Suspicions that Babe Ruth was a person of color have been swamping around for decades. Born George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. in 1895, Ruth began his professional career in 1914 as a stellar left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox before becoming a celebrated slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees and, arguably, the greatest player of all-time. However, at a time when having even “one-drop” of black blood could get a brother hung, Ruth was taunted for his wide nose and full lips, while many questioned his heritage. He vehemently denied the rumors, but his frequent carousing in Harlem with black elites and athletes during the 1920s, as well as his liking for black women, didn’t help. Plus, to make matters worse, he was said to have supported racial integration in the Major League Baseball years before Jackie Robinson officially broke the color barrier in 1947.
Back in 2014, Ruth’s adopted daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, told The New York Times that “The Sultan of Swat” was “blackballed” from becoming an MLB manager after his retirement because it was feared that he would recruit players of color. “Daddy would have had blacks on his team,” said Stevens, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 102.
In addition to suppositions that persisted about his race, Ruth was viciously attacked and reportedly called the N-word by opposing team members. According to legendary sportswriter Fred Lieb, Ty Cobb infamously refused to share a cabin with Ruth at a Georgia hunting lodge, saying “I’ve never bedded down with a n—– and I’m not going to start now.”
Why Race Matters
Although Ruth’s lineage will likely never be determined, journalist and syndicated columnist Clarence Page said the questions around his race are important.
“So, should we care whether Babe Ruth was black? Yes, for several reasons,” he wrote for The Chicago Tribune in 2001.
“One is historical accuracy. I don’t know how baseball fans, who normally obsess over the most tedious little tidbit of information about their sports heroes, suddenly would want to look the other way when probing Babe Ruth’s ancestry.”
He continued, “Second, the question of Ruth’s race does remind us of how far we have come with race in this country and how far we have to go. Sure, race is an uncomfortable topic these days. That’s sort of why we should talk about it, isn’t it?”
“Were Babe black, he would have had obvious reasons for hiding it back then. Jackie Robinson did not break baseball’s color line until the late 1940s. But what about now? Would Ruth still hide his race? Or would he brag about it? Or would he regard his race the way Tiger Woods does, as just one of several racial ancestries he claims?”
Regardless of whether Ruth has a black ancestor or not, he identified as a white man and benefited from its privilege throughout his life, much like late Broadway icon Carol Channing, who intentionally “passed” as white during her career to avoided being typecasted into certain roles. She later revealed that she was part black and that her paternal grandmother was African American in her 2002 autobiography Just Lucky I Guess” She died earlier this year at the age of 97.