A paltry crowd of 12,000 fans in New York's Yankee Stadium cheered the home team as it trounced the Cleveland Indians, 14-6 on June 13, 1927. Although Yankee sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had failed to hit one out of the park, four of their teammates notched five home runs
But New Yorkers couldn't be blamed for the small crowd in the south Bronx considering that 4,000,000 people had lined Broadway and 5th Avenue in Manhattan that afternoon. The city had thrown a ticker-tape parade to honor Charles Lindberg's 33-hour solo flight from New York to Paris on May 20-21. The boyish hero rode in an open convertible from the Battery to Central Park, with an interim ceremonial stop at City Hall.
Regardless of the enormous celebration, the East Coast press didn't fully ignore Ruth's quest that year to break his own season record for home runs, 59, that he set in 1921. The next day, the Washington Post published a brief article titled, "Babe Ruth Is Ahead of 1921 Homer Pace." It noted that Ruth had averaged .389 homers per game through the Indians game. The Post declared that pace would yield 60 home runs at the end of the 154-game season on Oct. 1. The ultimate success of Ruth's campaign, however, would remain unknown until the last three games were played 90 years ago this weekend.
George Herman Ruth endured a tumultuous youth and spent most of those years at Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a state-designated reformatory. The Catholic Congregation of the Brothers of St. Francis Xavier administered St. Mary's, and the brothers faulted bad parenting rather than incorrigible boys. George excelled at baseball and signed with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles in February 1914. He acquired his nickname, a reference to his youth, while in Baltimore, and the team sold him to the Boston Red Sox the following July.
After that first season with Boston, 19-year-old Babe married 16-year-old Helen Woodford, who had lied about her age. However, the union had little effect on Ruth's behavior during those years. He lacked manners, talked loudly and about little beyond gambling and sex, and craved attention and constant activity. Critics said his mind ignored details that fell outside his self-centered, hedonistic thoughts. Oft-told stories have him using his roommate's toothbrush and never flushing the toilet. His enormous mouthfuls of food, bellows for more, and loud belches and farts annoyed even people used to famously crude baseball players.
Other cravings paled next to his sexual appetite. Marriage formed few bounds on Ruth, either at home or on the road. He roamed every town like a free-range rabbit, chasing women, professional and amateur alike. Ruth's teammates rarely saw him in the hotel, and one, according to multiple accounts, said, "I room with Babe Ruth's suitcase."
Regardless of his personal traits, Babe became the best left-handed pitcher in baseball during the 1916 and 1917 seasons. He won Game 2 of the 1916 World Series against the Brooklyn Robbins (later Dodgers). In 1917, his record was 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA. Also, he hit .325 with two home runs. In 1918, he was both a pitcher and a position player. As the latter he hit .300 and 11 home runs in the war-shortened season; while pitching, he was 13-7 with an ERA of 2.22. The Sox won their third World Series title in four years in 1918 against the Chicago Cubs. Ruth won two of the games and set a record of consecutive scoreless innings, one carried over from the 1916 Series, of 29 2/3 innings. That mark lasted until 1961.
In late December 1919, after Ruth had hit a record 29 home runs that season, Boston famously sold The Babe to the Yankees for $100,000 and thus incurred the Curse of the Bambino. In his first season in New York, 1920, he hit .376, an otherworldly 54 homers and enjoyed the highest ever, non-PED slugging percentage, .847. In 1921, Ruth hit .378, 59 and .846.
From 1921 through 1926, Ruth led the Yankees to four World Series appearances, winning one in 1923. That record set up the team for its iconic 1927 performance, one highlighted by the batting of Ruth and Gehrig.
GREATEST TEAM EVER
On July 4, 1927, the Yankees swept a doubleheader at home against the Washington Senators, 12-1 and 21-1. Ruth and Gehrig began the twin bill tied with 26 homers each, but The Buster — as the media called Larrupin' Lou — bested The Babe that Monday afternoon, two homers to none. That left Gehrig with 28 for the season, and Ruth, 26. The press soon labeled the two players' competition the Great American Home Run Derby.
Two other catchphrases often appeared on the sports pages during the season — Murderers' Row and Five O'clock Lightning. The former arose from a notorious row of cells in New York's Tombs prison, and the 1918 Yankees first drew that nickname for their fearsome hitters. In 1927, it applied to the club's regular hitters, especially the first six: Earl Combs (centerfield), Mark Koenig (shortstop), Ruth (right field), Gehrig (first base), Bob Meusel (left field), Tony Lazzeri (second base), Joe Dugan (third base) and Pat Collins (catcher).
The lightning term came from the Yankees' practice of starting single games at 3:30 p.m. to attract workingmen and kids. The club's heavy-hitting firepower brightened the afternoon in the in the 8th and 9th innings since games then barely lasted two hours (and no night games).
Babe hit an inside-the-park homer in Detroit's Navin Park on July 8, No. 27, an unlikely feat given his bulk. Sports Illustrated's William Nack described the hit in 1998. "Though Ruth was 6-foot-2 and weighed 215 pounds, give or take 18 hot dogs and a pail of bootleg beer, he was relatively agile on the base paths." Nack also wrote of Ruth's reaction that day: "I beat it out! Can you believe that?' "
On Aug. 16, Ruth reached an opposite extreme by becoming the first to hit a ball out of the newly remodeled Comiskey Park in Chicago against the White Sox. The team had added a second deck to the outfield grandstands, so it was quite a clout — an estimated 474 feet. It was his 37th, which left him one behind Gehrig.
New York visited the Bambino-cursed Red Sox for a doubleheader on Sept. 6, with Boston trailing the league-leading Yankees by 50 games. The teams split the two games, and The Babe hit three homers, 45, 46 and 47; The Buster had only one, his 45th. Ruth was then seven games behind his 1921 pace and needed to hit 13 in the remaining 22 games to break his record. But the Derby was essentially over by that time since Gehrig remained stuck at 45, he eventually would hit 46 and 47 on Oct. 1, the season's last day.
Ruth kept grinding away at a new record, and his plate performance during a doubleheader in New York against Cleveland on Sept. 13 was a good example. The Yankees won both, with Babe hitting No. 51 in the first game and 52 in the second. The Yanks also clinched the pennant that day, 17 games up on the Philadelphia Athletics.
Willis Hudlin, the Indians pitcher in the first game, was 92 years old when he told Nack of throwing a sinkerball during Babe's home-run at bat. "He swung from his heels, as he always did, and the ball just jumped off his bat," Hudlin said. "Never any doubt."
The Babe used three bats during the 1927 season, and, following the alliteration of Babe and Buster, gave them complimentary names: Black Betsy, the reddish-brown Beautiful Bella, and the ash blonde Big Bertha.
On Sept. 22, Ruth hit No. 56 against Detroit in the Stadium and circled the bases with his bat to thwart souvenir hunters. Rapturous fans ran onto the field, and a New York Times reporter captured the scene as one boy ran to Ruth near third base. "Flailing away with both hands the youngster pounded Babe's back and ran home with him holding onto the handle of the bat ... the youngster was like the tail of a flying comet."
Ruth was still sitting on 56 when the Yankees welcomed the Philadelphia Athletics to New York on Sept. 27. In the sixth inning and facing future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, The Babe hit his 57th in a grand style with the bases loaded. With only three games left, Ruth had to hit three more to reach 60.
After a day off on Sept. 28, New York hosted Washington for the final three games. In the first inning, Babe wasted little time by hitting No. 58 off Hod Lisenbee into the right field seats. In the fifth with the bases full of Yankees, Senator player/manager Bucky Harris brought in rookie Paul Hopkins to face Ruth. On a 3-2 count, Hopkins threw a slow curve at The Babe.
"Real slow and over the outside of the plate," the 93-year-old Hopkins told Nack in 1998. "It was so slow that Ruth started to swing and then hesitated, hitched on it and brought the bat back. And then he swung, breaking his wrists as he came through it. What a great eye he had ... I can still see the swing."
The Big Bam now had 59 homers.
The next day, Sept. 30, Ruth came to bat in the eighth against the starter, Tom Zachary. With a 1-1 count, Ruth smacked a fastball into the right field bleachers for a new home run record. The small crowd of 8,000 fans erupted, and, after touching home, Ruth trotted to the dugout. "Sixty!" he yelled, according several biographers. "Count 'em, 60! Let's see some other son of a bitch match that!"
Ruth went hitless in the season's final game the following day, Oct. 1, perhaps too comfy sitting on his laurels to muster any good at bats. Yet New York won the game, giving them a record-setting 110 wins for the season, a record that lasted until 1954.
"The World Series seemed to be nothing more than a curtain call," Ruth biographer Leigh Montville wrote in 2006, noting the team's regular season achievements. The Yankees swept the Pittsburg Pirates, 4-0.
Michael K. Bohn is the author, among other books, of "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
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