In March of 2003, Page 2 presented the Ultimate Scorecard -- the greatest athletes for each number, from 0 to 99. It seemed logical to put Babe Ruth at No. 3. He is, after all, still regarded as the greatest baseball player of all time.
But with ESPN's new movie about Dale Earnhardt airing Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, it got us to thinking: Maybe the Babe doesn't deserve the honor any longer.
|WHO IS THE ULTIMATE NUMBER 3?|
Babe slugs way to title
What are we talking about? There's nothing to talk about.
You want to say Dale Earnhardt has usurped The Babe as the No. 3 of record? You really want to say that? Are you serious? Are you sleep-deprived? Are the good folks at EOE turning your head with all kinds of "Intimidator" schwag? Are you wearing mirrored blade sunglass right now?
I mean, maybe Dale's got a bigger slice of the 3 Pie than Alley-I. Maybe. And I guess you could make a case that he's a little more 3 than Dwyane Wade is, though probably not for too much longer.
But the 3 of record, the definitive 3, the first name that comes to everyone's mind when they hear the number, read it on a page, or see it flash on a screen? That's George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Baby. That's gospel, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. That's etched in stone. That's the building block of the House That Ruth Built.
I'm not even going to get into the fact that Dale is just a regional hero, while Babe is an international icon. I'm not going to say I'd give the car some love long before I'd even think about taking the 3 shirt off Babe's back and draping it over Earnhardt's shoulders. And I'm not going to get into the question of whether NASCAR is a real sport or just a made-for-TV curiosity.
I'm going to let all that alone. I'm just going to say this: Babe is the standard bearer. It's seven decades since he played and he is still the ruler by which other players' accomplishments are measured.
Can Dale say that? He was a compelling personality, a heck of a driver, and he met a tragic end; but is he the yardstick? No way; not even in his own sport. (That's Richard Petty's crown.) He's sixth all-time in NASCAR wins and fourth in top-five finishes. The Babe, meanwhile, is still the gold standard, is still as relevant and as dominant as he's ever been.
In fact, in the wake of BALCO revelations about Bonds, he might cast a bigger shadow now than he's ever cast before.
You can't compare Dale to The Babe. Babe was one of the best pitchers AND the best hitter of his generation. Talk to me when you have stories of Dale driving and heading up the pit crew at the same time. You can't compare them. Dale won one Daytona 500 (and it took him 20 tries to get that one). Babe went 3-0 (with a 0.87 ERA) as a pitcher in three World Series starts on the mound; and hit .326 with 15 home runs, 33 walks and 33 RBI in 41 World Series games overall.
You can't compare them.
Dale was a very popular (and very unpopular) driver, a lightning rod among race fans. That's big-time, no doubt.
But Babe is an adjective: When someone does something outlandishly impressive, in whatever walk of life, it's Ruthian.
Babe was the guy Japanese soldiers were shouting about as they charged American soldiers during WWII, screaming, "Death to Babe Ruth."
And to this day, he's the most potent, most recognizable figure in the history of America's greatest sport.
That's not big-time; that's all-time. Of that, there is no doubt.
Earnhardt roars ahead
Last year when Page 2 produced the Ultimate Scorecard -- the ultimate athlete for each number -- it chose Babe Ruth for No. 3.
In other news, Page 2 also named Bronko Nagurski the greatest running back of all time, Sid Luckman the best quarterback, George Mikan the best basketball player and George Lazenby the best James Bond.
Bristol, Connecticut, where I live, is hardly the heart of NASCAR country. And yet, a day doesn't go by when you pull in to a Dunkin' Donuts and don't see a car sporting a "3" sticker. Heck, drive into New York City -- one-time home of the Babe himself -- and you'll see "3" bumper stickers. And they're not in honor of Ruth.
The Sultan of Swat is yesterday's news, a remnant of black-and-white movie reels. Maris passed him. Aaron passed him. Bonds destroyed a bunch of his records. Even his curse was broken.
The Bambino had a terrific run. He hit a lot of home runs, helped usher the power game in to baseball and spearheaded the creation of the Yankee dynasty. But he last played in the majors 70 years ago. He didn't really call his home run in the '32 World Series. And John Goodman played him in a movie. That alone is enough to strike him as the ultimate No. 3.
He's an American icon, of course. But Dale Earnhardt Sr. has surpassed the Babe. Ruth wore No. 3. Earnhardt is No. 3. The Intimidator belongs on the scorecard.
You doubt this? Go to eBay. Do a search for Dale Earnhardt. You'll find 1,361 categories. Note, that isn't the total items listed; those are just different categories in which you can find Earnhardt items -- from bowie knives to clocks to cell phone faceplates to earrings. There are over 20,000 items up for bidding.
When was the last time you saw somebody wearing Babe Ruth earrings?
Sure, that might be a simple, even crass, way of measuring one's iconic status. But Earnhardt's estate made $15 million in licensing income in 2003, and $20 million in 2002 (according to Forbes.com). And all that isn't just the result of his early death. Even before he died, Earnhardt was NASCAR's most popular driver, his picture in restaurants all through the South.
Most importantly, Earnhardt was a key mover behind NASCAR's enormous growth over the last decade or so. NASCAR signed a $2.4 billion television deal in 1999, and TV ratings have only grown since then. In fact, the 2002 Daytona 500 (10.9 Nielsen rating) nearly outdrew the World Series from that year (11.9).
You might think Earnhardt's footing wouldn't extend beyond the South and his legion of loyal followers. NASCAR now races in Texas, Michigan, Chicago, California, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Kansas City. And those speedways are full of fans who picked up the sport because of Earnhardt.
And as baseball continues its 'roid raging and bloated salary structure, NASCAR is only gaining in popularity on America's former national pastime.
Look, I'm no NASCAR fan. I don't own any Earnhardt memorabilia and never will. But Earnhardt's fans have a passion for the man -- it's a little hard to understand at times -- that exceeds any other athlete. And they'll all be watching ESPN's movie, titled, appropriately, "3."
Other Noteworthy Number 3's
Allen Iverson: We're getting nasty letters right now from fans in Philly.
Jimmie Foxx: Hit 534 home runs with a .325 career average; more importantly, had two great nicknames: "The Beast" and "Double X."
Harmon Killebrew: Recently crowned the co-holder of the single-season home-run record by Page 2.
Bill Terry: The last National Leaguer to hit .400 (.401 in 1930) but he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame.
Earl Averill: Another borderline Hall of Famer, but more famous for ruining Dizzy Dean's career after hitting him with a line drive in an All-Star Game.
Dale Murphy: Great for a few years in the '80s, but suddenly fell apart quicker than Jason Giambi on steroids.
Harold Baines: Explain this: Had his number retired by the White Sox while still active -- and playing for another team.
Alex Rodriguez: Of course, not allowed wear to No. 3 with the Yankees.
Dennis Johnson: Just one of 46 numbers retired by the Celtics.
Drazen Petrovic: Former Nets star who was elected to the basketball Hall of Fame after his early death.
Stephon Marbury: May one day make the Nets Hall of Fame.
Jan Stenerud: First kicker elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Also first Norwegian.
Bronko Nagurski: Great Bears running back/linebacker from the 1930s. Quit football in 1938 to become a professional wrestler.
Tony Canadeo: This NFL Hall of Fame running back played for the Packers in the '40s and was known as the "Gray Ghost of Gonzaga" because he was prematurely gray. And he went to school at Gonzaga.
Mark Moseley: Was once named NFL MVP, if you can believe it.