Babe Ruth's New York @ 100Roundup
tags: baseball, urban history, celebrity, popular culture, Babe Ruth, Yankees
Jonathan Goldman is an associate professor in the department of English at the New York Institute of Technology. He is the author of Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity (University of Texas Press, 2011) and editor of Joyce and the Law (University Press of Florida, 2017).
When Babe Ruth started hitting home runs, the US started to change. Baseball fans both diehard and dilettante were dazzled by this singular figure who propelled the ball harder and farther than anyone else and rounded the bases with unimagined frequency, more often than entire teams. In 1919, when Ruth hit a record 29 home runs, attendance soared at games both in his home city of Boston and on the road. Observing Ruth’s marketability, baseball’s overseers changed the very machinery of the game; they introduced a livelier ball, more tightly wound, that would facilitate home runs, which began to occur at unprecedented rates. Baseball was shaken to the core, and the aftershocks were felt well beyond the sport. Home runs in baseball—like horn solos in jazz and close-ups in movies (other revolutions of the time)—focus attention on the individual at the expense of the collective. Baseball’s change and Ruth’s popularity were part of a reshaping of US attitudes toward individuality, a new emphasis on persons, not people, and on the transcendent beings among—but not of—us.
It was an era of transition: New York was displacing Boston on the US cultural scene, moving pictures and recorded sound were substituting for live performance, and the culture of mass-reproducible celebrity was infiltrating all facets of society. Babe Ruth’s renown, skills, and canny business sense—manifesting in his dramatic trade from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees—illuminate these shifts. The story of this most modern of celebrities highlights the emergence of an individuality we live with to this day.
All of these changes can be seen, in microcosm, on January 5, 1920, when the Yankees announced that they had bought Ruth from the Red Sox. Ruth’s fame would explode in the media hothouse of New York, landing him on vaudeville stages and movie screens. The city’s first tabloid, The New York Daily News, not yet a year old, assigned a reporter just to cover Ruth. For the intensifying celebrity culture, Ruth was an ideal specimen: larger than life, vaguely scandalous, possessed of seemingly superhuman abilities, and always good for an irreverent quip to the sportswriters. His physique helped make him instantly recognizable, iconic. People who had never seen a baseball game knew what he looked like, as people who had never seen a motion picture knew what Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp looked like. During Ruth’s first season in New York, Dorothy Parker wrote a theater review mentioning “a Russian dancer who looks startlingly like Babe Ruth”; she could expect her readers to instantly get the picture, and the joke.
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