Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Six Degrees of Babe Huey

Did they ever meet?

Each first came to prominence a century ago, yet when we think of Babe Ruth and Huey Long through the telescope of time, parallels between the two men appear pronounced. They looked somewhat alike, as each man had a stocky frame and a square face. Both lived large. Similar superlatives (and, in some cases, epithets) were used in describing them. Plus, they were contemporaries.

So the question becomes – did they ever meet?

Internet searches of “Huey Long and Babe Ruth” turned up a link to the 2006 book written by Richard D. White, Jr., Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long. Referring to voter fraud in the September 9, 1930 election for U.S. Senator, White writes, “In one St. Bernard Parish precinct, the official record indicated that voters marched to the polls in alphabetical order. In others, the rolls included the names of Clara Bow, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Charlie Chaplin.”

Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley, present day. Photo by Sue Lincoln

Search responses also linked to the Grand Opera House of the South, located in Crowley. Suggested as an interesting stop for historically-inclined tourists, the page says that in its heyday, “notables such as Enrico Caruso, Babe Ruth, Clark Gable, Huey Long and Madame de Vilchez-Bizzet of the Paris Opera were just a few of the famous to grace the Grand’s ‘mammoth’ stage.”

Babe Ruth in Shreveport, 1921. Photo courtesy thisdayinbaseball.com

Alas, further research showed that the two men never stood on the Opera House stage at the same time. Babe Ruth’s lone appearance there was in March 1921, when he and the New York Yankees swung through Louisiana as part of spring training. They played a game in Lake Charles against the St. Louis Cardinals, who trained then in Orange, Texas. And the Yankees played an exhibition game on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, against the pride of Acadia Parish, the Crowley Millers. In the game with the popular local minor league club – according to a newspaper report – Ruth threw no strikeouts, gave up no bases on balls, and hit no homers. Still, the Yankees beat the Millers 14-4, and that evening Ruth took the stage at Crowley’s Grand Opera House of the South, to doff his cap to his admirers there in Louisiana’s “Rice Capital.”

Huey Long frequently stood on the same stage, making it a regular rally stop when he campaigned for any office. When the Babe came through in 1921, Huey was already a state commissioner, having been elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission in 1918. (The panel was officially renamed the Louisiana Public Service Commission in 1921.) Long next ran for office – Louisiana governor – in 1924. He lost that race, but ran again in 1928 and won. Long then ran for U.S. senator in 1930.

No meeting in Crowley.

Searchin’, Searchin’ for the Babe Huey

Continued searching for links between the two men at first seemed like apophenia, but then devolved into a modified version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

There’s an urban-legendary list of claimed coincidences between two assassinated U.S. Presidents John F Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. First published in 1964, subsequent investigations have proved some of the listed items to be based on misinformation, while others have proved to be just coincidences. The endurance of the list (it made the rounds of re-posting and sharing on Facebook just this past year) even has a psychological term. It’s called the phenomenon of apophenia, which is defined as the “tendency to perceive order in random configurations.”

Here are some of the near coincidences between Ruth and Long.

Babe Ruth retired from baseball in 1935. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935.

Huey Long was one of nine siblings. Babe Ruth was the oldest of eight children (though only he and his sister survived to adulthood.)

Huey Long funeral, left. Babe Ruth funeral, right.

Long died September 10, 1935, after being shot in the state capitol two days prior. His body lay in state at the capitol he built, and over 200,000 people traveled to Baton Rouge to pay their respects and attend Long’s Sept. 12 funeral.

Ruth died August 16, 1948. His body lay in repose in Yankee Stadium – also known as the “House that Ruth Built”, with his funeral two days later at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In all, over 100,000 people lined up and paid their respects to the Babe.

Both men were known to drink – no big deal, except their heydays in the public eye also coincided with Prohibition, which was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933. And Huey Long was a Baptist, a denomination that frowned on drinking, period. Babe Ruth was a Catholic.

As for the “Six Degrees” game, in a 1994 magazine interview, actor Kevin Bacon said he “had worked with everybody in Hollywood or someone who’s worked with them.” That statement was combined with “six degrees of separation,’ which states “all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other,” giving birth to the ”Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” parlor game. The game has become a standard in popular culture, now designated “Bacon’s Law” or with current verbal shorthand referring to someone’s “Bacon number.” For example, Tom Cruise’s Bacon number is one, due to both appearing in “A Few Good Men.” John Goodman’s Bacon number is also one, as he appeared with Bacon in the movie “Death Sentence” in 2007.

John Goodman holds the ultimate “Babe Huey number,” in a way. The actor, who lives in New Orleans, has portrayed both men. In 1992, he starred in “The Babe,” and in 1995, he played Huey Long in “Kingfish.”

John Goodman as “The Babe” (left) and as “Kingfish” (right). Photos courtesy imdb.com

The question is, though, what IS that Babe Huey number? Is it zero? Or perhaps it is the square root of negative one? Irrational, I know.

Perhaps I needed to find a person or topic that connected the two men? I enlisted the assistance of the Bayou Brief’s founder and publisher, Lamar White, Jr. He’s been researching and writing a new biography of Huey Long, and so has access to voluminous documents and photographs. Maybe he’d found a mention of a time or place the two men had met?

Nope.

But he did find a photo of Babe Ruth in front of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, posed in front of a car, foot resting on the running board. Standing next to him is Seymour Weiss, manager and ultimately owner of the Roosevelt Hotel.

Weiss was Huey Long’s golf partner and confidant, and had been his friend and ardent political supporter since they met during Long’s 1928 campaign for governor of Louisiana. Huey Long made the Roosevelt Hotel his campaign headquarters, and made Weiss the treasurer of both the state Democratic Association and Huey Long’s “Deduct Box” political fund. Long also made him vice president of the Win or Lose oil Corporation.

Weiss was also – at one point – a part owner of New Orleans Pelicans baseball, which was a Southern Association, Double A ball club in continuous operation from 1901-1959. It was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians from 1930-1939.

Weiss’s ownership interest helps explain this photo.

Huey Long in Cleveland uniform, shaking hands with Alva Bradley in 1935. Photo courtesy: Sporting News photo archive

None of this, however, gives us a definite connection location or time for Babe Ruth and Huey Long, since info on a date for the Roosevelt Hotel picture of Ruth and Weiss only says “circa 1920s.” Yet the vehicle in the photo appears to be a very late1920s or early 1930s model.

Still, the Roosevelt Hotel has promise for a potential meeting location, and Seymour Weiss holds a solid Babe Huey number of one.

What about other hotels, especially in New York?

Huey Long’s regular hotel had been the Waldorf-Astoria, but he changed it to the New Yorker Hotel in early 1935, partly because the second establishment offered the then-U.S. Senator his suite for free. It was “comped” – provided complimentarily. Both of those hotels are located in mid-town Manhattan, with the New Yorker located less than a block from Penn Station.

Babe Ruth, on the other hand, spent his bachelor days with the Yankees ensconced in the Ansonia Hotel, which is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

No chance meeting in the hotel lobby, dining room, or even on the street.

Golf seems to have been a common denominator for the two men, and perhaps they played a round of golf together sometime, somewhere. Ruth took up the game in 1915, and was awful at first, trying to use his homerun slugging power to batter the itty-bitty ball into submission. One news account of his early efforts opined, “With broken clubs and lost balls taken into account, golf is a pretty expensive pastime for Babe Ruth.”

He improved, but his inability to reliably give the gentle taps needed to sink consistent putts frustrated him. During one raido interview, when the Babe was talking about how much he enjoyed golf, his wife Claire interjected, “Then why have I often heard you come off the golf course saying, ‘Baseball really is a great game’?”

Considering how closely reporters and photographers followed every move of both Huey Long and Babe Ruth, though, it would have undoubtedly made the news if they’d played golf together. A Golf.com article by Kevin Cook refers to Ruth as “the man who pioneered celebrity golf,” and quotes Doug Vogel, a member of the Society for Baseball Research who’d spent a decade researching Ruth’s golf game as saying, “Whenever the Babe teed it up, the papers covered it.

A picture of the pair together might not have pleased Huey Long overmuch. Babe Ruth was 6’2”, and would have been a half-head taller than Huey Long, who was 5’10”.

The Meeting that Never Was (But Should Have Been)

What if Huey had not been assassinated? What if he HAD become U.S. President?

What if the Babe had not succumbed to metastasizing naso-pharyngeal cancer? Recently, articles have speculated on how he would have fared as a baseball team manager.

Why don’t we speculate then, on what Huey Long and Babe Ruth might have discussed if they met and had drinks and a meal together?

I asked Dr. Emily Toth, the now retired Robert Penn Warren Professor of English and Women’s Studies at LSU, and the author of 12 books – including biographies of Kate Chopin and Grace Metalious – for her best guess.

She said she had posed a similar question, (i.e., “what do men talk about?”) once to the late Dr. Philip Young, considered to be the first serious Ernest Hemingway scholar.

“He told me what two men usually talk about when no women are around to overhear them is one thing only: ‘gash’. Toth then added, “However, I think the topics of most men’s conversations with other men can be viewed as some form of ‘whose is bigger’.”

I also asked my publisher, Lamar White, Jr., for his ideas. He thought for a few moments, and then said, “Even though Prohibition was in effect through most of the years when they might have met, I’m sure they would have been drinking, and would, no doubt, talk about their favorite drinks – giving Huey the opportunity to brag about the Ramos gin fizz.”

Gov. Huey Long leading the LSU marching band, circa 1931. Photo courtesy louisianadigitallibrary.org

“Also, I bet they would have talked about LSU. Huey would have certainly bragged about how he raised the university to class-A standards, how he helped build up the ‘Golden Band from Tigerland,’ and how he helped create ‘the best football team the state’s and Huey’s money could buy,’ as Forrest Davis (the author of the 1935 book Huey Long: A Biography) put it.”

Whose is bigger, indeed.

What do I think they might have discussed? If the meeting happened in 1934, they would have had a drink or two or three, and their conversation might have roamed the world, from the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression here in the U.S., to the rising powers of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung in Europe and in Asia. They might have discussed the ends of notorious gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde.

I would expect they’d commiserate about the omnipresence of those reporters and photographers people presently refer to as “the media” or the “paparazzi.”

I doubt they would have discussed that year’s bestselling books: Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, or P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. In view of Dr. Toth’s earlier comments, though, they might have had a few things to say about Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

I hope they would have talked about Huey Long’s plans to to run for president, and the benefits of his “Share Our Wealth” platform. I expect that Ruth, having felt the childhood effects of poverty himself, would offer his help – much as he did with visits and charitable donations to hospitalized sick kids and to orphanages.

Mostly, I would hope that they could talk about common interests and values, praise each other’s successes and virtues, and become each other’s true and abiding friend.

Each of them – and perhaps all of us – would have been the richer for that.