Even measured against today’s superstar standards, George Herman Ruth would rank among the very best. From the time he began his professional baseball career in 1914, Ruth was the most talked about and written about personality of his day. Yet, because certain areas of a celebrity’s life were deemed off limits, many facts about Ruth were never publicized. “One Life: Babe Ruth” at the National Portrait Gallery sheds a light on the star athlete we never knew.
“Ruth was able to lead a private life,” said James Barber, historian and exhibition curator during the exhibition’s press opening. “It’s the difference between his era and our era.” Still, Barber pointed out that Ruth was the first athlete to have a publicist, Christy Walsh. Hardly a week went by when Ruth’s name wasn’t in the newspapers, particularly in the New York Daily News after he began playing for the New York Yankees. What was missing were those details about Ruth’s personal life that would most likely create tabloid headlines today, most notably when he and his wife, Helen, suddenly appeared with a 16 month-old girl named Dorothy. Despite dogged efforts by the press to uncover a birth certificate, none was ever found. On his death bed, Ruth told Dorothy that he was her biological father and she later learned that her biological mother was Juanita Jennings, one of Ruth’s many mistresses.
The National Portrait Gallery’s “One Life” exhibition series dedicates a full gallery to highlight the biography of one personality. Others who have had their lives covered in the space include Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ronald Reagan. Because the space is essentially one small room, what is included in the exhibition hits the highlights of the person’s life. While the basics about Ruth are covered, there are still many surprises.
Ruth was born in 1895 in Pigtown, a working class area of Baltimore. His father ran a saloon and because young Ruth ran wild and often drank beer behind his father’s back, his home environment was thought to lack discipline. At age seven, he was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a combination of reformatory and orphanage. That exile proved to be a godsend for the young Ruth. Not only did he receive an education, but he learned to play baseball. Although Ruth was left-handed, the Xaverian Brothers who ran the school, insisted that the children write with their right hand. Throughout his life, Ruth was very proud of his handwriting. “His signature was letter perfect,” said Barber. “”He took special note when he signed baseballs and he probably signed hundreds of thousands in his time.”
Because he was raised in an orphanage, Ruth always devoted himself to charitable works and would make himself available to spend time with the children. One of the photos in the exhibition shows him at an orphanage in Tacoma, Washington. A young girl in the front row can be seen clutching a “Ruth’s Home Run” chocolate candy wrapper.
Ruth began his baseball career as a pitcher for Jack Dunn’s minor league Baltimore Orioles. (Legend has it that Ruth’s nickname came when he was dubbed “Dunnie’s babe.”) Dunn ran into financial problems and, forced to give up some of his best players, sold Ruth to the Boston Red Sox on July 4, 2014. Ironically, financial problems for the Sox’s owner, Harry Frazee, brought about the sale of Ruth to the New York Yankees. The rest, as they say, is history.
Notes along the exhibition’s walls tell Ruth’s story in succinct and cogent terms. The photos, several credited to anonymous photographers, show Ruth posing with his Red Sox teammates, in his Yankee uniform, and kissing his Yankee bat. A standout is the iconic photograph of an aging Ruth, his back to the camera and his number 3 visible on his uniform. Nat Fein took the photo in 1948, three days before Ruth’s death.
“Ruth Quits” and “Babe Ruth Dies” are the two New York Daily News front pages included in the exhibition. Ruth died on August 16, 1948. His open casket laid in state in Yankee stadium for two days. He’s buried in Valhalla, New York.
Ruth’s baseball records have all been broken. In 1974 Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s record for career home runs, a record that has since been surpassed by steroid-tainted Barry Bonds. In 1961, Roger Maris broke Ruth’s record for the most homers in a single season, although an asterisk plagued Maris’ accomplishment for decades because he played more games the Ruth to reach that milestone.
Records aside, Babe Ruth was one for the ages and for all ages. There will never be another player with his talent and charisma. He defined not only baseball but the era in which he lived. And the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is the perfect way to reflect and celebrate this timeless hero.
“One Life: Babe Ruth”
National Portrait Gallery
by Nat Fein
Gelatin silver print
Image: 19cm x 23.3cm (7 1/2″ x 9 3/16″), Accurate National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Wife Stands by Babe and Defies Accuser
by Underwood & Underwood
Gelatin silver print
Sheet: 15 × 20.3cm (5 7/8 × 8″)
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Babe Ruth in Yankee’s Uniform
by Unidentified Artist
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Babe Ruth and other Red Sox pitchers
by Underwood & Underwood
Gelatin paper print
Image/Sheet: 16.5 x 24.6 cm (6 1/2 x 9 11/16″) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
by Paolo Garretto
Publication: New York World
Pastel, lithographic crayon and gouache on board Sheet (Accurate): 31.2 × 23.8cm (12 5/16 × 9 3/8″)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution