- Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball's Campaign against Its Biggest Star by Edmund F. Wehrle
Babe Ruth was a superstar for the new technologies of mass culture. He embodied the Roaring Twenties, and most baseball histories and biographies emphasize the dichotomy of boyish cad and masculine competitor. In Breaking Babe Ruth, Edmund F. Wehrle opts instead to contextualize Ruth's career within the reform mindset. He begins with the dark ages of baseball history—the corrupt early twentieth century, when rowdyism and gambling threatened the professional game's reputation and profitability. Although Ruth has been presented as the savior of baseball in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, Wehrle argues that Ruth's popularity made him a threat to the establishment. The baseball reformers (including the New York Yankees' owners and newly installed commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis) combined with the press (with sportswriters vying for journalistic legitimacy) to create and embellish Ruth's immature playboy reputation.
Wehrle highlights two periods in Ruth's career in which he clashed with MLB authority and for which he was professionally punished and publicly slandered. The first was his suspension and fining for planning an unauthorized barnstorming tour in the 1921–22 off-season. Landis had come to owners' attention after he found in their favor against the rival Federal League. Here, Ruth's barnstorming (and support of unionization) threatened their monopoly, so owners were only too happy to support the commissioner as he demonstrated his power by taking on one of the most popular athletes in the nation. Ruth was humbled by the experience but redeemed himself the following season. Wehrle likens this to the archetypal hero's journey.
The key supporting cast includes Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees' owner who increasingly relied on the franchise's financial success as Prohibition hindered his brewing business; Ed Barrow, the Yankees' business manager who, in this telling, lives up to his nickname "Simon Legree"; and Claire Hodgson Ruth, Ruth's second wife. Ruth and Hodgson's extramarital affair was one of the scandals the slugger faced, which Wehrle contextualizes as the second of Ruth's "challenges to authority" (128–30), having occurred concurrent with Ruth's falling-out with manager Miller Huggins and his absence on the Yankee roster due to a gastrointestinal abscess that the press nicknamed "the bellyache heard 'round the world" (118–22). Although Wehrle sees Hodgson as a positive influence is Ruth's life, she was [End Page 434] assertive and confident and was dismissed by the male baseball authority as Ruth sought management positions late in his career.
Ruth's hero tale does not end in victory, however. Injuries affected his productivity, and his high salary was a target for Ruppert and Barrow, especially as the Great Depression set in. Ruth's colleague Lou Gehrig and prospect Joe DiMaggio were quiet and malleable, star athletes who would not threaten authority and worked for a fraction of Ruth's salary. Ruth again humbled himself, hoping that his compliance would result in the manager's job. When Ruppert made clear that would not happen, Ruth's days with the Yankees were limited. His reputation worked against him, and he retired defeated.
Wehrle concludes by drawing comparison between Ruth's relationship with the Yankees and that of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner. Readers may find themselves thinking of Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to protest police violence and institutional racism during the national anthem divided journalists and led to his blacklisting by NFL owners. Soccer fans may also see an analogous argument to be made about the nature of contracts in professional sports and attempts to fight back against "player power." All of this is to say that the conflicts between stars and ownership, with sportswriters as arbiters, have existed as long as professional sports, and Wehrle's Breakiing Babe Ruth is a well-written, well-sourced, timely examination of the construction and flexibility of athletes' reputations.