The One, The Only … The Bambino!

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 17, 2006
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By the time you read this Barry Bonds may have very well tied or passed Babe Ruth on the all-time Major League Baseball home run list.

It hardly matters. For whatever Bonds or any other ballplayer accomplishes, it will never be enough. It’s often said that no man is bigger than the game. Well, Babe was and continues to be so.

Part historic figure, part imagined fantasy, The Bambino was Paul Bunyan and John Henry come to life. A hero of unworldly proportions who carved out not a path through the untamed American wilderness, but through sport and culture. At the same time the gambler, boozer and womanizer was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The precocious troublemaker who seemed to always be testing the limits, but was easy to forgive due to the purity of his heart. That duality is part of his charm.

From a purely historic point, George Herman Ruth may have been the best ever. Even in today’s world of inflated offensive statistics, Ruth’s numbers are mindboggling. In 1920 he hit more home runs than any team except Philadelphia. The next year he did even better by having the greatest statistical season ever. In 152 games Ruth hit .378, with 44 doubles, 16 triples and 59 home runs. He scored 177 runs, had 171 RBI, drew 144 walks, had a slugging percentage of .846, and amassed 457 total bases.

As far as his career as a pitcher, Ruth was 94-46 with a 2.28 era, 17 shutouts and four saves. He also pitched a 14-inning complete game during the 1916 World Series and threw 29 2/3 scoreless innings in a World Series, a record that stood until Whitey Ford topped it in 1961.

Like all legends, Ruth needed good PR, and he got it from some of sports’ most famous writers: Damon Runyan, Grantland Rice, Frank Lieb and Shirley Povich. Rice, maybe the most famous of all, once stated that when a sportswriter stops making legends out of athletes, it was time to get out of the business. And that’s exactly what writers did in the day. In all sports. They glorified the on-field exploits, and ignored the off-field ones, with descriptions rich in metaphor and imagery. Home runs were not simply hit but exploded into graceful arcs that pierced the sky like Fourth of July fireworks.

Ruth was also fortunate to come along at just the right time. The Babe was the first real star of the media age. Prior to Ruth most baseball fans had to settle for the descriptive poetry in their local papers. But now with newsreels at the theaters and, more importantly, the advent of radio, fans could now see and hear Ruth as he stormed his way around the country creating legend as he went. The radio announcers becoming the audio version of Runyan and the bunch filling their broadcasts with colorful descriptions.

If Ruth had not lived, he surely would have been invented. People need heroes, and in the spirit of Greek tragedy, flawed heroes are even better. Growing up in a Victorian age of presumed purity, Ruth discovered the vices of tobacco and alcohol at an early age - some say as young as 7. He cut school and committed petty crimes. His parents, indifferent or unable to put up with him, sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, an orphanage and home for wayward lads run by Catholic brothers. There he met Brother Matthias, the school disciplinarian and the man who helped Ruth develop his amazing talents.

It wasn’t always easy. On one particular day, Ruth, playing catcher, began razzing his pitcher for his inability to get the hitters out. Matthias, with the idea of teaching Ruth a lesson, put him on the mound. Young George shut down the competition and the roots of the legend were sown. From there it was on to the minor leagues with the Baltimore Orioles and a year later, up to Boston. What would transpire in the years to follow would change the fortunes of two teams in dramatic ways. One would become the most successful franchise in the history of American sports, and the other mired in nearly eight decades of futility, bad luck and one nasty curse.

In the 71 years since Ruth retired, one could argue, and many have, that there were those better than the Bambino. There may have been. But none, not Mays, Mantle, Musial, Aaron or Williams has ever been embraced like the Babe. To this day he is as great a symbol of the game as he was during World War II, when Japanese soldiers would sometimes shout while charging, “The hell with Babe Ruth!”

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