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Babe's legend forever Ruthian


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Babe's legend forever Ruthian

By Charles Elmore

 

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

 

Sunday, May 07, 2006

 

The last man alive who pitched to Babe Ruth will be 96 in September. From his Vero Beach home, Elden Auker zips a brisk brushback at the idea that the Bambino's legend might be sagging under the relentless four-bagger pounding of Barry Bonds.

 

"There's only one Babe Ruth," Auker said. "As time goes on, he'll just become bigger."

 

Barry Bonds spoke three years ago of "wiping out" Ruth, and now stands within arm's reach of becoming the only player aside from Hank Aaron to pass Ruth's fabled total of 714 home runs.

 

Yet Ruth's towering position in American popular culture seems unthreatened, from the vantage point of Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.

 

"His continuing popularity never ceases to amaze me," said Gibbons, who has worked since 1982 at the museum in Ruth's hometown. "He is an American cultural icon, not a sports icon. There aren't that many of them. He's there with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe."

 

Gibbons teaches a writing course at a nearby university, and he asks his students how many of them have not heard of Babe Ruth, who last played in 1935.

 

"Never has one student raised a hand," Gibbons said.

 

He also asks how many have heard of former Orioles All-Star third baseman Brooks Robinson. Three or four hands go up.

 

"Brooksy is slipping a little bit," Gibbons said. "Ruth has not."

 

Ruth already was the most recognized public figure in America when he vacationed in Palm Beach in February 1930.

 

It was here that Ruth sent the Yankees a 500-word letter demanding the biggest contract ever for an athlete: $85,000 a year, $10,000 more than President Herbert Hoover made. Ruth shared his letter with newspaper reporters, some of whom thought it must be a prank.

 

It was not his first visit to Palm Beach. In 1925, he played the Lake Worth Municipal Golf Course. (Golf, fishing and hunting "have kept me in trim," Ruth recounted to the Yankees, as if writing a travelogue.)

 

Oddly, baseball's premier power hitter could hit it straight but not particularly long from the tee. Auker, who played golf with Ruth in Lakeland, remembers outdriving him by 40 or 50 yards.

 

In his letter from Palm Beach, Ruth told the Yankees he had manfully resisted the lure of easy money in vaudeville and talking pictures, but now he wanted a big raise, or he would walk away from baseball.

 

"If the Yankees force me into retirement, I will accept one of the many offers which include a variety of entertainment propositions, exhibition games during the summer, and even an offer from a circus," Ruth wrote.

 

Ruth was already running his own circus, Yankees management grumbled, but the team agreed to pay him $80,000 a year, a $10,000 raise. There was a bit of a stir over the fact it was more than the president earned, but that just gave Ruth the occasion to deliver a famous line: "I had a better year."

 

Santa, Bunyan, Babe

 

With Ruth, it was hard to know when legend began and fact ended. Take the "called shot" home run in the 1932 World Series. Initially, Ruth indicated he was gesturing toward the Chicago Cubs' bench, where players were razzing him. By the time the tale was revisited in newsreels, he was pointing for the fence.

 

Once, when Ruth was hospitalized for abdominal surgery, sportswriters embellished the story to say he ate too many hot dogs before a game. Ruth's appetites were in fact so vast ? for food, drink and women not necessarily his wife ? that it sounded right.

 

Everything Ruth did was supersized. He led the league in home runs 12 times. He was first or second in strikeouts 12 times, and on 11 occasions he drew the most walks in a season. He set a World Series record for scoreless innings as a pitcher, and once ended a World Series with an astoundingly rash attempt to steal second.

 

No wonder Bonds' manager, San Francisco's Felipe Alou, compares Ruth's mystique to that of Santa Claus.

 

Marlins special assistant Andre Dawson puts Ruth in the same class with tall-tales heroes of pioneer America.

 

"When you think Babe Ruth, you think about Paul Bunyan in a sense," said Dawson, who hit 438 homers in the big leagues. "You identify with him as being the premier power hitter of all time."

 

Nearly sixty years after his death, selling Ruth memorabilia and merchandise is still a $50 million annual business.

 

"I don't think he's fading," said Bob Costas, who this month devoted an HBO show to the home run chase. "Ruth's personality, his effect on the game in the golden age of sports in the 1920s, I don't think that's much affected by anyone going by him. Aaron and Ruth are both exalted figures, and that status is not diminished, particularly if the performance by someone going by them is viewed as inauthentic."

 

Ruth not without critics

 

Not everyone believes Ruth deserves such rapturous worship, particularly when Bonds is subjected to 24-hour scrutiny because of alleged steroid use.

 

"All these things we look at now as being cute, the 18-egg omelettes, the staying up all night drinking and then playing ? today Babe Ruth would be a Jerry Springer episode," said Dave Zirin, a Washington, D.C.-based author and columnist for SLAM magazine and a contributor to The Nation magazine.

 

Ruth benefitted from playing in a time when media coverage of sports tilted easily into hero worship.

 

"You have to remember what sportswriting was like in the 1920s," Zirin said. "The country was just coming off a terrible war. Sportswriting then was like sonnets and love songs."

 

Also, Ruth never had to travel west of the Mississippi River for a game, and he never faced some of the best players of his era.

 

"You have had some of the greatest who ever played in the Negro Leagues," said Gilman Whiting, professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, "Does he hit as many home runs if he bats against some of the great black pitchers? I know if we move Ruth to this era, he couldn't play in the physical shape he did. Athletes overall have gotten to be better physical specimens."

 

But Ruth would have hit far more home runs in today's smaller ballparks, asserts Bill Jenkinson, a baseball historian who lives near Philadelphia. Jenkinson said he has taken advantage of voluminous newspaper accounts to study every Ruth home run, as well as accounts of other at-bats that might have been home runs.

 

Ultimately, Jenkinson said, the American public will decide where Ruth stands in history.

 

"I suspect his legend is going to remain undimmed because of the factual reality of what he accomplished as a ballplayer and a showman," Jenkinson said.

 

At the Babe Ruth Museum, Gibbons suspects that America's still got you, Babe.

 

"He's like the Beatles," Gibbons said. "There could never be another."

Palm Beach Post

 

After reading this piece it's clear Bonds will never become the legend that Ruth has become. He may pass him in HRs, yet will never have Ruth's influence on the game. Ruth remains the greatest baseball player ever.

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