December 9, 2023

A Look Back at When Babe Ruth Nearly Became the Detroit Tigers’ Player-Manager

July 14, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From left: Babe Ruth, Ed Barrow, Jacob Ruppert

From left: Babe Ruth, Ed Barrow, Jacob Ruppert

By the end of the 1933 season, it was obvious that Babe Ruth didn’t have much left in the tank.

He was coming off a campaign in which he had hit only 34 home runs, with 103 RBIs and a .301 batting average. While very good numbers for mere mortals, this was, after all, the Sultan of Swat. His production had been on the decline for several years. The New York Yankees in ’33 had won 91 games, but finished a distant second to the Washington Senators. Ruth was soon going to be 39 years old. What did the future hold for the greatest home run hitter of all time?

Had you posed the question to Ruth himself, he would likely have expressed his desire to manage a major league baseball team. And not just any baseball team. Ruth’s dream job was to skipper the Yankees. Team owner Jacob Ruppert, however, wasn’t having any of it.

“I am thoroughly satisfied with (manager Joe) McCarthy,” Ruppert affirmed in October. “I never have considered Ruth as McCarthy’s successor. Ruth can remain with the Yankees as a player so long as he is able to walk up to the plate with that big bat on his shoulder and knock out home runs. Even as a pinch-hitter or a weekend player, so to speak, he will be of value to my club and he knows very well that there is no desire on my part to get rid of him. As a matter of fact, no other club in the American League has approached me with a proposition for Ruth as a player or manager.”

Ruppert, however, wasn’t being entirely truthful.

Oh, there were rumors, of course. With the death of St. Louis Browns’ owner Phil Ball, who left no will, there was talk that Ruth would be part of a group to purchase the team. With an investment of around $100,000 of his own money, he would take on the title of team president or general manager. There was even the possibility that he would be player-manager for the Browns.

Other speculation had him taking the reins of the Boston Red Sox, the team with which he had started his career. And Ruppert had floated the idea of the Babe managing for the Newark Bears, the top Yankee farm club. A reporter caught up with the slugger, who was off on a hunting trip, and alerted him to the Newark gossip. “I never mix baseball with pheasant shooting,” the Babe blurted. “Say, I caught 16 pheasants today. Let the fans know about that.”

Beyond these conjectures, however, Ruppert had had a baseball team approach him with legitimate interest in acquiring Ruth to be player-manager.

It was the Detroit Tigers.

The last time Detroit had gone to the World Series was 1909. It had been eleven seasons since they had finished higher than third. For the past couple years, a country-club atmosphere surrounded the team. The Tigers had gotten a well-deserved reputation as a soft team, content to settle for second-division finishes.

Owner Frank Navin knew it was time to make a change.

His manager, Bucky Harris, had tendered his resignation a mere days before the end of the 1933 season. Harris had won two American League pennants, including a World Series championship, while manager of the Washington Senators. But in five years at the helm with Detroit, his record was a forgettable 355-410.

“WE WANT TIGERS—NOT TAME KITTENS,” blared a Detroit Free Press headline as another losing season wound down.

Poor performance on the field wasn’t the only problem Navin had on his hands. With the Depression, attendance at Navin Field had plummeted to a third of what it had been ten years earlier. Navin needed a leader capable of lighting a fire under his lackluster club, but he also sought a drawing card.

What bigger box office attraction was there than the Bambino?

Navin sat down with Ruppert, eventually finagling permission to talk to Ruth about the Tigers managerial post. First, however, Navin discussed the idea with Yankee GM Ed Barrow, who seemed open to any plan to unload his aging slugger. Finally, the Tiger owner got in touch with Ruth via long-distance telephone. Navin cut to the chase: Would Ruth be interested in becoming player-manager for the Tigers? Could he come to Detroit for a conference?

One can imagine the dramatic pause at the other end of the crackling line. Here was Ruth’s grand opportunity, the chance to manage a big league ball club. It wasn’t the Yankees, but it sure beat the hell out of Newark. And it seemed more and more like McCarthy wasn’t going anywhere.

There was one problem, however. Ruth had a previous commitment to travel to Honolulu, Hawaii, to participate in some exhibition games, along with a golf competition. Christy Walsh, Ruth’s business manager, had arranged the whole thing, and backing out now was not an option. In fact, Ruth was all set to board a ship in San Francisco to take him to the tropical locale. Could Navin wait till he got back?

No, he could not wait till he got back. Navin wanted to get the deal done soon, and didn’t feel like waiting around while Ruth and his wife and daughter took in the sand and surf in Hawaii, exhibitions or no exhibitions.

When Barrow heard about the conversation, he told the Babe that he was making a big mistake by snubbing Navin. Ruth wouldn’t listen. “There’s plenty of time,” Ruth replied. “The season doesn’t begin for six months. I’ve got these things all set in Hawaii. I’ll call him when I get back.”

Ruth headed to the Aloha State for a 13-day tour, where he and his family soaked up the sun, were wined and dined by local dignitaries, and generally captured the hearts of Hawaiians. In addition to playing in his exhibition games, Ruth found time to lay a wreath at the gravesite of Alexander Cartwright, the so-called “Father of Baseball.”

Ruth and Navin did eventually have some preliminary telephone discussions during the trip. But apparently Ruth wanted a hefty salary, as well as a portion of the box office. After all, wasn’t he going to be putting fannies into the seats at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull?

From left: Frank Navin, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Mickey Cochrane

From left: Frank Navin, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Mickey Cochrane

In the end, Navin nixed the whole idea. Ruth’s asking price was more than the Tiger owner was willing to pay. Ruth stuck with the Yankees for another year, before closing out his career with the Boston Braves. Ruth’s dreams of managing in the big leagues never became a reality.

But sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. That certainly was true in this case. Having discarded Ruth, Navin redirected his search, this time toward Philadelphia. Connie Mack, the long-time owner and manager of the Athletics, was also having trouble drawing crowds at Shibe Park. Needing cash, Mack found himself in the unpleasant position of having to break up a dynasty for the second time in 20 years. The Athletics’ numerous stars were available; one of the biggest of them was Mickey Cochrane, the team’s great catcher.

Navin swooped into the breach, picking up Cochrane, along with another catcher, John Pasek, for $100,000. Cochrane was named player-manager of his new club. He immediately infused a winning attitude into the previously-lethargic Tiger clubhouse. The result was an American League pennant in 1934, followed by a World Series championship in 1935. Cochrane saved baseball in the Motor City, but how different would things have been had Ruth postponed his Honolulu holiday and signed on Navin’s dotted line?


One Response to “A Look Back at When Babe Ruth Nearly Became the Detroit Tigers’ Player-Manager”


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] A Look Back at When Babe Ruth Nearly Became the Detroit Tigers Player-Manager What, what, what? We at Musings had legitimately never heard this story, but hot damn. History shows that the Tigers were better for not getting him, but can you imagine the Babe in the Old English D? It was almost a reality. […]

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!