One of the first megastars of modern American sports, George Herman "Babe" Ruth helped usher in the Roaring Twenties with his seemingly superhuman athletic abilities and outsized personality. He made good on a promise to hit a home run for a sick child. He allegedly pointed to a spot in the stands and then launched a home run to that very spot. He partied hard, ignored team rules, hobnobbed with movie stars and called everybody “Doc” or “Kid” in lieu of remembering names.
It’s difficult to separate fact from myth when examining an iconic figure like the Babe, but beneath the legend was a flesh-and-blood man who put on his pants one leg at a time before inhaling as many cocktails and cigars as possible. With July 11 marking the 100th anniversary of his big league debut, here are five unusual facts about the most celebrated player in baseball history:
He trained to become a tailor:
The son of a saloon owner in a seedy section of Baltimore, Ruth was sent to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys at age 7 to keep him out of trouble. He developed his formidable baseball skills at St. Mary's, playing upwards of 200 games per year between classes, but the no-nonsense Catholic monks in charge required each boarder to learn a useful vocation. The Babe displayed a talent for shirt making, and he was good enough to earn an apprenticeship at a tailor shop located in the school's laundry building. Of course, he was better at throwing and blasting a baseball to the high heavens, so when he left St. Mary's for good in 1914, it was to join the minor league Baltimore Orioles, not the Men's Warehouse.
He spoke German:
Given that Ruth was not extensively educated, and that most surviving audio footage features him grunting in a "Yeah, see" Jimmy Cagney-style gangster voice, it’s difficult to imagine him being bilingual. But his father and mother both had German roots, and the Babe as a babe was surrounded by his Pennsylvania Dutch paternal grandparents, so he was immersed in the language at an early age. In his seminal 1974 biography Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, Robert Creamer related a tale of how baseball historian Fred Lieb once attempted to converse in German with New York Yankees co-star Lou Gehrig, only to find Ruth continually butting in.
He had an unusual method for keeping cool:
Professional baseball uniforms were made of wool until the 1940s, rendering most players a sweaty, wobbly mess during the midsummer months. As such, the Babe introduced to his teammates an unusual technique for keeping cool: He pried the leaves off a head of cabbage and spread them over the ice in a cooler. When they were sufficiently chilled, a leaf under the cap would supply much-needed relief for a few innings before needing to be replaced. A large man with an extra-large noggin, the Babe was said to require two leaves for the method to be fully effective. And considering his legendary appetite for hot dogs, this was probably the closest he came to ingesting any vegetables.
He joined the New York National Guard:
Inspired by a membership drive, a patriotic Ruth enlisted in the 104th Field Artillery Regiment of the New York National Guard in May 1924. As with most public activities involving the home run king, a huge crowd showed up to Times Square to witness his official swearing in by Colonel James Austin, and he was later photographed offering his best salute to General John Joseph Pershing. Of course, the Babe's enlistment was purely symbolic; he continued to play baseball and saw zero combat action during his three years in the National Guard, his most newsworthy activity in that period being the famed "bellyache heard round the world" but that sidelined him for much of the 1925 season.
He was the subject of a Japanese war cry:
Although he had headlined a hugely popular Asian tour of American All-Stars in 1934, the Babe was the sworn enemy of Japanese soldiers during World War II. This came to light in a March 1944 article of the New York Times, which reported that the Japanese shouted some variation of "To hell with Babe Ruth!" during fighting in the South Pacific. Ruth replied with his typical colorful language about how he hoped the Japanese would all be killed, and he spent the following day helping with a Red Cross fundraising drive. The American military brain trust reportedly considered a strategy in which the Babe would broadcast messages asking for a peaceful surrender over Japanese airwaves, but the plan was never enacted.