Even in the 1920s before the advent of cable news channels and social media, when you were the most famous athlete in America, your health was front page headlines.
Over the winter months of 1924-1925, Babe Ruth – possibly the most famous man in the country – experienced a “perfect storm” of personal problems. A conflagration of issues that would make Tiger Woods shudder. Ruth had issues with his marriage, with his health, and with his finances, all of which spilled over into his professional career and caused him to miss the first seven weeks of the ’25 season. His misfortune became known as “The Belly Ache Heard “Round the World.”
But the real story was far different than what the newspapers reported to eager sports fans at the time. It was the biggest cover-up in the history of the sports pages.
After the ’24 season, Ruth was as popular and successful as ever. He had just won his first (and only) batting title with a robust figure of .378. He led the league in home runs with 46, continuing to add to his record for most homers in history. Almost single-handedly, the babe had ushered in an era of slugging that baseball had never seen. Just a few years earlier, home run leaders had put up numbers like 10-15 in a season. Now, ballplayers all over the league were copying Ruth’s end-of-the handle, grip-it and rip-it philosophy in the batters’ box. In the prime of his career and playing on the grand stage of New York for the Yankees, Ruth was unquestionably the best player in baseball.
It was the Golden Era of sports in the 1920s, and Ruth was the biggest icon on the playing field. Though prohibition was the law of the land, many Americans still enjoyed the delightful taste and wonderful after effects of alcohol. Ruth was no exception. “The Bambino” led a life as large as his on-field accomplishments, and it was his affection for the party lifestyle that led to his miserable 1925 season.
Ruth had married Helen Woodford in 1914, but the couple had always had a hot and cold relationship. For the Babe, he treated his wife with a “come here, come here, come here…go away, go away, go away!” attitude. Though he was a good-hearted man, he was everyone’s friend, and that extended to every woman who wanted him. His infidelities were legendary, and by 1925, Helen was just about at her rope’s end. The strain of a bad marriage depressed Babe and prompted him to spend even more time away from his family. He drank and binged so much in the ’24-25 off-season that he often missed engagements because he needed days of rest to recover from weeks of excess with booze and women.
On February 6, Ruth celebrated his 30th birthday with a low-key affair with his family, followed by a 24-hour orgy of alcohol and women at several night spots in New York. That party took its toll, and when he sobered up, Ruth realized he needed a break. He traveled to Arkansas to visit the famous Hot Springs, hoping to detox. He stepped on a scale and was dismayed to see it read more than 260 pounds – more than 40 pounds over his playing weight. When he reported to training camp with the Yankees at St. Petersburg, Florida later that month, Ruth was no lighter and he was far sicker. Though he’d avoided alcohol for a few weeks, he caught the flu and also was suffering from other painful symptoms.
Newspaper reporters called what Ruth had “a belly ache” caused by eating too many hot dogs and “chugging too many sodas.” But Ruth was more likely suffering from a venereal disease and/or alcohol poisoning. In the era of speakeasies and home-brewed liquor, it was not uncommon for people to become seriously ill after consuming bad spirits. For Ruth, it was a serious issue. The “flu” helped Ruth drop weight quickly, but he was weak and very sick for several days in Florida. In March, as the Yankees made their way up north to start the regular season, he finally took the field for a game, swatting a pair of homers in Chattanooga to the delight of local rooters.
But Ruth was not a healthy man, either physically or mentally. He was essentially estranged from his wife, and though he probably didn’t have one specific “girl on the side”, the Babe was probably also dealing with an age old issue that afflicted many ballplayers – an obsessed woman who wanted to be more than just “the other woman.” The stress combined with his physical problems, leaving Ruth practically useless. The Yankees realized their star would not be ready to begin the regular season. He was sent ahead of the team to New York where he was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Newspapers filled several inches of copy with reports on Ruth’s “belly ache.” Shortly after being admitted to the hospital, Ruth underwent surgery that was described as “intestinal.” It was most likely a procedure to relieve him of pain from an infection farther below the belt (if you know what we mean). Whatever it was, it kept Ruth in bed for seven weeks, and he was finally released from the hospital on May 25. He joined his teammates about a week later, playing against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium. That afternoon, a still clearly overweight Ruth went 0-for-2 with a walk. By the end of June, Ruth was hitting just .256 with only three home runs and a very un-Ruthian slugging percentage of .404. The Sultan of Swat was still not himself.
The ’25 season was the worst of Ruth’s career, as he carried 30+ extra pounds on his frame and still suffered from a mysterious ailment which was most likely the result of his orgiastic lifestyle. In late September he started to inch his average over .290 but the season ended before he could get into a Bambino-like groove. He finished with 25 homers and only 66 RBI in 98 games.
To his credit, Ruth recognized that his sorry state in 1925 was self-inflicted. He went to a gymnasium in the off-season and dropped his weight, adding muscle. He would go on to have some of his best seasons after the disaster of ’25, winning the next six home run titles through 1931. Unfortunately, it was too late to salvage his marriage, as he and Helen split early in 1926. Ruth would remarry and he would continue to be a star, and his Yankees would win three straight pennants from 1926-1928. Thanks to his efforts to curb his weight problems, “The Sultan of Swat” played until he was 40 years old.
But that “belly ache” wasn’t the result of soda pop and hot dogs. Be sure of that.