Babe Ruth's 1927 Contract
(Excerpt from my manuscript for the upcoming book “The 1927 Yankees: Anatomy of the Greatest”)
On March 1 in the New York Telegram appeared, “The boys in the Roaring Forties will bet you that Babe Ruth doesn’t get the hundred thousand. They are willing to lay 2 to 1 the home-run monopolist signs for less than $100,000 despite the fact that he has publicly stated he will quit the game rather than accept a compromise salary.”
As usual, Ruth was always a great story. Maintaining the status quo, his every move was reported earnestly on his trip back east, and the press’ fascination with him continued to command a lot of newsprint.
The Babe and his personal trainer, Artie McGovern, breezed into Chicago amid a compliment of flashbulbs and reporters en route to New York. Ruth posed for photographers and answered questions with a good nature, and he continued to repeat what he said on the west coast that he was going to stick to his guns about the money. He offered, “There isn’t much I can say about it. Either I get it or I don’t. I have asked for $100,000 and I see no reason why I should accept less.”
Penned Edward Burns for the Chicago Daily Tribune, “Babe Ruth, eminent financier, actor, dietician, author and potential ball player…gave Chicago a fleeting opportunity to view his 220 pound physique and make its own guess as to whether his athletic services for the next two summers are worth $207,000 to one Col. Jake Ruppert, owner of the Yanks…Mr. Ruth was not particularly garrulous while in our midst, principally, he said, because he want to be courteous to Col. Ruppert, and also because he now thinks, talks and writes at space rates, copyrighted and reproduction positively prohibited.”
The Associated Press carried Ruppert’s brief remarks about the situation, and afterwards he revealed that, unfortunately, there wasn’t a meeting on the Yankees’ schedule for Monday. “We have no engagement to see Ruth. He will have to call up and arrange an appointment like any of the other players,” offered the Colonel.
In the New York Daily Mirror on Wednesday, March 2, Dan Parker’s article had, “The Babe will blow in like a lion today on the Twentieth Century Limited. But he’ll have to go to the Yankees like a lamb. They’re not going to move the mountain to Mahomet – even to such a Mahomet as George Herman Ruth, who thinks his services are worth $100,000 a year…Though the Babe says he will not compromise, the ‘shrewd dough’, as the wise money is sometimes called, is of the opinion that the Babe will have to be content with less than $100,000. He may get a $75,000 or $85,000 contract. But whatever his salary will be, the contract will run for only one year. The Yanks found out from past experience that Babe doesn’t do his best stuff when protected by a long-term contract. The shadow of the old ax must be constantly over his neck.”
On Wednesday Ruth completed the final leg of his journey across the land, and he arrived at 9:40 in the morning at Grand Central Station in New York. Despite the efforts of half a dozen gatekeepers and a slew of private police, as the Bambino stepped from the train about 100 fans that had gained access to the platform were the first to welcome him. He was bombarded with a flurry of questions fired at him from all directions. Outside the station’s entrance, another 2,000 or so additional fans awaited the star’s appearance, and at the first sight of their hero, they cheered him loudly.
The Babe smiled as he worked his way through the crowd, and scurried down half a block to McGovern’s gymnasium. Inside, Ruth posed for photographers for almost an hour, and he proudly showed his impressive physical form. It was hard for many to remember when the home run king looked more fit in his life, as his waistline now measured 39 inches. Reportedly, he weighed 221 pounds when he left Los Angeles on Saturday night, but he had gained four pounds en route east.
A few phone calls followed, as the Babe made an inquiry regarding the condition of his estranged wife, Helen. She was ill in St. Vincent’s Hospital, suffering from another episode of her deteriorating mental health.
Ruth was a few years separated from his legal wife, and with good reason. Given his indulgences, lifestyle and sexual appetite, which were all more than Helen had bargained for initially, the youthful marriage had begun to dissolve. She became a victim of circumstances and was forced into the role of a lonely wife as her husband was off on the road a lot. He spent less and less time at the couple’s Sudbury farm and she spent more and more time there alone with their one child, Dorothy. Eventually, the farm didn’t even matter any more to the Babe. In fact, in October 1925 he conveyed the deed to their “Home Plate” property to Helen, and she had in turn sold it to George Latham, with papers filed February 26, 1926.
The Ruth’s had last been seen publicly together at the ’26 World Series, and recently Helen had been living in Watertown, Mass. with another man, Dr. Edward Kinder, a dentist. But it should come as no surprise given the Babe’s past, for as the old adage states, “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander”.
It was no secret that the Babe had a different “significant other”, 29-year-old widower Claire (Merritt) Hodgson. Strangely, many had credited Claire with being responsible for Ruth somewhat having settled down in recent years. She was a much more sophisticated woman than Helen, probably the exact opposite of the Babe’s shy and introverted wife, and their relationship was common knowledge. But Ruth was a Roman Catholic having been married in a Roman Catholic Church, so a divorce from Helen was totally out of the question despite his obvious affection for Claire and her 10-year-old daughter Julia.
After the telephone call to check on Helen, the Babe’s next call was to Colonel Jacob Ruppert. After arranging a conference, Ruth seemed to feel that it was up to him to stand pat on his salary demands.
Next, the Babe visited the hospital. He chatted with Mrs. Ruth for about 45 minutes.
Upon leaving, a tactless reporter asked Ruth if he and his wife were going to be divorced, and clearly he didn’t appreciate the question. “That old story is still going the rounds,” he snapped. “There’s nothing to it. But I wish the sandal mongers would let a man enjoy a little privacy in his family affairs.”
Afterwards, the Babe was off to meet with Ruppert. Despite having been ill of late, he left his bed for the meeting. It was one meeting the Colonel wasn’t going to pass up.
Ruppert went from being a New York City beer tycoon to a brilliant baseball baron, and it came during a tough time in American history. Given the millions of Germans that had migrated to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, and their affinity for homeland style beer, German names naturally rose to become synonymous with beer and soon dominated the American beer industry. They were names like Adolphus Busch in St. Louis, Joseph Schlitz and Captain Frederick Pabst in Milwaukee, and George Ehret and Jacob Ruppert Sr. in New York.
While Colonel Ruppert was still in his early stages as a baseball club owner with the Yankees, post-wartime hysteria against all things foreign had somehow linked alcohol to patriotism. Propaganda characterized the liquor industry as foreign-controlled, and it pointed out that German-Americans owned and managed many of the nation’s breweries. The attitude apparently helped the country on a path towards national Prohibition, which obviously would most likely cause the Ruppert family brewery business to suffer.
While things were looking tougher and tougher for the nation’s breweries, the Colonel put a major emphasis into not only fielding a winning baseball team, but a first rate Yankees team on all counts. It certainly wasn’t at the expense of shirking his other responsibilities though, for he lodged a targeted fight against parts of Prohibition that reached the Supreme Court, albeit a losing battle.
With the Yankees, one could look directly at a trio of personnel moves for Ruppert’s success. The first was the hiring of Huggins to manage the club. The second was the purchase of Ruth, finalized just a few weeks before Prohibition officially went into effect. The third of the Colonel’s great personnel moves came when he hired Ed Barrow as Business Manager, whose name had actually and amazingly been mentioned in print as a possible Yankee president back in December 1914 when Ruppert was purchasing the club with Captain Huston.
Whereas other baseball owners tended to fiddle with their respective teams, mainly because they used their clubs as a source of available cash, the Colonel was quite the opposite. He was a wealthy man before baseball, not because of it. Such financial security enabled him to reinvest profits back into the Yankees.
Moreover, Ruppert was also smart enough to remove himself from the daily operations of the team. Instead, he relied upon a strict division of responsibility with Barrow and Huggins, something very rare. In fact, taking it a bit further, the former didn’t even visit the dugout and left game decisions to the latter. When describing his perfect day at the ballpark, the Colonel had said many times, “When the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning and slowly pull away.”
However, Ruppert was especially involved when team matters surrounded the Babe and his contracts. The Colonel was well aware of Ruth’s worth to the franchise, and to baseball.
Ruppert lived meticulously well in a lavish 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. It wasn’t too far from the brewery that he inherited.
After his father passed away in 1915, the Colonel continued to live with his mother Anna Gillig-Ruppert in the family’s red brick Victorian house located at 1115 Fifth Avenue. It was built in 1883 long before the area had been fashionable, and it was one that had been dubbed “Millionaire’s Row” along Central Park.
After his mother died on March 16, 1924, the Colonel continued to live in Ruppert Mansion only another year or so. He eventually sold it to a developer and literally moved right across the opposite corner of the street into an apartment in a 15-story luxury building at 1120 Fifth Avenue.
With apartment buildings in vogue and springing up everywhere on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a novel style of living that had been embraced a decade earlier, his family’s home was demolished in ’26. A 14-story dwelling was in its place, also built by Anthony Campagna and a virtual twin to the building that Ruppert lived in.
It proved only a matter of several blocks that separated the Colonel from his brewery. It was a short walk for him to make his way to meet with Ruth.
The Ruppert Brewery was in the Yorkville section. Built on the same site to replace the old brewery his father had started in 1867, a new complex of red brick buildings located at East 91st Street and Third Avenue had been constructed in 1913 as one of the most modern in the world, and with a capacity of 2,000,000 barrels.
Then came Prohibition. In the seven-plus years since the amendment had been in effect the brewery had been treading water by producing, bottling and selling “near beer”. The Colonel, a major champion for the beer industry, even found himself elected President of the United States Brewers Association on September 25, 1925. Ruppert was one of the leaders in the many brewers’ continued fight to repeal Prohibition, and whenever it may occur in the future, the Colonel stood ready to fire up his ovens.
Interestingly, the Ruppert Brewery stood right next to rival George Ehret’s landmark Hell Gate Brewery with it’s signature clock tower, the nation’s largest brewer for much of the late 19th century. Having New York’s two largest breweries side by side formed an imposing sight some four blocks long on prime real estate.
Despite being competitors, Ehret and Jacob Ruppert Sr. were actually close friends, so much so that the Colonel’s brother, almost eight years younger and second in command, was named George Ehret Ruppert. Unfortunately, Ehret had recently passed away back on January 20, 1927 at the age of 92. Having invested much of his money into New York real estate, he reportedly left behind a fortune estimated at about $25 million to his six children and a grandchild in seven equal parts after payment of some bequests.
When Ruppert arrived at his brewery, he met up with Barrow. It was Ed, more than anyone else, that was the man responsible for Babe Ruth’s transition from a pitcher to a slugger, and one year after he matriculated to New York, Ed followed. He arrived following the 1920 season, he was instrumental in working with Huggins to instill a winning attitude and atmosphere to a club that had yet to win a pennant, and together, they transformed the Yanks into perennial winners. Granted, they went to that generous well in Boston quite a few times, but they were good trades, and about the only player who amounted to much after leaving New York for Beantown was catcher Muddy Ruel.
Soon after Ruppert became the sole owner of the Yankees in ’23 when he bought out Huston, the Colonel allowed Barrow to buy a 10 percent interest in the club for around $300,000. It only stood to reason that he was where he wanted to be, so when the Washington Senators approached him several times in the winter of 1923-24 to become the club’s field manager, Barrow turned it down thrice.
“Cousin Ed”, as he was known among some players, was a stocky and solid man, with a strong square face characterized by heavy eyebrows. He was also a symbol of efficiency and power. Barrow received a healthy $25,000 salary from the Yanks to handle most of the daily business operations, of which he clearly had a personal financial interest, but on major decisions, Ruppert was thoroughly involved.
Promptly at 12:20 in the afternoon, the Babe appeared at the Ruppert Brewery. There, he again posed for photographers while Ruppert and Barrow waited to discuss business. Ruth’s physical fitness surprised the Yankees’ brass, and even the player himself was amazed that he had had no greater trouble than he did in cutting off eight inches of girth.
“I have worked harder in the past four weeks than I ever did in my life,” declared the Babe in Ruppert’s direction. “This making a moving picture is no joke. Maybe you think it’s all play, but take it from me, it is nothing but twelve to fifteen hours hard work every day. I never had an hour to myself from the minute I started until I left town. I’m mighty glad the picture is finished and I am anxious to see it. I think I will make a hit as an actor.”
“You will make a bigger hit as a ball player,” fired Ruppert, which elicited a laugh from Ruth. But the Colonel’s remark was not an idle one.
At one o’clock, the trio retreated to attend to business behind the closed doors of Ruppert’s office, a spacious room paneled in dark wood and ornamented with bronze. They emerged just 55 minutes later, and Barrow invited 20 writers to follow him down to the conference room. There, the Colonel announced that Ruth had accepted a historic three-year pact with the Yankees for a total of $210,000, or $70,000 a year.
“I sure have,” said the Babe, “and I’m glad that’s off my mind.”
Barrow had earlier offered that there would be no more contracts of more than one year, and Ruth had wanted $200,000 over two years, so neither man got exactly what they wanted. But as was usually the case in any negotiation, concessions were made on both sides. Most would agree that the Yanks had made most of them, for the Babe got his $200,000, even an extra $10,000, only it would be over a three-year period, not two. It was an increase of $18,000 per year over his expired contract, amounting to a hefty raise of nearly 35 percent.
“Babe Ruth now is the highest paid man in baseball,” Ruppert proudly announced, taking the title back away from Ty Cobb after a month-long absence. The Colonel continued, “We came to terms without any trouble. Babe will go to camp on Saturday and everything is fine.”
Ruth’s deal not only made him the highest paid player, it made him the highest salaried man in baseball when verified with meticulous inquiry. His salary surpassed that of Commissioner Landis by $5,000, who was entrusted with running all of baseball, and was the same $5,000 more than John McGraw earned for managing the Giants. Among the players, it was also recognized that the Babe’s new deal beat Cobb’s pact by $5,000, and it beat the contracts that had the signatures of Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker by $30,000, the only three players making even half as much as the Bambino.
Moreover, Ruth’s wage would also be just $5,000 less than the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, was being paid to run the entire country. The average American family earned about $1,300 per year, so the Babe’s salary was almost 54 times that amount.
Based on the 47 home runs Ruth hit in 1926, if he could duplicate the performance each homer would be worth $1,489.36. Finally, measured with known quantities, his salary divided into him being paid $454.54 per game in ‘27, and even further, $50.51 per inning. Any way it was sliced and analyzed, it wasn’t a bad wage.
“I pointed out to Ruth,” said Ruppert afterward, “that his loss would be as great as ours if he ever quit baseball, and that movie contracts wouldn’t be so freely offered in such a contingency. The Babe is a sensible fellow. Our talk was cordial, businesslike and, as you can see, very much to the point and successful for both of us.”
“It’s a big gamble with me,” continued Ruppert, who must pay the freight, rain or shine. “But I am convinced that Ruth, a remarkable fellow physically, won’t make me sorry. He thinks he has five more years of baseball in him and I believe he is right. I am sure he will take better care of himself now than he ever has. He isn’t growing any younger, and he realizes it.”
Said Ruppert, “…As Ruth goes, so go the Yankees.” The Colonel also went on to suggest that the Yankees would win the pennant because his star player was “ready to have his greatest year.”
Regarding the $7,700 that the Babe demanded as a refund from previous fines, and his hospital bill in ‘25, the two men apparently came to a secret agreement. In any event, it appeared to play no part in the negotiations. The subject was quickly dismissed afterwards by Ruppert with the remark that, “Babe and I shall have fixed that up all right.”
The man of the hour appeared anxious to get down to real baseball training. As soon as he had concluded his agreement with Ruppert, Ruth asked about reporting to camp, and he confessed that he was happier than he had been in a long, long time.
“I like the movies,” said the Babe, “but I would rather play baseball than anything else I know of. I know I have a lot of good baseball still left in my system. You fellows won’t be able to play taps over Babe Ruth for five or six years yet, that I am willing to bet on. I figure I will have a mighty fine season. Gee whiz, everything points that way. My mind is at ease and I feel fine. I guess Huggins won’t know me when I get into camp. I will get off the rest of this excess weight and by the time the exhibition games start I will be in prime shape.”
As for the Mite Manager’s response to the deal from St. Petersburg, Huggins offered, “If any figure in baseball ever has been worth pay like that it is Babe Ruth. I think the club treated Ruth most liberally, and such terms are in accord with the liberal manner in which Colonel Ruppert always has run his ball club. Of course, no other player ever could have been worth any such sum, or any sum approaching it. But everyone admits there is only one Ruth, and baseball may never see his like again. He is the master showman, and the club can afford to pay him a figure because of his tremendous drawing powers. It is nevertheless a tremendous salary, and with our other big salaries gives us a payroll which would daze a club owner.”
Meanwhile, Parker of the Daily Mirror had some fun with the Ruth pact and simply wrote, “He came. He saw. He compromised”.
Once prepared, the landmark agreement would be officially signed on Friday the 4th.
On Thursday, the Babe was kept busy with one business engagement after another in New York City. In the morning he met with government income tax officials to discuss his coming liability. Conservatively figured on his prior year’s earnings, it gave him a bill of between $40,000 and $50,000, of which Ruth promptly admitted that Uncle Sam “had him licked” and he dumped the problem on his lawyer. Next came an hour of training at McGovern’s gymnasium that included pounding a handball, tossing dumbbells and steaming out. Then the Babe met with a bank to discuss arrangement of a trust fund. All the while throughout the day, representatives of sporting goods houses trailed Ruth in a quest for his endorsement for bats, balls, gloves and golf equipment. Such was the business side of the game’s greatest slugger.
As scheduled, Ruth’s signature was obtained on Friday morning, and for the record, the left-handed slugger signed his contract with his right hand. Ruppert signed the document as President of the Yankees, and it was also signed and witnessed by Barrow. The most lucrative base player contract in baseball history was officially complete.
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