From the Golf Journal Archives - Round-Tripper

Apr 08, 2011

Babe Ruth loved swinging a golf club almost as much as he loved swinging a bat.

By Ian Cruickshank

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of Golf Journal.)

Babe Ruth’s name conjures up vivid images of that massive torso impossibly perched on top of those spindly legs, ripping another home run into the bleachers, then starting his delicate home run trot around the bases of Yankee Stadium. It’s a bit of a shock, then, when you first see a photo of the Sultan of Swat out of pinstripes and in plus-fours and white spat golf shoes instead, with a left-handed persimmon driver in his hand.

Is it really surprising, though, that Ruth’s great sporting passion, outside of baseball, was golf? The competition and the side bets and, most of all, the camaraderie of golf held enormous appeal to the most famous of athletes.

“It’s a great game,” he told sportswriter Grantland Rice in 1933, “and I get more of a kick out of it every year.”

Ruth was introduced to golf at the age of 21, when he was pitching for the Boston Red Sox. It wasn’t a game that came naturally to him and, early on, he was infamous for his innovative use of old Anglo-Saxon words when he missed a shot.

His game improved dramatically during his days at the Yankees’ spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he eventually worked his handicap down to 5. As his baseball career waned, the man who once ruled the country’s pastime turned increasingly to golf.

In that 1933 interview with Rice, Ruth said, “After my baseball playing days are over, I expect to give much more time to golf. I’ve worked my way now down into the 70s without much time for practice or for play, except a few weeks in the winter. I believe I can do much better with more time to practice and more time to play in fast company.”

What was the scouting report on Babe? Long and wild off the tee – no surprise there – with bouts of streaky putting. Naturally the Bambino accomplished many Ruthian feats on the golf course. He once reportedly launched a drive 353 yards during a trip to a Los Angeles course. He had two holes-in-one, including a 220-yarder at his home club, St. Albans on New York’s Long Island. In February 1934, Ruth scored a double-eagle at the 471-yard, par-5 17th hole at the Jungle Hotel Country Club in St Petersburg. After a 250-yard drive, he smashed a 1-iron, which landed short of the green and ran straight into the hole.

Over the years, Ruth was awarded a closet full of silver trophies and medals for victories or low qualifying scores. Seven of his favorite golf prizes are on display in the Babe Ruth Room at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

More importantly, perhaps, Ruth was known as a good golf companion. There were no superstar airs about him and he was patient and attentive with the inevitable galleries. He was especially good to caddies, always buying them lunch and tipping them $5 when the usual fee was 75 cents.

There was never any shortage of what Babe called “fast company.” In 1935, he was teamed up with former U.S. Open champs Tommy Armour and Billy Burke during the True Temper Golf Tournament in Cleveland. Ruth shot an 85 on a tough par-73 course.

Two years later, the Bambino played with Babe Didrikson in a charity match on Long Island. The double Babes were just too much for their opponents, golfer Sylvia Annenberg and John (the Mysterious) Montague, a well-known trick-shot artist. The star quotient of the group proved too much, too, as an estimated gallery of 12,000 showed up and flooded the fairways. Golf was not a big spectator sport then and few people had ever seen such a mob on a course.

“This is worse than the World Series,” said Ruth, who was knocked off his feet by the surging crowd before the match was called with the Babes up a few strokes.

Ruth also teed it up frequently with Walter Hagen, who enjoyed life as much as Ruth. Whenever the Haig stopped off in New York, he and Ruth hooked up for a night on the town. In his autobiography, Hagen wrote, “One thing I noticed peculiar to Babe’s game and to that of most ball players, was that for the length of time an average ball game consumes, Babe was a fine golfer: He could concentrate. After the hour and 50 minutes duration of a ball game, or about the 11th hole as golf is played, the Babe began to slop his shots away. He usually went out comfortably under 40. However, returning, he had to struggle to play 15-handicap golf.”

Ruth’s most famous opponent, though, was Ty Cobb. The two had a complicated relationship. Temperamentally, they were poles apart. Ruth was generally laid back while, according to his opponents, Cobb was always just a step away from a psychotic episode. The nine-year age gap also affected their relationship. While Cobb’s career was starting to wind down, Ruth was stepping up to the plate and revolutionizing baseball with the long ball. Like Ruth, Cobb had been shut out of baseball after his career ended. He was a millionaire by the time he hung up his glove in 1928, thanks to canny investments in Coca-Cola and General Motors. He tried to buy a team but nobody would sell him one.

In Al Stump’s definitive, warts-and-all biography of Cobb, he points out that Cobb, too, threw himself into golf and at one time was a member of eight clubs, including Augusta National and Olympic in San Francisco. Cobb regularly took lessons and looked for tips from teachers and friends, fellow Georgian Bob Jones included, but he never became much better than a 15 handicap. He took a couple of well-publicized drubbings; including an 8-and-7 loss to Didrikson at Pebble Beach and a defeat at the hands of 12-year-old Bob Rosburg at the 1939 Olympic Club championship.

That same year, Ruth and Cobb met at Cooperstown for the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Along with Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, they had been among the original five players elected to the Hall. According to John Ralph, the Hall’s former executive director of communications and museum programs, sometime during the celebration Cobb slipped a note into Ruth’s shoe with the following challenge: “I can beat you any day in the week and twice on Sunday at the Scottish game.”

They apparently had at it, although nobody seems to know who won the match. The precedent of Hall of Famers teeing it up at Cooperstown was set. It continues to this day. Each July, during the induction weekend, there’s a Hall of Famers-only tournament at the Leatherstocking Golf Course, designed by Devereux Emmet in 1909.

Cobb did not-mellow with age. In Stump’s book, there is a terrific remembrance from Dwight Eisenhower about a run-in with the Georgia Peach, presumably at Augusta. “Once, on a golf course, I was about to putt on the fifth green when I heard a voice yelling, ‘Get out of my way, I’m coming through.’ Then came the demand again. So I made my way and Ty Cobb played right through me, without apology. I guess nobody but the great Cobb would dare to do that to a president.”

In 1941, Fred Corcoran, who was running what would become the PGA Tour, brought Ruth and Cobb together for a best-of-three charity match that was designed to raise funds for the British War Relief effort and the United Service Organizations. Film star Bette Davis was to present a silver cup to the match’s winner. When Cobb showed some reluctance in accepting the challenge, Ruth sent an inciteful telegram. “If you want to come here and get your brains knocked out, come ahead. Ruth”

Cobb accepted the challenge and at the first match, played Commonwealth Country Club in Boston, he defeated Ruth, 3 and 2. According to Cobb, his win was mostly due to reverse psychology. “Not once did I jockey him, as he expected. Just mentioned that the Fat Man was getting fatter and looked off-balance, like an egg standing on toothpicks.”

The match moved next to the Fresh Meadows course on Long Island, where both players shot 85 with Ruth winning in a playoff. The duo then traveled to Cleveland and then by boat to the Grosse Ile course in Michigan. There they were joined by Montague and Hagen. Montague defeated Hagen handily and Cobb shot an 86 to Ruth’s 89 to win the rubber match of their contest. Cobb celebrated the triumph that evening at the Stadler Hotel with a dinner he dubbed, “The Has Beens Golf Championship of Nowhere in Particular.” Despite the irony, for Cobb the triumph over Ruth was important and for years the “Ruth Cup” sat on Cobb’s fireplace, next to his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque.

If the Babe was hurt by hiss loss to Cobb, he never showed it. Besides, he already had a trophy he cherished. In 1940, his golf buddies got together and gave him a cup celebrating their friendship. The Inscription read, PRESENTED TO THE BABE. NOT THE BALL PLAYER BUT THE GOLFER AND REGULAR FELLA.

In the 1930s, Ruth never headed south for the Yankees’ spring training camp without taking his golf clubs along. (USGA Museum)

Ruth’s “fast company” playing partners included Bob Jones (above right, in plus-fours) and Ty Cobb (below, watching Ruth tee off in their 1941 charity match). (USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)