- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

The game’s greatest slugger reached for the sheaf of papers and scribbled his name on the bottom line - “George Herman Ruth.”

The date was March 8, 1930, and the Babe had just signed the biggest contract in baseball history: $80,000 for each of two seasons. Said his immediate boss, general manager Ed Barrow of the New York Yankees: “No one will ever be paid more.”

It was a terrible guess, but Barrow had no way of knowing that 79 years later the Yankees would be giving Alex Rodriguez about $25 million a season - or more for about three days than Ruth earned for a season.

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This was early in what came to be known as the Great Depression, and bread lines were forming across the country.

“You know what, Babe,” a man is supposed to have told Ruth. “You’re making more than the president of the United States [Republican Herbert Hoover, who earned $75,000 a year].”

The Babe, an ardent Democrat, scowled. “So what?” he is supposed to have replied. “I had a better year than Hoover did.”

No argument there. In 1929, Ruth batted .345 with 46 home runs and 154 RBI, though the Yankees failed to win the American League pennant for the first time in four years. The luckless Hoover had been president for only seven months when Wall Street collapsed that October, sending the nation reeling toward financial ruin.

Ruth was 35 then and still in his prime despite years of indulging in wine, women and song. He rewarded the Yankees with two more epic seasons (.359, 49, 153 in 1930; .373, 46, 163 in 1931) before approaching an inevitable decline that led to his retirement in 1935.

Yet the Yankees did not dominate baseball in those years as they had in the 1920s. Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics beat them out of pennants both seasons despite the Babe’s heavy hitting. Meanwhile, Ruth became a bitter, sulking man after the Yankees snubbed him in 1931 to pick career minor leaguer Joe McCarthy as manager.

In the spring of 1930, though, all was just dandy with the Babe’s world although there was a comic opera touch to his signing. Back then, there were no player agents or free agency. Yet the largely uneducated Ruth proved effective in negotiating with Barrow and Col. Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees’ millionaire owner.

If you’re scoring at home, give an assist on the play to the Babe’s second wife, Claire, a no-nonsense former showgirl who probably prodded him into his unprecedented salary demands.

Can you imagine a sports writer playing a key role in a contract dispute today? By all accounts, it happened in the Babe’s case.

Talks began that January at the New York brewery Ruppert owned. The Yankees offered $70,000 the same amount Ruth had earned for three seasons. The Babe laughed and demanded $85,000 a season for three years. The Yankees countered with an offer of $75,000. Ruth and Claire stormed out and went to Florida.

The impasse still existed when the club began spring training at St. Petersburg in early March. Ruth showed up and worked out. Ruppert arrived March 7 and offered $80,000 for two years. The Babe said he would give up the third year but wanted $85,000 per.

Enter Dan Daniel, a respected beat writer for the New York Telegram. Ruth told Daniel he would either sign or quit the next day, and the writer filed an exclusive story to that effect.

The following day, Ruth changed his mind and told Daniel he would play without a contract, thus rendering the writer’s scoop null and void. Daniel panicked and let the Babe have it right between the eyes.

According to Daniel, who liked to get himself involved in his stories, he told Ruth: “What’s the matter with you? There’s a depression. Yesterday in [New York’s] Union Square, a lot of people were rioting for bread. They’re starving and you’re asking for $85,000 a year. It’s making a very bad impression, and it’s hurting baseball.”

Ruth hung his head, Daniel said, and agreed to sign. So he did, and baseball history of a sort was made.

In the 1940s, following World War II, players such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller surpassed Ruth’s haul. Toward decade’s end, DiMaggio became the first $100,000 ballplayer. Soon after, Williams raised the barrier to $125,000. More than 25 years later, free agency arrived and player salaries ascended into the cosmos.

But it was Ruth, possibly the greatest player ever, who landed baseball’s fattest contract at a time when many players made less than $5,000. And who can doubt that he deserved it? He was, after all, the Sultan of Swat, and his fame endures 74 years after he laid down his bat for the last time.

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