During the 1919 season, the Yankees were second-class citizens. They shared a field with the Giants and drew the smallest crowds out of all three New York teams. But by the time Babe Ruth passed away, 63 years ago today, they had become the marquee franchise in all of Major League Baseball.
This, in short, is why Ruth continues to cast a shadow as one of the most outsized legends in baseball history. He changed the fortunes of a team, a city and a sport.
“When he came over to the Yankees from the Red Sox in 1920, the Yankees were sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants,” says Eric Jentsch, a curator of culture and the arts at the American History Museum. “After Ruth came and made such a dramatic change in the game with all his home runs, Yankees attendance doubled and totally surpassed the Giants, so the Giants kicked them out.”
In his first season with the Yankees, Ruth hit 54 home runs: more, on his own, than any team except for the Phillies. His unprecedented slugging ushered the game into the new live-ball era.
It’s hard to imagine, but if Ruth hadn’t come along, we might have seen the Yankees head to the West Coast, instead of moving into “The House That Ruth Built.”
“The Yankees built this beautiful, huge stadium, because they got so popular from Ruth, and then were able to create this dynasty that they’ve had,” says Jentsch.”The Yankees ended up running both the Giants and Dodgers out of town, because they were so popular.”
The Smithsonian is home to a piece of this history. In the 1970s, when the stadium was undergoing extensive renovations, workers took out an old, graffiti-marked ticket booth. In time, it would be donated to the American History Museum. Although not currently on display, Jentsch said curators plan to use the artifact in a new exhibition on American mass entertainment and pop culture that is currently under development.
Ruth’s significance went beyond the building of a stadium. At a key point in the history of baseball and American entertainment, he emerged as a superstar and established the sport as America’s pastime.
“The twenties are often called the golden age of sports, and there are a few reasons for that. After World War I, a lot of people became more interested in entertainment and leisure activities,” Jentsch says. “The other thing was a huge change in media, with radio, and with more newspapers.”
As baseball was just recovering from the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal—in which eight White Sox players were banned from the game for intentionally losing the World Series—the game needed a galvanizing star to bring back positive coverage. “Ruth managed his public persona very well. He was a really likable guy, he treated people well,” says Jentsch. “He had this magnetism, and he was a winner.”
“He was the best baseball player who ever lived,” wrote Robert W. Creamer, a former Sports Illustrated writer and Ruth biographer, in a 1995 Smithsonian article. “He was better than Ty Cobb, better than Joe DiMaggio, better than Ted Williams, better than Henry Aaron, better than Bobby Bonds. He was by far the most flamboyant. There’s never been anyone else like him.”
In the Smithsonian’s collections, there are three Babe Ruth-autographed balls. Pictured above, is one that was originally a family heirloom: when Ruth visited Scranton, Pennsylvania, sometime in the early part of the century, one Evan Jones got it signed as a gift for his son. The signed ball was donated to the museum in the 1990s.
The stories of the two other balls were told in a Smithsonian Magazine article in 2003. One was signed by both Ruth and Hank Aaron, who broke Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974. The other was autographed by the entire 1926 New York Yankee team, a gift from a team trainer to a sick child who lived next door. That team lost the World Series in seven games, ultimately losing as Ruth was caught stealing second base in the bottom of the ninth.
In his 15 years as a Yankee, though, Ruth led the team to four World Series victories and rewrote baseball’s record books. As Red Sox fans know well, the legend all goes back to that fateful trade. At the time, selling the player for $200,000 seemed to make sense. But now, “it’s one of those famous stories,” says Jentsch. “You never can tell where the next great superstar will come from.”