With 54 swings of his bat, Babe Ruth saved baseball in 1920. After the Black Sox scandal left fans disillusioned with the game President William Howard
Taft called a "clean, straight game" in 1910, Americans stayed away from the ballparks. But when Ruth burst onto the scene in 1920 with 54 home runs, Yankee Manager Miller Huggins' assertion that the American fan "likes the fellow who carries the wallop" proved true. In 1920, Ruth helped the Yankees become the first team in baseball history to draw more than one million fans in one year. All teams but Detroit and Boston saw an increase in attendance. Throughout the rest of his career Ruth would inspire the awe of millions of fans and put baseball back into the national spotlight. Yankee Stadium may have been the house that Ruth built, but baseball became synonymous with the Babe.
74,000 fans saw Ruth play when Yankee Staium opened in 1923 even though the stadium only had 62,000 seats.
Ruth did not become a hero because he saved baseball; he saved baseball because he was a hero. Through advertisements and news articles, the American public came to know the Babe as a mythical folk hero. An incorrigible child, Ruth rose from a reform school to become one of baseball's all-time greats and eventually commanded a salary greater than the President’s. He was the hero in a Horatio Alger novel where a combination of pluck and luck propelled him to the top.
His accomplishments were Bunyanesque. Descriptions of the Babe's mighty swing mirrored those of Bunyan's ax that felled hundreds of trees with one strike.
Like most other heroes of the Western frontier, the Babe was a symbol of man's triumph over science. Western folk legends of Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Pecos Bill showed how the individual could rise above the nameless efficiency of the industrial era. John Henry, for instance, beat a state-of-the-art steam drill in a contest to see which could tunnel through a mountain faster. In the baseball world, Babe Ruth defied the scientific conventions of the time by relying on brute force, not slap singles and steals, to score runs. While Paul Bunyan and John Henry battled the technology that the railroad represented, Babe Ruth contended with the systematic approach to baseball that Ty Cobb embodied.
Symbolically, Babe Ruth's home runs signified man's triumph over the harsh conditions in the West. According to frontier legend, when Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone forged the American frontier, they encountered an untamed land full of dangerous animals and Indians. Away from the comforts of modern living, frontiersmen struggled to survive in the American wilderness. The game of baseball embodied similar principles in players' minds. "Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men," Cobb said. "It's a contest and everything that implies a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest" (Oriard, p. 128). The baseball diamond itself was a small patch of rural land surrounded by an industrial city that welcomed players to conquer it. From home plate, the field expands outward with his field of vision and appears like it could go on forever, but stopped only by the walls. By hitting a home run, the Babe conquered the frontier that the field represented with one swing of his bat. He did not need to battle it out on the field by running bases and dirtying his uniform by sliding. With one swing of the bat, Ruth conquered baseball's frontier with ease. He did not need technology of science. He did it on his own.
Ruth, like most American folk heroes, was an uncompromising man. Like the dime novel outlaw-cowboy hero, Ruth possessed a rebellious nature that would not die down. He showed little respect for authority when he ignored Commissioner Landis' 1922 mandate that he not barnstorm between seasons. When Landis suspended Ruth for thirty days because of Ruth's violations, it was just first of many suspensions for reprehensible" conduct Ruth received in 1922. A voracious eater, Ruth paid no attention to the rigorous conditioning regimens his peers kept. "Lord, he ate too much," recalled Harry Hooper, a teammate of Ruth’s with the Red Sox. "He’d stop along the road when were traveling and order half a dozen hot dogs and as many bottles of soda pop, stuff them in, one after another, give a few belches and then roar, ‘OK boys, let’s go,’" (Ward, p. 155). Everything the Babe did defied convention, from the home run binges to the buffet line. He was a baseball outlaw.
But to his fans, the Babe was a rascal, not a criminal. He was a troublemaking kid like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, always up to no good but always forgivable.
Unlike the calculating businessman who advanced by scheming with a double-faced smile, Ruth hit home run after home run grinning ear-to-ear like a child. He loved baseball and stepped onto the field with the same child-like enthusiasm every day. He called everyone "Kid" because he had a hard time with names, but the moniker endeared him to fans and acquaintances alike.
Playfulness was one of Ruth's endearing traits.
There was an aura of innocence about the Babe, which began with his name. An excitable youth of nineteen when he broke into the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1914, teammates called him "Baby," then "Babe." The name stuck and helped preserve his child-like image. "Ruth is a big, likeable kid," said a 1922 article in The Sporting News. "He has been well named, Babe. Ruth will never grow up and probably never will," (Smith, p. 84). In any one story, he would be likened to "an enraged bull" and an "infant." The Babe was a gentle giant.
Babe Ruth's innocent demeanor made him more approachable to fans, especially children. When fans asked him for an autograph, he happily obliged. He frequented children's hospitals and orphanages, and helped out charitable organizations to benefit children. In a 1926 World Series game, Ruth reportedly promised a critically ill 11 year-old Johnny Sylvester that he’d hit him a homer and delivered with three in one game. Sportswriter Grantland Rice recalled in Ruth’s obituary that he accompanied Ruth on a sixty-mile drive to visit a sick boy the day before a World Series game in Chicago. Rice wrote that Ruth "spent numerous hours going out of his way to help youngsters singly and in groups, to take them autographed baseballs, to help pay their doctors’ bills," (Inabinett, p. 47).
Ruth loved baseball so much that he wanted expose children everywhere to the joys of the game. "I won't be happy until we have every boy in America between the ages of six and sixteen wearing a glove and swinging a bat," Ruth said. He reveled in his role as the idol of children everywhere and tried extremely hard to maintain this image. When New York State Senator James J. Walker criticized Ruth's off-field behavior after a disappointing 1922 season where Ruth hit only 25 homers by saying that Ruth was letting down "the dirty-faced little kids," Ruth broke down in tears and vowed to come back the next season a reborn man.
A mixture of innocence and recklessness turned Babe Ruth into an American folk hero. But the Babe did not do it all by himself. Sportswriters and advertisers played a key role in focusing the spotlight on baseball’s newest hero in an age where the media was becoming more prominent than ever.