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"Diamonds and Decadence: Baseball's Golden Era in the Roaring Twenties"
Ken Burns' "Baseball" Episode 4 Review
If I had someone who was resistant to watching this documentary, I would take this episode and show it to them first. It is very Ruth-heavy, but that is a testament to how big he indeed was. I had forgotten the ups and downs of his career and personal life. People like to joke that he drank beer, ate hot dogs, and hit dingers. However, his life is frankly just super sad, and this episode does an excellent job of showing the highs and the lows. So, I will primarily cover Ruth but touch on the other topics in the episode.
The Rise, Reign, Fall, and Rise Again of the Bambino
Babe Ruth: A Symbol of the Roaring Twenties
I am a history teacher on the side, and as a kid, I read history textbooks for fun instead of studying science, math, and other useless subjects. Without fail every textbook had a section on Babe Ruth during the twenties. In 95% of the textbooks, there was no further mention of sports stars or celebrities, but he transcended all of that. My favorite quote from the episode comes early with Bob Costas, and I wanted to put it in its entirety below.
"Baseball is a human enterprise. Therefore, by definition, it's imperfect, it's flawed, it doesn't embody perfectly everything that's worthwhile about our country or about our culture. But it comes closer than most things in American life. And maybe this story, which is probably apocryphal, gets to the heart of it:
'An Englishman and an American having an argument about something that has nothing to do with baseball. It gets to the point where it's irreconcilable, to the point of exasperation, and the American says to the Englishman, Ah, screw the king! And the Englishman is taken aback, thinks for a minute, and says, Well, screw Babe Ruth!'
"Now think about that. The American thinks he can insult the Englishman by casting aspersions upon a person who has his position by virtue of nothing except for birth; nothing to do with personal qualities, good, bad or otherwise.
"But who does the Englishman think embodies America? Some scruffy kid who came from the humblest of beginnings, hung out as a six-year-old behind his father's bar; a big, badly flawed, swashbuckling palooka, who strides with great spirit — not just talent, but with a spirit of possibility and enjoyment of life across the American stage. That's an American to the Englishman. You give me Babe Ruth over any king who's ever sat on the throne and I'll be happy with that trade."
— Bob Costas
While many figures characterized the spirit and energy of the Roaring Twenties, perhaps no one represented the era's excess, charisma, and transformative power more than Babe Ruth. The "Great Bambino" was not just a baseball player. He was a cultural icon.
Revolutionizing the Game
Before Ruth's ascendancy, baseball was largely a game of strategy, with teams often relying on bunts, steals, and singles to scratch out runs. Ruth changed all that. His power-hitting approach turned baseball on its head, making the home run the game's most exciting play. Ruth didn’t just hit home runs; he hit them farther and more frequently than anyone had seen and the kids loved it. Over his career, he hit more home runs than entire teams did at the same time. Ruth was hitting home runs at a higher clip than most. However, in 1920 Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians (sorry if that name offends anyone) was beaned in the head by a fastball and died. Blunt, I know, but it changed the game of baseball forever. No longer were balls impossible to see due to spit, tobacco, dirt, and who knows what else. Clean shiny white balls were required and hitters ate it up. Ruth was just one of those beneficiaries.
Larger Than Life
Ruth was a troubled Baltimore son who was in and out of a boy’s home in large part because his parents couldn’t handle him. When he was seven he was drinking behind his dad’s saloon and causing raucus on the streets. The St. Mary’s Industrial School For Boy’s saved his life and got him into baseball.
The episode touches briefly on his time in Boston. Something fans forget is that he won THREE World Series with the Sox. He would go on to win four more with the Yankees of course, but often his success with the Red Sox is left out. They touch on the trade to the Yankee’s and Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee’s, weird Broadway obesession. However, the good stuff starts once he is in New York.
Like another one of the early 20th century American icons, Theodore Roosevelt, I do not think Ruth, as he was, would be able to survive in 2023. Not because of the change in the game. Personally, I think the old-time players would adapt and be fine. Anyone who goes with that argument is just bored. For Ruth, it was the off-the-field issues. He drank heavily, ate whatever he wanted, sent his wife and daughter to a farm (seriously), and became the nation’s top brothel customer. This wasn’t done behind the scenes either. Everything he did was front page news. The press followed him everywhere. When his first wife had a mental breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric center the press followed him in.
He almost died during the peak of his career from partying so hard, quit the team multiple times, and was being followed everywhere as evident from the above photo. This all took place smack in the middle of the 1920’s the peak of Ruth’s career. He was able to turn it around and Murderer’s Row was born. However, this episode reminds you how complicated he was as a person and a player. In many ways it makes everything he did more impressive.
Comparing him to any player today is just a waste of time. Ogden Nash’s poem Lineup For Yesterday said it best.
R is for Ruth.
To tell you the truth,
There's just no more to be said,
Just R is for Ruth.
While the 1920s witnessed several transformative figures and events, Babe Ruth's impact was unparalleled. He wasn’t just a sports star; he was one of the first true American celebrities in the modern sense. He transcended baseball, influencing broader American culture. His story—a journey from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success, with all its associated triumphs and pitfalls—resonated deeply with the American public.
In "A National Heirloom," Burns captures the essence of Ruth, portraying him not just as a baseball player but as a seminal figure in American history. Through the lens of the 1920s, Ruth's story is one of ambition, talent, charisma, and the transformative power of sport.
A Technological Marvel
The radio was invented in the 1920’s and it changed the way American’s got their media. However, teams did not start to broadcast all the games until the 1930’s. More on that next episode.
This episode shows Walter Johnson winning his first and only championship. It also shows a possibly still drunk Grover Cleveland Alexander come in and win the World Series for the Cardinals while Ruth commited the last out on a attempted stolen base….
All told. This is a Ruth heavy episode and it motivated me to start “The Skippers View Book Club.” We will be reading Jane Leavy’s The Big Fella and hope to have her on the podcast in the next two weeks.
World Series Winners 1920-1929
1920: Cleveland Indians
1921: New York Giants
1922: New York Giants
1923: New York Yankees
1924: Washington Senators
1925: Pittsburgh Pirates
1926: St. Louis Cardinals
1927: New York Yankees
1928: New York Yankees
1929: Philadelphia Athletics