Like the air, Babe Ruth is all around us. Like a book or a snapshot, he endures. Nearly 44 years after his death, the Babe still breathes in movies and music and literature, as if he retired his pinstripes only yesterday, not 1935. As if he was less a ballplayer than a historical figure or an idol of pop culture--slugger, hero, myth.
Surely, more than any athlete of his time (maybe more than any athlete, ever), Ruth's impact spread wildly, so that he has become an everyday part of the American vocabulary. The autographed baseball is now as common as aspirin, but it was Ruth who popularized the practice in the '20s, joking that balls which didn't contain his signature were rare. Even today, a feat of colossal proportions is called "Ruthian."
Luciano Pavarotti is known as "the Babe Ruth of opera." Pele was "the Babe Ruth of soccer," Willie Sutton, "the Babe Ruth of bank robbers," Francisco Churruca "the Babe Ruth of jai alai." When an obscure hitter from the '30s named Hal Lee died in 1989, the only reason the news even made the papers was summed up in the final sentence of a brief obituary:
"He played with Babe Ruth in the Boston outfield."
Plus, the fascination with Ruth appears to be growing, if that's possible, with last year's made-for-TV movie "Babe Ruth" followed by the opening today of the feature film "The Babe" starring John Goodman. Two years ago, Life magazine named Ruth to its list of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century, alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Charles Lindbergh and Dr. Jonas Salk.
"It's remarkable," said Robert Creamer, whose definitive biography "Babe Ruth:
The Legend Comes To Life" was published in 1974. "When I wrote the book, Ruth had been dead 25 years. He had not played ball in almost 40. And yet every day I would see his name in the newspaper or in various references, somewhere. Now it's 18 years later, and the same thing is still going on."
Naturally, much of Ruth's mystique is built on his gigantic appetites--for food, liquor and women. Former teammate Charlie Devens, 82, remembers that Ruth "once drank a quart of whiskey on the train between Boston and New York, and he got off at 125th Street with a smile on his face." Jimmy Reese, 90, roomed with Ruth, and recalls: "He was his own worst enemy--at the ballpark all day and at 'em all night. He was unlike anybody I ever met."
But George Herman Ruth was more than just a pot-bellied, cigar-chomping creature of the tabloids, given the lasting impression he has made. Annual attendance at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore has steadily climbed to over 40,000 since it opened in 1983. Ruth generated the most references by far--67--in Paul Dickson's recent collection of "Baseball's Greatest Quotations." In the past few years, his likeness has been marketed to sell automobiles, soda pop, cutlery, cereal, sportswear, china, TVs, pizza and greeting cards.
It's even harder to comprehend Ruth's ability as a ballplayer, since he was probably the best left-handed pitcher of his generation and a great hitter, virtually at the same time. ("Imagine Roger Clemens becoming Cecil Fielder," Creamer said.) He compiled a lifetime record of 94-46 and 29 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series, a mark which lasted 44 years. He also was a gifted outfielder and baserunner, even after his weight ballooned to 250.
But more than just setting records, Ruth revolutionized--and rescued--the sport. When he joined the Yankees, baseball's hold on the public had been loosened by the Black Sox betting scandal, nervous owners were seeking a box-office attraction and the home run was still an unheralded offensive tool. The year before, Ruth had set the single-season home run record with 29; National League leader Gavvy Cravath hit just 12.
"Babe saved the game of baseball," Reese said. "After the scandal, people gave up on the game. They were disgruntled. But then the Babe came along and people said, 'I've got to go out to the ballpark and see that big lug.' "
When Ruth, alone, clubbed an astounding 54 home runs his first year in New York, no other American League team totaled more than 46. With fans flocking to see his wide, looping swing and the Yankees doubling their attendance to 1.3 million, the flabbergasted owners quickly changed the rules, signaling the end of the Dead Ball era. The ball was made more lively, the spitball and other trick pitches were outlawed and more top-heavy bats with thin handles, like Ruth's, were manufactured.
Of course, Ruth went on to hit the magic number of 60 home runs in 1927, but his sheer power and flair for the dramatic was equally spellbinding. In spring training, he clouted a ball estimated at 579 feet. Fifteen years later, the final home run of his career for the Boston Braves cleared the roof of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
"None of these kids today can hit like he could," said Ben Chapman, 83, who played with Ruth for five seasons. "He could really hit a ball a long way. I remember I was in St. Pete in 1928 playing second base, or trying to, and he hit a fly ball that must have been nine miles high. I missed it by 25 feet."
Seventy-two of Ruth's records still survive, including his ratio of one home run every 11.8 at-bats. His 714 career home runs are second only to Hank Aaron's 755, and pro-rated on Aaron's nearly 4,000 more at-bats, Ruth would have hit 1,051.
His success was every bit as huge off the field. Ruth had a cameo role in a Harold Lloyd movie, starred in a silent film titled "Headin' Home" and landed a small part playing himself in "Pride of the Yankees." The Babe also owned a piece of a cigar factory, and endorsed underwear, candy, sporting goods, Wheaties, shaving cream, razor blades, overalls and chewing tobacco. He toured in a vaudeville act.
He was a fierce negotiator, had an agent when that was unheard of and never hesitated to point out his value to Yankee Owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. "A man ought to get all he can earn." Ruth was quoted by Creamer. "It's a business, I tell you. There ain't no sentiment to it."
He made $70,000 in 1928, when a pair of men's leather shoes at Macy's cost $6.94, a tweed knit dress at Wanamaker's was priced at $16.50 and a seven-room duplex on East 69th Street sold for $3,800. In 1930, when Ruth signed for the enormous figure of $80,000, pitcher Herb Pennock--a star in his own right--was the next highest-paid Yankee at only $17,500. After the Babe retired, Lou Gehrig had the top salary in baseball at $30,000.
Ruth's staggering earnings were matched only by his flamboyant personality. He drove a Packard with his given initials "G.H.R" monogrammed on to the driver's door. He wore a camel's hair cap, tilted rakishly to one side, to the dismay of his genteel second wife, Claire. He often devoured three hot dogs during batting practice and washed them down with a bicarbonate of soda. An intestinal disorder that sidelined Ruth seven weeks in 1925 was privately believed to be a case of syphilis.
In her book, "My Dad, the Babe," the late Dorothy Ruth Pirone wrote that Ruth "would drink a highball, smoke a cigar and chew tobacco--all at the same time."
When Roger Maris was in the process of eclipsing Ruth's fabled home run record, with 61 in 1961, Ruth contemporary Jimmy Dykes said, "Roger Maris is a fine ballplayer, but I can't imagine him driving down Broadway in a low-slung convertible, wearing a coonskin coat." To Stephen Lang, who researched and played the role of Ruth in the TV movie, "Ruth personified an entire period, the Roaring '20s, which personified America. Nobody roared louder than Ruth."
Although notoriously foul-mouthed and beefy (the Yankees narrowed the famed pinstripes on their uniforms in 1929 to help streamline Ruth's appearance), the Babe was nevertheless endearing to children and adults alike. He forgot teammates' names, calling them "Horse Nose" or "Rubber Belly" or, most commonly, "Kid." Attempting to quote the Duke of Wellington, he called him, "Duke Ellington."
Introduced to Calvin Coolidge on a sweltering day at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., Ruth said: "Hot as hell, ain't it, Prez?" Pirone remembered that when Ruth met Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, he tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Hiya, Queenie."
His size and reputation gave him a Bunyanesque appeal few celebrities have ever achieved. Ruth, in fact, used a 52-ounce bat early in his career, later scaling down to a 44-ounce model; by comparison, Aaron used a 34. He was genuinely fond of children--and sometimes genuinely irritated by them--his kindness probably resulting from his parents' fateful decision to ship him off to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore at 8.
"Daddy loved kids,," said Julia Ruth Stevens, 74, who was Ruth's stepdaughter and eventually was adopted by the Babe. "He wanted every kid to try to play baseball. He thought it was just the greatest game ever invented. He'd sit down and talk to a kid and say, 'Even if you miss, you've got to try, and try hard, because this is the way life is.' "
"He knew kids didn't want anything from him, other than an autograph," said Frank Slocum, whose father, Bill, covered Ruth for the Hearst papers and was a ghost-writer for the Babe. "He understood it as a sign of affection . . . it was fun for him."
Throughout his life, Ruth was happily photographed in a variety of ridiculous poses--wearing a ten-gallon hat, dressed in a skirt, playing the saxophone -- and he possessed a natural charm and ease that made him a playmate as much as a star. "
"Like Peter Pan," Creamer said, "he never grew up."
That's one reason Ruth's image has remained alive all this time, along with his thirst for theatrics. He promised a dying boy named Johnny Sylvester he would hit a home run for him, and did -- to worldwide acclaim. He hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium, another on the day after he was married to Claire (blowing her a kiss as he crossed home plate) and, legend has it, predicted his famous "Called Shot" in the '32 World Series.
Ruth continued to weave his legend into the fabric of society long after he left baseball. During World War II, attacking Japanese troops in the Pacific shouted at American soldiers, "To hell with Babe Ruth!" Almost 60 years after his last at-bat, the Curtis Management Group has licensed the Babe's image to nearly 250 companies, such as IBM, Sears and Coca-Cola, generating about $1 million year in royalties for the Ruth estate.
Baseball agent Ron Shapiro said that in today's marketplace, Ruth could command a $10 million annual contract, "without even blinking an eye." In the memorabilia industry, Ruth "is still the Bambino" said Josh Evans, owner of Leland's auction house in Manhattan, who said an unrestored Ruth jersey fetches $150,000-$200,000.
"We seem to need these larger-than-life figures," said Elliott Gorn, director of American studies at Miami University in Ohio. "But there is no one near the status of Ruth. FDR comes as close as anyone I can think of. Maybe John Kennedy might be a comparison."
After Ruth died Aug. 16, 1948, more than 100,000 people stopped to view his body in the rotunda at Yankee Stadium, the line stretching around the block until midnight. A crowd of 75,000 stood solemnly in the rain outside St. Patrick's Cathedral during the funeral mass. Traffic in Manhattan came to a standstill as the procession began the trip to Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, where the Babe was buried.
The epitaph on the headstone of his grave reads, "May The Divine Spirit That Animated Babe Ruth To Win the Crucial Game of Life Inspire The Youth of America." But sports writer Tommy Holmes had a better one. It went like this:
"Some twenty years ago, I stopped talking about the Babe for the simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen him didn't believe me."