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Friday, February 3, 2012

Babe Ruth's Arrest for Violating Child Labor Laws

No athlete has ever come close to matching Babe Ruth’s larger than life profile. His exploits on the baseball diamond were perhaps matched only be his excesses and friendly and approachable nature off it. Before it became popular with athletes, Ruth was a frequent signer of autographs, particularly for the many children who idolized him. People wanted to take away something as a memento from the athlete who was probably the most famous person in the world during his career, and a signature was the best way to do that. Unfortunately, Babe’s obliging nature didn’t always work in his favor, as he was once arrested for giving out autographs to the kids who attended and participated in his vaudeville show.

The 1926 baseball season ended in embarrassing fashion for Ruth. He made the final out of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, by getting thrown out attempting to steal second base with his team down one run in the 9th inning of Game 7. It was a stunning ending, but Ruth did not have much time to sulk over his misfortune. In October, shortly after his base running blunder, he embarked on a vaudeville tour that began in Minneapolis and would end three months later in California.

Ruth was a surprisingly competent show business performer, and was so famous that he was guaranteed to pack theatres wherever he went. A New York Times review went so far as to state, “Ruth has good stage presence, a winning smile, and he gets away with the singing part…” (One person who didn’t appreciate Ruth’s acumen on the stage was his teammate, Mark Koenig, who called the show, “boring as hell.”) His popularity allowed him to make $8,333 per week during the full run of the show; an immense salary at the time.

Ruth’s variety show consisted of some skits, singing, talking baseball to the crowd, giving playing tips, and finished by bringing children to the stage for some impromptu demonstrations. At the conclusion, each child who participated was given a new baseball autographed by Ruth as a souvenir.

In January, 1927, Ruth arrived in Long Beach, California for his final three performances. Spring training was going to be start soon and he was likely weary from having been going non-stop since the end of the last season. Ruth’s final shows were booked at the State Theatre, where he expected things to wind down quietly, but that turned out to be far from what actually happened.

Prior to the January 22nd show, Ruth was backstage getting dressed when Roy Reid, the manager of the State Theatre, appeared and informed him that a warrant had been sworn out in San Diego for his arrest because he had not obtained work permits to have the children come up on stage during the shows he had performed there. The child labor law violation charges were filed by Stanley M. Gue, the Deputy State Labor Commissioner, seeking to make his political bones by taking on an American icon.  Gue alleged that Annette deKirby was used in Ruth’s show without the proper work permits from his office. It was likely not a coincidence that deKirby had already dabbled in acting, appearing in the “Our Gang” series, and her parents were probably seeking a little additional publicity for their daughter.

Ruth was shocked at his arrest. He later said, "They forget how much I've done for kids. I've done nothing that would harm them. I've only tried to give them a little bit of sunshine." Despite the ludicrous nature of the charges, Gue was determined to make him an example and answer the charges. Ruth was escorted to the police station, still dressed in his stage uniform. He quickly posted $500 bail, and a court date was set for February 11th in San Diego.

Ruth’s “trial” turned out to be just a matter of procedure. Judge Claude L. Chambers quickly saw the lack of merit in the case and issued a six page verdict acquitting Ruth of all charges. The judge declared that deKirby was at the theatre, with her parents acting as chaperones, and her appearance on stage did not constitute employment. She had never been hired by Ruth and the signed baseball she received was a gift and not wages.

Despite the verdict, Gue was not done with Ruth. On February 26, 1927 a new warrant for his arrest was issued. It was based on a new complaint from a different section of the law, alleging that by having children come up on the stage during his show, Ruth was employing children “after the hour of ten p.m.” The new complaint was filed on the behalf of Ernestine Fuller, another child who had attended one of Ruth’s California shows.

Having already left California, Ruth mailed in another $500 bail after the second arrest. He did not return for the initial hearing and had his lawyer stand in for him. It was erroneously reported that because he didn’t appear in court that a warrant was issued for his arrest and his bail was forfeited. In actuality, Ruth, whose patience must have been sorely tested by the charges, did everything by the book and was quickly absolved of wrong doing. The presiding judge once again dismissed the charges and lectured the zealous Gue for requiring work permits for children “to step up onto a stage to get a free baseball.” The whole matter was a farce and Ruth was likely only targeted for his star power, so Gue could publicize his policies and how he executed his office.

Fortunately, the legal trouble didn't impact Ruth’s upcoming season or his friendliness to fans. In 1927 Ruth set the single season home run record with 60, won the World Series, and was the star of a team widely considered to be the best of all time. He also continued his reputation of being one of the most accessible players in baseball, chatting with fans and signing many autographs, especially for kids. Nearly a century later, Ruth’s autograph is still one of the most coveted in the collecting world. If an aggressive state politician had his way, it all may have turned out very differently.


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