Races From The Past—xviii

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It was a picture every American boy could see, in his mind’s eye: the ball park packed with people suddenly gone mad as a large man wearing the number 3 on his striped uniform selects a big, heavy bat, steps from the dugout, and makes his way to the plate. In the batter’s box he stands with feet close together, his body erect, peering at the pitcher; the bat, cocked over his left shoulder, is held so far down that his little finger curls over the bottom of the knob. The pitcher goes into his windup, the ball streaks toward the plate, and at the last instant the big man takes a long stride and whips the bat around with his powerful wrists. There is a sharp crack of wood against leather and the ball rockets high into the air, up and up until it is no more than a tiny white dot, soaring from sight over the top tier of the grandstand. In the bleacher seats boys jump up and down, howling deliriously, and grown strangers embrace, thumping each other on the back, for the mighty Babe Ruth has just hit another home run.

In all of America there was no spectacle quite like it. In truth, there was no one like the Babe. Even when he missed, the crowd roared approval, for the misses were on such a Gargantuan scale, performed with such murderous intent, that failure could be as spectacular as success. The Babe swung at a pitch with everything he had, the force of the magnificent effort whirling him around until his body and legs were twisted like a wrung washcloth.

The contradiction of his name was in the American tradition—the word “Babe” to describe a big-boned man, six feet two inches tall, with a torso that looked like a barrel, awkwardly supported by spindly legs that might have belonged to a woman; the nickname “Bambino” to depict a homely man with outsize head and broad, wide-nostrilled nose. His success was in keeping with tradition, too. The son of a Baltimore saloonkeeper, he was sent at the age of seven (“I was a bad kid,” he said, bluntly) to St. Mary’s Industrial School to learn shirtmaking. What he learned superbly was to play baseball, first as a left-handed catcher (playing with a right-hander’s glove), then as a pitcher. When he was nineteen, the Baltimore Orioles signed him; within months he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, where, in his first full year, he won eighteen games and lost six. In each of the next two seasons he won twenty-three games, but it was becoming apparent that he was too valuable a hitter to play only every fourth game or so, and the Red Sox manager began using him as an outfielder on days he didn’t pitch. In 1919, his last year with the Sox, Babe responded by smashing twenty-nine home runs—more than any major leaguer had ever hit. By that time, also, he had compiled another remarkable record, one that stood until 1961, and one that Ruth himself seems to have been proudest of: he had pitched twenty-nine consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play.

A few years after he joined the New York Yankees, Babe’s salary was the highest in baseball (by 1930 he was receiving more than the President of the United States); a cigar and a candy bar had been named for him; boys in America worshipped him; boys in Europe and Asia revered his name and exploits; Yankee Stadium was known as “The House That Ruth Built”; and wherever Ruth and the Yankees played, crowds thronged to see them, for the Babe was the greatest drawing card the world of sport had ever known. America in the Twenties took Ruth to its heart, delighting in his extracurricular antics, his feuds with manager and owner, his refusal to train, his Falstaffian appetites. It thrilled to stories about Ruth and the youngsters he never tired of seeing. A favorite was the one about the Babe visiting a boy who was dying, following an operation: the great man gave him a bat and an autographed ball and then promised to hit a homer for him that very afternoon. Of course he hit it, and of course the boy recovered; that was the stuff of heroes and legends.

The Chicago “Black Sox” scandal had broken the year Ruth became a Yankee; the previous fall, a group of Chicago players had sold out to gamblers and thrown the World Series, and the revelation of their treachery was the darkest day in the history of organized baseball. Fortunately for the future of the sport, Babe Ruth was keeping the paying customers’ minds off the recent disgrace by hitting fiftyfour home runs—an unheard-of total—and demonstrating, in doing so, that the character of the game had changed irrevocably. In the early days, over the fence was out; for one thing, that kind of home run might cost a team its only ball. The old game had been epitomized by Wee Willie Keeler, a scientific hitter who “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” but the Babe put an end to all that. The only science to his hitting was in placing more balls over the outfield fence than any predecessor had done, and the fans loved it. (The picture at left was taken September 30, 1927, as he hit number sixty, a record never equalled in a 154-game season.) As it became evident that what they wanted was long hits and lots of them, baseball changed to satisfy the customers; fewer hitters choked the bat, fewer hit the “Baltimore chop.” Everyone swung for the fences now. But no one ever did it in the grand manner of Ruth, and no one approached him in the crowd’s affections. There was, if you thought about it, no special mystery about the Babe’s success. Americans had always preferred quick, simple, clear-cut solutions to their problems. Home runs, as the Babe hit them, met all those requirements.

—Richard M. Ketchum