What he did: In 1934, Babe Ruth was nearing the end of his storied career. With Ruth’s production having once again slipped and his 40th birthday looming, the New York Yankees chose to release their legend after he returned from a goodwill trip to Japan. The Sultan of Swat’s fondest wish was to manage in the majors, though the best the Yankees could offer was for him to run their top farm club. As owner Jacob Ruppert famously remarked of Ruth, “How can he manage a team when he can’t even manage himself?”
Ruth rejected New York’s offer, listening to his wife who told him he was strictly a big league person. Instead, Ruth went to the Boston Braves for one more bleak, bloated season, looking grotesque in the outfield and serving in an empty role as vice president. He lasted a few months, and save for a role as hitting coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers two seasons later was done in baseball. The apocrephyal story, told by Ruth’s wife after his death in 1948, was that he sat by the phone the rest of his life waiting for a call to manage that never came.
Era he might have thrived in: It’s interesting to wonder what might have been if pride hadn’t gotten the best of the Bambino. The minor league team he refused to run, the Newark Bears went on in 1937 to have one of the greatest seasons ever for a farm club, going 109-43 and winning the International League by 25-1/2 games. A number of future big leaguers starred for those Bears including Charlie Keller, who hit a circuit-best .353. Once, after a player got promoted to the Yankees, a fellow Bear remarked it was “because he couldn’t crack the lineup here.” It seems if Ruth had sat on the Newark bench, he’d have gotten some credit for their success and earned his shot managing in the majors.
Why: First of all, this tact worked for the Newark manager in ’37, Ossie Vitt, who parlayed his team’s brilliance into a stint the following three seasons managing the Cleveland Indians (interestingly, Vitt went 262-198 those years, never finishing worse than third, though he was unpopular with his players and didn’t last as manager beyond 1940.) While I don’t know if the Bambino could have unseated Joe McCarthy in pinstripes, as the Yankees were on an unprecedented run of their own in the late ’30s, an impressive showing in Newark might have gotten Ruth the job in Cleveland or elsewhere.
I’ll add that I think Ruth was unfairly judged. No doubt he drank and caroused, but I can’t see character resolutely determining a manager’s odds for success. There have simply been too many exceptions to this throughout baseball history, the Boston Red Sox new hire Bobby Valentine only the latest example. In earlier years, John McGraw was a wild young manager with the New York Giants, Leo Durocher returned from a gambling-related ban to lead New York to multiple World Series, and Billy Martin won and drank everywhere he went. Even Casey Stengel told his players not to drink at the hotel bar “because that’s where I do my drinking.”
I don’t know if Ruth was terribly worse as a person than any of these men, and he’d have also brought a wealth of baseball experience. I doubt it’s on talent alone that he swatted 714 home runs, hit .342 lifetime, or won 94 games as a pitcher. It’s a shame he couldn’t have passed more of his knowledge on.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies,Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson,Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe,Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson,Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson,Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays