Drunk drivers rolling their cars in the wee hours of the morning is an old story, especially if you were Babe Ruth, who did that sort of thing regularly. What was amazing about Ruth—who missed a curve in Wawa while barreling north on Baltimore Pike in 1920—was that he was absolutely immune to criticism for behavior that would’ve been intolerable in anyone else.
In a 22-season career that ran from 1914 to 1935, Ruth established many baseball records, including 714 career home runs, 2,213 runs batted in, and a 69-percent slugging average. Concurrently, however, the man whose parents sent him to reform school at age 7—they said he was “incorrigible”—wrecked multiple cars, was arrested for speeding and hit-and-runs, drank prolifically, frequented prostitutes, and was hit with a paternity suit.
Ruth also punched an umpire, threw dirt on another, and once went into the stands after a heckler who pulled a knife. At a New Jersey roadhouse, he argued with a stranger who later followed him and pulled a gun. “He was the most uninhibited human being I have ever known,” said sportswriter John Drebinger. “He just did things.”
Born George Herman Ruth in Baltimore, the future baseball star was the eldest child of George and Katherine Ruth. His parents ran a saloon near the waterfront, though Ruth’s mother, who would give birth to eight children, was frequently ill. Consequently, Ruth’s childhood suffered little adult intervention. According to biographer Robert Creamer, he “avoided school with a passion” and spent his days roaming the streets, in the process of which he discovered baseball. “The truck drivers, cops and storekeepers were our enemies,” Ruth told the ghostwriter of his autobiography. “I learned to fear and hate the coppers and to throw apples and eggs at the truck drivers.”
According to Creamer, the boy learned to chew tobacco, drink whiskey and steal. At age 8, Ruth’s parents committed him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a Catholic institution with strict discipline. At St. Mary’s, Ruth became a practicing Catholic, did regular classroom work, and went through vocational education. He learned to sew shirts, most of which were worn by the boys in the school, though some were sold outside. He spent most of his small earnings at the candy store, giving much of the treats to younger students.
The “boss” at St. Mary’s was Brother Matthias, a six-foot, 250-pound “male nun” who, while not the superintendent, was responsible for enforcing discipline. According to Creamer, he did so fairly, which the boys appreciated. He probably gave Ruth more calm, constructive attention than he had previously received from any other adult, perhaps blunting some of his cruder behavior in the process. Of Brother Matthias, Ruth often said, “He was the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
Brother Matthias also made Ruth a better ballplayer, hitting him grounder after grounder for hours. “I could hit the first time I picked up a bat,” Ruth later recalled, “but Brother Matthias made me a fielder.”
Coming out of St. Mary’s in 1914, Ruth was immediately signed by the Baltimore Orioles, whose manager had seen Ruth play. Other players referred to the 19-year-old as the manager’s “newest babe,” and the name stuck.
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Ruth played for Baltimore for only a few months. In the middle of the 1914 season, the Orioles, then a minor-league team, ran into financial problems. Ruth and two other athletes were traded to the Boston Red Sox for $10,000.
During his five seasons with Boston, Ruth first showed himself to be one of baseball’s top left-handed pitchers, before also becoming a hard-hitting outfielder. He was part of three World Series championship teams.
At Ruth’s Fenway Park debut in July 1914, he pitched seven innings against Cleveland and received credit for a 4-3 win. In October, he pitched a complete game victory over the Yankees and doubled for his first major-league hit. Ruth slumped in early 1915, partly due to excessive carousing with teammates and partly due to a broken toe—he had kicked a bench in frustration after being walked. But he came back to pitch three complete winning games in nine days.
Despite his success as a pitcher, Ruth was bored on the bench, waiting for pitching assignments. What he wanted was a spot in the regular rotation, so that he would play every day and thereby become a stronger hitter. But that didn’t happen until 1918, when the Red Sox roster was depleted after several players enlisted. Then, Ruth became both the team’s best pitcher and its top hitter. In one 10-game stretch, he hit .469 (15-for-32) and slugged .969, with four singles, six doubles and five triples. As a pitcher, he allowed more than two runs only once in his last 10 starts. Red Sox fans called him “The Colossus,” and he led the team to the American League pennant.
Traded to the New York Yankees in 1920, Ruth would complete his transition from pitcher to powerful hitter. It would be during his 15 seasons with the team that he would set records and become the prototype of a sports media celebrity.
Baseball fans flocked to see Babe Ruth play, and reporters flocked to write about him. It was a boom era for sportswriting. Newspapers of the time saw an opportunity to grow by promoting sensational stories and de-emphasizing hard news and politics. Between 1915 and 1925, the average metropolitan newspaper doubled the number of pages devoted to sports. But it was coverage of a certain kind. Readers wanted heroes. Except for what occurred on the field, reporters were rarely critical.
Ruth loved cars, but wasn’t particularly skilled behind the wheel. He was often stopped by police. But after learning who he was, most cops simply waved him on. An exception was the officer who nabbed Ruth as he raced his maroon sports car on New York’s Riverside Drive in 1921. Taken straight to traffic court, he was sentenced to a day in jail—a “day” being until 4 p.m.
That day’s game started at 3:15 p.m., so Ruth had his uniform driven to the courthouse. “I’m going to have to go like hell to get to the game,” he told a cellmate. “Keeping you late like this makes you into a speeder.”
Ruth often took his car to away games, rather than ride trains with the rest of the team. And, in July 1920, that’s what he did when the Yankees played road games in Philadelphia and Washington. After the games in Washington, Ruth headed home in his Packard touring car with wife Helen, rookie outfielder Frank Gleich, second-string catcher Fred Hofmann, and Charley O’Leary, an old infielder who was now a coach. According to Creamer, the drive was “a jolly one, with songs, much laughter and occasional stops for sips of bootleg liquor.” Prohibition was on, but Ruth never let that deter him.
It was about 2 a.m. on July 7, and the narrow road weaved and curved from Maryland into Pennsylvania. Ruth was driving and singing. “He was always unduly impressed by the musical quality of his rich bass voice, and he was really letting it all out,” wrote Creamer.
In Wawa, near the intersection of Baltimore Pike and Valleybrook Road, the street curved sharply. Ruth, driving too fast, couldn’t make the curve. He hit the brake, and the car skidded, then spun off the road and turned over. Ruth crawled out. Gleich and Hofmann were OK. Both Helen and O’Leary were thrown from the vehicle. Helen suffering only bruises. O’Leary landed on the pavement.
According to Creamer, Ruth seemed stricken: “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, God, bring Charley back. Don’t take him. I didn’t mean it.” He lifted O’Leary’s head and said, “Speak to me, Charley.”
O’Leary responded: “What the hell happened?” He was fine.
The group hiked to a nearby farmhouse for help and a phone. Everyone got back to New York by train the next day. Ruth played the day after, though with a slight limp, and scored a triple.
He soon got himself another car.