#GoingDeep: Agent for the Babe
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Walsh attended St. Vincent’s College – known today as Loyola Marymount – where he studied law, graduating in 1911 and passing the bar in 1915. He never saw the inside of a courtroom, however. After graduating, he worked for the Los Angeles Express and Herald as something in between a go-fer and a journalist. His favorite part of newspaper work was cartooning, especially for the sports page. He was a self-taught artist, pulling together likenesses of famous ballplayers from wobbly cobbles of lines. Though not quite a poor cartoonist, he had a better way with words, carrying his reader along with all the cadence of the coming Jazz Age.
His written and drawn works are bright with lighthearted humor, but by all accounts, their creator had a serious head planted firmly on capable shoulders. He was born in St. Louis in 1891 and took his Midwestern-Irish-Catholic heritage, or what he referred to as ‘horse and buggy’ values, very seriously. Walsh himself had lived in California since he could walk, but he hardly let it show. In nearly every photo of the man, his clothes are pressed and buttoned; even in gym clothes, his collar was tight around his neck. It looks as though he parted his slicked-back hair with the help of a ruler. More than any of his other renaissance-man ventures, Walsh was a businessman, and he dressed the part.
When he lost his job at an advertising agency due to whispers of a lasting depression in 1921, he pulled together a no-collateral loan and a few comrades to build his own ghostwriters’ syndicate. Though he would finish the year with eight dollars in his bank account, Walsh’s $2,000 gamble was rewarded. He would claim mastery over the names of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig, among others, and the loan was paid in full before it was due. His clients got a consistent flow of well-written material to sell to newspapers across the nation, and Walsh and his men got a quarter or even half of the profits.
This is the sort of thing that sounds overly simplistic today, but it was at the cutting-edge of a rapidly developing field at its time. Televised baseball was still another few decades out, and what few radio broadcasts of games there were tended to be about colorful as a box score. Aside from the lucky few who lived in the shadow of a ballpark, the newspaper was the closest most Americans would ever be to getting to know their heroes. Walsh made sure that everyone had that access – to a clean, carefully-crafted version of them, of course – and it made him and his writers rich.
“I shall never forget the expression on Babe Ruth’s face when I handed him a check for $1,000 at the Polo grounds [on Opening Day],” Walsh recounted. “I was not obligated to remit for 90 days, but here was a fellow who had been skinned so many times by strangers that I felt the way to win his confidence was to pay in advance.” At the time, the Babe had been skinned so recently it likely still bled – just the previous October, Ruth was stranded, penniless in Havana. He had been swindled out of everything he had earned during an All-Star tour in Cuba. “The plan worked and our mutual confidence has lasted throughout many years. However, to this day, he doesn’t know that I had to borrow $1,000 from a bank at six per cent,” Walsh concluded. Like his other bets, this ploy eventually paid for itself.
Under Walsh’s direction, Ruth made almost half a million dollars in endorsements and investments alone, from which Walsh collected a generous cut. One of the most famous of these was Babe Ruth’s All America Athletic Underwear Line. Ruth was once paid a thousand dollars just to appear in the presence of the product. He made about as much as the average American did in a year by standing next to some underwear for an hour. In addition to making Ruth rich, Walsh did his best to keep him that way. It was a tall order – Ruth went through fine silks like tissue paper and gave waiters their week’s wage in tips – but Walsh was as cautious as Ruth was indulgent. He arranged a foolproof trust to provide for him after he could no longer swing for his meal.
Though the two men were only a few years apart, the older Walsh assumed a familial kind of responsibility for Ruth, who never had such a relation of his own. “Bustin’ Babe is keeping in good shape under the watchful eye of Christy Walsh,” a 1927 article explains. “Mr. Walsh has filled the role of ‘big brother’ to Ruth, and the latter has wisely bowed to his unfailing judgement.” One wonders if Walsh took the ghost back up for that last bit. He and Ruth would remain inseparable until they parted amicably in 1938, around the time that Ruth parted from baseball. As a characteristic farewell gift, Walsh sent him an itemized list documenting “17 years of congenial and mutually profitable relations.” In spite of Ruth’s very best efforts, Walsh had maintained the Babe’s coffers well enough for a comfortable retirement.
Hannah Blank was the 2022 collections intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development