Recalling Babe Ruth's Stint as a Pro Wrestling Referee

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterAugust 6, 2015

Babe Ruth, left, 240 pounds, applies his own version of a neck lock to Manuel Cortez, 200, after the Boston grappler refused to heed the Bambino’s warnings again unnecessary roughness in about at Portlance, Maine on April 2, 1945. The Babe made his debut as wrestling referee in contest between Cortez and Leo Numa, of Seattle, Wash., the winner the Babe says he dropped four pounds chasing. (AP Photo)
Associated Press

We remember Babe Ruth as a good many things: a New York Yankee, a top-tier slugger, a record-setter and an icon of the baseball diamond. But rarely do we think of his days as a pro wrestling referee.

Restless from retirement and pushed away by baseball, the Sultan of Swat briefly entered the squared circle in a wrestling official's uniform. It's a surprising combination at first glance—baseball royalty and the circus-like enterprise of wrestling. That brief marriage came about from needs on both sides.

In wrestling, celebrities have always been welcome in the ring.

Earlier this year, Jon Stewart traded trash talk with current WWE champ Seth Rollins. WWE has asked LL Cool J to play host, Hugh Jackman to be Dolph Ziggler's ally and Ronda Rousey to slap the spit from Stephanie McMahon's mouth.

This open-door policy for celebrities from sports or elsewhere is nothing new.

Mr. T fought alongside Hulk Hogan at the very first WrestleMania. Muhammad Ali took a dizzying ride in the center of the ring courtesy of Gorilla Monsoon back in 1976.

Even as far back as 70 years ago, wrestling promoters wanted to create buzz for their events by bringing in big names. And in the middle of the 20th century, there was no bigger name from America's pastime than Ruth.

Ruth was a giant in his sport. He was a fixture in pop culture. He was a mythical figure; Paul Bunyan in pinstripes.

One could argue that the Bambino is still the most famous baseball player. Wrestling fans today may not be able to identify a picture of Clayton Kershaw, but Ruth's moon face is as recognizable as it gets. 

Explaining why pro wrestling would want the celebrity power that came with a Ruth appearance or two is easy. But why did the Yankee great want to get involved in the grunt-and-groan game? 

Baseball Closes its Doors; Wrestling Welcomes Him 

By age 50, Ruth had long put down his bat.

He had to miss stepping into a crowded stadium and knowing every eye in the place was on him. Retirement didn't come easy. He moved from rounds of golf to knocking down bowling pins to appearing on radio shows.

Ruth wanted instead to be a part of baseball, but the sport didn't want him any longer. 

As detailed in Leigh Montville's The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, Ruth said, "I wanted to stay in baseball more than I ever wanted anything in my life. But in 1935 there was no job for me, and that embittered me."

The Babe
The BabeAnthony Camerano/Associated Press

There were no jobs in '45 either, at least not on the diamond. The wrestling mat called instead.

Being a wrestling referee couldn't replace playing baseball, but it offered a surge of adrenaline and the shine of the spotlight. It was a chance to reconnect with fans and light up kids' smiles. Not to mention that it came with a robust check each night: Ruth was paid handsomely for each appearance. 

The money wasn't as much of a draw as the crowds were, though. And baseball's rebuffing him helped push him in that direction.

As San Jose News wrote in 1945, Ruth explained that "the only reason he has gone to refereeing for a career is because the executives of the diamond sport have snubbed him for 11 years."

Post-retirement, he agreed to referee shows in Portland, Maine, and Boston. These weren't his first forays into counting pinfalls, however. Ruth had done scattered ref work throughout his playing days.

When folks questioned why he would pull on the striped shirt and get in there with the bruisers and the brawlers, he reminded them that he had done this before. 

He told the Milwaukee Journal before his matches in '45, "You know, I'm no rookie in that league. I must have refereed at least 10 wrestling shows while I was in baseball."

Ruth broke into the business during his first spring training as a Yankee in 1920. That's when he oversaw a middleweight title bout between Jack Wagner and Paul Bowser. Bowser remembered The Babe being the one in control of the action for that contest.

He said, as noted by the Milwaukee Journal, "Ruth did a good job officiating that night."  

The wrestling world invited him back some 25 years later. By then his fame had ballooned. By then, he had taken a hammer to baseball's record books.

And long after his skills faded and his swing lost its oomph, people wanted to see him in person. Montville wrote, "The public was still fascinated by him, even if the headlines had disappeared. If his name was attached to an event, the event usually drew a crowd."

At the Expo

With 2,300 fans packed inside, Portland, Maine's entertainment epicenter, the Expo, was nearly sold out. Anticipation was high. 

On Monday, April 2, 1945, Manuel Cortez and Leo Numa were set to do battle in the ring. But it wasn't the grapplers who made this bout feel so special. It was Ruth's presence that changed this standard bout into a curiosity-satiating event.

It wasn't clear what the home run king would bring to the action. His star power alone would surely make an impact, though. The Telegraph speculated in 1945 about the fans in attendance, "If the Bambino merely stands up there and grins at them, they'll be satisfied." 

This could either be a one-time opportunity to see Ruth as a ref or perhaps see him make his stay in the wrestling world more permanent. A short writeup in the Evening Independent stated, "If the venture proves successful, the former slugger may make a national tour."

Numa was a handsome brute. Dark, wavy hair sat atop his head. 

His opponent employed a rough style in the ring. He was a brawler by trade, a man who could hang in a slugfest with the unpredictable Bull Curry. Cortez lived up to his reputation against Numa.

He was overly aggressive at times, bending the rules of the mat game. Ruth had to warn him on several occasions. 

Babe Ruth warns Manuel Cortez.
Babe Ruth warns Manuel Cortez.Associated Press

This is a standard tactic for heels to garner heat. They make it clear that they have little regard for the rules. The referee acts as a flashlight, pointing out the villain's underhanded acts for the entire audience to see.

In this case, with Ruth as much a star of the show as either wrestler, he was sure to be a central figure in the narrative.

With young fans screaming advice to the Yankee great, Ruth worked a long, tiring match. His trousers grew sodden by the end of it.

In What's in a Picture?: Broiler Queens, Floating House and Other Hidden Stories in Vintage Maine Photography, Joshua F. Moore wrote, "Ruth estimates that he must have lost four pounds during the bout."

Babe Ruth keeps an eye on the grapplers.
Babe Ruth keeps an eye on the grapplers.Frank C. Curtin/Associated Press

Drained and sweating, Ruth had to then evade a punch. Cortez, fed up with the referee's insistence on not breaking the rules, tried to slug The Babe. He missed; Ruth called for the bell.

After the disqualification, referee and wrestler looked as if they might provide a bonus match for the fans. Ruth balled up his fist and yelled at Cortez. Unlike his days in the batter's box, though, he didn't swing this time.

The Bambino in Boston

The Boston Garden hosted Ruth just two days later. A collision between Steve Casey and Sandor Szabo awaited his officiating skills. 

Decades prior, he had been a star in this city as an overpowering left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox. He was back to entertain once again in a far different manner.

Ruth was charged with keeping the peace between Szabo, a man of intimidating size, and Casey, an Irishman know as "Crusher." Casey had just returned from the army, having fought in World War II, and was now ready to wear the heavyweight title once again.

He was in for a stiff challenge. His opponent had an unsettling arsenal, including a move dubbed the "Death Swing."

Like with Numa and Cortez, the Bambino would be no mere spectator here. He was the in-ring sheriff and at times got so involved that he looked as if he was one of the men vying for victory.

When Szabo wished to slip an illegal stranglehold around Casey's neck, Ruth pulled him off. The Babe clamped a headlock on the grappler and then yanked him down to the mat. 

It was like he was trying to control two wild animals in there, and he didn't mind getting a handful of fur in the process.

Ruth nearly got more involved in the violence later. At one point, he stepped between the gladiators and just avoided getting struck. The Norwalk Hour wrote, "A flying foot missed the Ruthian chin by an inch or so."

The wrestlers made Ruth earn his paycheck once again. It's not clear if he lost any weight this time around, but he surely got his cardio in for the day. Casey won after the match had passed the hour mark. 

Babe Ruth tries to restore order in the ring.
Babe Ruth tries to restore order in the ring.Frank C. Curtin/Associated Press

A reverse backfall proved the deciding hold.

Once the crowds went home and the checks were handed out, thoughts of Ruth's future then emerged. When asked whether he would be suiting up in official's garb again, he wasn't sure. The Tuscaloosa News noted that Ruth said, "I only agreed to appear in Portland Monday night and here in Boston. If I ever receive any more such offers, I'll give them much serious consideration before accepting any."

The promoters surely wanted him to stick around. Not only was he a mighty figure in pop culture, but he also seemed to flourish as a referee.

Bowser, the man who wrestled in Ruth's early officiating endeavors, said, "If Ruth will stick to wrestling for a year or two, he'll clean up another fortune."

He didn't stick to it. He didn't make the ring his new home or carve out a second career and earn himself a set of new nicknames. Ruth left wrestling not long before he left the world behind.

The baseball legend died in 1948 of cancer.

Ruth stayed in the midst of wrestling's chaos for but a short while. It would have been a good home for him, though. Pro wrestling is all about being larger than life and creating a bridge from stage to audience. 

Few human beings have done either of those things like Ruth did.