This article was written by John McMurray
This article was published in the Fall 2015 Baseball Research Journal
Of all the facets of Babe Ruth’s long and distinguished career, his time as a coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938 has received the least consideration. Yet Ruth was the team’s biggest attraction and his time with the Dodgers effectively put an end to any remaining prospects the former New York Yankees star still had to become a major league manager.
Of all the facets of Babe Ruth’s long and distinguished career, his time as a coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938 has received the least consideration. Perhaps that is justified: Ruth coached for less than a full season with the Dodgers, and first base coaches seldom make an obvious imprint. Yet Ruth’s time with Brooklyn is consequential, both because, even as a non-player, Ruth was the team’s biggest attraction, and because his time with the Dodgers effectively put an end to any remaining prospects the former New York Yankees star still had to become a major league manager.
NO OPPORTUNITY TO MANAGE WITH THE YANKEES
Ruth, as is well known, had longed to become manager of the New York Yankees, only to be passed over as player-manager when Joe McCarthy was hired prior to the 1931 season. According to Leigh Montville, Ruth considered the position of player-manager with the Yankees to be a “natural progression,” and Ruth was cognizant that other prominent contemporary stars such as Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Tris Speaker had each taken on such a role. Still, team owner Jacob Ruppert, mindful of Ruth’s extensively documented immaturity, got to the crux of the matter when he asked his star player, “How can you manage a team when you can’t manage yourself?”[fn]Leigh Montville, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. New York: Broadway Books 2006, 333.[/fn]
Mark Armour and Dan Levitt have noted that Ruppert made a habit of hiring “highly skilled men who offered very little drama or personality,” such as Ed Barrow, who served essentially as the team’s general manager. Ruth was the opposite: jovial, mercurial, and not focused enough to fulfill the job’s responsibilities at a high level. “[T]he idea of [Ruth] being the Yankee manager seems completely incongruous from what we know about Ruppert, and, particularly, Barrow. The two might have wanted the likeable Ruth to manage in the Major Leagues—but certainly not for the Yankees.”[fn]Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, 84–85. As Armour and Levitt note, Ruth eschewed the Detroit opportunity thinking it would remain open. Instead, Navin, unwilling to wait, hired Mickey Cochrane, who managed the Tigers to American League pennants in both 1934 and 1935.[/fn]
Ruth had hurt his own cause in attempting to become a major league manager by adopting a surly tone with McCarthy, by refusing to consider minor league managerial positions, and even by reportedly choosing to ignore an invitation following the 1933 season to meet with Detroit Tigers owner Frank Navin about the team’s managerial job, electing instead to go on vacation in Hawaii. It was against this backdrop of squandered chances and self-inflicted setbacks that Ruth found himself still desiring a position as a major league manager but without any plausible chance of ever taking over the Yankees.
AFTER THE YANKEES, RUTH JOINS THE BRAVES — AN UNHAPPY EXPERIENCE
As recounted by Montville, Judge Emil Fuchs, his team in severe financial straits, wanted to acquire Ruth from the Yankees to play for his Boston Braves in 1935, primarily to draw fans to the ballpark. “That is all [Fuchs] wanted, an attraction. He wanted the Babe to ride the elephant.”[fn]Montville, 337.[/fn] But Fuchs’s promises, including his strong implication that Ruth was in line to manage the team, were misleading and unsupported.
In enticing Ruth to join the Braves as a free agent, “the judge would offer a bunch of fine-sounding but hollow inducements that contained phrases like ‘vice-president’ and ‘stock options’ and ‘opportunity to manage’ while gaming with Jacob Ruppert to get the aging Ruth out of New York.[fn]Ibid., 338.[/fn] “The deal had a stench to it from the beginning,” said Montville. “[Ruth] said he wanted to be a manager, period. The other parties took that desire and bent it to fit their needs. The Babe never knew what hit him.”[fn]Ibid., 337.[/fn]
So, when Ruth’s on-field performance in Boston was subpar (a .181 batting average in 28 games) and his physical ability to play waned, it was perhaps a surprise only to Ruth that Fuchs would want no more of him. The Associated Press summarized the situation between Ruth and Fuchs concisely: “Finally, their differences took so acute a turn that Ruth, in sheer disgust, quit the game.”[fn]Associated Press, “Ruth to Get $15,000 As Coach For Brooklyn: Baseball Writers Believe the Babe Is Likely to Be Manager Not Later Than 1939,”
Boston Globe, June 19, 1938, C25.[/fn]
Montville said Claire Ruth called the day that she and Babe left Boston “one of the blackest days of their lives,” while Ruth reportedly labeled Fuchs a “dirty double-crosser” who “would double cross a hot bun.”[fn]Montville, 343–44.[/fn] In joining the Dodgers three years later, Ruth, surely, had to be expecting better treatment and at least a reasonable chance that he would one day become the team’s manager.
Burleigh Grimes was manager of the Dodgers in 1938, but Larry MacPhail was already grooming Leo Durocher to take over the helm.
THE DODGERS COME CALLING
A) The state of affairs with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938
Burleigh Grimes—short-tempered and terse, and therefore the opposite of Ruth in personal temperament— was then Brooklyn’s manager, though Grimes would never come close in that position to the high level of success he had enjoyed during nine seasons as a star pitcher for the team. In 1937, Grimes’s first season as manager, Brooklyn finished sixth in an eight-team league, and, as of June 18, 1938, was sitting at an undistinguished 22–31. Five three-game losing streaks, two four four-game losing streaks, and one five-game losing streak during the first ten weeks of the season took away from whatever temporary pep was generated by the team’s occasional offensive outbursts.
Dolph Camilli, who joined Brooklyn in 1938, was recalled in his New York Times obituary as “the first building block in the Dodgers’ recovery from a string of dreary seasons.”[fn]Richard Goldstein, “Dolph Camilli, Who Led Dodgers to ’41 Pennant, Dies at 90,” New York Times, October 22, 1997. Camilli was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies shortly before the season began, on March 6, 1938.[/fn] The pall, though, clearly still hung over the team in 1938, when Camilli was the team’s unquestioned top performer. Camilli led Brooklyn with 24 home runs, more than doubling any teammate’s total. Pitching was a sore spot, as all but two regular Brooklyn hurlers had losing records for the season, the performances of Vito Tamulis and Freddie Fitzsimmons standing out from the rest.
Catcher Babe Phelps, an All-Star in 1938, played in fewer than half of the team’s games due to injury.[fn]Dave Camerer, “Phelps May See Action in West: Ailing Dodger Catcher Now Ready.” Clipping from Phelps’ Hall of Fame file. Though no publication is given, the date of the story is August 23, 1938. It notes that Phelps had “split his thumb” from a foul tip off of the bat of Harry Danning on July 1.[/fn] The lineup was otherwise a collection of players who never made a notable mark (Johnny Hudson, Ernie Koy, and Goody Rosen) or older stars with little left (like eventual Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler and Waite Hoyt). At a time when personal attachments to uniform numbers admittedly meant less than they do today, the incongruity of the Dodgers’ 1938 season was neatly encapsulated by the fact that slick-fielding second baseman Pete Coscarart, who hit no home runs that season, continued to wear Ruth’s famous number three uniform number—even after Ruth joined the team.[fn]See http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/baseball_uniform_ numbers.php?t=BRO and http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BRO/1938-uniform-numbers.shtml. It is interesting to note that Topps issued a baseball card of Ruth in 1962 (#142), subtitled ‘Coaching With the Dodgers,’ clearly showing him wearing uniform number 35 with the Dodgers. His Brooklyn uniform with number 35 was also auctioned in 2008: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=3705111.[/fn]
Beyond manager Grimes, the real influence on the shape of the 1938 Dodgers was held by executive Larry MacPhail and team captain Leo Durocher. Durocher, then 32, had a mere .219 batting average that season as the club’s shortstop, but he held an outsized influence on the team, as Brooklyn’s unofficial manager-in-waiting and a constant check on Grimes’s already shaky managerial influence. With MacPhail, Durocher, and Grimes—probably in that order—as the team’s day-to-day center of influence, the 1938 Brooklyn Dodgers had a contentious trio pulling the strings.
B) Receiving a contract to coach in Brooklyn
Then, on June 15, 1938, against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, Cincinnati’s Johnny Vander Meer threw the second of his consecutive no-hitters, with Durocher making the last out.[fn]James W. Johnson, “Johnny Vander Meer.” SABR BioProject biography. Available at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/14ff1abe.[/fn] In a season made up largely of lows, being no-hit at home during the first major league night game ever played in New York was surely the nadir of the season to date.[fn]Roscoe McGowen, “40,000 See Vander Meer of Reds Hurl Second No-Hit, No-Run Game in Row: Dodgers Bow, 6–0, in Night Inaugural,” New York Times, June 16, 1938, 27.[/fn] After that game, the New York Times bitingly described the Dodgers as “being reduced to the irreducible minimum of baseball accomplishment.”[fn]John Kieran, “All in Fun, or the Babe Comes Back,” New York Times, June 19, 1938, 64.[/fn] At the same time, Ruth was in attendance, apparently only as a spectator, and his appearance at that game, according to biographer Robert Creamer, left an impression on MacPhail and provided motivation to hire Ruth:
“Vander Meer’s feat was front-page news, but earlier in the evening the biggest excitement in the ballpark was the arrival of Babe,” said Creamer. “A stir ran through the crowd and fans swarmed around him. Larry MacPhail, who had become executive vice-president of the Dodgers that year, was doing everything he could to pump life into the then-moribund franchise. He remembered the Babe Ruth Day he had put on in Cincinnati three years earlier, and the crowd the Babe attracted.”[fn]Robert W. Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, New York: Fireside, 1974, 410–11.[/fn]
Given the unenthusiastic attendance at Dodgers games and the challenge the team faced in drawing fans against two other strong teams in New York, it made sense to try to recruit the former Yankee star, who had been out of baseball—and largely out of public view— since leaving baseball as an active player in 1935.
“To have [Ruth] in a Dodger uniform would be a coup,” said Creamer. “MacPhail discussed the idea with his manager, Burleigh Grimes, and with Leo Durocher, the Dodger shortstop who had been made team captain in late May. MacPhail was grooming Durocher to succeed Grimes, who was well aware that this was his last year as manager. Larry talked to Ruth and offered him $15,000 to put on a uniform and be a coach for the rest of the year. The Vander Meer game was on June 15; Ruth met with MacPhail, Grimes and Durocher the next day and signed a contract.”[fn]Ibid., 411.[/fn]
According to the Associated Press, “Ruth was playing golf in Tuckahoe, N.Y., when Larry S. MacPhail, energetic general manager of the Dodgers, announced he had been signed for the duration of the 1938 season. ‘It’s great to be back,’ the Babe said. ‘I would have been back long before if I had the chance to hook on with some major league club. But what could I do? I didn’t get any offers. You can’t make a guy give you a job. When I was offered one I grabbed it quick.’”[fn]Associated Press, “Ruth to Get $15,000 As Coach For Brooklyn: Baseball Writers Believe the Babe Is Likely to Be Manager Not Later Than 1939,” Boston Globe, June 19, 1938, C25.[/fn]
There was one personal drawback to the timing of Ruth’s signing: “The only lament the Babe had was that he would have to default in the Leawood club tournament—just when he appeared on his way toward winning another silver cup. ‘Not only that,’ the Babe groaned, ‘but I’ll have to blow another tournament at St. Albans. I’m in that, and winning that, too.’”[fn]“Ruth Returns to Baseball as Dodger Coach,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 19, 1938, A1[/fn]
Accounts of Ruth’s signing differ. Whereas Creamer wrote that Ruth was signed to a contract the day after the Vander Meer game for what he implies was Brooklyn’s first and only offer, a contemporary Associated Press story said that the Dodgers had been negotiating with Ruth “for a week or more” and that there was at least one prior contract offer.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] That said, there seems little doubt that Ruth’s appearance at the Vander Meer no-hitter was the serendipitous tipping point which led to his arrival in Brooklyn.
Interestingly, the Chicago Daily Tribune, too noting weeklong rumors that Ruth was to join the Dodgers as a coach, also cited the influence of Ford Frick in facilitating the deal:
To some familiar with behind [sic] scenes working of baseball the hand of Ford Frick, the National league [sic] president, is seen. Frick, as a former baseball writer, was once Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter and still is his friend. Frick sponsored MacPhail in Brooklyn. Thus, Frick is seen as bringing the two together on the Brooklyn club.[fn]“Ruth Returns to Baseball as Dodger Coach,” A1.[/fn]
Perhaps less plausibly, the same account cites an anonymous team official who claimed that it was Grimes who prodded the team to hire Ruth in the first place.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Labeling Ruth as baseball’s “forgotten man,” the Associated Press account noted on the day after Ruth’s hiring that “Brooklyn officials insisted that Burleigh Grimes would remain as manager, but baseball writers believed Ruth would take over the job no later than the start of the 1939 season.”[fn]Associated Press, “Ruth to Get $15,000 As Coach For Brooklyn: Baseball Writers Believe the Babe Is Likely to Be Manager Not Later Than 1939,” Boston Globe, June 19, 1938, C25.[/fn] The interplay between Ruth and Durocher would influence the latter portion of the 1938 Brooklyn Dodgers season more than any of the team’s on-field accomplishments.
Ruth, too, quashed early rumblings that he was in line to take over as Brooklyn’s manager:
“You’d like a club of your own, wouldn’t you, Babe?” he was asked.
“Sure, I would,” he replied, and then sidestepped the managerial comment by turning to the idea that he might own a club. It has been rumored in that past that the Babe would head a syndicate to buy the Brooklyns.
“But that would cost plenty of dough,” he added. “And there’s a chance I would lose all I made in baseball that way.”
Officials of the Brooklyn club insist, however, that Grimes will remain as manager and that Ruth was hired as a coach and nothing more. No promise was given Ruth that eventually he would be given a shot at the manager’s job, they declared.[fn]Associated Press, “Babe Ruth, the Man Whom Baseball Forgot, Comes Back to the Majors as Coach of the Dodgers,” Washington Post, June 19, 1938, X1.[/fn]
The team’s record aside, Grimes’s hold on the manager’s job was shaky even before Ruth arrived. Grimes, who was described as having had “a stormy career in organized baseball” at the time he took over the Dodgers for Casey Stengel in 1936, found himself dealing with internal dissension on the club early in the 1938 season.[fn]“Dodgers Name Grimes Pilot for One Year: Succeeds Stengel for Reported $9,000,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 1936, 31.[/fn]
In May, pitcher Luke Hamlin, perturbed about being removed from a game, complained about it loudly to the press, leading MacPhail to comment that “this is the rankest piece of insubordination on the part of a major league baseball player since I have been in baseball. Some players think they are managing the club instead of Grimes.”[fn]Associated Press, “Grimes Is Boss of Dodgers: MacPhail Will Tell the Players Plenty,” Boston Globe, May 6, 1938, 26.[/fn] MacPhail’s assurance that Grimes was “the boss, and I mean boss” for the rest of the 1938 season was undoubtedly taken with a grain of salt by followers of the Dodgers.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Ruth’s presence on the field for the first time as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers quickly grabbed fans’ attention and probably served as the highlight of Ruth’s brief time in Brooklyn. Creamer recounted Ruth’s first day of coaching:
His debut with the Dodgers was on June 19, a Sunday doubleheader with the Cubs, and it was a box office success. Artistically, it was not so good, because Babe did nothing in batting practice. But when he toddled out to the coaching lines in his familiar pitty-pat trot there was a great welcoming cheer. Except for Durocher, the players liked him and enjoyed his presence. His penchant for nicknames led him to call Dolf [sic] Camilli Cameo and Vito Tamulis Tomatoes. He told stories on the bench and made noise in the clubhouse. It was stimulating. Kiki Cuyler, a thirty-eight-year-old outfielder who starred with the Pirates and with the Cubs and was now in his last season, sat in a corner of the dugout watching him and said, “That guy is amazing. He even does something to me.” Grimes said years later, “When he spoke everyone listened, all but Durocher.”[fn]Creamer, 411. In fact, Cuyler would have been age 39 at the time of
In noting Ruth’s return, the Associated Press account made it clear that the day itself, which included Tot Pressnell returning from injury in the first game of a doubleheader and a no-hit attempt by Clay Bryant in the second game, was of secondary concern to the arrival of the former Yankees star: “What mattered was—the Babe was back.”[fn]Associated Press, “28,013 Fans Cheer Babe at Brooklyn: Ruth
Helps Flock Win Opener, 6–2; Cubs Take Second,” Washington Post, June 20, 1938, 14.[/fn] The spectacle of Ruth’s presence indeed was the story, as John Kieran declared, “Sound the loud trumpet! Or as John Keats put it: ‘What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?’ It’s Prometheus Unbound, if a title from Shelley may be borrowed for the great occasion.”[fn]John Kieran, “All in Fun, or the Babe Comes Back,” New York Times, June 19, 1938, 64.[/fn]
The Associated Press noted, “The fans were on hand early to watch [Ruth’s] every move, to nudge each other and whisper, ‘I bet the old guy can still hit ’em. I’ll bet he’ll ruin that scoreboard in a week.’ They cheered him when he went up to the plate in batting practice, went wild with delight when he smacked a long ball foul and gave him a hand no coach has ever received before when by quick thinking he held Pressnell at third in the midst of a crucial three-run rally for the Dodgers in the fifth inning of the opener.[fn]Ruth occasionally coached at third base as well.[/fn]
“Pressnell was rounding third when a wild throw shot past the Cubs’ Rip Collins at first. The ball hit the grandstand and snapped back to the waiting Collins. As it did, Ruth wheeled and held Pressnell at third. He saved a run, for Collins’ throw to Gabby Hartnett was fast and true.”[fn]Associated Press, “28,013 Fans Cheer Babe at Brooklyn: Ruth Helps Flock Win Opener, 6–2; Cubs Take Second,” Washington Post, June 20, 1938, 14. It is worthwhile to note that a mere nine days into his time with Brooklyn, Ruth was the center of attention once again, as his car he was driving was “in a collision with another car, glanced off both a stone wall and a tree and then turned over on its side.” Ruth, uninjured, proceeded to coach the Dodgers the same day. See “Babe Ruth in a Crash: Baseball Coach Escapes Injury in Collision in Jersey,” New York Times, June 29, 1938, 17.[/fn]
Even though Ruth was credited with saving a run during the team’s 6–2 victory during the first game of that doubleheader, the team’s run of consistently average play continued. Another three-game losing streak followed on the heels of Ruth’s first game. From the time Ruth joined the Dodgers until he departed on October 13, the team accumulated a record of 47–49, a modest improvement from its tepid start but not enough to make an impression with Brooklyn’s fans, who had witnessed only six winning seasons since the Brooklyn Robins played in the 1920 World Series.
From a performance standpoint, the 1938 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers proceeded uneventfully. With the Dodgers frequently mired in seventh place, the team could not compare either with the first-place Yankees or with the pennant-contending Giants. Following Ruth’s arrival, the Dodgers finished the month of June with a 4–5 record. The month of July was a bit better, with a month-long record of 16–13. It would be one of only two winning full months the Dodgers would enjoy all year long. The most distinctive moment from the second half of the season may well have been Brooklyn’s victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of a doubleheader on August 2, the only major league game in which yellow baseballs have been used.
But, in terms of attendance—the primary reason why Ruth was signed as a coach, after all—Brooklyn was much improved. By the end of the 1938 season, the Dodgers would draw 663,087 fans at home, nearly 200,000 more fans than they did the year prior and close to 100,000 more than the National League average that season.[fn]Baseball Almanac attendance data, available at http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/laatte.shtml. In 1937, 482,481 fans attended games at Ebbets Field. Average home attendance there in 1938 was 570,103.[/fn] Ruth, without question, made his mark at the gate.
The early part of August proved to be quite eventful for Ruth. Following a loss to Cincinnati at home on August 5, Ruth raced to the hospital, where his daughter Julia had taken ill. According to the New York Times:
George Herman (Babe) Ruth, rushed by motor cycle escort from Ebbets Field, where he had been coaching the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave his 22-year-old adopted daughter, Julia, 500 cubic centimeters of his blood in a transfusion at 6 o’clock last night at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, 210 East Sixty-fourth [sic] Street. After the transfusion, Ruth rested for an hour and then drove his wife, Mrs. Claire Ruth, home. Fifty youngsters from the neighborhood of the hospital met him at its doors as he left, asking for his autograph. He told them he was forced to refuse because his right arm felt weakened.[fn]“Blood of Babe Ruth is Given to Daughter: He Speeds on Motor Cycle from Ball Field to Hospital,” New York Times, August 6, 1938, 15.[/fn]
Then, on August 7, Ruth was ejected from a game for the first time as a coach: “Umpire Beans Reardon gave Babe the ‘heave-o’ in the fourth inning of the first game of the double header with Cincinnati, when Ruth protested too vigorously a decision on Buddy Hassett. Trapped between bases, Hassett was ruled out when Reardon held he ran off the base path. For several minutes, fans chanted, ‘we want Ruth.’”[fn]Associated Press, “Ruthless: Ump Ejects Protesting Babe; Grimes Out for Bandit Act,” Boston Globe, August 8, 1938, 7.[/fn]
A tempest in a teapot surrounding Ruth occurred one day later, when William Harridge, president of the American League, appeared to be dismissive of Ruth’s value to the Dodgers, suggesting in an interview with George Kirksey of the United Press that the American League would eschew the “hoopla” that seemed to be present in the National League. Retorted MacPhail:
I resent, however, the thinly veiled cracks about Babe Ruth, our coach. Mr. Harridge may consider Ruth a ‘Ballyhoo Man.’ In any event, Mr. Harridge could not find a place for him in the American League. Ruth has made a valuable contribution to the spirit and morale of our club. He has worked in harmony with Burleigh Grimes (manager), Tom Sheehan (a coach), and Leo Durocher (team captain), and he has been an inspiration to the younger players. There will be a place for Babe in our organization just as long as he desires to be with us.
Harridge’s slur at Ruth—coming from a head of an organization that has ballyhooed clowns like Nick Altrock and Al Schacht for years and directed at a man who did as much for the American League and baseball as did George Herman Ruth—is the essence of bad taste and punk sportsmanship.[fn]“McPhail (sic) Resents Harridge’s Blast Against Babe Ruth,” Washington Post, August 10, 1938, 21.[/fn]
THE FEUD WITH LEO DUROCHER
Outside slights notwithstanding, it was the internal turmoil building up with Durocher that would prove decisive for Ruth. Bad blood had existed between Ruth and Durocher for nearly for a decade, when Durocher and Ruth were teammates with the Yankees for parts of three seasons. Famously, Ruth branded young Durocher as “The All-American Out” and accused Durocher of stealing Ruth’s wristwatch, a charge fervently denied by Durocher.[fn]Jeffrey Marlett, “Leo Durocher,” SABR BioProject, available at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/35d925c7.[/fn] Temperamentally, of course, it is difficult to conceive of two more different personalities than the good-natured, fun-loving Ruth and the combustible Durocher.
One issue related to their respective roles and performances: Durocher, according to Creamer, was “functioning more like the assistant manager Ruth had been in name only with the Braves.”[fn]Creamer, 413.[/fn] At the same time, Ruth offered an ostensibly lackadaisical approach to relaying signals at first base, effectively leaving the duties to others, which in no way enhanced his appeal as a potential manager or raised his stature in the eyes of an already dismissive Durocher.
“Ruth’s attitude towards signals was that of the Grand Seigneur, not the dim-witted peasant,” said Creamer. “He tended to ignore them. As a Dodger coach, he was not involved with them—Grimes was often on the coaching lines himself, at third base—and Babe spent most of the time waving his arms, clapping his hands and shouting encouragement.[fn]Ibid., 413–14.[/fn]
More simply, Gerald Eskenazi writes: “In fact, Ruth could barely get the signals straight as the first base coach.”[fn]Gerald Eskenazi, The Lip: A Biography of Leo Durocher. New York: William Morrow and Co. 1993, 99.[/fn]
It was a signal for a hit-and-run play, apparently during a game on August 19, which Ruth called for and relayed to Durocher at bat, that made things boil over.[fn]Creamer, 414.[/fn] Even though Durocher got the game-winning hit, Durocher, according to Eskenazi, was angry that Ruth had called for such a risky play with the game on the line in extra innings.[fn]Eskenazi, 99.[/fn]
“Durocher was furious and yelled that Babe didn’t have the brains to give such a sign. Babe heard it. ‘Durocher, I’ve been wanting to smack you down for a long time,’ roared the Babe,” writes Eskenazi.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Creamer described it as a “flaming argument” between Durocher and Ruth in the clubhouse, which may also have involved Cookie Lavagetto.[fn]Creamer, 414.[/fn]
“[Ruth and Durocher] tangled and the scuffle left a mark under Ruth’s eye,” writes Creamer. “But Grimes said, ‘Durocher got mad, not Ruth. I grabbed Leo and pushed him back. It’s not true about a punch hitting Babe. Not a hand was laid on him, though I guess Leo would have belted him if I hadn’t stopped him.’ Whatever good will Ruth’s presence in uniform might have generated among owners looking for a manager was destroyed by the mocking talk about his inability to give signals, and the dispute with Durocher served as the coup de grâce to his dying hope of ever being one.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Whether Ruth threw a punch or not, he apparently took blame for the scuffle. The Washington Post noted after the season that “our old hero, Mr. George Herman Ruth, stubbed his toe again. Babe parked his golf clubs to become a Flatbush coach with a promise of landing the job if he could prove his talent. There was a fight in the clubhouse with Durocher. Boss Larry Macphail [sic] sided with ‘Lippy’ and the Babe lost again.”[fn]Paul Mickelson (AP Sports Writer), “Fight in Clubhouse Cost Ruth Job with Dodger Club,” Washington Post, October 14, 1938, X25.[/fn]
PARTING FROM THE DODGERS
With a 69–80 season complete and the Dodgers being branded “the problem children of the major leagues,” to the surprise of few, Grimes was dismissed as Brooklyn’s manager on October 10 and replaced by Durocher.[fn]United Press, “Dodgers Cut Grimes Off: Change Held Needed, May Pick Durocher, Frisch Has Chance,” Washington Post, October 11, 1938, X18.[/fn] Grieving from his own father’s recent death, Durocher confirmed that Ruth would not continue coaching for Brooklyn. According to one account, “In naming his two coaches, Charlie Dressen and Bill Killifer (sic), Durocher said the Bambino had not ‘been available’ for a coaching job.”[fn]No publication given, “Babe Ruth is Dropped as Coach,” October 13, 1938.[/fn] Euphemisms aside, Ruth obviously would not be afforded an opportunity to remain with the Brooklyn Dodgers with Durocher as manager.
As Ruth left the team, the suggestion endured that the tiff with Durocher was indeed the tipping point: “The Babe, after coming out of retirement this past midseason to coach at first base for the seventh place Dodgers, attracted bumper crowds. He and Durocher had a spat one day in the clubhouse, probably costing Ruth whatever chance he may have had to manage the team next year.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Though not discussed in widespread terms until it actually occurred, Ruth’s leaving the Dodgers seemed to have been expected for some time. “It was definite weeks ago that the Babe wouldn’t be back with Brooklyn next year,” according to the Boston Globe, more than a week after Ruth was let go. “He and Lippy Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ new manager, weren’t exactly Damon and Pythias in one or two clubhouse sessions. So when Lippy Leo was apprised of his appointing to succeed ‘Boiling Boily’ Grimes (and most baseball people will tell you this was long before Larry MacPhail was willing to admit it to the general public) the Babe knew he and the daffiness boys were parting company.”[fn]“Babe Ruth Appears to Be Definitely Out of Baseball,” Boston Globe, October 21, 1938, 30.[/fn]
THE END OF RUTH’S MANAGERIAL PROSPECTS
A week later, the Boston Globe suggested that Ruth might soon have a managerial position in the American Association, which, of course, never materialized.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] “I’ve had some offers—sure,” he explained. “But they were nothing I wanted. You know, I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, so I can take what I want.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Ruth’s parting from the Dodgers had an air of finality to it, as he was not mentioned, at least publicly, for other managing opportunities at the time.
A major league managing opportunity, of course, never came, even though Ruth’s desire to manage was well-advertised over many years. It is assumed that Ruth never wanted to go to the minor leagues to prove his managerial mettle, and Ruth’s incandescent personality combined with the extraordinary fanfare his mere presence drew may have been more of a distraction than any owner hiring a manager wanted to assume.
Ruth’s brief time as a Brooklyn coach almost certainly cost him what few supporters he may have had left in his longstanding quest to become a major league manager. Fair or not, Ruth’s apparent reputation for not focusing on the details of coaching may well have been more determinative of his future prospects than was the row with Durocher, which was seemingly out of character for Ruth. While Ruth was an obvious drawing card as a coach for the Dodgers, there is little evidence that he did much in Brooklyn to hone his managerial skills or to establish a reputation as an instructor, motivator, or tactician.
Ruth’s arrival as a Brooklyn Dodger coach in 1938 seemed, at first glance, to offer him a plausible path to a managerial position and a way to overcome the unfair treatment that Ruth received with the Braves in 1935. But with MacPhail being firmly in Durocher’s corner and Durocher being staunchly opposed to Ruth, there is no realistic way to expect that Ruth could ever have been named manager of the Dodgers under that arrangement. Paralleling his time with the Boston Braves, the opportunity to coach the Brooklyn Dodgers was, for Ruth, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ruth, it seems, deserved better fortunes.
JOHN McMURRAY is Chair of SABR’s Deadball Era Committee and Oral History Committee. He contributed to SABR’s 2006 book “Deadball Stars of the American League” and is a past chair of SABR’s Larry Ritter Award subcommittee, which annually presents an award to the best book on Deadball Era baseball published during the year prior. He has contributed many interview-based player profiles to “Baseball Digest” in recent years and writes a monthly column for “Sports Collectors Digest.”
With thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame for providing clippings of vintage articles cited in this piece.