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Babe Ruth’s bellyache heard ’round the world

Before the 1925 season, Yankees manager Miller Huggins proclaimed that that year’s roster was the strongest team he’d ever managed. This, coming after he led the Yankees to three straight pennants from 1921-23, including the franchise’s first ever championship.

The 1925 Yankees would not be the strongest team Miller Huggins ever managed. The season was a total disaster. They lost 85 games and finished in seventh place. Why? Many things went wrong, but Babe Ruth missing the first two months of the season certainly did not help.

Podcast – A Brief History: Babe’s bellyache heard ’round the world

Check out this weeks A Brief History Yankees podcast, talking about Babe Ruth’s illness in 1925 that caused the legend to hit rock bottom and how he rebounded in the seasons following.

The Babe’s Fame

In the early-to-mid 1920s, newspapers didn’t have sports sections. They had Babe Ruth sections that just happened to also mention the scores of games and results of horse and dog races. The Babe made sports mainstream. He was baseball’s first celebrity, and perhaps the only player in history to truly be bigger than the game.

In 1927 Babe signed a contract for $70,000 per year. He made another $73,000 off the field, making him the first professional athlete to earn as much off the field as he did on it. Of that additional $73,000, thirteen thousand was from endorsements — about twice the average Major League salary at the time. Putting aside the fact that Babe was notoriously awful with his money, that was big bucks, but not close to what he was worth. He was a gold mine for everyone who could get their hands on him: particularly the Yankees, Major League Baseball, and his agent, Christy Walsh.

Economists have attempted to calculate Ruth’s take-home pay in today’s dollars. They came up with it being the equivalent of $26 million. Again, big time dough, but that would be like if Mike Trout had The Rock’s fame and the Kardashian’s influence but only made $26 million. (That would be preposterous, considering Trout makes close to $40 million and has milktoast personality and I’m doubtful that most sports fans could even identify him in public.) Babe was worth 50-times what he was earning for his fame and drawing card alone, never mind his actual value on the field — which was unparalleled.

By 1925 the Babe had already set the single-season home run record three times, won an MVP award and a World Series. He spent his offseasons guest-starring in movies and barnstorming around the country. Newspapers assigned reporters to follow his every move, and they would dedicate an unprecedented amount of space in their daily papers to Ruth: pictures of the Babe, stories of the Babe, stories “written by” the Babe (thanks to ghostwriters, orchestrated by his agent), his exploits off the field and, of course, prowess on the field.

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One thing that Ruth was known for was his appetite. Appetite for anything: food, booze, and women. It was because he had this reputation that his “bellyache heard ‘round the world” was explained by his indulgence in too many hot dogs and soda pop. That’s obviously not what really happened.

The Big Fella’s Bellyache

At the time, Babe Ruth’s offseasons went something like this: After the season ended in the fall he would depart on weeks-long barnstorming tours across the country where he would make appearances with the local mayor and various important people that paid to bring him to their town. He would visit sick kids in hospitals and orphanages (the time he dedicated for children was not just for appearances — he did care).

Each visit to a particular city would be centered around a makeshift baseball game against some resident players. Everyone in attendance just wanted to see Ruth hit a few dingers, so oftentimes he’d only see fastballs, unless the opposing pitcher wanted to make a statement. Most of the time even when that opposing pitcher was trying to strike the Babe out, Ruth would still take him deep.

Every day was a new show in a new city. As if the tours weren’t grueling enough, he would eat and drink himself silly. As teammate Joe Dugan said:

Day and night, broads and booze.

Over the winter he made appearances in Hollywood. When Commissioner Landis tried to stop Babe’s barnstorming because he was operating outside of the guidelines baseball put in place (translation: making too much money), Babe often threatened to just tour the country performing in vaudeville shows and star in movies if he didn’t get what he was worth playing baseball.

By the time the new year rolled in the Babe would be 30-plus pounds overweight. Before spring training he would spend a few weeks in Hot Springs, Arkansas, trying to detox. His ideal playing weight was about 220 pounds. If he wasn’t able to sweat-off the winter’s girth by the time exhibition games began, he’d use the spring schedule to do so. But 1925 was different.

When Babe arrived in St. Petersburg for spring training he was not only overweight, but ill. This wasn’t that unusual — the spring “flu” was an annual thing for Babe. (Although I can’t help but wonder if what they called the flu was just annual withdrawals.) But in 1925 he actually did catch the flu at some point between Arkansas and Florida and battled it for weeks.

When the Yankees were set to travel north to play exhibition games en route to New York, doctors advised Babe not to play. He ignored their advice and played in the first game in Chattanooga — partially because he hated to let his fans down and partially thanks to the guidance of Yankees management, who made large sums of money from the exhibition games because of Ruth. After smashing two homers in Chattanooga, Ruth and the team then traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, which included a long and windy train journey through the mountains. Many passengers on the train felt sick from the trip but Babe collapsed on the train platform in Asheville when they arrived.

Newspaper headlines reported “RUTH, ILL WITH GRIP, COLLAPSES IN SOUTH.” The London Evening News reported the Babe dead, saying he “expired from overheating.” The paper even wrote an obituary, which hilariously said that because of his portliness he wore braces (suspenders), and that this started the braces trend in the US.

While the Babe was very much alive, he was not doing well. The Yankees sent him back to New York as the team continued their exhibition schedule. Newspapers everywhere started to write about his illness citing previous bouts with the flu and a lingering cold, and the Canadian press also reported his death. Again, he was not dead. He just felt like he was dying.

The media ran with anything and everything because the public couldn’t get enough of the story. Reports included, but were not limited to: “Ruth Shakes Off Coma,” “Babe’s Doctor Denies Brain Injury,” “Relapses Followed Fried Potatoes for Breakfast,” and that he had a heart attack. Some were factual and some exaggerated, but all believable — and that’s all that mattered.

The public held onto every headline like a friend or family member were ill. Thousands of people waited for the Babe and his Yankees handler to arrive at Penn Station in New York City (one source reported as much as 25,000 were there!). Doctors brought a stretcher to carry him out but it was too large, so they had to remove him through the side of the train. He was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital where the reports and diagnoses were mixed.

Originally doctors said it was not too serious and he was just experiencing a bad case of the flu. He later had surgery for an “intestinal abscess.” On April 18, the New York Times reported a successful ulcer surgery for Ruth, and that he would miss at least two more weeks of action.

There are a number of theories about what was really wrong with Babe during this time. As I said, the folklore version is that he had a bad case of acid reflux after he binged hot dogs and soda when the Yankees train made a stop on its way up from Florida. Others have theorized he had a venereal disease and/or alcohol poisoning, although surgery would not be required for either of those. The doctors did find an ulcer, which they removed, but who knows what else (if anything) was wrong with him.

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Ruth wound up spending seven weeks in the hospital. He returned to the Yankees lineup on June 1 and went 0-for-2 with a walk. (Coincidentally, June 1, 1925, is also the starting date of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak.)

Rock Bottom

Babe ended up hitting .290 with 25 home runs in 98 games (still good enough to tie him for third in the league). Not too shabby, all things considered. But it came in his age 30 season — what should have been one of his prime years.

1925 was difficult for other reasons too. By this point there were many rumors about his failing marriage, though that sort of thing was not written about as liberally as it would be today. His wife Helen was admitted to the hospital at the same time after having a nervous breakdown (not helped by the endless headlines and rumors). Although they were side-by-side in the hospital, their marriage was pretty much over and they would be legally separated soon after.

In addition to the health scare and other various nagging injuries, he was fighting management all season. Huggins repeatedly fined him and tried to exercise an insane behavior clause in his contract that set a curfew and restricted his eating and drinking. The team had a private investigator follow Babe to see when and how he violated the terms in his contract. After a late-summer bender in St. Louis, Huggins fined him $5,000 and suspended him indefinitely. Five thousand was about 10% of his salary — it was an unheard of fine, and a fine Babe could not afford.

Around that time, sportswriter Fred Lieb wrote:

It is doubtful that Ruth will again be the superstar he was from 1919 through 1924.

All signs pointed to Lieb being right, but Babe wasn’t going without a fight.

The Great Bambino

About a week after the fine and suspension, Huggins and Babe made up enough to get him back on the field. After the season Babe famously said he was “a boob.”

To his credit, Babe realized his struggles were self-inflicted and began to take his health and fitness more seriously. He trained hard in the offseason and returned to form in 1926, leading the league in home runs, runs batted in, walks, and runs, while hitting .372. The Yankees advanced to the World Series against the Cardinals but lost in 7-games. Babe made the final out of the series by getting caught stealing in the bottom of the 9th, trying to advance to scoring position with the Yankees down by a run. Somehow that disastrous ending to the season did not derail Babe, who the next year re-set the single-season home run record and helped lead the Murderers’ Row Yankees to one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.

In a way the Yankees of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s can thank Babe’s bellyache for turning the Bloated Bambino back into the Great Bambino. Otherwise, he could have eaten, drank, and fornicated his way out of the league.