By the fall of 1921, Babe Ruth had become the brightest star in America’s most popular pastime. The New York Yankees slugger, who first broke into the major leagues in 1914, had set the single-season home run record for the third straight year and already smashed Roger Connor’s career mark of 138 home runs—a tally to which Ruth would add nearly 600 more dingers by his 1935 retirement.
In Chicago, though, 1921 wasn’t quite as good a year. The Cubs once again struggled through the season as did the Curtiss Candy Company, headquartered a few blocks from Wrigley Field. The Cubs may have been a lost cause, but Otto Schnering had a turnaround plan for his candy company. He reformulated his Kandy Kake brand confection—a conglomeration of milk chocolate, peanuts and a pudding center “richer than marshmallow, fluffier than nougat, better than either of them”—into a chocolate-covered candy bar with peanuts, caramel and nougat. Along with the new recipe came a new name—Baby Ruth.
At first glance, it seemed clear that Schnering had taken advantage of the home run king’s well-known name and tweaked it by one letter in order to avoid paying the “Sultan of Swat” any royalties. Perhaps because of its perceived connection to the Yankee slugger, Baby Ruth was a grand-slam success. By 1926, sales of the candy bar totaled $1 million a month, and the company’s candy-making facilities were the largest of their kind in the world. The commercial success was also due to Schnering’s marketing genius. He charged 5 cents for the candy bar, half the price of most of the competition, and advertisements claimed Baby Ruth was both an “energy bar” and a “complete luncheon for 5c.” Schnering even dispatched biplanes from coast to coast to shower cities with millions of Baby Ruths tied to little silk parachutes. The free candy raining from the heavens was the stuff of children’s dreams.
In 1926, Ruth decided to enter the candy business himself and licensed his name to the George H. Ruth Candy Company, which sought to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Wrappers showed a head shot of a smiling Ruth in his uniform along with the note “Babe Ruth’s Own Candy.” The Curtiss Candy Company sued for copyright infringement and claimed that the candy bar had not been named after the baseball star, but Ruth Cleveland, eldest daughter of President Grover Cleveland. The explanation seemed odd given that the girl nicknamed “Baby Ruth” by the press had been born in 1891, three decades before the introduction of the candy bar. By 1921, not only was she not a baby, she wasn’t even alive, having died of diphtheria in 1904. Newspapers and the American public paid close attention to “Baby Ruth” after her father returned to the White House in 1893 for his second presidential term, but the Clevelands fiercely protected their daughter’s privacy and refused repeated requests by American newspapers to take her photograph. Few Americans ever knew what “Baby Ruth” looked like. By 1921, Babe Ruth was a household name while “Baby Ruth,” who died 17 years beforehand, was an historical footnote.
The cover story may have sounded far-fetched, but the U.S. government bought the explanation. The slugger struck out in the case of George H. Ruth Candy Co. v. Curtiss Candy Co. after a patent court ruled in 1931 that the ballplayer was trying to cash in on his nickname and profit from the similarity of his name to that of the popular candy bar.
Baby Ruth’s connection to baseball only strengthened after the legal battle. The season after Ruth’s alleged called shot at Wrigley Field during the 1932 World Series, the Curtiss Candy Company erected an illuminated advertisement for Baby Ruth on a rooftop beyond the ballpark’s center field wall that stood for decades. In 2006 Baby Ruth became “the official candy bar of major league baseball” under a three-year agreement, and a Simmons Market Research Bureau survey found Baby Ruth eaters 22 percent more likely to be baseball fans. The Curtiss Candy Company was sold in 1963 and passed hands numerous times in ensuing years. Nestle currently produces Baby Ruth along with numerous other candy bars including Oh! Henry. Thankfully, any connection to short-story writer O.Henry appears to be pure coincidence.