No sport has a more rich history than baseball. Ever since the Civil War, Americans have been swatting balls and running bases, whether it be on city streets, empty sandlots or ballparks surrounded by 50,000 packed-in fans stuffing hot dogs into their mouths. It’s a sport that has always seemingly featured larger-than-life god-like figures who were actually more human than divine by mighty longshot.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. is one of those nostalgic ball players baseball fans hold dear in their hearts. Perhaps it is because he was a New York Yankee media epicenter for most of his career in the 1920s and 30s. Also maybe his uniquely rich American rags-to-riches story is the reason why so many people continue to hold dear his memory. The Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has several spacious floors of exhibits and mementos; every floor follows Ruth’s storied life and baseball career. After all, he belted 714 homeruns out of ballparks across the country. And the baseball a century ago was not highly compressed, as is today’s with a rocket rubber core meant to leap out of ballparks. It was the “dead ball era” Ruth played in, so belting 60 homeruns in a season was a superhuman feat.
Born into an immigrant German Catholic family in a row home in the downtown district of Baltimore in 1895, Ruth had seven siblings, with only him and his sister, Mamie, surviving infancy. Ruth spoke German growing up and he roamed the rough and tumble streets of Baltimore at an early age. His father worked as a salesman, then streetcar conductor, before opening a saloon in which the young George was introduced to alcohol – mostly beer, which he began to drink at an early age. His battle with alcoholism dogged him the entire 53-years of his life.
When he was seven, his father, who labelled him “incorrigible,” which is a fancy word for hopeless, irredeemable, and incurable, decided to send the boy to Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School, run by the Xaverian Brothers. For the next dozen years of his life, he spent every day there. The only time he left the orphanage was to attend his mother’s funeral when he was 12 years old.
It was a humble upbringing surrounded by strict disciplinarians who had their hands full with a young boy they starting calling “Babe.” Running afoul with rules frequently, Ruth came under the discerning eye of Brother Matthias Boutlier, who was the school’s chief disciplinarian. At an orphanage where corporal punishment was the usual means of dealing with misbehavior, Brother Boutlier took a softer approach to Ruth. The main source of recreation was baseball, and though Ruth was the only left-hander and had to use a right-hand mitt backwards, he began learning the game as a catcher. The team would play other schools in the city, and Ruth soon became a pitcher – given his stocky build and southpaw delivery, Ruth was nearly unhittable as his velocity was no match for amateur hitters. Ruth revered Brother Boutlier, loved him as a father figure, and when Ruth signed a professional baseball contract in 1914 with the minor league Baltimore Orioles, there was nobody more proud than Brother Boutlier.
By mid-summer, Ruth was in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox – though most Bostonians did not care much for the Red Sox as the Braves were Beantown’s baseball darling back then. It was the Braves who won the 1914 World Series after being in last place on July 4.
Ruth won 94 games as a major-league pitcher and had an ERA of 2.28 during his five years with the Red Sox. He is more remembered for his lifetime batting average of .342 and monstrous homeruns, mostly later hit when he became a Yankee outfielder and revered clean-up hitter.
But lost in the lore of the baseball great is that Babe Ruth almost died twice in 1918, long before he became a Yankee legend. In the spring of 1918, as World War I was still raging across Western Europe and America’s war involvement was at its peak, Babe Ruth reported to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in March as a 23-year-old not-so-famous ball player. Ruth was there for spring training and to soak in the therapeutic riches of the hot springs bathing spas. Not far outside of town was a soldier training base where American soldiers soon to be off to the Western Front trained while watching spring exhibition games. Ruth loved playing in front of the soldiers and fast became friends with many. Ruth by that time was becoming quite a hitter – a quixotic swinger of the bat – with a long upper cut swing meant to drive the ball high and deep. No choking up on the bat and slapping singles for Ruth. And he earned the nickname “Colossus” there in The Natural State – Arkansas’ nickname. In one game, he smacked five homeruns to the delight of the recruits. Ruth was a natural at baseball.
Lurking there in Arkansas was the Spanish Flu – a deadly flu much like coronavirus – which began to stricken soldiers and ballplayers. Dubbed the “grippe” then, sick soldiers left the town and headed for Europe’s trenches where the disease spread with more lethal effects than did German bullets.
By the time Ruth returned to Boston for the season, he was sick. After spending a “delightful day” at the beach with his wife Helen, Ruth’s throat was raw, his cough dry and his temperature nearing 105. A stomach full of beer only dehydrated him more, and the Red Sox’s team physician made matters worse when he examined “the big fella” and covered his throat with the quack treatment of silver nitrate, which caused severe edema and nearly suffocated Ruth. Writhing in pain and blue from lack of oxygen, Ruth was whisked by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors hurriedly packed his throat in ice. Rumors in Boston were that, “Colossus…worth more than his weight in gold,” was on death’s very door.
Two days later, Ruth was on the mend. Newspapers proclaimed, “Babe’s great vitality and admirable physical condition have started to throw off the aggravated attack. The prophecy now is that the big lad will be out of the hospital in four or five days.”
Ruth made a full recovery, and walloped 11 homeruns in the month of June in a remarkable testament to his strength. The flu ravaged Boston, as no lockdowns or mitigation strategies were implemented. Even President Woodrow Wilson contracted the Spanish Flu while traveling in Europe, and not long after his bout with the deadly contagion, he would be crippled by a massive stroke.
Ruth’s Red Sox made it to the World Series that autumn against the Chicago Cubs as the epidemic was beginning to kill nearly 5,000 Bostonians. On September 11, 1918, the Red Sox won the World Series. Soon after, the deadly disease crippled Boston during the winter. More than 675,000 Americans died of the disease out of the nation’s population of 105 million. More than 50 million would die worldwide by 1919.
Babe Ruth pitched a shutout in Game 1 and won Game 4, giving up only one run. But, so sick from a second bout of the Spanish Flu which was mutating and spreading amidst the pandemic’s second wave, he had to lie down on the dugout bench shaking from the ravages of fever. Without Ruth, the Red Sox would never have won the 1918 World Series, and they did not win another until 2003. Only 15,000 fans witnessed the Red Sox triumph at Fenway Park as citizens were beginning to realize the dangers of the virus. Not until the day after the World Series did Boston’s health commissioner William Woodward issue a warning to “avoid crowded cars, elevators or buildings” and to avoid public gatherings. Yet, there was not a citywide lockdown or directive issued by local or state officials. By September’s end, Boston’s streets were deserted. In Baltimore, where Ruth grew up, the virus spread like wildfire through the poor immigrant districts of “Pig City,” the dubious name coined for the area where slaughter houses were bunched together and cheap labor was available.
In 2018, President Donald Trump announced that he was giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to George Herman Ruth Jr. In various surveys and polls, Ruth continues to be ranked as the “greatest baseball player of all time,” by The Sporting News. The Associated Press has Ruth tied with Muhammad Ali as the most recognized athletes in American sports history.
The Pandemic of 1918 almost struck out this colossus human being, if not for the divine intervention that arguably saved him from not one, but two waves of a deadly flu virus a century ago.
Author’s note: Many superb books focus on Ruth’s remarkable life. Big Fella is beautifully written by baseball historian Jane Leavy, and her chronicling of Ruth’s life includes an unvarnished look not only at his baseball exploits but at his battles with weight, alcoholism and infidelity. Not lost in the story is Ruth’s undisputed generosity to children, his lifelong support for the Knights of Columbus and his devotion to his Catholic faith. Another recent book that is a fascinating look into 1918 is Randy Roberts’ and Johnny Smith’s War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America in the Shadow of the Great War. This book was an excellent resource for this article and is a treasure of little-known Ruth facts sure to delight baseball enthusiasts and American history buffs.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness