The Babe went to bat for black players

Commentary

June 29, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

Oh, was Linda Ruth Tosetti ever asking for it. Raise yet another pedestal for her grandfather, Babe Ruth? Make Jackie Robinson share Major League Baseball's singular honor with someone who seems saturated in praise from every segment of American culture? Pit these two iconic figures, and all the accompanying baggage, against each other?

Tosetti wants Ruth's number retired throughout baseball, too, and from here, the answers she gave colleague Rick Maese last week to the obvious question - why? - weren't good enough.

Then came a truly thought-provoking reason. She gave it on a national radio show last week, indicating that her grandfather did more to give credit to the great black ballplayers of his era than most people know. Ruth barnstormed with the Negro leaguers back in the day, Tosetti told the hosts, and he told baseball officials that if they really were interested in winning, they would give those players a chance in the then-segregated big leagues.

Really?

Really.

At least it's plausible. It's well documented Ruth filled most of his offseasons touring the country for exhibition games. There are less-documented reports of games against all-black teams. Practically undocumented was that his fellow big leaguers were often less than enthusiastic about playing with or against blacks.

Ruth apparently not only wasn't opposed to it, but he also embraced and enjoyed it. It might be because he knew grinding poverty or because his appearance inspired insults generally reserved for blacks, from schoolmates and, later, from opposing players.

Whatever the reason, Ruth and black baseball routinely expressed mutual admiration for each other. Black ballplayers of the day often named him as one of their idols.

Therefore, figures one biographer, it stands to reason that Ruth would make his feelings known about those players. Bill Jenkinson spent close to three decades rigorously researching home run history and turned part of that research into a nonfiction book released in 2007, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs.

"Babe Ruth was not an intellectual; he certainly was not well educated. But he did appear to be pretty intelligent," Jenkinson said last week. Although he had no direct evidence of Ruth's advocacy, he added: "The way he lived his life, it's fair to say that he was the first effective proponent for the integration of baseball. He was enormously influential, and he went out of his way to demonstrate to the white power structure of Major League Baseball that this is what should be done."

Plus, he said, "He had a great natural empathy for his fellow man."

As far back as 1918, Ruth played games against famous all-black teams, Jenkinson said. When Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in 1920 and took his fame to a new level, Jenkinson added, half the games in his postseason barnstorming tour were against black teams.

"It sent a tremendous signal ... an enormously powerful message," Jenkinson said. Of course, it's one baseball chose to keep ignoring. That's baseball's fault, not Ruth's, just as it wasn't his fault that knuckleheaded fans chose to later use him as a club to beat up those who threatened his records.

Besides playing, Jenkinson said, 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.

Does this make Tosetti's case to retire Ruth's number stronger? Jenkinson says yes. I still believe this honor should remain solely with Robinson - call it a long-overdue apology - and that baseball should come up with another creative way to immortalize Ruth.

But I believe that aspect of Ruth's legacy deserves far more recognition. It's not the official honor his granddaughter seeks, but she should be proud of how, 60 years after his death, Ruth's image keeps getting better.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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