One number binds two of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century.
On September 30, 1927, Babe Ruth hit his record 60th home run in a 4-2 win over the Senators. Seven months later (May 5, 1928) and across the Atlantic, Dixie Dean of Everton netted a hat trick against Arsenal in the last match of the 1927/28 season, earning his club a 3-3 draw and giving him a record of 60 Football League goals for the season.
Both just edged the previous record of 59. In Ruth’s case it was his own record, set in 1921; in Dean’s case he was nudging past a mark set by Middlesbrough’s George Camsell the previous year (1926/27).
The coincidence partly reflects parallel developments in the two games. Both baseball and English football experienced scoring inflation in the 1920s. Baseball’s deadball era came to an end as a result of the spitball ban, the emphasis on fresh baseballs, and the example of Ruth’s relentless uppercut. Scoring rose by 40% in the American League from 1918 to 1921. Football’s transformation took place when the offside rule was revised in 1925, reducing the number of defenders required to be ahead of an attacker who played the ball from three to two. In the first season under the new rule, Football League scoring rose by 36%, from 2.54 goals a game in 1924/25 to 3.45 in 1925/26.
But there were also remarkable similarities between the two men, Dean and Ruth. Both were working-class kids first hired by their hometown teams, Dean by Tranmere Rovers and then Everton, Ruth by the Baltimore Orioles before his purchase by the Red Sox.
Both were credited with Herculean long-distance feats. Ruth hit many famous tape-measure home runs, including an alleged 576-foot clout over the right field roof in Detroit (the one Jimmy Rollins recently tried to surpass). Dean is supposed to have once headed in a goal from the halfway line, which if true is frankly even more preposterous than a 576-foot home run, given the heavy leather footballs of the time.
Both Ruth and Dean were known almost exclusively by their nicknames rather than their given names.
The legacies of both players took on nationalist overtones when World War II pitted their countries against enemies who also played their respective national games. It’s claimed that Japanese soldiers in the Pacific shouted “To hell with Babe Ruth!” as a way of taunting Americans. Similarly, there’s a story that an Italian prisoner of war in North Africa snarled to his British captors, “Fuck your Winston Churchill and fuck your Dixie Dean!”
Most strangely, though, especially given their significance as national symbols, both Dean and Ruth were victims of on-field racist abuse and subjects of rumors about mixed-race heritage. The most common explanation for the nickname “Dixie” is that it was some kind of reference to the American South and to his dark complexion and curly hair. Dean and his family detested the nickname. Dean’s obituary in The Times—published in 1980—commented, astonishingly, that there was “something of the Uncle Tom in his features.”
There were also some striking differences between the two stars.
Ruth may have had the “stomach ache heard ‘round the world,” but Dean suffered a fractured skull and lost one of his testicles. Ravaged by injuries, he lasted in Everton’s first team only until he was 30 years old. Ruth played until he was 41.
While both led their teams to championships in their “record 60” seasons, Ruth’s teams won the World Series seven times, while Dean’s Everton only garnered two First Division championships. Ruth, of course, also set the career home run record with 714, obliterating the previous record of 138 by Roger Connor. Dean, by contrast, fell seven short of the record at the time for English top flight goals. That record, 317, was held by Steve Bloomer of Derby County, who had retired in 1914. (Bloomer was also one of the best baseball players in England—but more on that another time.) Jimmy Greaves with 357 is the current record-holder, leaving Dean in third place—same as Ruth, as it happens.
In 1927 Ruth was breaking his own record for the third time; he’d held the single-season mark since 1919. Other guys started making runs at 60 more or less right away, starting with Hack Wilson, who hit 56 in 1930. In the three decades after that, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Johnny Mize, and Mickey Mantle would all threaten before Maris finally got the asterisk in ’61. And since then PEDs, maple bats, and whatnot have pretty much buried Ruth’s record.
Dean’s single-season record, on the other hand, still stands. Nobody else in the English top flight has even broken 50 since, the closest anyone has come being Tom Waring’s 49 league goals in 1930/31. And George Camsell, whose record of 59 Dean broke, actually accomplished his feat in the Second Division, the equivalent of a minor league (well, sort of). The previous First Division record was 43 goals, by Ted Harper of Blackburn Rovers in 1925/26. This means that Dean’s 60 stands gloriously alone at the top of the heap, much like DiMaggio’s 56-game streak or Chief Wilson’s 36 triples or Lyman Lamb’s 100 doubles.
I wouldn’t presume to judge whether or not Dean was as valuable to his teams as Ruth was to his—the games are too different, and too much of 1920s/1930s-era football is probably unrecoverable for us to be able to estimate the value of individual players properly.
In terms of pay, there was no comparison. Baseball had the reserve clause, of course. Even so, Ruth’s services as a player and personality were unique and irreplaceable enough that in 1927 he earned about $70,000, then a princely, in fact unprecedented sum for a ballplayer.
Football’s equivalent of the reserve clause was the maximum wage, which in the 1920s was £8 a week during the season, £6 a week during the off-season. At 1930 exchange rates, then, Dixie Dean was paid just under $1,900 a year (!). The maximum wage was set so low that most players on a First Division club were probably paid about the same; Ruth’s salary amounted to about 20 percent of the Yankees’ payroll, while Dean’s amounted to only 3 percent of Everton’s.
Both players scored lots of endorsement deals, but I think it’s fair to say that Ruth probably made a lot more money than Dean. They both did cigarette ads.
(Ruth’s ad appeared in 1945, a year before he began suffering from nose and throat cancer.)
I don’t know if Dean ever appeared in exhibition games for pay, but Ruth played a ton of exhibitions, and may have at times made more money from those than from his regular-season Yankee job. There can be little doubt that Babe Ruth’s baseball career was considerably more lucrative than Dixie Dean’s football career.
In fact, the one time they met, that’s exactly what they talked about—how much money they each made.
Or did they meet? This post is long enough, so we’ll save that question for tomorrow.