Was Babe Ruth Shut Out of Coaching Because of Racism?

Just why did the Bambino's coaching career fail to launch?

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Why you should care

Because you can’t always get what you want. 

When he stepped up to the plate in Game 3 of the ’32 World Series, Babe Ruth made a bold prediction. He pointed to the sky, toward the outfield — all the way to the bleachers — and on the next pitch he blasted the ball to center field. ’Round the bases he wound.

The Great Bambino, the man who cursed the Red Sox and made the Yankees great, seemed to control everything back then. To this day, he remains an all-time leading slugger. He smashed his way to the end of the dead ball era, averaged .342, smacked in 2,873 hits and homered a crazy 714 times. “Ruth is widely credited with renewing interest in baseball following the 1919 Black Sox scandal,” baseball historian John McMurray says. “Ruth began hitting home runs at a rate never before seen in the game, exceeding many teams’ home run output by himself.” Of course, if Ruth had had his way, he also would be known as a great manager. But that wasn’t a career move he could simply point to and make happen.

Manage the Yankees? You can’t even manage yourself!

 

At first, Ruth was wary of managing, historian Bill Jenkinson says. Speculation persists that in 1929, while Ruth was still in the Yankees lineup, he was considered for the job of managing the Yanks. “He didn’t want it,” Jenkinson says.

But his tune soon changed. A couple years later, when Ruth did want it, the Yankees didn’t want him. Many scholars blame his troublesome personality, especially during his youth. Allegedly, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert — a former colonel and congressman — spat fire at Ruth. “Manage the Yankees? You can’t even manage yourself!” he said, according to ESPN. (Jenkinson says he has found no proof that Ruppert actually said this to Ruth.) The drama was played out in the newspapers. Throughout his career and post-career, Ruth was known for his bombast, overeating, drinking and womanizing. On the other hand, he was charitable and good-natured in media interviews, and he seemed to calm down as he aged.

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Babe Ruth (1895-1948) watches a high fly ball from the coach’s box at Ebbets Field during his first game as coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1938.

Source Bruce Bennett/Getty

After the Yankees rejected Ruth, he set out to be signed by other teams as a manager. The Reds tried to get him but were blocked by Ruppert, who did not want to release Ruth from his player’s contract, Jenkinson says. The Detroit Tigers requested a meeting with Ruth, and while Ruth was interested, he was already committed to going to Hawaii to spread baseball to the big 5-0, Jenkinson says. Many teams expressed interest in signing Ruth.

But then the offers began to evaporate. Some think Ruth’s downfall was his personality and boisterousness. “He squandered opportunities,” McMurray says. Others have a different theory. Without definitive proof, Jenkinson is convinced Ruth “didn’t get the job because [Commissioner] Judge Landis and others close to him knew, if hired as manager, Babe Ruth would have openly advocated to sign Black ball players.” Ruth frequented New York City’s Cotton Club in Harlem, had befriended a tap dancer named Bojangles and brought him into the Yankees’ clubhouse and he played exhibition games against all-Black teams.

Shut out of managing, Ruth took a job in 1938 as a first-base coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers for $15,000 (at the time Lou Gehrig made $39,000 playing). Ruth quickly became the center of attention. In an era without television contracts, gate receipts were the main revenue stream for major league teams. The Dodgers were suffering in New York’s competitive market, overshadowed by the Yankees and Giants. Brooklyn’s lineup was a bunch of has-beens and never-weres, but Ruth “had a lot of name recognition in New York,” McMurray says. A little more than a week into his coaching contract, Ruth made headlines when he got into a car accident. He still coached that day, drawing crowds of thousands thereafter.

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Babe Ruth, third-base coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers, signals to a batter during a game at Ebbets Field in 1938.

Source Mark Rucker/Getty

But his heart wasn’t in it. For one thing, Ruth joined mid-season, when the Dodgers had already made their bed. “Ruth was brought in as an attraction, and he was never given serious consideration to become the Dodgers’ field manager,” McMurray says. “He thought it would lead to something else, and it didn’t.” So did the papers, which ran the AP headline “Ruth to Get $15,000 as Coach for Brooklyn: Baseball Writers Believe the Babe Is Likely to Be Manager Not Later Than 1939.” And yet, Ruth reportedly struggled with the signals as first-base coach and argued with the team’s players.

Ruth lasted less than one year and left the team with a record of 69-80. He never got a managerial call again.

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