Due to travel restrictions placed on major league baseball by the War Department, the World Series of 1918 was played in September and split into two home stands. The Chicago Cubs hosted the first three games, with the final four to be held in Boston. On September 7, after the Cubs dropped game three, the two teams boarded a Michigan Central train together to embark on the twenty- seven-hour trip, and Babe Ruth got drunk and started stealing hats.
They'd had to pour him onto the train in the first place. After the game, he'd gone to a house a few blocks east of Wabash where a man could find a game of cards, a steady supply of liquor, and a woman or two, and if Stuffy McInnis hadn't known where to look for him, he would have missed the trip home.
As it was, he puked off the rear of the caboose as the train chugged out of Central Station at a little after eight in the evening and wound its way past the stockyards. The air was woolen with smoke and the stench of butchered cattle, and Ruth was damned if he could find a star in the black sky. He took a pull from his flask and rinsed the vomit from his mouth with a gargle of rye and spit it over the iron rail and watched the spangle of Chicago's skyline rise before him as he slid away from it. As he often did when he left a place and his body was leaden with booze, he felt fat and orphaned.
He drank some more rye. At twenty-three, he was finally becoming one of the more feared hitters in the league. In a year when home runs in the American League had totaled ninety-six, Ruth had accounted for eleven. Damn near 12 percent. Even if someone took into account the three-week slump he'd suffered in June, pitchers had started to treat him with respect. Opposing hitters, too, because Ruth had pitched the Sox to thirteen wins that season. He'd also started fifty-nine games in left and thirteen at first.
Couldn't hit lefties, though. That was the knock on him. Even when every roster had been stripped to its shells by the players who'd enlisted in the war, Ruth had a weakness that opposing managers had begun to exploit.
He said it to the wind and took another hit from his flask, a gift from Harry Frazee, the team owner. Ruth had left the team in July. Went to play for the Chester Shipyards team in Pennsylvania because Coach Barrow valued Ruth's pitching arm far more than his bat, and Ruth was tired of pitching. You threw a strikeout, you got applause. You hit a home run, you got mass eruption. Problem was, the Chester Shipyards preferred his pitching, too. When Frazee threatened them with a lawsuit, Chester Shipyards shipped Ruth back.
Frazee had met the train and escorted Ruth to the backseat of his Rauch & Lang Electric Opera Coupe. It was maroon with black trim and Ruth was always amazed by how you could see your refl ection in the steel no matter the weather or time of day. He asked Frazee what it cost, a buggy like this, and Frazee idly fondled the gray upholstery as his driver pulled onto Atlantic Avenue. "More than you, Mr. Ruth," he said and handed Ruth the flask.
The inscription etched into the pewter read:
Ruth, G. H.
He fingered it now and took another swig, and the greasy odor of cows' blood mixed with the metallic smell of factory towns and warm train tracks. I am Babe Ruth, he wanted to shout off the train. And when I'm not drunk and alone at the back of a caboose, I am someone to be reckoned with. A cog in the wheel, yes, and you bet I know it, but a diamond-crusted cog. The cog of cogs. Someday . . .
Ruth raised his flask and toasted Harry Frazee and all the Harry Frazees of the world with a string of lewd epithets and a bright smile. Then he took a swig and it went to his eyelids and tugged them downward.
"I'm going to sleep, you old whore," Ruth whispered to the night, to the skyline, to the smell of butchered meat. To the dark midwestern fields that lay ahead. To every ashen mill town between here and Governor's Square. To the smoky starless sky.
He stumbled into the stateroom he shared with Jones, Scott, and McInnis, and when he woke at six in the morning, still fully clothed, he was in Ohio. He ate breakfast in the dining car and drank two pots of coffee and watched the smoke pour from the stacks in the foundries and steel mills that squatted in the black hills. His head ached and he added a couple of drops from his flask to his coffee cup and his head didn't ache anymore. He played canasta for a while with Everett Scott, and then the train made a long stop in Summer-ford, another mill town, and they stretched their legs in a field just beyond the station, and that's when he first heard of a strike.
It was Harry Hooper, the Sox team captain and right fielder, and second baseman Dave Shean talking to the Cubs' left fielder Leslie Mann and catcher Bill Killefer. McInnis said the four of them had been thick as thieves the whole trip.
" 'Bout what?" Ruth said, not really sure he cared.
"Don't know," Stuffy said. "Muffing flies for a price, you think? Tanking?"
Hooper crossed the field to them.
"We're going to strike, boys."
Stuffy McInnis said, "You're drunk."
Hooper shook his head. "They're fucking us, boys."
"The Commission. Who do you think? Heydler, Hermann, Johnson. Them."
Stuffy McInnis sprinkled tobacco into a slip of rolling paper and gave the paper a delicate lick as he twisted the ends. "How so?"
Stuffy lit his cigarette and Ruth took a sip from his flask and looked across the field at a small fringe of trees under the blue sky.
"They changed the gate distribution of the Series. The percentage of receipts. They did it last winter, but they didn't tell us till now."
"Wait," McInnis said. "We get sixty percent of the first four gates."
Harry Hooper shook his head and Ruth could feel his attention begin to wander. He noticed telegraph lines stretched at the edge of the field and he wondered if you could hear them hum if you got close enough. Gate receipts, distribution. Ruth wanted another plate of eggs, some more bacon.
Harry said, "We used to get sixty percent. Now we get fifty-five. Attendance is down. The war, you know. And it's our patriotic duty to take five percent less."
McInnis shrugged. "Then it's our--"
"Then we forfeit forty percent of that to Cleveland, Washington, and Chicago."
"For what?" Stuffy said. "Kicking their asses to second, third, and fourth?"
"Then, then another ten percent to war charities. You seeing this now?" Stuffy scowled. He looked ready to kick someone, someone small he could really get his leg into.
Babe threw his hat in the air and caught it behind his back. He picked up a rock and threw it at the sky. He threw his hat again.