By Glen Sparks
The great Babe Ruth joined the Brooklyn Dodgers on June 18, 1938.
The Dodgers didn’t sign the Sultan of Swat to slam home runs, though, or to drive in Brooklyn base runners. Baseball’s home-run king had retired after the 1935 season, with 714 home runs in his back pocket.
Brooklyn asked Ruth to coach first base. And to play in exhibition games and take batting practice before games.
“What else could we do?” Brooklyn Manager, and former pitcher, Burleigh Grimes asked, according to Robert Creamer’s splendid biography Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. “That’s what we got him for.”
Ruth suited up as a Dodgers coach for the first time on June 19 at Ebbets Field. Fans applauded, and the Babe smiled. Brooklyn players liked his stories, and young fans liked that he signed their programs, especially when ill-tempered pitcher Van Lingle Mungo would not.
The Babe bashed home run after home run during exhibition games at Elmira, N.Y., and elsewhere. Hmm. Maybe the 43-year-old Ruth could hit No. 715 and more as a Brooklyn Dodger. Could he still play? Yes, Ruth said, he only needed a month or so to get into shape.
Dodgers VP Larry MacPhail liked the idea. Heck, why not? The Dodgers were in sixth place and not going anywhere. Let’s see what Ruth can do, MacPhail reasoned.
Grimes hated the idea. For one thing, he said, Ruth couldn’t see. The slugger had been telling pitchers in BP to keep the ball up so that he could see it. Grimes feared that Ruth might be killed in an actual game.
Babe’s attempted comeback ended there. Shortly thereafter, Ruth’s hopes of managing the Dodgers also ended. The rumor—a pretty public one—was that Grimes would be gone at season’s end. But, would Ruth get the job? The smart money was on Leo Durocher, a Brooklyn infielder, team captain, and, reportedly, one of Ruth’s harshest critics.
Some people said Coach Ruth lacked the smarts to relay signs from the dugout. That allegation seems ridiculous. Ruth didn’t enjoy the greatest career in professional sports history by being a dummy. Remember, he not only made mincemeat out of baseball’s home-run mark, he also went 94-46 as a pitcher. Ruth knew the game as well as anyone.
The Dodgers fired Grimes on Oct. 10. Three days later, they did indeed hire Durocher as skipper. The Babe was out of a job.