Babe Ruth, Ring Lardner, and Baseball on the Verge in 1916

Babe Ruth (left) and Ring Lardner began building their legacies in 1916. (via National Photo Company)

Babe Ruth (left) and Ring Lardner began building their legacies in 1916. (via National Photo Company)

The 1916 major league baseball season lacks a defining image. Mention the year 1975 to lovers of baseball history, and chances are they’ll recall Carlton Fisk’s home run or the Big Red Machine. 1941 evokes Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Ted Williams’ .406 batting average, 1908 Fred Merkle’s miscue, and the list goes on and on. It’s a superficial way to remember history, but unfortunately seasons like 1916 that don’t have such a symbol tend to get forgotten by the public.

To honor its centennial, I searched for compelling representations of the 1916 season. Great performances by Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and the Boston Red Sox (who won their third of four 1910s World’s Series that year) were not unique. The Philadelphia A’s, who at 36-117 were one of the worst teams in major league history, were too depressing. Ultimately, two events seemed both singular and reflective of the state of major league baseball in 1916: Babe Ruth’s emergence as an elite player, and sportswriter Ring Lardner’s publication of the first great baseball novel, You Know Me Al. The pivotal experiences of both men during this year exemplify how major league baseball was breaking out of its past niche as disreputable entertainment and was on the verge of becoming a much more profitable and widely adored part of American culture.

Ruth and Lardner’s paths to success in 1916 were strikingly different; indeed, the two men came from the opposite poles of turn-of-the-century society. The ballplayer grew up poor in a rough Baltimore neighborhood and was largely raised by priests in a Catholic orphanage. The writer was from a wealthy, close-knit Protestant family that was prominent in its small hometown of Niles, Mich. Traditionally, Ruth’s urban and ethnic backgrounds were common for professional ballplayers, although few came from situations as impoverished as the Babe’s. Wealthier families like the Lardners generally discouraged their children from a career connected with sports, and indeed Ring might not have fallen into his job as a baseball writer had his family not lost its fortune when he was 16.

The family’s hardship ironically turned out to be Lardner’s big break, for it pushed him into sports writing at a time when the profession still held a taint of disrepute. Lacking career options, he shuttled around for a few years before landing a job writing for the South Bend Times in 1905. Three years later, he hopped to the Chicago Tribune to cover baseball, a move that put him at the vanguard of a tremendous expansion of sports journalism during the early decades of the 20th century.

Within a decade, he rose from beat writer to a columnist who developed a national reputation. In 1914, he broadened his success by persuading the Saturday Evening Post, the widest circulating magazine in the United States, to publish a series of short fiction stories about a talented but unsophisticated ballplayer called “the Busher.” These stories gained enough attention that six of them were published as the novel You Know Me Al in 1916, culminating the first stage of Lardner’s career.

Ruth’s career was much less developed than Lardner’s in 1916. He had pitched well in his rookie season the previous year, but made only one pinch-hitting appearance as the Red Sox defeated the Phillies in the 1915 World Series. On Opening Day 1916, he pitched the team to a 1-0 victory over the A’s, launching him into a season during which he achieved the second-highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement Level) ranking of any player in the American League. The Babe also produced the signature achievement of the 1916 World Series, a 14-inning complete-game 2-1 victory over the Brooklyn Robins in Game 2 that propelled Boston toward a second consecutive championship.

Ruth benefited immediately from his success; his World Series share that year more than doubled his $3,500 salary. He also achieved longer-term financial gains. Over the next four seasons, as he gradually transitioned from an elite pitcher to a game-changing hitter and was sold from the Red Sox to the Yankees, his salary increased from five to seven to ten to twenty thousand dollars (the last figure tied him with Cobb and Tris Speaker for the highest major league salary of 1920).

By the postwar season of 1919, as he helped to revitalize the game with his extraordinary home run hitting, he also gained access to the supplemental income opportunities earned through barnstorming, vaudeville shows and ghostwritten articles that established stars such as Christy Mathewson and Cobb had gradually developed over the course of the previous decade.

Lardner and Ruth’s pivotal experiences during 1916 were as different as their backgrounds, but over the next decade their careers were surprisingly parallel. They moved to New York a year apart, with Lardner arriving in 1919 and Ruth in 1920.

Both men’s already successful careers reached new heights in New York. Ruth revolutionized not only baseball but also the field of celebrity endorsements during the 1920s. He shilled for everything from cereal to underwear, made Hollywood movies, and lent his name and presence to barnstorming tours on which he earned as much or more than his salary from the Yankees. Lardner launched a syndicated column from New York, wrote short stories and theatrical pieces, and even produced a You Know Me Al comic strip. He also became a darling of the literary elite, including Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who reissued You Know Me Al in 1925 as part of his effort to rebrand the columnist as an eminent writer. By the following year, according to his biographer, Lardner was “one of the ten most famous men in America.”

These successes were unprecedented within the world of major league baseball and reflected a growing love of the game during the 1920s, when nearly all major league teams broke attendance records and the unsavory reputation of their ballplayers largely vanished. But as Ruth and Lardner’s careers indicate, the groundwork for this success came earlier in the century, as white Americans from all social ranks found opportunity in baseball. That’s why the emerging superstar and the sportswriter/novelist are such appropriate symbols for remembering the 1916 season: a moment when both men transformed their careers and helped to push the professional game closer to the mainstream of American culture.

Paul Ringel is Associate Professor of History at High Point University. He is the author of Commercializing Childhood: Children's Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the ideal of the American Child, 1823-1918. His current research project is an exploration of the Royal Rooters, a group of celebrity baseball fans in early twentieth-century Boston. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRingel.
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Todd Gers
7 years ago

Good article and interesting topic! Look forward to reading more of your stuff in the future.

7 years ago

Nice job, Paul! We look forward to more of your stuff

7 years ago

Thank you for bringing a bit of 1916–and the stories of two important baseball figures–back into the light.

7 years ago

Awesome! Loved the article!

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

As I understand it, Lardner became disillusioned with baseball after the Black Sox scandal and eventually moved away from sports. Is that correct?

Vlae Kershner
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Somewhat true, but also he was starting to move up in New York society and wanted a more serious image. His lasting contribution in 1919 was to think up the lyrics and sing “I’m Forever Blowing Ballgames”to the tune of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” on the train bringing the teams back to Chicago from Cincinnati after the first two games. The Sox players scowled.

John G.
7 years ago

Interesting! For a specific upcoming 100th anniversary date, not symbolic of the 1916 season but perhaps some trivia value, September 4 will be the centennial of the final MLB game for pitching legends Christy Mathewson and Three Finger Brown, who threw complete games against each other in a 10-8 “duel” won by Mathewson on 9/4/1916, the second game of a doubleheader at the park now know as Wrigley Field.

It was the only game that Mathewson played for the Reds, having been named Cincinnati’s manager earlier in the season. He “scattered” 15 hits, two of them to Brown (2-4 as a batter), and one walk. Brown also walked one while giving out 19 hits, three of them to Mathewson (3-5 with his 50th career double).

One other related centennial item. Brown’s full name? “Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown.”

7 years ago
Reply to  John G.

Mordecai Peter Centennial Three Finger Brown

7 years ago
Reply to  John G.

I can hazard a guess as to the year of his birth without going off to look it up.

7 years ago

The Babe’s first full season as a starter and his WAR was higher than Cobb and Speaker – he came in third behind Alexander and Johnson. Awesome!

Cliff Blau
7 years ago

Defining image for the 1916 season: the Giants finishing fourth despite a 17-game winning streak and a 27-game unbeaten streak.

Paul Ringel
7 years ago
Reply to  Cliff Blau

I love that stat too! I just couldn’t make it fit it into the article.

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne
7 years ago

A fascinating piece, Paul! I’m particularly interested in your point about sports journalism as a profession with a “taint of disrepute.” I confess, I’d thought very little of how/when sports writing even emerges. Do you think the genre is still regarded as a lesser branch of journalism today?

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

My understanding is that, back in the day, all of journalism had a taint of disrepute. The idea of journalism as a noble calling is relatively recent. For a long time, most newspapers were either partisan rags with an explicit political agenda set by the publisher or essentially tabloids.

7 years ago

Great historical account and writing ….100 years ago…amazing this game.

7 years ago

I object to the implication that sports journalism is no longer a disreputable pursuit. As a writer more parts scoundrel than reporter, I am doing my damnedest to assure that the field remains in the mire of looks askance, and am in fact only posting this to distract you whilst the boys run around back and set fire to your printing press. See you at the bookie’s, chump!

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6 years ago

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