The letter below was sent by a man with the elegant name of Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston to the secretary of baseball's National Commission more than 45 years ago. It was destined to have a profound effect on the life and times of this young man, then a pitcher for the Red Sox. With the never-before-published documents reproduced here and on the pages following, a rich, colorful baseball era is vividly recreated.
490 Riverside Drive
New York City
Nov. 21, 1914.
Mr. John E. Bruce.
December 21, 1959
My dear Mr. Bruce:
Col. Ruppert, the millionaire brewer of this oity, has been negotiating with Mr. Ban Johnson, President of the American League, for the purchase of the Haw York American league Baseball Club, locally known as the "Yankees".
As it stands now, the American League Club of Hew York have very little to sell outside of their franchise. They have no ground, they have no ball club, and they have no manager, and the latter Item appears to me to he of paramount importance
EVERYBODY HAD A HEADACHE BUT THE BABE
If Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Red Sox, had been luckier as a theatrical producer, he might never have put his name to the historic baseball document at the left. As a matter of fact, he tried to avoid doing just that. In dire need of funds, he had gone to Colonel Jake Ruppert, co-owner of the New York Yankees, and sought a personal loan of half a million dollars. As a Broadway first-nighter, the colonel was sympathetic, but he was not an easy touch. Instead of making the loan he asked Frazee if he would sell his pitcher-turned-outfielder, Babe Ruth.
It was a good question. Ruth was already a box-office smash. During the previous season he had set an all-time record by hitting 29 home runs, and fans were beginning to jam the ball parks just to see him.
Had the theater not been Frazee's first love, the Babe surely would have stayed in Boston, and "The House That Ruth Built" would have been a bigger and better Fenway Park. Instead, Yankee Stadium rose (in 1923) in New York's Bronx to contain a greater drama than any Producer Frazee ever staged.
Frazee did not give Ruth up without qualms. He hurried back to Boston and conferred with his general manager, Ed Barrow. Barrow told him that if he absolutely had to have cash, then the thing to do was to get all he could and forget about asking for any players in the deal. "The Yankees," said Barrow, "haven't got anybody I'd want on the Red Sox."
That was fine with Frazee. What he wanted was money to pay actors—not more ballplayers to be paid. So he told Colonel Ruppert he could have Ruth for $125,000, providing he took a $350,000 mortgage on the Boston ball park. The colonel reached for his checkbook.
Now, at the time, baseball experts agreed that Ruth's 29 home runs in 1919 represented a feat unlikely to be duplicated (even by Ruth) ever again. But to show their confidence in the Babe, Ruppert and his partner, Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, promptly doubled the $10,000 salary Frazee had paid him at Boston.
Ruth responded by hitting 54 homers in 1920, and in so doing he did more than fill the parks. He blasted away all the skepticism created by the disclosures that some members of the Chicago White Sox had conspired to throw the World Series.
Ruth's public appearances in uniform were models of technical perfection and faultless deportment. But his private life was soon giving Ruppert and Huston concern. Ruth's contract for 1922 (see below) contained a no-drinking clause which the Babe was happy to accept and quick to ignore. Spring training was one long romp for Ruth and his teammates (YANKEES TRAINING ON SCOTCH, read a New York newspaper headline). While the season was still young, the Yankee owners, who by now had brought Ed Barrow down from Boston to be their general manager, engaged a private detective to gather evidence about the nocturnal shenanigans (there was no night baseball then) of Ruth and the team.
The detective was a maneen named Jimmy Kelly. He joined the club in St. Louis, and by offering the players seemingly infallible tips on the horses he soon ingratiated himself with them. When Jimmy enticed a few of the boys up to his hotel room and invited them to share his unlimited stocks of Prohibition beer and booze, his popularity soared still higher. The players actually demanded that he accompany the team to Chicago. It was in Chicago that Jimmy proposed a trip to a brewery in Joliet where he happily called for a group picture (he had conveniently brought along a photographer). When the prints were ready, he suggested that all hands autograph one copy so that he might keep it as a souvenir. It was the signed print that he dispatched, along with other evidence of Yankee high jinks, to Ruppert and Huston. They promptly forwarded Kelly's packet (over the protest of Ed Barrow) to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in Chicago, and that rolling stone of righteousness hastened to Boston and confronted the ballplayers in the clubhouse there.
The tongue-lashing by the baseball commissioner affected Babe Ruth not at all. The year was not one of his better ones, however. He hit only 35 home runs (a drop from 59 in 1921), and in 1925 he slumped to 25. This was the year of Babe's nadir as a Yankee. It was also the year of his climactic row with his manager, Miller Huggins. More incongruous feudists could not be imagined: Ruth the big bear of a man, Huggins the skinny little scrap of a fellow who did not seem to be able to find a uniform small enough to fit him. Together, they looked like a premature version of the movie comedy team of Laurel and Hardy.
Ruth, along about this time, was a law unto himself. He roomed alone, and more than once took a suite in a hotel at some distance from the team's headquarters. He rode to the ball park in splendid solitude while his teammates went five to a cab.
He could drink all night and show up at the ball park looking bright-eyed and refreshed. Perhaps, in this condition, he would hit one or two over the wall. But he was scarcely a comfort to his manager, and when, during a series in St. Louis in August 1925, he was gone for a whole night (as house guest of a local acquaintance), Huggins was unable to contain his exasperation any longer. When Ruth finally showed up in the clubhouse at Sportsman's Park and started to put on his uniform, Huggins slapped a $5,000 fine on his problem child and suspended him for "general misconduct off the ball field."
Ruth seemed to be genuinely amazed that he had done anything out of the ordinary. But he could take no satisfaction from a statement issued by Ban Johnson, president of the American League. Said Johnson:
"Ruth has the mind of a 15-year-old boy and must be made to understand where he belongs. The American League is no place for a player who dissipates and misbehaves.
"For a player receiving $52,000 a year, Ruth ought to have made himself a hero.... Misconduct, drinking and staying out all night are things that will not be tolerated."
The Babe blamed everything on Manager Huggins. He told an interviewer, "Confidentially—and you can print this—Miller Huggins is dumb." Building the grudge along the way, he arrived in New York and announced, "If Huggins is manager, I quit."
With this ultimatum, Babe swaggered into a conference with Colonel Ruppert. The colonel (who by now had bought out Huston and was sole owner of the Yanks) had a way with the Babe. When the doors opened, it was a chastened Bambino who emerged. Not only would he play for Huggins, but he would drink almost nothing, and misbehave (Ban Johnson's word for it) not at all.
If the Babe's conduct off the field did not actually improve, his behavior in uniform was better than ever. He came back next season (1926) to hit 47 home runs, and as a reward his salary soared to $70,000 in 1927, as the salary list on the opposite page shows. It was almost nine times what teammates like Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri were getting at the time. Neither Lou nor Tony nor anyone else on the team complained, and the picture below shows why. It is Ruth hitting his 60th home run, a record unmatched to this day.
By now Ruth's annual dickering over salary had become something of an institution. Although Ed Barrow signed most of the Yankee players, Colonel Ruppert himself always conducted negotiations with the Babe, sometimes in the colonel's office at the brewery, sometimes in Florida when the Babe decided to hold out. Everybody in America who cared a hoot about baseball rooted for Babe to get the best of Ruppert. The Babe, as the salary check below suggests, did all right. The check shown is for $7,345.31 for two weeks' work. This was in 1930 when Ruth reached his peak salary of $80,000—the largest salary, if you figure it on the basis of take-home pay, ever paid to a ballplayer in all baseball history. In his prime, the Babe was still a bargain at that price, but the Yankee front office was always careful to recover a dollar spent in Ruth's behalf. Thus, on the reverse side of the check below, it will be seen that the club deducted such out-of-pocket expenses as a $3.80 train ticket for Mrs. Ruth and a $30 "uniform deposit" extracted from the greatest single gate attraction of all time.
That is precisely what the Babe was. He was a greater draw than any of the other great sports figures of the golden 1920s—Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Gene Tunney, Walter Hagen, Man o' War.
Ban Johnson had said that Ruth had the mind of a 15-year-old boy. But can today's teen-agers tell you who Ban Johnson was? They know who Ruth was just as they know who Daniel Boone was. Ruth—because he came along when he did—saved the national game. Without Ruth and the home runs that were like no home runs any slugger has hit before or since, it is just possible that the game would have died—as the television quiz shows died when people found out they were fake. Baseball, in one shameful instance, had been faked. People had been betrayed. Kids were learning to say, "Aw, it's all fixed." But when Ruth—his big head cocked, his matchstick legs together, his pigeon toes turned in, his great club of a bat lashing the air—drove a ball out of the park, nobody could say that was fixed or rigged or faked. People who saw Babe Ruth hit a home run never forgot it; there was only one thing half as good, and that was a Ruth strikeout, of which there were 1,330 during his major league career.
As for the home runs, Babe hit a total of 714 during his major league career. He hit 16 more in World Series and All-Star Games. He holds the record for runs batted in: a total of 2,209. In addition to striking out more than any player before or since, he also drew more bases on balls, a total of 2,056.
He was a great all-round ballplayer. He was one of the best left-handed pitchers ever, before he was shifted to the outfield. He won three World Series games, and in 1916 he had the best earned-run average in the league. When he moved permanently to the outfield, he covered his territory with amazing speed and he could throw a strike to home plate from deep in right field. According to Ed Barrow, Ruth had an instinct for doing precisely the right thing in every situation that might arise in a ball game. And all the while he had the rare talent of maintaining contact, a sort of secret communication, with the fans. A careless wave, a doffing of the cap—and they were his.
The old documents reproduced on these pages take the Babe from the beginning of his major league career to its peak. They stop short of his decline, his incredibly naive suggestion that he be made manager of the Yankees, his days as a pinch hitter at Boston, his humiliating final season as a coach at Brooklyn, his sad and painful last days.
There is no old paper anywhere that contains the heart of what Babe Ruth was and what was so important about him. What was so important about him was that in living a sort of double life—hero in public, a rake and a heller in private—he did not let the less appealing image obscure the other one. Thus, in a way, he was never unfaithful to his great trust, which was to do this one thing: to play a game of baseball so superbly well that people would believe in it as they believed in him—the one and only Babe.
Babe Ruth became a Yankee with the signing of the paper above by Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Red Sox, and by Colonel Jake Ruppert, co-owner of the Yanks and the dapper central figure in the picture below, in which he appears with Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York (left) and Partner T. L. Huston. The $25,000 in the above document was a down payment on total price of $125,000 Ruppert and Huston paid for Ruth.
The Babe was more than Ruppert and Huston had hoped for as a home-run hitter, but his personal habits soon became a matter of concern to them. In the contract above, the Babe promised to behave. To make sure, his bosses hired a private detective named Jimmy Kelly, who lured Babe and the entire team to an illegal brewery and then got the photographic evidence at right. The detective is third from left in second row, Ruth is front and center. A print was mailed to Judge Landis.
Ruth's salary soared to $70,000 (see confidential salary list on opposite page), and how well he earned it is shown in the picture at right. In it, the Babe had just hit his 60th home run, establishing the record that still stands. No. 60 was a tremendous drive into the bleachers in right field at Yankee Stadium. It came in the eighth inning of a game with Washington on Sept. 30. Tom Zachary was the pitcher, Muddy Ruel the catcher.
When the Babe and the colonel sat down to talk contract, all America was cheering for the Bambino to get the best of his rich and canny boss. Once Colonel Ruppert is said to have cried out: "What do you think I am, a millionaire?" Pictured here is the conference that gave Ruth the highest salary of his baseball career, $80,000 for the season. Check covers the Babe's services for a period of two weeks. It was take-home pay; there was no withholding tax.
"It is understood and agreed by and between the parties hereto that the regulation above set forth, numbered "2" shall be construed to mean among other things, that the player shall at all times during the term of this contract and throughout the years 1922, 1923 and 1924, and the years 1925 and 1926 if this contract is renewed for such years, refrain and abstain entirely from the use of intoxicating liquors and that he shall not during the training and playing season in each year stay up later than 1 o'clock A. M. on any day without, the permission. and consent of the Club's manager, and it Is understood and agreed that if at any time during the period of this contract, whether in the playing season or not, the player shall indulge In intoxicating liquors or be guilty of any action or misbehavior which may render him unfit to perform the services to be performed by him hereunder, the Club nay cancel and terminate this contract and retain as the property of the Club, any stuns of money withheld from the player's salary as above provided."
PROFESSIONAL BASE BALL CLUBS
May 23, 1927
My dear Mr. Barrow:
As requested in your telegram of even date, I am giving you below our office records, made from the New York player contracts, which were sent here for approval:
Bengough, Bernard O.-Contract 4/3/27 approved 4/13/27. $8000 for season of 1927.
Collins, Patrk. E.-Contract 2/15/27 approved 4/13/27. $7000 for season of 1927.
Combs, Earle B.-Contract 3/12/27. Approved 4/13/27. $10,500 for season of 1927.
Dugan, Joseph A.-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $12,000 for season of 1927.
Gehrig, H. L.-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $8000 for season 1927 .
Hoyt, Waite C.-Contract 2/15/27. Approved 4/13/27. $11,300 for season of 1927. Club will pay player a bonus of $1,000 if he wins twenty (20) of the games he pitches for the Club during the championship season of 1927.
Koenig, Mark A.-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $7000 for season 1927.
Lazzeri, Anthony-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $8000 for season 1927. Club further agrees to pay travelling expenses, including Pullman accommodations and meals enroute of the player's wife from San Francisco to New York, at the beginning of the 1927 playing season, and to pay the like traveling expenses of the player and his wife from New York to San Francisco at the close of said season.
Meusel, Robt. W.-Contract approved 4/13/27. $13,000 for season of 1927, and an aggregate salary of $13,000 for his skilled services during the playing season of 1928, including the World's series or any other official series in which the Club may participate, and in any receipts of which the player may be entitled to share in each of said years.
Moore, Wilcey-Contract 2/21/27. Approved 4/13/27. $2500 for season of 1927. Club will pay an additional sum of $500, if player is retained in service of Club for entire championship season of 1927.
Pennock, Herb. J.-Contract approved 4/13/27. $17,500 for season of 1927, and an aggregate salary of $17,500 for his skilled services during each of the playing seasons of 1928 and 1929, including the World's series or any other official series in which the club may participate, and in any receipts of which the player may be entitled to share in each of said years. If the player wins 2$. twenty-five (25) of the ball games he pitches for the Club in an¬£ year covered by this contract, towit, 1927, 1928, and 1929, the club will in that event pay the player a bonus of $1000 at the close of the playing season of such year
Ruether, Walter H.-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $11,000 for season 1927. Club will pay player bonus of $1000 if the player wins fifteen (15) of the games he pitches for the Club during the championship season of 1927.
Ruth, George H.-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $70,000 for the season of 1927, and an aggregate salary of $70,000 each for the seasons of 1928 and 1929, including the World's Series or any other official series in which the player may participate, and in any receipts in which the player may be entitled to share in each of said years.
Shawkoy, J. Robt.-Contract 4/8/27. Approved 4/13/27. $10,500 for season 1927.
Shocker, Urban J.-Contract approved 4/13/27. $13,500 for season of 1927.
ABOUT THE DOCUMENTS
The papers reproduced here represent a sampling from Sports Illustrated's collection of Yankee papers acquired from Nathaniel E. Stein, a New York stockbroker and former president of The Manuscript Society, and Nelson Frank, a New York newspaperman.