Article in History / United States / African American
As one reads through the press that chronicled the record of Negro professional baseball in Babe Ruth’s time, it is an easy thing to find a considerable Ruthian presence both on the black field of play and in the consciousness of those who wrote about and read about the Negro professional game.
 
 
 
<p>April 26, 2006</p>

There is no one in the history of sports more gargantuan in his presence when he played his game, and more impactful on the course of that sport when measured against his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors, than George Herman “Babe” Ruth. But there were limits even to the great Bambino’s reach. There is nothing in the record that suggests he ever appeared in even one game wearing a jersey of the Lincoln Giants of his own NYC, or any other team from those dark segregated leagues of his baseball day.

As far as we know, he never took a turn at bat nor held down the mound for even an inning for a Negro professional team. It would seem irrefutable that Babe Ruth was never a Negro Leaguer.

Now there are some who suggested in his own day that he might have qualified to be such. Originating in the racial atmosphere of his own time, and swarming around in the baseball rumor mill seeming as long as Babe has been Babe, is the business of him having some “negro blood” coursing through his veins, with rival bench jockeys infuriating him with their shouts of “Nigger Babe” from the corner of their dugouts. But none of his biographers have ever been able to come even close to verifying that suspicion.

So what is with this Babe was a Negro Leaguer business?

As one reads through the black press that chronicled the record of Negro professional baseball in Babe Ruth’s time, it is an easy thing to find a considerable Ruthian presence both on the black field of play, in the consciousness of those who wrote about and read about the Negro professional game, and in the memories of those who played it. In some sense, Babe Ruth may indeed have been a Negro Leaguer.

The “Sultan of Swat’s” presence on the “half black” field of play is the easiest and least surprising of all black baseball Ruthian connections to find. At least as early as 1918, and then throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, postseason contests between Negro and white professional players often featured Babe Ruth as the featured draw. Turn to the October 8, 1920, Baltimore Afro American for a typical headline and story. “Ruth Gets Home Run Off of Redding” announces the story that reports a Philadelphia October 4 game between “Babe Ruth and his so-called All-Stars losing their first attempt at postseason pastiming to the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City by a score of 9-4 in a contest played at Shibe Park.” The black paper reports with what seems to be some glee that while “Ruth fulfilled any extravagant advance notices that might have been made by walloping the leather over the right-field wall into the Twentieth Street in the seventh inning, in every department of the game the shore tossers appeared superior and smashed Carl Mays’s offerings for eight runs in the first six innings besides playing errorless ball afield.”

Another black Babe Ruth presence? It was often the case in his own time, and remained such for many years after his retirement, that Ruth and his baseball achievements would be the measuring stick against which promising major league newcomers or veteran greats would be assessed. The same was true for the darker side of America’s national pastime. The number of times Josh Gibson has been referred to as the black Babe Ruth is incalculable. But one did not have to wait until Gibson’s heyday in the 1930s and early 1940s to find the Ruthian comparison in print in the black press. “Mackey, Former A.B.C. Star, Is ‘Babe Ruth’ of Eastern League” reads the headline in 1923 in the Pittsburgh Courier in September of the second Negro Major League’s first season. At the time of this accounting, it was Hilldale catcher Raleigh “Biz” Mackey’s batting average of .439 that warranted the Ruthian comparison.

The Ruthian shadow stretched far. “A Colored Babe Ruth” is the title of a piece in the Chicago Whip of March 20, 1920, recounting “the biggest sensation in the just concluded Cuban winter season, the batting of the ‘Black Babe Ruth,’ Christopher (Christobal) Torriente who has out Babed the Babe with his tremendous stickwork.” Tantalizingly, the paper reports that Torriente “has won such fame that various independent teams not particular about color in the United States are bidding for the services of the colored

Behemoth.” Given the color barrier in the North American majors, none of those clubs could have been big league teams. But the prohibition against blacks would not stop a direct match between the two Babes. In November 1920, before an eager crowd of over 10,000 spectators in Cuba, the Latino Babe out homered the Yankee Babe three to none to confirm his right to be called the “Colored Babe Ruth.”

Perhaps, the oddest of black Ruthian pairings in the Babe’s own time was the Chicago Whip ’s championing of a black “nemesis for the champion of champions among the sluggers.” In the earliest moments of his Yankee home run career, white baseball magnates were worrying, according to this report, that “if Ruth was not stopped from losing balls by knocking them into oblivion, they won’t have enough to finish the season’s games, yet they cannot afford to take a drawing card such as Babe out of the national game else the gates receipts will fade into infinite nothingness.” The Whip writer found a promising answer in an Associated Press report about a young colored southpaw holding down the mound for the Montgomery Grey Sox who “would prove Babe Ruth’s master. Streeter is the name of this king pitcher. In a recent game played with some of the greatest players in the Southern League this giant struck out 27 men in succession. He did not allow a single man to knock a foul ball. It is said he has more curve and better control than any man who has tossed a ball.”

In the Baltimore Afro American for June 10, 1921, “Bambino Ruth” became baseball instructor for black readers. In “Home Run King Gives Pointers,” the new king of swat revealed in straightforward prose several of the key points in the swing that was revolutionizing baseball. Given a lifestyle that was sometimes less than exemplary, perhaps his most attention getting revelation to his black readers was the care he claimed he took to keep fit in season and out. “Between seasons I keep fit by hunting, fishing, hiking, and keeping out in the open and getting as much exercise as I can. During the baseball season the professional player keeps in trim by just playing the game and, of course, obeying the routine rules about getting enough rest, etc.” Perhaps, it was that “etc.” that gave the Babe his “belly ache that was heard around the world” and cost him the 1925 season.

Among professional sports players, Babe Ruth arguably was the first to achieve national celebrity status that went well beyond the game he played. That status is reflected in an advertisement in the Afro-American in the December of his record setting 60 home run year encouraging readers to come to Baltimore’s Regent Theater to hear the city’s “Finest Orchestra” and to watch Babe Ruth in “A Human Heart Drama” titled “Babe Comes Homes” with Anna Q. Nilsson and Louise Fazenda.

Perhaps those readers being tempted to pay the “10-15-20c” admission price to the Regent movie house would have been encouraged to do so if they had seen the International Newsreel photo of the Babe that had recently appeared in the Chicago Defender. Only a few weeks earlier than “Babe Comes Home,” a nattily attired Ruth in jacket and tie looked out at the black weekly’s readers with a winsome smile while holding gingerly in his arms a black baby. In the background, a serious looking black youth looks on. “Two Babes Here” reads the photo caption, with an explanatory note that “Babe Ruth, the mighty king of swat, world’s batting champion, visited Wheatly Provident Hospital recently while he was in Kansas City. He is shown here with one of the little residents.”

The Ruthian visit to Kansas City that led to the hospital visit could well have been the natural product of a developing relationship with that city’s black leadership that would have resulted from several postseason appearances he made in profitable exhibition games against the Monarchs of Negro League fame. The beginning of a baseball relationship with that team and its supporters was announced in bold advertising in the Kansas City Call of October 20, 1922.

—BASEBALL!!—

BABE RUTH & BOB MEUSEL vs MONARCHS

screams the announcement on the sports page, with details of the game’s time and place.

Other kinds of Ruth/Negro League relationships present as well as we research the history of the black side of the national pastime. William Jenkinson, who has written a fine book on Babe Ruth’s off-season barnstorming career, reports on the fondness that Negro League great Judy Johnson had for the Babe against whom he played on several occasions. And stories abound, as Jenkinson confirms, of a strong relationship between Babe Ruth and the great Bill Bojangles Robinson, with the later a frequent presence in the Yankee clubhouse where he would sometimes use his “charms” to try to bring his baseball friend good luck at the plate.

Undoubtedly, the most tantalizing of Ruthian connections to the black game is the one alluded to by respected sports scribe Alvin Moses. Writing a major feature piece for Chicago Defender, publisher/editor Robert Abbott’s short-lived newspaper magazine supplement Abbott’s Monthly, Moses reports that the great John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, a good friend of Babe Ruth’s, could be seen regularly in the Yankee home team dugout on Negro League off days as a guest of the Bambino. At the time of the Moses’s report, John Lloyd was a fixture in New York baseball circles having played for and managed the Eastern Negro League and sometimes independent New York Lincoln Giants for several seasons. We have him in April 1931 as “one of the best known figures in baseball, (not just Negro baseball) arriving in Jamaica, N.Y. for a conference with Marty Forkins of the Forkins-Powers publicity agency formulating plans to round up a team that will represent New York and play in Yankee Stadium on the days when the Yankees are away.” And we know for a fact that John Lloyd was managing the Lincolns when that team opened up Yankee Stadium to Negro professional play on July 5, 1930, in a benefit for A. Philip Randolph’s struggling Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. “Instrumental in Opening Yankee Stadium to Negro League Play” reads one credit on John Lloyd’s plaque that hangs in the Hall of Fame shrine gallery.

Babe Ruth may never have donned a Negro League team uniform. But the Ruth who played often against Negro Leaguers; found himself as a measurement against which to judge the level of achievement among black players; saw the “House That Ruth Built” occupied by Negro League teams; visited black children in segregated hospitals managed and used by blacks; had one of the greatest black entertainers of all time as his personal good luck man; and lived vividly in the memory of veteran Negro Leaguers like Judy Johnson was perhaps in some sense a Negro Leaguer after all?

 
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Lawrence Hogan
Dr. Lawrence Hogan is Senior Professor of History at New Jersey's Union County College. He has taught, researched, written about, published,

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