Yankees Magazine: Legends never die

When it comes to Babe Ruth, it can be hard to separate the myth from reality. Maybe that's because the truth is just too unbelievable.

November 21st, 2016
Nearly a century after his Yankees debut, Ruth's story endures. From the on-field heroics to the larger-than-life exploits away from the ballpark, no one looms larger over baseball than the Sultan of Swat. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

"Less than a god, but more than a man. Like Hercules or something." --The Sandlot

Ask an American meteorologist about dramatic weather events, and you'll probably hear about some of history's most memorable storms -- Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, Rita, Andrew. You name it. But probably not the tornado from The Wizard of Oz.

Talk to a historian about war, and you'll likely be treated to endless stories about the Battle of Yorktown, or Antietam, or Hastings. But not Game of Thrones.

And yet, when asked to talk about their first memory of Babe Ruth, the one that sticks with them to this day, two members of the 2016 Yankees -- and -- immediately turn to a surprising place. These are men at the top of their field, being asked to consider a fellow traveler. They dress in the same pinstriped work clothes, bearing the same interlocking NY. In an idealized version of a Major League clubhouse, these would be the men most qualified to break down the deep-seated minutiae of the Great Bambino.

Instead, they both go right to The Sandlot. Who can blame them? The 1993 film, written and directed by David Mickey Evans, remains an endlessly quotable favorite to this day; in 2015, several Yankees players re-created a famous scene from the movie for one of the team's promotional videos.

Part Home Alone, part Cujo, part Field of Dreams, the film is a fun children's romp, a high-stakes heist flick, only with baseball-loving children and a terrifying dog replacing the criminals and the police. But it is also a tale of the stories passed on (or not passed on) from parents to children, the things we all carry and the folklore they inspire. And there, at the center, is Babe Ruth, whose autograph marks the fated ball, and whose appearance in a dream sequence inspires the hero to become a legend.

More than 100 years after he debuted, Babe Ruth continues to astonish, as much or more a cultural icon as a baseball figure. "He inspires the imagination," said Brian Richards, the Yankees' senior museum curator. "He accomplished these almost-unfathomable feats when he was playing. These feats that people, if they hadn't seen them, they wouldn't believe. Stuff that just seemed superhuman in his time, and as time passes, and those legends and stories are handed down, they still amaze us."

Ruth's real-life legacy was first created on real-life ballfields. But Hicks, himself a Yankees outfielder, doesn't immediately speak of 714 home runs. And Headley, who has known great drama in pinstripes, including a walk-off hit in the first game he played as a Yankee, chooses a fictional portrayal in a children's movie over the called shot.

It's enough to make you wonder about the choices we make in telling Ruth's story. And to consider what it is about The Sultan of Swat that makes it easier to understand all that he did by focusing on the imaginary rather than the reality.

"No novelist or Hollywood screenwriter at the furthest extremes of their imagination would have dared invent somebody like this. This was science fiction." --Donald Honig

To understand the overgrown legacy that has swallowed the real Ruth whole, it helps to go back to where it all began. Every superhero has an origin story, and Ruth's, perhaps fittingly, exists in the shadow of Baltimore's present-day baseball palace.

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum occupies four row houses on Emory Street, one of which is the actual house where the greatest ballplayer in history was born. Walking toward the museum, the lights of Camden Yards are visible; the Orioles' home is just two blocks away.

The museum expends ample energy telling Ruth stories. The 714 home runs. The 60 blasts in the 1927 season. The seven championships. The three home runs for "Little Johnny Baseball," a young boy in a hospital. The unparalleled fame. There is plenty of the larger-than-life Ruth on display. But what sets the museum apart are the smaller items, the actual relics of a once-ordinary man. Here you can see the room where Ruth was born. The rosary he prayed. His hymnal. Envelopes he addressed.

"We're storytellers," said Michael Gibbons, the museum's executive director. "We use artifacts to interpret the life of Babe Ruth and tell stories about Babe Ruth."

Still, in at least one way, it's a jarring collection, almost discordant. To see something that Ruth touched is to acknowledge that Ruth was actually real, that he existed, that he inhabited the same Earth on which we now ride. Everywhere else, Ruth is myth; at 216 Emory St. in Baltimore, he is tangible. It's fascinating to see the bed in which Katie Ruth is believed to have delivered her son, but then you remember that to see it means to confirm that The Babe was of woman born.

There's more, of course. There are the tools, Ruth's versions of Thor's hammer. You can see a bat the man wielded, which is heavier than anything in use today. (Richards describes Ruth's 45-ounce lumber as a telephone pole with a knob on one end.) There's a jersey he wore at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, signed balls, near-priceless baseball cards and other artifacts from a legendary career.

Gibbons was a documentary filmmaker who first visited the birthplace in the early 1980s, when he was researching Ruth. At the time, it was a rough neighborhood -- Oriole Park was still years away from being built -- and it was attracting just about 2,000 visitors a year. But he became involved, convincing the Orioles to use the space as their own museum (Ruth had, after all, debuted as an Oriole in 1914, when the Baltimore club was a Minor League team). Soon, some 60,000 fans were flocking to the site every year. And Gibbons, who had intended to spend about a year working for the museum, has been telling Ruth's story ever since.

"I think you need to balance the blend of larger-than-life stuff like the called shot home run, or Little Johnny Baseball, with things like the human part of him," Gibbons said. "I think you start with the iconic stuff, and then you fill in, to give it a foundation, with the human side of him."

But there are also the artifacts with stories that grow upon closer examination. Part of the permanent exhibition is an open scorebook from Ruth's first professional game -- The Babe is pitching, batting ninth. It's an interesting item, nice to look at, but easy to move past quickly. But hang around it for a second, and questions begin to pop up. Namely: "What is it that makes that thing survive?" Gibbons asks.

Gibbons believes that it was passed down through the lineage of The Baltimore Sun reporters, from Jesse Linthicum, a Ruth contemporary, to Jim Bready, a baseball historian and editorial writer for the Sun. Before Bready passed away at 92 years old in 2011, he donated the scorebook to the museum.

But it's Gibbons' bigger question that plays into the Ruth mystique: Why did someone save a random scorecard from 1914? And what does it tell us about the player?

"Homer would have loved him if the blind singer had had a season pass to the Polo Grounds." --W.O. McGeehan

It's not just that Ruth hit a lot of home runs, or that he had a flair for the dramatic. It's that he was playing an entirely different sport from anyone that had come before him. When he came up -- as a pitcher, mind you -- baseball was a station-to-station game. Frank Baker hit 96 home runs in his Hall of Fame career that spanned 13 seasons from 1908 to 1922 (he played semipro ball in 1915 and also missed the 1920 season due to the death of his wife), and that powerful output was enough to earn him the nickname "Home Run" Baker. Roger Connor, who held the home run record before Ruth, hit 138 in his career, meaning that each of the last 576 times Ruth homered, he set a new record.

"It was not the way the game was played in 1918," said Joe Sheehan. "And by 1921, it was."

Sheehan is a baseball writer who co-founded Baseball Prospectus, a clearinghouse of sabermetric-focused baseball content. His "Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter" takes current events around the game and breaks them down into their smallest components, offering granular, objective understanding of what happens out on the field. But when it comes to Ruth, he's as romantic as Grantland Rice.

In trying to find a comp for The Babe, Sheehan has to move way beyond the baseball world. He starts throwing out names such as John Wayne, Elvis, JFK -- "American legends whose myths long overtook the reality," he said. "We internalize the image and the story when we're young, before we even understand there's a person underneath." Force him to find someone in the baseball strata, and the inner Dr. Frankenstein comes out. "It would be if were also ."

By the time of that first game in 1914, when Linthicum was keeping score, Ruth was very much a known quantity. His heroics had been on full display at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, where Ruth was sent on account of his unruly, incorrigible behavior. That Ruth is often thought to have been an orphan plays into the "out-of-nowhere" qualities, but in reality, his mother and sister would visit him at the school on most Sundays. Jack Dunn, who would manage Ruth in 1914, discovered him dominating on the St. Mary's ballfield. In fact, the two became so close, that George Herman Ruth came to be known as one of "Jack Dunn's babies," and the nickname, altered ever so slightly, stuck.

Right away, it was clear that Ruth was on a level altogether different from anything the sport had seen. "People always ask me," Gibbons said, "'How come you say that Babe Ruth is the greatest ballplayer of all time?' It's a really easy answer if you just get down to the basics. He hit home runs, hit for an incredible average, and was also an all-star-caliber pitcher. There is no other baseball player that carries around all that luggage. So that's where we start."

When Ruth hit 29 homers in 1919, it was unheard of. Then he hit 54 the next year, and 59 the year after that. You could hardly blame fans for getting caught up in The Babe's mystique. What couldn't the man do?

Richards imagines the European immigrants in New York at the time following the crowds to the ballpark, trying to do what their neighbors were doing. "And if you see someone up there trying to sacrifice bunt a runner over, well, you don't know what a sacrifice bunt is. It's almost impossible to describe a sacrifice bunt today to someone who grows up around baseball, let alone to someone who has no concept of what's going on. But here comes this big galoot from Baltimore, and he steps up to the dish and he crushes a ball 450 to 500 feet, you don't know why you're standing and cheering, but you know three things: No. 1, you're standing and cheering. No. 2, you love it. And No. 3, you're going to come back for more.

"Ruth's exploits were so spectacular, that over time, they took on a life of their own. If you're a 10-year-old kid, and you're at the ballpark, and you see Babe Ruth crush a ball all the way over the roof of the new grandstand of Comiskey Park in Chicago, over time, the telling of that story is going to get greater and greater. It's going to get bigger and bigger. It's just the nature of it. Something that is so big and so spectacular is a catalyst for legend. It's moving on its own, and over time, the legend just gets bigger and bigger."

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." --The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Ruth never fully outgrew the wild-child persona that led his family to send him to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys as a youngster. To this day, he is as well-known for his vices, for the id that he never so much as tried to contain. As such, a simple picture of The Babe emerges: out of control, uncouth, living for hot dogs, alcohol and women.

Given today's standards (and technology), it's unclear whether he would have survived. His talent, as Sheehan points out, could have made him Babe Ruth in any era. But with cellphone cameras and an ever-present paparazzi, would he have instead become John Daly? Johnny Manziel? It was only in the early 1990s that Charles Barkley made unending headlines for his assertion that his job was to play basketball, not to be a role model. "Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids," Barkley said in a Nike commercial. The idea that someone's heroism could be isolated in the sports arena seemed somehow off.

Contrast that with the images of Babe Ruth that speak loudest to this day. He was always with kids. In one legendary 1922 photo, Ruth is surrounded by some 5,000 young fans, his face popping out from the middle of the crowd. For a man so renowned for succumbing to excess, parents never seemed concerned about letting their children near him. And Gibbons says that the time he spent with youngsters was everything to him.

"You can't imagine what he was to children," he said. "After being around Babe Ruth all these years, I liken him to being a 12-year-old in an adult body. He was really comfortable with children. That's what he liked, he liked hanging around the kids."

The image of Ruth's face in the crowd is just one of the photographs currently on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The temporary exhibition, "One Life: Babe Ruth," uses mainly photographs to tell Ruth's story.

"In this case, we glimpse," said James Barber, the exhibit's curator. "I've seen the last three decades at the National Portrait Gallery, looking at different famous individuals, from Daniel Webster to Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt. There have only been two individuals who have really stood out to me as one-of-a-kind, and that is Theodore Roosevelt -- the man packed basically three lives into 60 years -- and the other figure is Babe Ruth. This guy was a Horatio Alger story come to life.

"I don't think any museum or book or novel or movie can do justice to Babe Ruth's life."

There are, of course, a number of shots in the exhibit that show Ruth on the ballfield. But many others show him out in the world, smiling amidst a group of adoring fans. In his day, Ruth was accessible in a way that today's stars never can or will be.

"He was approachable," Barber said. "That has to do with the era in which he lived. … He really was one of us. If you passed him on the street, you'd talk to him."

It calls to mind the differences between a Bruce Springsteen and a Beyonce. Springsteen can sell out a stadium's worth of $150 tickets, and he resonates in part because he's able to convince those fans that he's one of them, especially when he's singing about another well-intentioned man down on his luck. Beyonce, by contrast, dials the spectacle up to 11, her performances featuring pyrotechnics, costume changes, and any number of extravagances. Neither is right or wrong, but each comes from a clearly different perspective. What connects them with Ruth is that he somehow possessed both sides. In life, he was Springsteen, available and tangible. Only later did he become Beyonce; too big for this world.

For proof of that dichotomy, look no further than the called shot. Did Ruth actually do it? Did he signal to the fans at Wrigley Field that he was going to send the next pitch over the center-field wall? Or was he actually just pointing at the Cubs players who were relentlessly taunting him? Fans have debated it ever since 1932, and every time new video emerges that threatens to end the argument, it nonetheless continues. Reality, in this case, isn't nearly as fun as the dispute.

"Robert Creamer always said, 'It doesn't matter whether he pointed or not. What matters is that he indicated he was going to do something special,'" Richards said of the author of a seminal Ruth biography. "I don't even know that he necessarily did that. But he was being challenged. And he completely delivered."

Evans, who used the called shot story to open The Sandlot, believes that it was the moment when Ruth evolved from hero to legend. If it had been anyone else, no one would have believed it, he says. "People would have went, 'Eh, I don't think so.' But because it was Babe Ruth, they're like, 'Well, of course he did. He's The Babe!'

"And whether he actually intentionally did it or not, he hit the home run. Does it matter? I don't think it matters."

"There's heroes and there's legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die." --The Sandlot

More than two decades after his movie hit screens, Evans is still trying to figure out what makes Ruth stand apart. He ticks off attributes to try to make sense of them. Was he the greatest athlete? Definitely not. Greatest hustler? Of course not. Greatest hitter? Probably, but there are other guys who are at least in the conversation. So he settles on the story that began in West Baltimore.

"He is, inarguably, America's -- if not the world's -- first common-man sports star that ever lived. I would argue that he's almost the only Major League Baseball player that ever became a certified legend. There's plenty of heroes, and you can reel them off -- there are hundreds and hundreds of them. But he's it. He's a titan.

"He was performing inconceivable feats of athletic prowess. And the other thing with that was that the people knew where he came from. Super poor kid, and he never had anything. He never had enough to eat. And there are all kinds of stories about him. His first paycheck from playing Minor League ball, he went to a restaurant that he never thought of going to, and he had however much money, and he had two steaks, an entire apple pie, and a gallon of ice cream. And that was like, 'Wow, this is so great!'"

That idea draws you back to the house on Emory Street in Baltimore. When you consider the common perceptions of the gluttonous, coarse Ruth, it's hard to simultaneously speak of his otherworldly abilities. In that case, perhaps it's just easier to imagine Ruth as having emerged from the planet Krypton, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But the small, almost-diminishing items that the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum houses help make sense of the ever-inflating mythology. By focusing on the trivial, the lesser pieces of his story, it brings the whole picture into view.

"I think that Ruth might be the opposite of other heroes," Richards said. "With other heroes, who didn't accomplish so many great things, it's, 'Yes, this person was real, he existed. But look at what they did! Look at what they did with their lives, their aspirations, that made them great!' You're trying to, if not inflate their success, certainly get people to see and understand and grasp onto and appreciate the success they had.

"With Ruth, it's pretty much the opposite. People know, 'Babe Ruth! Home Runs! Greatness! Greatest player of his era!' People know that. And the Ruth museum, where they have his rosary beads, it emphasizes the human side. People have to realize that he was flesh and blood just like all the rest of us."

Evans finds it gratifying that players on the Yankees, who by association should be the most able to view Ruth in human terms, nonetheless point to his children's movie to highlight their connection to The Babe. They can take a short detour into Monument Park if they want to spend time with Ruth, but they instead follow the crowd to the common mythology.

Evans and Sheehan compare Ruth to Paul Bunyan, blowing past other options, such as Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds. In a sense, it's tidier that way. Better to marvel at the giant with the bovine sidekick than to consider what might have made him so.

"We process the myth because we can't handle the reality," Sheehan said. "Because reality is messy. And we have enough of that in our own lives."