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A Yankee visionary named Huggins

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Babe Ruth didn’t know much about how to manage his life, but he did understand his own value. He’d made $7,500 in the 1918 baseball season as a Boston Red Sox pitcher, and by 1919 he was demanding $20,000.

Already, Ruth was a sensation. At the end of the season, he turned in his uniform, threatened to quit baseball and headed out to California. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had had just about enough.

At the same time, a couple of Frazee’s drinking buddies who owned a mediocre ball club in New York called the Yankees and asked their manager, Miller Huggins, what he needed to contend for a championship in 1920. His answer: Babe Ruth.

If you haven’t discerned a leader here so far, let’s just say flat out that it was Huggins.

At 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, with a law degree, Huggins had carved a niche in baseball for his tiny self. As a player, he would hunch over the plate, presenting pitchers with a minuscule strike zone and helping him lead the National League in walks four times. Huggins seized every advantage, stealing bases and becoming a switch-hitter.

But most important, Huggins ignored conventional wisdom and even his own frame of reference. Until 1920, baseball had been a singles-hitter’s game … a Huggins-style player’s game. A soft baseball had made hitting home runs near impossible.

But Huggins started to bet on the long ball, telling friends that Ruth could probably hit at least 35 home runs (a titanic number in those days) as an everyday player.

Huggins went to California, where Ruth tried to blow him off. But the next day, the Babe signed a two-year contract for $20,000 a year.

Lost in the ensuing hullabaloo was the most important development. Huggins announced that Ruth’s pitching days were over. No man could work effectively in both the outfield and on the mound, he said, so Ruth would bat every day from now on.

And the rest is baseball history.

—Adapted from The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, Leigh Montville, Random House.

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