Author & Speaker

BabeWatch: Barnstorming Against Negro League Teams

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.

Babe Ruth in 1920, his first full season with the New York Yankees, when he hit 54 home runs.

Babe Ruth in 1920, his first full season with the New York Yankees, when he hit 54 home runs.

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.

Sometimes called the "black Ty Cobb," Oscar Charleston hit .434 in 1921 with the St. Louis Giants.

Sometimes called the “black Ty Cobb,” Oscar Charleston hit .434 in 1921 with the St. Louis Giants.

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.

Cannonball Dick Redding

Cannonball Dick Redding

Shortstop Dick Lundy hit .484 for the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.

Shortstop Dick Lundy of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.

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.

 

4 Comments

  1. Patrick Connors on August 8, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    Love not only your devotion not only to the history but also your ability to bring it to life, to humanize it.

  2. Andre chiavelli on January 29, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Love the pic of Ruth where did you get it ?

    • David Stewart on February 7, 2017 at 6:46 pm

      Me, too. I do most of my image research on Google Images!

  3. Steven T. Corneliussen on November 15, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks for this posting, which you probably know will be seeing some new hits because it’s linked in a new Washington Post op-ed this evening, Nov. 15, 2018 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/it-makes-perfect-sense-for-trump-to-honor-babe-ruth/2018/11/15/b575224e-e904-11e8-a939-9469f1166f9d_story.html). Did Babe Ruth ever cross paths with Cool Papa Bell?

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