general. DiMaggio appeared in 10 World Series in his 13 years in the majors.

But the primary reason for the aura around Joe DiMaggio may be the record he set 60 years ago this season — the record that was the occasion for Kennedy’s book. In the 1941 campaign, DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 consecutive games.

To put that record in context, Kennedy points out that more than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, and only DiMaggio has achieved it. The only others to come close were Willie Keeler, who hit in 44 straight games in 1897 in the dead-ball era, and Pete Rose, who hit in 44 in 1978. (Keeler’s streak began on the first day of the ’97 season, so the hit he got in the last game in ’96 puts his official record at 45.)

The subtitle of Kennedy’s book refers to the fact that while DiMaggio’s record once formed a holy trinity with Babe Ruth’s single-season and lifetime home run records, Ruth’s marks have been exceeded several times and in some cases under questionable circumstances. DiMaggio’s 56 is the only individual record of its kind still standing.

Kennedy describes in his very literate book the atmosphere in which the streak occurred. It captured the attention of the whole country — and even folks in some other countries. DiMaggio’s sizable family, people who were tight with him, baseball fans, and people who didn’t know anything else about him or the game were all caught up in his day-day-progress. Everywhere, Kennedy writes, people stopped to ask each other: “Did he get a hit today?”

And, as Kennedy artfully shows, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 1941, there was something far more ponderous on people’s minds — the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany. The idea that the United States could stay out of the war seemed more and more like wishful thinking as American plants turned out material to assist the European allies and as more and more American men were drafted into military service. DiMaggio’s streak was a fortuitous respite in such an atmosphere — the counterpart, in a way, to Susan Boyle’s triumph on Britain’s Got Talent in the midst of worldwide recession and seemingly pointless wars.

The streak served another purpose, too. It was something for Italian-Americans to cling with pride as they — thanks to Benito Mussolini  — came under the same kind of suspicion that was being directed at Americans of Japanese and German background. Even at that, DiMaggio’s own father, Giuseppe, who had made his living as a commercial fisherman, was placed under wartime restrictions that kept him from approaching San Francisco Bay.

In telling this story, Kennedy carefully constructs a portrait of DiMaggio that isn’t at all endearing. DiMaggio was a cold fish. He was known from his youth for his spells of  silence. Kennedy writes a lot about DiMaggio’s relationship with his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and that isn’t a happy tale. DiMaggio — in spite of the girls he invited to his hotel rooms — missed Dorothy when he was on the road. But when he was home, he stifled her, resented her, and often subjected her to his emotional and sometimes his physical absence.

This book is peppered with the interesting characters who played large and small parts in DiMaggio’s life — his relatives, including his major league brothers, Don and Vince; his somewhat “connected” Italian-American friends in Newark; his fans — not the least of whom were the boys Mario Cuomo and Gay Talese; and, of course, his fellow ballplayers: Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, and DiMaggio’s wacky road-trip roommate, Lefty Gomez.

On the field, DiMaggio appeared impassive as the streak progressed. If a pitcher had boasted that he would stop DiMaggio, and DiMaggio got a hit off him, there would be none of the fist pumping that cheapens the game today. Inside, however, Kennedy writes, DiMaggio’s stomach was often in knots. And, of course, if he didn’t have to talk about the streak, he didn’t:

”  ‘You nervous about the streak?’ a reporter would call out and it would be Lefty who would turn and reply, ‘Joe? Nah, he’s fine. Me? I threw up my breakfast.’ “

“Jumpin” Joe Dugan, who spent a few seasons as Babe Ruth’s teammate, had this to say: “To understand him, you have to understand this. He wasn’t human.”

I get that. Ruth may not have had it all — he wasn’t much of a base stealer — but he had more of it than anyone else. There’s no point in arguing about it. I love Aaron, Mays, Banks, and Mantle as much as the next fellow, but none of them went 94-46 with a 2.16 ERA before becoming one of the best hitters in history  and a fine outfielder to boot. In addition to that, his bombastic personality and his enormous charity revitalized a flagging game in a way that no one else could have done, making his name familiar to people around the globe — down to our own time — no matter how much or how little they know about baseball.

I get that. John McGraw didn’t get that. McGraw was the manager and a part owner of the New York Giants, and he was by reputation one of the best skippers ever. He believed in “scientific baseball,” which was the only way to play the game successfully in the dead-ball era. McGraw was all about place-hitting, bunting, stealing, studying your opponents and taking advantage of their weaknesses.

McGraw was not about the long ball — especially not the home run — which was coming into vogue at the beginning of the 1920s. As Robert Weintraub explains in this lively and entertaining book, Babe Ruth – the first home run hitter par excellence  – represented to McGraw the ruin of the game. McGraw, by Weintraub’s account, despised Ruth, called him a “baboon” and a “bum,” and predicted that he would hit into a hundred double plays a year.

Weintraub’s book covers the 1923 season, the Yankees’ first season in the original Yankee Stadium – not the knockoff they play in now. The team first appeared in the city when three New York guys bought the minor league Baltimore Orioles franchise and moved it north in 1903. The Highlanders, as they were known for most of the first decade, played in Hilltop Park — the present site of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center — until 1913, when they moved into the Polo Grounds as tenants of the Giants. At the point at which Weintraub picks up the story, McGraw was fed up with the Yankees in general and Ruth in particular.

McGraw, as Weintraub recounts, was accustomed to being the toast of the town, and he became increasingly agitated as the Yankees gained in popularity. By 1921, he engineered the Giants management’s decision to tell the Yankees to move out of the Polo Grounds. This, it turned out, was a serious error, because it spurred Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston — whom McGraw had inspired to buy the Yankees — to build Yankee Stadium just across the Harlem River.

McGraw had a brief period of satisfaction left to him, because the Giants and Yankees won their respective pennants in 1921 and 1922, so that the whole World Series was played in the Polo Grounds, where Giants pitching made a monkey of Ruth. After the ’22 affair, there was widespread talk that the Babe was through.

In the ’23 season, though, Ruth — seriously chastened by his failures — made at least a show of curbing his appetites — sexual and otherwise — and he tore the league apart, winning the Most Valuable Player award. The rest of the Yankees, led by their dour little manager, Miller Huggins, had an outstanding year, and the momentum carried them to a World Series win that finally took the wind out of McGraw. McGraw was so bitter that he made the Giants dress at the Polo Grounds for the away games and cab it over to Yankee Stadium. The manager himself walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

The only bright spot for McGraw in that ’23 series was his reserve outfielder, “Casey” Stengel, who hit two game-winning home runs, one of them inside the park. During the off season, McGraw traded the aging Stengel to the Braves. “It’s a good thing I didn’t hit three home runs,” Casey said. “McGraw might have sent me out of the country.”

This is a colorful book, loaded with the characters of the ’20s – Warren G. Harding, Charles Chaplin, Damon Runyon, Fanny Brice. And, of course, all those ballplayers – Frankie Frisch, Bob and “Irish” Meusel, Everett “Iron Man” Scott, George “Highpockets” Kelly.

The real heart of this book, though, is found in the stories of McGraw and Ruth, two low-born, hard drinking, brawlers who clawed their way to the top where their lives intersected at a pivotal time in baseball in general and in New York baseball in particular.

Talkin’ baseball

September 3, 2009

DEREK JETER

DEREK JETER

Derek Jeter is on the verge of accumulating the most hits by any member of the New York Yankees – surpassing the record of 2,720 held since 1939 by Lou Gehrig. Gehrig would have had more, of course, had he not come down with ALS and died before he was 37 years old. That’s not Jeter’s fault; he got his hits one at a time like everybody else, and he deserves whatever recognition comes with them.

This not the kind of record that is subject to rationalization by people who don’t like the player — like those who say that Alex Rodriguez built up his records by driving in runs when his team didn’t need them. When a man gets 2,700 hits, there’s only one reason for it. He’s damn good.

LOU GEHRIG

LOU GEHRIG

Still, there will be some hint of melancholy around the hit that breaks Lou’s record. Maybe this is a generational thing. I don’t remember Gehrig, but I didn’t miss him by much, and my father — who saw him play scores of times throughout his career — kept the memory alive in our house. Younger people may not feel the regret that someone my age will feel when Lou is no longer Number One on that list.

One of the charms of baseball has always been that everyone who has ever played is still in the game. Today’s players compete against yesterday’s players in statistics and in memory. I wonder, though, if that is waning. I notice, for instance, that the frame of reference for the play-by-play and color announcers usually extends back only as far as they can remember. References to people like Gehrig are rare, and they often sound like references to fictional characters.

BILL DICKEY

BILL DICKEY

I was in the Yankee clubhouse with Ed Lucas one day about 15 years ago, and Ed was talking to a young player who had come up from the farm for a cup of coffee. In the conversation, Ed mentioned Yogi Berra. Ed is blind, but I noticed the blank look on the player’s face, and I said, “You know who Yogi Berra is, don’t you?” The guy said: “I’ve heard of the gentleman.” I guess there would have been no point in asking the young man if he knew who Bill Dickey was — the Hall of Fame catcher who preceded Berra on the Yankees.

People of my generation lived through the phenomenon of grieving a record when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break the mark set by Babe Ruth in 1927. I was rooting for Maris, partly, I suppose, because Ruth’s transcendent place in the game doesn’t depend on any of his individual records. But a lot of people resented Maris and said so. If anyone broke that record, it should have been Mickey Mantle, a legitimate power hitter year after year and a lifetime Yankee. That was the feeling. We were at Yankee Stadium the day Maris broke that record; the excitement was muted, to put it mildly, Phil Rizzuto notwithstanding. Henry Aaron went through something similar when he broke Ruth’s lifetime home run mark — and there was a strong racial ingredient in that — but Aaron was such a great all-around player for so many years, that only cranks were against him.

CARL HUBBELL

CARL HUBBELL

Speaking of Bill Dickey, he came to mind the other day when a friend of mine mentioned Carl Hubbell’s well-known feat in the 1933 All-Star Game, striking out in succession Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, and Al Simmons — all future Hall of Famers. Hubbell, a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, was a screwball-throwing left-hander and one of the best of his time — many would say all time.

It doesn’t come up often, but the batter who followed Simmons was Bill Dickey, who got a hit to break Hubbell’s streak. The next batter was Lefty Gomez, a pitcher with the Yankees and one of the great humorists of the game, and a notoriously bad hitter in the days when American League pitchers were fully employed and took their turn at bat.

LEFTY GOMEZ

LEFTY GOMEZ

Gomez struck out, and when he went back to the dugout, he was ripping mad at Dickey.

“What did I do?” asked Dickey, who was flabbergasted. “It’s going to go down in history,” Gomez told him, “that Hubbell struck out five of the greatest hitters in baseball. If you had had the decency to strike out, it would have been seven, and I would have been one of them!”

The Times has a story about Jeter’s achievement in the context of the end of Gehrig’s career. It’s at this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/sports/baseball/04gehrig.html?hp