Is There Life After Immortality?

Roger Kahn, author of "The Boys of Summer," is working on "A Flame of Red Fire," a story of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s

Achieving instant immortality, as Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa seems about to do when their 62nd homers leave Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in their contrails, will present the new immortal with at least one overwhelming problem: How is he to spend the rest of his days on Earth?

Ruth and Maris, two characters with wholly different personalities, in time became men of sorrow and acquainted with grief. I mean this even aside from the hideous cancers, which killed Ruth at the age of 53 and Maris when he was only 51.

I first encountered Ruth posthumously in 1959 after Clay Felker at Esquire asked, "Can you give us a piece on the Babe? Not Ruth the Boy Scout, but the way he really was." In time, this led me to a cellar bar at the Hotel Kenmore in Boston, where I met with Jumping Joe Dugan, the Yankee third baseman in the 1920s and Ruth's roommate and best friend in that great ball club.

Dugan was lean and intelligent--he attended Holy Cross--and, in his 63rd year, dead broke. "I'll help you kid," he said, "but first can you help me?" I told him I wasn't supposed to pay a source, but if it was a matter of say, $25.

"Anything, kid. Anything."

I wrote Joe my check for $50 and let the bar tab run. For hours Dugan spun out tales of a ball player who was part animal, part god. Babe Ruth--"Jidge" rather than Babe to baseball intimates--was a wonderful left-handed pitcher; he twice won more than 20 games. Then, in order to play every day, he became a right fielder and a very good one. He had great instincts; no one remembers Ruth ever throwing to the wrong base. His power was the godlike thing apart. Reasonably accurate testimony has one of his spring training home runs traveling 630 feet. I would not argue with Dugan's contention that Ruth was the greatest baseball player ever.

Ruth himself knew that his talent was limitless and he embarked on life without boundaries. He drank and wenched and made up his own rules. As his home run totals surged, his salary went up to $52,000 to $70,000 to $80,000 in days when the income tax was just a whisper.

Once in 1927, the year he hit 60 home runs, Ruth played golf at a Westchester County club. He drove long and well, but his putting was terrible. "Them damn squirrels running around are killing my game," Ruth said. He sent his caddie for a rifle and presently Ruth was picking off squirrels with a .22, as easily as he picked off hanging curves. (Imagine the nervous systems of other golfers, innocently walking on adjoining fairways near a rapid-firing Ruth.)

That night in his suite at the Hotel Ansonia on Broadway, Ruth cooked a squirrel potpie. "Did you ever taste squirrel potpie?" Dugan asked me. "Hell, I couldn't eat for a week."

Easy living, easy money, easy women, easy booze. When Ruth's talent waned, the Yankees sold him to the Boston Braves, who dropped him after 26 games. The Brooklyn Dodgers hired Ruth to coach in 1938. That winter the Dodgers dismissed him and signed Leo Durocher as manager. Ruth was out of baseball for all time. Later, speaking at a sports dinner in New York, Ruth said, "I've given 25 years of my life to the game and I'm ready to give 25 more." Nearly a thousand baseball men heard him. No one offered him a job.

Cancer struck him in 1946 and he faced death with utter disbelief. Dugan saw him when he was confined to a wheelchair. "Joe," Ruth said, his voice cut to a rasp by throat cancer, "I'm gone, Joe. I'm gone." Dugan clutched his old friend's hand and the two men wept. A few days later, Ruth was dead. Only when this outsized character was safely out of the way did organized baseball begin paying appropriate tribute.

Maris was a strong, sturdy outfielder, mostly pleasant and earnest until fame struck. Another magazine asked me to cover his pursuit of Ruth's record in 1961. We struck up a friendship and I asked him on a plane to characterize the attention he was getting every day from 60 reporters and the public.

"Irritating," he said. "I can't do the things I like any more, like bulling (shooting the bull) with the writers. I say anything at all, it's a headline. I like to be recognized a little, but I don't like being busted in on all the time and now, when I go out, I'm busted in on all the time."

After his 61 homers in 1961, Maris never again hit more than 33. The Yankees shipped him to the Cardinals in 1967. By 1969 he was retired. After that, Roger Maris sought obscurity as purposefully as once he had pursued fame.

Putting them together, McGwire, Maris, Ruth, Sosa, I'm inclined to cite an adage: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

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