Lovable Ruth was everyone's Babe

Updated: May 30, 2006, 9:39 AM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"He wasn't a baseball player. He was a worldwide celebrity, an international star, the likes of which baseball has never seen since," says broadcaster Ernie Harwell about Babe Ruth on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Babe Ruth's popularity and fame were so widespread that even America's enemies knew of him. Almost a decade after he had bashed his last home run, his presence still was felt.

Babe Ruth
A lifetime .342 hitter, Babe Ruth is third all-time in homers (714) and ranks 2nd in RBI (2,211).
During World War II, when Japanese soldiers charged American troops, they would sometimes scream, "To hell with Babe Ruth." Not "to hell with FDR" or "to hell with Douglas MacArthur," but "to hell with Babe Ruth."

What bigger compliment could an American receive?

Ruth was a man of mythic proportions. He became even more than the ultimate American sports celebrity. He was "a unique figure in the social history of the United States," wrote Robert Creamer in Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. "For more than any other man, Babe Ruth transcended sports, moved far beyond the artificial limits of baselines and outfield fences and sports pages."

The New York Times called Enrico Caruso "the Babe Ruth of operatic tenors" and Time magazine called Willie Sutton "the Babe Ruth of bank robbers." And even another sports icon was compared to him when Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf called Michael Jordan "the Babe Ruth of basketball."

Ruth belonged to the Golden Age of Sport. Of all the names that dominated the roaring twenties -- Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, Man o' War -- none was bigger than Babe. Known for devouring the most hot dogs to drinking the most beers to bedding the most women, he possessed an insatiable appetite for life.

The name "Babe Ruth" is synonymous with two other words, "home run." We hear his name and the numbers 60 and 714 instantly spring to mind. Prodigious homers are still described as Ruthian. What other athlete has ever had an adjective named for him?

Even his nicknames, such as "The Sultan of Swat" and "The Bambino," seem majestic. This is the man who truly made baseball the national pastime, the kid who started out looking like a Hall of Fame left-handed pitcher with the Boston Red Sox who became a Hall of Fame left-handed hitting outfielder with the New York Yankees.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Ruth revolutionized the game, changing it from a pitcher-dominated, scratch-out-a-run contest to a homer-hitting, dialing-long-distance event. Babe was the first to reach 30 homers, 40, 50, 60. Twelve times he led the American League in homers, 11 times he hit more than 40, four times more than 50. From 1920-33, he slugged 637 homers, an average of 45.5 per season. From 1926-31, from ages 31 to 36 when he was supposedly past his prime after a subpar 1925, he averaged 50 homers, 155 RBI, 147 runs and a .354 batting average. How would you have liked to have him on your Rotisserie League team?

A lifetime .342 hitter, Ruth has fallen to third all-time behind Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds in homers (714), second to Aaron in RBI (2,211) and third to Bonds and Rickey Henderson in walks (2,062), but remains first in slugging percentage (.690).

With Ruth it's often difficult to separate truth from legend. Part of it is that we don't really seem to care. We want to believe that Ruth pointed towards the centerfield bleachers before homering in the 1932 World Series or that his "bellyache heard 'round the world," which caused him to undergo abdominal surgery in 1925, was the result of his eating too many hot dogs. We want to believe that he promised a sick kid in the hospital that he would belt a homer for him the next day and then he hit three.

He was born George Herman Ruth on Feb. 6, 1895 in Baltimore. He was not an orphan, as legend has it (his mother died when he was 16, his father when he was a major leaguer).

Growing up wild on the streets, he stole, skipped school, chewed tobacco and drank whiskey. In 1904, his parents placed him in St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys for his "incorrigible" behavior. Spending almost his entire youth there, he developed into a marvelous baseball player with the encouragement of Brother Matthias.

If it can be said that Ruth would eventually save baseball, the opposite might be equally true -- baseball saved Ruth from potential tragedy.

Though some have painted a picture of Ruth as a big blob, he was actually a remarkable physical specimen. As a boy and young man he was not fat, but graceful and fast. He could run, throw, field, hit and hit with power, although when he reached the majors in 1914, Boston was more interested in his pitching than his hitting.

In 1915, his first full season, he went 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA. That was followed by seasons of 23-12 with a league-leading 1.75 ERA and nine shutouts and 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA (and 35 complete games in 38 starts). By then, though, because he had displayed such power in his limited plate appearances, the Red Sox were using him more as an outfielder than pitcher in 1918 and 1919.

Babe Ruth
Red Sox fans don't sit around talking about Babe Ruth or their team's impending doom.
He tied for the major-league lead in homers with 11 in 1918 and set a record with 29 in 1919. That winter, Boston owner Harry Frazee, needing money to finance his Broadway shows, sold him to the Yankees for four payments of $25,000 plus interest and a $300,000 loan. The Red Sox, who won the World Series in 1916 and 1918 behind Ruth's magnificent pitching, haven't won a Series since.

Did someone say curse of the Bambino?

Meanwhile, Ruth ignited the greatest dynasty in sports. The Yankees, who had never even won any title, captured seven pennants and four Series with Ruth. Their 1927 team often is considered the greatest in baseball history.

Ruth shattered his home-run record in 1920, belting 54 (no other player had more than 19). Only one team, the Philadelphia Phillies, hit more homers.

In the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, Ruth set a homer record for the third consecutive season, blasting 59 in 1921. He also led the league with 171 RBI, 177 runs (still the modern major league record), a .512 on-base percentage and an .846 slugging percentage.

Two years later, the Yankees were playing in their beautiful new ballpark after being kicked out of the Polo Grounds by John McGraw and the Giants. Officially, it was Yankee Stadium. Unofficially, it was "The House That Ruth Built."

In 1927, Ruth's legend grew when a September spree enabled him to boost his home-run total to the magical number of 60, a record that would last for 34 years, until Roger Maris hit 61. Ruth continued to lead the league in homers every year through 1931. However, after managing just 22 in 1934, the Yankees let him go.

He had his last hurrah with the Boston Braves on May 25, 1935, when he walloped three homers in Pittsburgh. A week later, hitting .181, he said he was quitting at the same time the Braves announced he was released. He held 56 major-league records at the time.

Ruth never had his dream fulfilled of managing the Yankees, or any other team. Jacob Ruppert, Yankees owner, supposedly told him, "Manage the Yankees? You can't even manage yourself!"

About Ruth's life after baseball, Creamer wrote, "He was like an ex-President, famous but useless, creating a stir whenever he appeared in public, but curiously neutered, no longer a factor. He played golf, he bowled, he hunted and he waited, but the call to manage never came." Stricken with throat cancer, Ruth died on Aug. 16, 1948. He was 53.

"Sometimes I still can't believe what I saw," said Harry Hooper, a Boston teammate of Ruth's. "This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over - a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since.

"I saw a man transformed into something pretty close to a god."

ALSO SEE