Ghosting for Babe Ruth
This is an excerpt from an article in the Augusta Chronicle of Augusta, GA, dated November 12, 1946. Written by Westbrook Pegler, it was originally titled “Some Points About Incomes of Authors.” Although he is recalled today as a conservative columnist on political affairs, Pegler began as an iconoclastic sports reporter and columnist.
NEW YORK, Nov. 11.—Harrison Smith, a speaker at a book show, had something to say about the effect of big incomes on young writers. He thought the effect was not good.
At first, I was going to agree with him. Then I was going to disagree. But, I find that I do and I don’t. […]
Biographers are the worst liars in the world and often give us direct quotes from people who have been dead a hundred years or more. They make a lot of money, though, and, excusing that fictional make-believe with which they dress up their Henrys and Louies and Katherines, they are very good and worth every dollar they get, considering the time and reading they have to put in on a book and then the writing on top of all that. I know because, in collaboration with the late George Phyffe, of the old Evening World, I did not a mere biography but an autobiography of Babe Ruth back in 1922 [Pegler recalls the year incorrectly; it was 1920–ED.] After I had chased the Babe all over the western wheel with the Yankee club and had nailed him for only fifteen minutes one Sunday morning after mass in Chicago for the only personal touch we had to-go on, George and I sat in his apartment with Spalding guides and records and the envelopes out of the morgue and did 80,000 words in three days. I would wait for the Babe like a private detective in the hotel lobbies until all hours of the morning but he wouldn’t show up until about nine when he would come bustling in with a silly little cigar-box ukelele that he used to carry around for social evenings, get a little breakfast and barge in on Ping Bodie, his room-mate, to catch a little sleep before time to go to the ball-yard. Then nothing, of course, until night when he would disappear again. He did promise to talk to me on the train from St. Louis to Chicago, but instead he got into a game of hearts in a drawing-room that didn’t bust up until Englewood that Sunday morning. Then I got sore at the big baboon because, after all, he was getting $1,000 and 50 per cent of the gross, and he finally listened to reason and gave me that fifteen minutes. I asked him a few questions and when I asked Mrs. Ruth’s pet name for him he said “Babe.” Then Meusial [Meusel] stuck his face in the room and said they were waiting to play hearts some more and that was all there was to it.
Long afterward. I was talking with George Creel about the difficulty of ghosting autobiographies and George recalled that, back in 1915, he went way out to Kansas to interview Jess Willard for his life story and asked him what he had called a dog that he had had when he was a little boy. Jess said “Rover,” and that was about all George got, too. They just couldn’t give.
This must have been a very fine autobiography of Ruth, in the spots that I did, at least, if Harrison Smith’s theory has any merit because we were having a gaudy inflation just then and I was getting $50 a week. Phyffe was way up around $150 a week but he was like Charles Dickens, who made an awful lot of money, too. Max Perkins, of Scribners, a great editor whom you never heard of, probably, because he isn’t a celebrity, told me that Dickens used to write those long-winded jobs of his in “parts” or installments which were sold by themselves, not in magazines like our present day serials. He said that when the sales of the early installments of Martin Chuzzlewit were drooping, Dickens and his publishers held a story conference, such as we have in Hollywood now, and decided that the way to hop it up and stimulate business was to knock Americans. Dickens was very good at this and up she went.
The profit motive and wealth didn’t hurt Dickens’ delivery; Shakespeare got so rich that he retired and I have heard that when Tennyson was under contract for a guinea a word and wrote “Break, break, break on thy cold, grey stones, oh, seal” the publisher wanted to use ditto marks and dock him two Gns.
Pegler had more to say about his ghostwriting for Ruth a bit later, when Bob Considine’s book on the Babe appeared, as well as an execrable film. From the Reading (PA) Eagle of February 16, 1948:
I desire to supplement an important historical document, the life story of Babe Ruth, a Great American, which has been written for printing and moving pictures by Bob Considine.
The Babe came to New York from the Boston Red Sox in 1919 in a deal that was part of a disguised case of syndicate baseball. Harry Frazee, a theatrical fellow who came from Peoria, had acquired title to the Boston Red Sox and was selling down to the rich and extravagant angels of the New York club a bunch of ivory on the hook, including Ruth, who were to win several pennants.
The rich and extravagant New York promoters, T. L. Huston and Jake Ruppert, had advanced Frazee a lot of money toward the purchase of the Boston team. He wrecked the Boston team, or, more pleasantly put, he transferred the best of a great club to New York. A little later, an ignorant hillbilly who was pitching well for the Giants got sore at McGraw and solicited a bribe to go fishing. This would have hampered the Giants seriously because he was more or less reliably good for several victories in the time to be covered by the fishing trip. He was banished from organized baseball in perpetual disgrace. I took mischievous pleasure in pointing the parallel between the illicit and the licit, between the perfidy of the alcoholic ignoramus and the civic service to New York of the distinguished sportsmen who demolished the great Boston team and erected the great Yankees for sordid gain.
Ruth had hit an extraordinary number of home runs—19, as I recall—in the 1919 season. Would I be safe in saying that the previous record had been 12 by Cactus Cravath, of the Philadelphia Phillies?
In the early part of the 1920 season, perhaps about May, Fred Ferguson, then the manager of an affair called the United News, a news report known in the trade as the wine, women and song service, had one of his ideas. He left word all over town for Ruth to telephone him, but Ruth had never heard
In the early part of the 1920 season, perhaps about May, Fred Ferguson, then the manager of an affair called the United News, a news report known in the trade as the wine, women and song service, had one of his ideas. He left word all over town for Ruth to telephone him but Ruth had never heard of him. Afraid that someone else in the same business might have the same idea, Ferguson observed that the Yankees were playing in Philadelphia, and went down to proposition him. He found he Babe and a half-dozen other Yankees on their knees in a room playing a game that is played with dice. The hotel was the Aldine, strangely infested with elderly ladies, and sedate enough for umpires. It had the finest American-plan dining room in any league. I never could understand why the Aldine took a ball club on the American plan at whatever price. Ferguson observed that the only way he could hope to get close to the Babe was to get into the crap game.
The United Press-Scripps-Macrae concern, of which our wine, women and song service was a part, operated on a frugal budget, and gambling losses never were legitimate expenses. A refund of gambling gains incurred on assignment might have received the most careful and fair-minded consideration.
Ferguson went crazy and cleaned out the crap game and, with the prestige thus acquired, was able to impress the Babe with his importance and acumen. He made a contract assuring the Babe $1,000 for the season and $5 each for his home runs, and containing a reserve clause binding him to cover the World Series for us, in person.
Still further, Ruth was to authorize a weekly resume of the activities in both major leagues and an occasional prediction. And, by way of earning his $5 for each home run, he was to send us a wire after each game, telling us, in his own inimitable language, what the situation was at the time and what kind of ball it was.
He had hit about a dozen home runs without sending any such dispatches and I, as his spook, had imaginized the situations and the types of pitches. But Ferguson got petulant, for he is a bargainy fellow, wired the Babe demanding to know. And, furthermore, he demanded a telegram after each home run henceforth.
Two days later, from Detroit, we got a wire late at night, long after the little Babe Ruth essay on the day’s home run had cleared.
“Socked one today,” it read. “Fast ball. High outside. Babe.”
The Babe’s public was expanding and I was assigned to catch the Yankees in St. Louis, interview him exhaustively for his life story, and rush back to New York to put it into deathless prose. I waylaid him in the lobby every night and tried to mousetrap him. I wheedled with Ping Bodie, his roommate. But he never came home and just appeared at and disappeared from the ball park every day. On the Saturday night we went up to Chicago, but he played cards all night. On the Sunday morning he went to Mass and then played sandlot ball with a lot of kids until about noon. I then had 15 minutes with him and went back to New York, where George Buchanan Fife, of the Evening World, and I produced 80,000 words, some of them very good, in four days, turn and turn-about. We got nothing extra, but I believe the Babe got $500.
The Dodgers and the Indians played the World Series and Ferguson asked Ruth whether he was going to show up to cover the games. He wasn’t acting as though he intended to.
He wasn’t. He had an offer of $1,000 to go barnstorming and he defied Ferguson to sue him. So Sidney Whipple was assigned to go with him and the great essays on the strategy of the 1920 World Series by Babe Ruth were written from Perth Amboy, Camden, Scranton and such points and not a bit the worse for that.
I also had the honor of attending Mr. Ruth in his debut as a moving-picture actor that year in a drama called “Headin’ Home.” The girl was a nice, buxom blonde whose name unfortunately I do not recall. The villain, who was the pitcher for the opposition, was a skinny little Broadway fellow named Scher, who had done odds and ends as an actor. Ruth had bought some suits from a tailor named Scher and Scher said he would call it square if they would use his brother in the show. Mr. Scher, the actor, threw like an actor. Yet Ruth had to break his back striking out several times to make him look good and in the end he never got a chance to prove he could hit Mr. Scher because, for the great climax, they dubbed in one of his old home runs photographed during the season as thousands cheered.
There were no sound tracks and the actors, for something to say as they moved their lips, would mutter over and over “business, business, business” or “so-and-so-and-so-and-so.” This blonde lady had trouble not laughing at Mr. Ruth as he would grab her in a stiff-arm, self-conscious clinch and say, “Oh, Miss Business. Business, Business; I think you are so-and-so and so-and-so.”
Baltimore has not produced many great men. You may arrange the order as you like, but the list doesn’t amount to many more than Cardinal Gibbons, Joe Gans, Babe Ruth and a H.L. Mencken, the infidel.