Monday, March 26, 2012

Babe Ruth and the Beauty of Simplicity

Just finished reading Robert W. Creamer's classic 1974 biography of Babe Ruth, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.  I, along with so many others, have long been fascinated with the Babe.  He seems like such an unlikely sports hero; he was an odd-looking and overweight man who possessed such a child-like demeanour that some thought he had an intellectual disability.

Babe Ruth's story is an interesting one. Creamer tells about his childhood at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a school run by the Xaverian Brothers for troubled boys, where he was sent by his parents for reasons that aren't absolutely clear.  It was at St. Mary's that he learned to play baseball, and it was there that he was discovered.  After spending a couple of years in the minors, Ruth came to the Major Leagues with the Boston Red Sox as a pitcher.  Because he was a pitcher, he didn't have regular opportunities to show off his hitting prowess; his home run numbers from the first few years are thus relatively low.  But his superior abilities at the plate could not but be made known, and the Babe soon became a regular batter.

And he began to hit.  And hit.  And hit.

At a time when the home run was fairly rare, Ruth began pounding them out of the park while simultaneously regularly hitting well over .300 and usually over .350.  In the year he hit 60 home runs, he did so in a season that lasted only 154 games (seasons now last 162).  Roger Maris, who broke Ruth's record in 1961, had only 59 home runs after 154 games and required the extended season to hit 61. And the three men - Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, and Barry Bonds - who have since hit more than either Ruth or Maris in a single season, did so, it would appear, while simultaneously juiced up on performance-enhancing drugs.  Ruth, however, hit 60 home runs at a time when much of his extra time was spent drinking and eating copiously, often getting very little sleep.   One wonders what he could have done were he to have stayed fit.

But the Babe was, I think, summarily rejected by the game when he could no longer hit, run, or field.  His desire was to be a manager, and in retirement he waited patiently for the call that never came.  Only when he became very ill did others, including the Yankee organization, publicly acknowledge the amazing debt they owed to the man.  His speech on Babe Ruth Day - Sunday, April 27, 1947 - a speech he gave while already very sick (as one can tell from the sound of his voice), is a beautiful tribute to baseball and to the heights to which baseball demonstrates human capabilities:

"The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball.  As a rule, some people think if you give them a football or a baseball or something like that, naturally, they're athletes right away.  But you can't do that in baseball.  You've got to start from way down, at the bottom, when you're six or seven years old.  You can't wait until you're fifteen or sixteen.  You've got to let it grow up with you, and if you're successful and you try hard enough, you're bound to come out on top."

You can listen to Ruth's full speech here:

Babe Ruth was no saint.  He drank and ate to extremes, and he was a womanizer who consistently and continually cheated on both his first and second wives (his first wife died tragically in a house fire).  That said, there's something tremendously innocent and loving about the Babe, a child-like quality that is extremely attractive.  He approached baseball as something beautiful and as something that was simply extraordinarily fun to play.  And no amount of gluttony or adultery discounts the scores of hours Ruth spent visiting sick fans and autographing baseballs for children.  He did such things usually without publicity, seemingly only out of selflessness.

His innocence became particularly noticeable when at social events for New York's upper class.  Creamer records a couple of stories that are worth repeating:
"Invited by Mrs. Adler to attend a benefit she was running, Ruth dutifully put in an appearance. "Mrs. Adler, beamed on the monied throngs who gently pressed around him, and helped make the affair a smashing success.  When it was over Mrs. Adler thanked him profusely for his time and effort.  The Babe waved his hand.  'Oh, shit, lady, I'd do it for anybody,' he said.
"Another time, he accompanied Ford Frick to a formal dinner party.  Frick said that Babe would always move slowly at first when he was at affairs of this sort, watching, noting, finding out how you did things before doing them himself.  A rather splendid asparagus salad was served. Babe's eyes sidled around until he saw which fork was to be used.  He casually lifted the fork, poked at the salad and then without touching it put the fork down and pushed the plate an inch or so away in dismissal.
'Don't you care for the salad, Mr. Ruth?' his hostess asked.
'Oh, it's not that,' he replied, his voice elegant and unctuous.  'It's just that asparagus makes my urine smell'" (186).
Creamer's biography is not hagiography.  Ruth's numerous warts come through very clearly.  But despite these warts, the sheer likability - the inherent beauty - of this strange and imperfect man who possessed superhuman abilities with a bat comes through very clearly.

Check out this site - - for more on the legend.

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