Partly because he loved to play baseball, partly because he loved to spend money, Babe Ruth played lots of exhibition games in the offseason across the country and in the Caribbean. After his astonishing 1921 season, the formed the Babe Ruth All Stars, which played against multiple Negro League teams, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.
This brought immediate conflict with the new baseball commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, former federal judge brought in to clean up the game after the Black Sox Scandal about fixing the 1919 World Series. To choke of these interracial match-ups, Landis decreed that no (white) major leaguers participate in those exhibition games.
The Babe’s response? He kept playing the games, meeting commitments for contests against teams like Oscar Charleston’s Colored All-Stars in the Spring of 1922.
The commissioner’s response? He suspended Ruth and Yankee teammate Bob Meusel and pitcher Wild Bill Piercy for the first 39 games of the season until the wayward ballplayers agreed to respect his decree.
In working on my forthcoming novel, The Babe Ruth Deception (releases Sept. 27; preorders available), I became particularly smitten with the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, a squad whose owners included two black businessmen and Atlantic City political power Nucky Johnson, played by Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire. Reflecting the scrabbling quality of much of Negro League the team’s home fields in 1921 were actually in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and the Bronx. They played Babe Ruth’s All Stars after the 1920 season and beat them, 9-4. Their best pitcher was Cannonball Dick Redding, while Dick Lundy led them in hitting.
I found the intersection between the Babe and Negro League baseball pretty remarkable, and explored it in my novel — which was natural, since one of my lead recurring characters is a former black baseball player, Speed Cook. The Babe was no crusader for equal rights. He was a ballplayer first, last, and always, and a largely uneducated one at that. Yet, unlike the Lords of Baseball, he had no problem taking the field against or with African-Americans.
And he made a difference. Landis had to rescind his decree barring exhibition games against Negro League players, and Ruth played more of them after the 1922 season. With his season shortened by the suspension, he only hit 35 home runs and batted only .315 — substantial reductions from his gaudy numbers in 1921 (59 homers and .378) — but he made his point.
Throughout his life, and until now, there was always a whispering campaign that Ruth was part black. I haven’t seen any reason to credit those whispers, but I wonder if they made the Babe more aware of the lives and burdens of black ballplayers of his era. And more willing to defy Commissioner Landis.