Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox looks to be a self-published book by Allen Wood, through iUniverse Star, in 2000. The book provides a well-researched and entertaining account of the 1918 baseball season, with a focus on Babe Ruth’s penultimate season with the Red Sox.
One of the reasons I picked this up was that it follows a club through a season a long long time ago, in the same way I have been following the 1904 Millers, (reportedly,) and I wanted to see how this writer approached it. Of course I also picked it up because of Babe Ruth, who was such a stand-out character, and the book looks at a particularly interesting time in his career. And, plus, it was only $3 on the discount shelf at Half-Price Books. So how could I go wrong? I could not, and I did not.
Anyone with an interest in baseball history would enjoy this book and probably also learn a thing or two. The author has used multiple sources and interviews to piece together a nice snapshot of the game in 1918. The U.S. had entered the First World War in April of 1917, and so by 1918 a lot of players were in the army or joining the army, and there was some discussion about canceling baseball for the duration. There were a lot of people who looked down on ballplayers for not being in the army, and that, along with so many men being in the military, led to a steep drop in attendance. Players also were dropping-out throughout the season, either being drafted into the military, or volunteering, or leaving to join some war-related industry, often steel-mills and shipyards, it seems, where they could work and also (and mostly) play ball on the company baseball teams while at the same time avoiding the draft. Owners and managers were constantly juggling their rosters throughout the season, looking for older players in the minors who could come up to the big time.
(By the way, there’s a nice piece on the Delaware River Shipbuilding League 1918 on the SABR website.)
Still, the game continued, and Babe Ruth was simply the biggest star in the game. I don’t know what made the Babe so good, how that happened. It’s really pretty inexplicable, and kind of magical, how his game was at such a higher level than everyone else’s. 1918 was the season where Babe transitioned from pitcher to outfielder, and he juggled the two roles with difficulty throughout the season, at one point even going awol because he wasn’t playing in the field as much as he wanted. In 1917 he pitched in 41 games, starting 38, and ending up 24-13, with a 2.01 ERA, while in 1918 he only pitched in 20 games, starting 19, and went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. Meanwhile his at-bats went up from 123 to 317, and he hit 11 home runs and drove in 61, as compared to 2 home runs and 14 rbis in 1917. Several times during the season he made mention of having a sore arm, and I wonder if that might not have been true. But he went back and forth about that, and so he wasn’t exactly a trustworthy source of information. And he loved hitting the ball, and so maybe the “sore arm” was only an attempt to get more time in the field.
It had to have been an odd experience, being Babe Ruth; coming from a poor background, the rough side of town, then raised by the catholic brothers at the boys school, and so much more talented, at every level, than the players around him. Hard to think of a comparison. He was like the Shakespeare of baseball, the Beethoven, the Beatles, the Picasso. How can experiences like that be understood? Maybe the Beatles come closest, in terms of general public popularity and also financial success. I don’t think Picasso was ever particularly popular with the masses. Shakespeare, maybe. Who else is has had that experience? How would it change you, if it happened to you?
I don’t get the sense that it changed Babe Ruth much. There’s a lot of references in this book, and others, to Ruth’s immaturity and appetites. Perhaps that was magnified by his immense talent and easy money. Ruth had a difficult and deprived childhood, and then, in a few short years, he had everything, money, success, fame. He was free to indulge for the first time in his life, and at that age there’s quite a lot to indulge in. Beethoven was probably the same way. I imagine there’s a lot of stories about young Beethoven, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Shakespeare too, I suppose. Einstein? Well, anyway. Babe Ruth for sure.
The 1918 season was, frankly, a somewhat bizarre season. With the war going on, the owners cut the season down to 140 games, and with players coming and going, team fortunes rose and fell with player availability. Attendance was dropping, and there were continuing questions as to whether the season should be cancelled or finished early. At that time the game was run by the National Commission, made up of three club owners. These are guys who probably would do well today in Trumpmerica. The players had no power and no say in things, and when the owners changed the pay structure for the World Series, they didn’t really bother to ask or explain this to the players. The championship money that formerly went to the players was to be divided up among the top four clubs in each league, which, coupled with the large drop in attendance, led to a lot less money for the players in the Series. And this led to both the Red Sox and Cubs nearly walking out of the Series in an effort to get a fairer deal and more money. In the war climate, with injured vets sitting in the stands, it was a tough stand to take. Maybe too tough.
This was a particularly interesting part of the book. A World Series walk-out seemed imminent. There were player-commission and player-owner meetings that went nowhere, and it seemed like the Series would be over. And then, suddenly, the players agreed to play, without obviously winning any concessions other than vague promises. The turnaround by the players is surprising, and the author considers the possibility that the gambling interests in play at the time had something to do with it. Was some under-the-table money changing hands, some subterfuge, some dark money? Gambling would seem to be a quick solution to the players’ money problem, and gambling on ball games was rife back then, culminating, of course, with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The author explores the history of some of the players who were shown later to be involved in gambling. There is one definite clue that the series was fixed — a scrap of paper from an individual who may have been in a position to know — but no firm conclusions can be drawn, and there’s nothing obvious in the games to raise suspicions. I suppose that it’s possible, with all the money riding on the games, that it’s also possible that the players were coerced or threatened into playing by gambling interests. But again, no one knows.
Another possibility is that the players realized that they had no leverage, and that walking out of the series would have long term implications for their careers. Maybe they just thought that there’s a war on, and that now is not a good time to be complaining about money. The author’s research does not come up with any answers to this riddle. But the games go on, and the Red Sox win their championship. The Babe pitches in the Series, and sets a record for consecutive scoreless innings in the series. He goes 2-0, while hitting only .200 with no home runs. The Red Sox take the series 4 games to 2, with a lot of good pitching and tight games in the series.
All in all, this was an enjoyable read, and a nice window into baseball of 100 years ago. Everything has changed in 100 years. We all get around with our jet-packs now, instead of automobiles, and world government has made war and jingoistic patriotism a thing of the far distant past. And yet, a home run is still a home run, a game is still 9 innings, and there won’t ever be another guy like Babe Ruth.
Good game, Allen Wood. Nice job with this book.