March marks the beginning of Baseball Spring Training, and there is nowhere that has more of a spring training history than St. Petersburg. Beginning with the St. Louis Browns in 1914, some nine major league teams made their spring training home in St. Petersburg. The New York Yankees played here from 1925 to 1961 with a few breaks in between. Babe Ruth played for the Yankees from 1925 to 1934. Ruth’s presence in St. Petersburg was huge. When The Babe and the Yankees were in town, the population of the city would swell with tourists and fans. It has recently been documented that Ruth likely hit his longest home run here, and perhaps the longest hit ever off of major league pitching.
Ruth’s baseball prowess has long been celebrated. But what about Ruth the man? We know from his time in St. Pete, as well as many other places, that he had a soft spot for kids and did much charitable work. We have the stories of Ruth visiting hospitals and sick children, including here in Tampa Bay where the Babe’s mere presence inspired a wheelchair-bound child to stand. We know that he established and willed ten percent of his estate to the Babe Ruth Foundation to help underprivileged youth. But what about the deeper issues of his times such as racial and religious prejudice? What about taking a stand and speaking out for principle when that was not a popular thing to do?
Ruth and Persons of Color
Babe Ruth historian Bill Jenkinson has written about ‘Babe Ruth and the Issue of Race.’ Jenkinson documents Ruth’s stand for diversity dating from his earliest days in baseball. In 1918, Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox and helped lead the Sox to the World Series championship. At that early date, he was already described as “the biggest baseball sensation of the year.” After the Series, he agreed to play a game with a minor team, the New Haven Colonials, in a match against a touring Cuban team. The Cubans included players of African descent described by one paper as “ebony skinned.” This was at a time when many white players refused to play with African Americans
In 1920, Babe was sold to the Yankees. That season, he hit 54 home runs. When the season ended, he received hundreds of invitations to barnstorm (play exhibition games). He accepted fifteen, and five of these were against Negro League teams. He then joined the Giants, and sailed to Cuba to play nine games against Latin- and African-descent players. He was later to play against Negro League teams in 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, and in 1931 competed against the legendary Negro Monarchs in Kansas City. He played exhibitions with the great African American athlete Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil. Historian Jenkinson noted that, in addition to playing against Negro League players, Ruth would sit with black players in the dugouts, talk, and socialize with them before and after games, and mingle in the segregated stands. He scheduled games in locations where interracial competition was not only against local norms, but also against the law.
Two days before the World Series in 1923, Ruth was guest of honor at a Harlem fundraiser benefit for the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church. Other white players also agreed to attend, but Babe was the only one who showed up. In 1927, Ruth visited the Guardian Angel Home for Negroes in Kansas City. He personally hosted fifty youth from the Home for an exhibition game.
Two of Ruth’s good friends were heavyweight champion Joe Lewis and Bill ‘Bo Jangles’ Robinson, a famed African American dancer, cinema star, and part owner of the New York Black Yankees. Ruth invited Robinson to the Yankees’ clubhouse. He was the first African American ever to visit it. Robinson was later an honorary pall bearer at the Babe’s funeral.
Over the course of Ruth’s 22 years in baseball, he played between 200 and 250 ball games every year – 154 in big league parks, but many others in small parks sprinkled throughout the nation. As baseball historian, Leigh Montville, wrote, “The Babe played with black teams against black teams, with white teams against black teams, and with white teams against white. He was a nondenominational, nondiscriminatory belter. He played with the old guys against the young guys, with the young guys against the old.”
In 2014, the Babe’s daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens – at the age of 97 – visited St. Petersburg as guest of honor for the centennial of Major League Spring Training. This writer had the privilege of escorting her to Babe Ruth-associated sites around the city. Julia had not been in St. Petersburg since 1943, but she remembered much about the city she had not seen since her teenage years. During her visit, a journalist from the New York Times interviewed her at the Vinoy Hotel. Somehow the interview touched upon Babe Ruth’s aspiration to be a manager and his friendships with African Americans. Had he become a manager, his daughter affirmed, “Daddy would have had blacks on the team, definitely.” Of local note, the manager of the first major league team to spring train in St. Petersburg back in 1914, the St. Louis Browns, was Branch Rickey. Some 33 years later, Rickey as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hired Jackie Robinson as the first African American to play major league baseball. Had Ruth become a manager, perhaps the baseball color line would have been broken earlier.
African American catcher Josh Gibson was known as the ‘Black Babe Ruth.’ There is a story – and it may be just a story – that a reporter once asked Babe Ruth, “You know they are saying that Josh Gibson is the ‘black you.’ How do you feel about that?” Ruth’s reply was “No, I’m the white Josh Gibson.” That story, whether true or not, says a lot about Babe Ruth and African Americans. We can find no direct public statement from The Babe himself about the injustice of denying African Americans the right to compete in the Major Leagues. He very well may have made such a statement, but it may not have been recorded, or perhaps it was suppressed. But the Babe’s actions spoke volumes.
1942 Christmas Declaration
Ruth used his presence and name to support other social and moral causes including those of the world Jewish community. During the spring and summer of 1942, the United States and other Allied leaders received many reports about the Nazis massacring tens of thousands of Jewish civilians. Information reaching the Roosevelt administration in August revealed that the killings were part of a Nazi plan to systematically annihilate all of Europe’s Jews.
In late November, the State Department publicly verified this news, and on December 17, the US and British governments and their allies issued a declaration condemning the mass murder. This was duly reported in the St. Petersburg Times under the heading “United States Will Hold Germany Responsible for Mass Murder of Jews in Europe.” The declaration acknowledged in part that “the German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe… [The signatory governments] condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination… They re-affirm their solemn resolution to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution, and to press on with the necessary practical measures to this end.”
A little earlier in the year, a prominent journalist by the name of Dorothy Thompson contacted the World Jewish Congress for the purpose of mobilizing German-Americans to speak out against the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Thompson, who was of German descent and married to the novelist Sinclair Lewis, was the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany. She was once described by Time magazine as one of the two most influential women in the United States, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thompson’s syndicated newspaper column appeared in over 170 newspapers throughout the nation.
Thompson persuaded the Jewish Congress to fund full-page ads published in the New York Times and nine other prominent newspapers condemning atrocities against the Jews and urging the German people to overthrow the Nazis. On December 22, the ads were published bearing names of 50 prominent German-Americans. There were several notable academics, such as Princeton University dean Christian Gauss; leading Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; and Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation. But, the signer who was by far best known to the American public was George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth.
Ruth’s father, George Herman Ruth, Sr. was of distant German ancestry. His mother’s maiden name was Katie Schaumberger. Her parents were both born in Germany. His father was believed to be Lutheran. His mother was Catholic as was The Babe himself.
Headlined “A Christmas Declaration by Men and Women of German Ancestry,” the ads declared in part, “[W]e Americans of German descent raise our voices in denunciation of the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe, and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway…These horrors… are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves, are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization.” The ad went on to “utterly repudiate every thought and deed of Hitler and his Nazis,” and urged the people of Germany “to overthrow” the Nazi regime.
One of the many newspapers carrying Dorothy Thompson’s column was the St. Petersburg Times. On Christmas Day 1942, three days after publication of the Christmas Declaration, her column prominently appeared on the Times editorial page. She described the Nazi ‘Jewish Program’ as one of “complete extermination” of the Jews. “It involves five million human beings, who after being removed from western and central Europe to the east, are being poisoned, shot, gassed, and starved to death.” She urged that policies be adopted to accelerate an end to the war (and thereby save some of the remaining Jews) by encouraging Hitler’s overthrow from inside Germany. It is estimated that by the end of the war, nearly 6 million of a little over 7 million Jews in occupied Europe were murdered.
One additional benchmark event occurred in St. Petersburg that Christmas. On December 23, a double-banner headline on the front page of the Times read “Yanks and Cardinals Cancel ’43 Spring Training Activities Here.” The US Defense Transportation director had suggested that baseball clubs curtail travel as much as possible, and baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis followed suit urging all clubs to train close to home. Twenty-nine unbroken years of major league spring training in St. Pete – ten of them with Babe Ruth – had come to a temporary halt. But both teams were to return after the war was won.
Ruth’s reputation as a great baseball athlete was not limited to the United States. His fame was international. He toured Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and other countries playing exhibition games, and thoroughly enjoying meeting people of diverse cultures. When he died of throat cancer at the young age of 53 in 1948, the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior editorialized, “All epochs have their heroes. Babe Ruth was the hero of modern generations. He has died, but he is still with us.” Ruth lay in state in an open coffin at Yankee Stadium for two days. More than 100,000 people filed by to pay their respects. In 2010, Babe Ruth was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
by Will Michaels
Sources: Baltimore Sun June 29, 2008; Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust (1988); Bill Jenkinson, “Babe Ruth and the Issue of Race” (2016); Los Angeles Times July 12, 2014; Peter Kerasotas, “Home at the Other House that Ruth Built,” New York Times, March 11, 2014; Kevin M. McCarthy, Baseball in Florida (1996); Leigh Montville, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (2006); Rafael Medoff, “Babe Ruth and the Holocaust,” Jewish Times (2013); St. Petersburg Times, December 18, 23, 25, 1942; Seattle Times, September 21, 2004; Communications with Tom Stevens, Julia Ruth’s son, Mike Gibbons, president of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, Bill Jenkinson, Tim Reid and the St. Petersburg Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth.