In Baltimore, them baseball fans what still exist are getting ready this week for Babe Ruth's 100th birthday party. There will be celebrations in other cities, too, but Baltimoreans are puffed up with the pride of authorship: The Bambino was born in a humble row house in their town on February 6, 1895, developed his prodigious skills in a Dickensian orphanage there and got a start in professional ball with the then-minor-league Baltimore Orioles.
Anyone shopping for omens had to look only as far as Ruth's first game as an Oriole, in 1914. In that one, the beefy nineteen-year-old slammed a tremendous home run, prompting the Baltimore American to exclaim the next morning: RUTH MAKES MIGHTY CLOUT.
As we all know, George Herman Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, continued to make mighty clout for 22 years, while an emergent America hungry for heroes worshipped him and a dutiful press chronicled his every trip to the plate and sentimentalized his every visit to a sick child's bedside.
Even Boris Yeltsin could probably tell you that Ruth hit 714 career home runs, a record thought unassailable until the great Henry Aaron broke it almost forty years later. Or that the Babe struck 60 blows for immortality in 1927, a season mark that stood until his descendant on the New York Yankees, Roger Maris, hit 61 in '61. But did you know that Ruth's 60 round-trippers were four more than the total hit by any of the other seven teams in the American League that year?
Such is the enduring grandeur of the Ruthian legend, nearly half a century after his death. He was not only the greatest baseball player of all time, the conventional wisdom says, but he also loved animals and children and the Detroit Tigers pitching staff, which he roughed up to the tune of 123 homers. If you choose to believe it, he also pointed straight at the outfield fence that time in Chicago.
However, truth-tellers like the eminent biographer Robert Creamer have emerged in recent years to fill in the rest of the story, to put a god in the shade here and there. The personal appetites of this crude, brawling legend, we have come to learn, were as mighty as his bat. He cheated on his wife. He never changed his underwear after games--and when called on this, simply stopped wearing underwear. So self-absorbed was the man that he rarely remembered his own teammates' names, instead employing the catch-all greeting "kid." When Waite Hoyt, who had played with Ruth for eleven years in Boston and New York, was traded to Detroit in 1930, Babe gravely shook his hand and said, "Goodbye, Walter."
As a trencherman, Ruth had no equal. At breakfast he was likely to knock down an eighteen-egg omelet, a slab of ham the size of a catcher's mitt and three or four bottles of beer. Ping Bodie, the poor devil he replaced as the Yankees' regular left-fielder, once marveled: "Anybody who eats three pounds of steak and a bottle of chili sauce for a starter has got me." Bodie, who remained with the club long enough to become Ruth's roommate, also noted Ruth's command over the nation's saloons and bordellos.
"I don't room with him," Bodie said. "I room with his suitcase."
For his own part, the Bambino was not unaware of the gulf between myth and reality. In his twilight he confided to a friend: "I guess I could have written two books of my life--one for the adults and one for the kids."
It is the first book, one suspects, that would tell about the day in 1917 that then-pitcher Babe Ruth punched out umpire Brick Owens. Or the time he ignored a 1 a.m. curfew in St. Louis, was fined $5,000 for coming late to the ballpark the next afternoon and promptly spent the next night in a whorehouse. Upon returning to the hotel at dawn, he left word at the desk that he was not to be disturbed until 10 a.m. When reporters knocked at his door, it opened a crack, a rumpled suit of clothes was passed out, and Ruth's booming voice commanded, "Here. Have this pressed--and be sure it's back in an hour."
Babe's book for kids would tell how, when a puppy got loose in the outfield one day, the Yankees star got down on his hands and knees to play with it, yielded his glove and, a moment later, caught an opponent's fly ball bare-handed. It's the adult book that would have to explain how the Yankees got their pinstripes: When Ruth ballooned up to 270 pounds one season, team owner Jacob Ruppert concluded the new uniforms would make his star appear slimmer.
But Babe Ruth's colorful, heroic, messy career is in no need of reduction. Last week, Baseball Weekly speculated that if this were 1927 and the Bambino were plying his trade in today's smaller ballparks, he would hit not 60 home runs but 83. Get-a-life baseball junkies can point out that at least five of his clouts were taken away by an old rule disallowing homers that cleared the fence in fair territory but landed foul; even casual fans, though, are still marveling over the great slugger's ten-year pitching career. He won 94 games, lost 46 and kept his earned-run average at a stingy 2.28.
For all his gaudy statistics and the romantic myths that trail him, the Sultan of Swat remains the greatest force ever to take the field. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, why not turn to Jimmy Cannon, the fine sports columnist of yore, for a last word: "He was a parade all by himself, a burst of dazzle and jingle, Santa Claus drinking his whiskey straight and groaning with a bellyache caused by gluttony. Babe Ruth made the music that his joyous years danced to in a continuous party...What Babe Ruth is comes down, one generation handing it to the next, as a national heirloom."
While we're talking about Baltimore and the Bambino, let's note that a new baseball hero has just come to ground on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.
His name is Peter Angelos, he is the new owner of the now-major-league Baltimore Orioles, and he is the only boss in the game refusing to play scab ball.
The 27 other clubs, including your Colorado Rockies, say they will field teams of so-called "replacement players" this spring in the likely event that owners and players can't break their stubborn strike deadlock. But Angelos says no to the impostors. Unequivocally. No.
"This course does a disservice to the game, to the tradition of baseball and the history of baseball in the country," he said. "This is our national game. This is no way to treat it."
Angelos has fallen behind his peers 27-1 for two other very good, personal reasons.
1. Unions. Although he doesn't like being called a "labor lawyer," he has represented Maryland's building-trades unions and steelworkers for more than 25 years, and in this era of anti-labor sentiment, his heart clearly remains in the meeting hall.
2. Cal Ripken Jr. The Orioles' exemplary shortstop, now gray as an eagle, is just 122 games short of iron-man Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" record of 2,130 consecutive games played. If scab ball comes to Baltimore, Ripken's streak will end, and Angelos will feel responsible.
This is not grandstanding. Baseball's Last Good Man faces considerable risk with his lonely stand: The American League is threatening Angelos with a $250,000 fine for every game the Orioles miss, with possible suspension--even with the prospect that the franchise could be confiscated. In recent days, moreover, baseball has been talking about an expansion club in northern Virginia--the Orioles' backyard.
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Can Peter Angelos prevail? We're still in the early innings on that. But while major-league clubs recruit has-beens and fill-ins like Oil Can Boyd and Phil Niekro (age 55) to plump up their rosters, the Baltimore owner refuses to budge. Good for him.
Still need an argument to support Angelos? Try this, from the editorial page of the New York Times: "It does not take a genius to guess what would happen if, say, the automobile manufacturers conspired to withhold their best cars from the market and offered wrecks instead. Their image would be demolished."