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How Babe Ruth’s bellyache led to today’s baseball press coverage

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It was rumored that he had the flu, and the headline claimed Ruth ate too many hotdogs.

BABE RUTH ILL

Babe Ruth hit his first home run as a professional ballplayer in North Carolina. It is also where the Babe happened to be when his first obituary hit the press. “BABE RUTH REPORTED DEAD. BEST PAID PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE” is the headline that awaited newspaper readers in Northern Ireland who opened the April 9, 1925 edition of The Belfast Telegraph.

Of course, Ruth didn’t die in 1925, and the report of his demise in The Belfast Telegraph was erroneous. Ruth wasn’t dead. He had, however, become extremely ill. As the Yankees headed north from Florida at the end of spring training in 1925, Ruth had fainted in an Asheville, North Carolina train station. For a number of months, he had been experiencing terrible stomach pains and cramping. Jane Leavy explains in Big Fella, her biography of the Babe, that as spring training was wrapping up before the start of the 1925 baseball season, Ruth’s wife Helen and daughter Dorothy had unexpectedly traveled south to visit Ruth at the Yankees’ camp in St. Petersburg. Ruth was on his “best behavior” with his family in town, Leavy writes, but went on a wild bender with teammate Steve O’ Neill soon after their departure.

The Yankees participated in a number of exhibition games on their journey back to New York, and Ruth continued to play with his usual bombastic style, despite running a fever and suffering from stomach cramps that were worsening. News of the “gastric crisis,” as Leavy calls it, and Ruth’s exploits catching up with him circulated faster than ever. The incident—Babe fainting several times and looking sickly during the long train ride to New York—became known as “the bellyache heard round the world,” thanks to the proliferation of New York City tabloids. The question of how Ruth’s literal death ever got reported to a reputable newspaper overseas in the UK has never been confirmed with 100 percent certainty, but the event “marked a turning point for both Ruth and the writers who covered him,” Leavy writes. “The story became a season-long feeding frenzy, a steady diet of column inches about Ruthian excess.”

While newspapers in the early 1900s published some of America’s best-known investigative pieces and muckraking corruption exposés, most sportswriting of the time was regarded as low-brow. It was common for beat writers to cover the games as parable, portraying athletes as heroes in dramatic confrontations between good and evil. The reporters asked few questions and rarely quoted players how they actually talked. Aided by these loose journalistic conventions, Ruth’s hedonistic reputation for excess in New York had fully solidified by the spring of 1925. Fans marveled at his ability to hit home runs and outperform his peers after carousing all night and eating five steaks for breakfast. His power, massiveness and overstated lifestyle amplified his celebrity and gave baseball fans the impression he was immortal. And so the Babe’s superhuman persona grew more hyperbolic.

The rumors and exaggerations frustrated the Yankees. Once Ruth arrived at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, everyone except the Yankee team doctor and Ruth’s family was barred from entering his hospital room. He underwent several surgeries to repair what is believed to have been an intestinal abscess, and all in all his stay in the hospital lasted a month. The Yankees remained tight-lipped about Ruth’s condition. The press, accustomed to having full access to the Babe, did not like this. The sportswriter Paul Gallico even demanded the Yankees allow one pool reporter to speak with Ruth each day. It didn’t happen. The exact cause of Ruth’s passing out on the train and subsequent illness has never been confirmed. A number of explanations, ranging from venereal disease to Ruth consuming a bad batch of moonshine (this was during prohibition, after all), have been proposed over the years.

The most interesting aspect of the story, though, isn’t what prompted the hospital stay that caused Ruth to miss the first two months of the Yankees’ 1925 season. Rather, the Yankees’ decision to stay tight-lipped on the matter and to curb reporters’ access to Ruth gave rise to a tension between a team’s desire for privacy and its allowing sports reporters the access they need to get the story right.