Sports Nut

When the Babe Was A-Rod

The quick-hitting, hyperjudgmental sports media isn’t just a 21st-century phenomenon.

Alex Rodriguez

In the summer of 2006, Alex Rodriguez stopped hitting and couldn’t field a lick. This wasn’t a mere slump, the sports media declared. As Salon’s King Kaufman reported at the time, the crew on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight argued that A-Rod was done. “His play won’t come back, and he’s not ever going to win over the fans in New York,” explained ex-Mets general manager Steve Phillips. After the season, with another miserable playoff failure in the rearview mirror, the New York Post decreed that “A-Rod should do everyone a favor and invite the Yankees … to trade him.”

By the following April—a month in which A-Rod hit 14 home runs—the New York media loved him again. Still, every playoff game was a referendum on A-Rod’s worth and future as a New York Yankee. During the 2007 postseason, the New York Daily News ran a recurring feature headlined “Is He A-Bust?” When he went 4-for-15 as the Yankees lost to the Indians, all precincts reported the same thing: Yes—he stinks.

That sort of whipsawing is hardly confined to A-Rod. Tom Brady’s clutchness was once unassailable. Now, after a couple of bad playoff games, he’s the guy who hasn’t won anything without Mike Vrabel. We all know the reasons for these insta-judgments. Today’s hyperspeed news cycle—fueled by cable television, 24/7 sports radio, and Web publishing—requires every writer and every outlet to have a take and have it fast. Players like Alex Rodriguez don’t have the luxury of being evaluated retrospectively, on the strength of their career accomplishments. Pity poor A-Rod. If only he was a legend of yesteryear like Babe Ruth—a great player whose every foible and failing wasn’t dissected by a ravenous media.

Well, not exactly. Yes, the Babe profited from a sporting press that lowered its gaze when confronted, for example, with the sight of Ruth being chased through a train by a jilted lover waving a knife. (Can you imagine the New York Post headline if that happened today—”Babe’s Babe Eager to Slice Sultan,” perhaps?) The Bambino’s PG-rated doings between the white lines, however, were fair game for the writers who obsessively covered him. And when Ruth failed to deliver, he took the writers’ best fastball right between the eyes, even in the relatively tortoise-paced media environment of the Prohibition era. The clearest example came in 1922, an annus horribilis for the Sultan of Swat.

The season started badly for Ruth, who was forced to sit out the first six weeks by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Shortly after losing the 1921 World Series to the New York Giants, Ruth and teammate Bob Meusel had embarked on a barnstorming tour of western New York and Pennsylvania. The snag was that it was illegal at the time for players whose teams had appeared in the Fall Classic to augment their incomes by barnstorming. It was a rule that made little sense—who else would the fans want to see?—and Ruth chose to ignore it. “This case resolves itself into a question of who is the biggest man in baseball, the commissioner or the player who hits the most home runs,” Landis remarked to the press. In private, the commissioner fumed: “Who does that big monkey think he is?”

Upon his return from suspension, the Yankees slugger was moody, sullen, and quick to fight. He duked it out with teammates, opponents, umpires, and most infamously, a pair of Pullman employees who taunted Ruth moments after he was ejected for hurling dirt on umpire George Hildebrand. Ruth charged into the Polo Grounds grandstand after the railroad men, who wisely kept a couple of rows between themselves and the enraged Bambino. When the dust settled, Ruth was fined $200 and stripped of his team captaincy.

Ruth could still swat, though, and his 35 homers and 1.106 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in 110 games lifted the Yanks to another pennant. Their World Series opponent, once again, was the New York Giants. Despite the rocky regular season, the sharps made the Yankees betting favorites to avenge their 1921 defeat. But Giants manager John McGraw had a plan. He had developed the “book” on the Babe: a diet of changeups and slow curves down and in. Ruth had fanned eight times in 16 at-bats in the 1921 World Series, perhaps proof that McGraw was on to something.

McGraw also installed a psy-ops campaign designed at deflating Ruth’s aura of on-field invincibility. “Why the hell should Ruth worry me?” he asked astonished reporters. “Why all this excitement over him?” McGraw would call every pitch from the dugout, signaling by the placement of his hands on the bat he gripped throughout each game. As his pitchers delivered, McGraw would shout, “Lay it over for him! He can’t hit it even if you tell him what’s coming!”

Even McGraw couldn’t have envisioned the transcendent awfulness of Ruth’s performance at the plate. It was an odd World Series. Game 2 was called due to darkness (despite a rather bright twilight) with the score tied 3-3. That turned out to be the Yankees’ best moment. After Jack Scott shut them out in Game 3, giving the Giants’ a 2-0 series lead, Ruth stormed into the opponents’ locker room. The Babe was incensed at the personal epithets the National Leaguers had been volleying his way—jibes of “Two Head” on account of his large melon as well as recurrent racial taunts. (Ruth was commonly the target of slurs attacking his supposed African-American heritage.) Giants coach Wilbert Robinson evicted Ruth from the clubhouse, peals of mocking laughter in his wake.

In Game 4, Ruth had a chance to redeem himself. It was the bottom of the eighth, and the Yanks were down 4-3 with the tying run at second. An intentional walk would have been the automatic move for any other manager, but McGraw realized he had the Babe flummoxed. Hugh McQuillan got Ruth to pop out, and the Yankees lost again to go down 3-0 in the Series. Ruth was reduced to sacrifice bunting in the first inning of the next game. While he was actually a good bunter, the symbolism couldn’t be ignored—here was the greatest slugger ever, forced into the playing style of the Dead Ball era. It didn’t help. The Babe was hitless once more, and when the Giants’ George “Highpockets” Kelly knocked in the winning runs in the eighth inning, the Yankees had been swept.

Ruth, who went 2-17 in the five games, took the blame. The great slugger had come up short in the postseason crucible, as immortals like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and, of course, A-Rod would in later years. “There are no excuses for the lamentably weak hitting of Babe Ruth, now an exploded phenomenon,” wrote frequent Ruth critic Joe Vila in the New York Sun. “Leader McGraw had Ruth’s number last year but Yankee partisans refused to believe it.”

It wasn’t just the Sun. The Times called Ruth a “tragic figure,” while the American labeled him a “World Series jest.” Baseball Magazine opined that “Ruth can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of fans. … Ruth is no longer a youngster, except in disposition, and bids fair to become a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.” A mere year after Ruth cracked 59 homers—more than half the teams in the league could muster—the power game he represented was now thought to be a fad, inferior to the “scientific baseball” of McGraw’s small-ball Giants.

For the Babe, the calendar couldn’t turn to 1923 quickly enough. That year, he would grace a new stage in the South Bronx—the “House That Ruth Built“—and dramatically flip the script in another October encounter with McGraw’s Giants. The new takeaway from the baseball writers, courtesy of Heywood Broun: “The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail.”

As we embark on a new season, then, remember that the prevailing wisdom isn’t always so wise. As Grantland Rice noted after Ruth’s 1922 flameout, “Fanatical memory is brief and fickle … heroes can be made and wrecked in a single series.” Alex Rodriguez would be the first to agree. In the 2009 playoffs, the third baseman hit six home runs to lead the Yankees to the title—his first and the team’s 27th. In honor of his outstanding play, Rodriguez took home the Babe Ruth Award as 2009’s postseason MVP. The Bambino would’ve been proud.