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Scott Ostler

Remembering Babe Herman

December 01, 1987|Scott Ostler

It's probably a few decades too late to set the record straight, but Babe Herman, the daffiest Dodger, wasn't daffy at all.

Babe died last Friday. He was 84 years old. The newspaper obits recalled his legendary exploits. The time at Ebbets Field a fly ball bounced off Babe's head and over the fence for a ground-rule double. The time he doubled into a double play.

"Daffiest of the Dodgers," one obituary headline read.

Babe never took issue with the sportswriters who etched the semi-fiction into stone with their typewriters.

"They had to make a living, too," the Babe would say with a shrug. He could take a joke, even if it was on him, even if all the joking relegated the greatest Dodger hitter of all time to the novelty bin of baseball history.

I talked to Babe three years ago, at his home in Glendale, a few months before a stroke knocked him down. He patiently explained some of the more bizarre incidents of his colorful career.

That fly ball never bounced off his head. It bounced off the head of teammate Al Tyson, who replaced Babe a few innings earlier. The official scorer failed to notice the substitution. True, a fly ball lost in the sun once bounced off Babe's shoulder, but as he explained at the time, "Shoulders don't count."

He did double into a double play, but only because a teammate fell asleep between second and third and got passed by a hustling Babe.

The cigar story is absolutely true. Babe was chomping on the cigar. Called to the phone, he stuffed the cigar into the breast pocket of his suit. After hanging up, he fished out the stogie and, without a match, puffed it back to life. Seems there was a spark smoldering in the ash of the seemingly-dead cigar.

But that's not so much daffiness as a simple case of a man knowing his cigar.

The funny stories almost make you forget that the Babe turned himself into an outstanding outfielder for the Dodgers, and that he could hit a baseball.

Rogers Hornsby said Herman hit the ball harder than anyone. Al Lopez once said, "Babe swung a bat with more ease and grace than any man I ever saw."

He was tall, 6-4, and a rangy player, but unlike the other Babe, Herman's swing wasn't an awesome power sweep. It was a rapier-like slash. Ty Cobb taught Herman to aim for the pitcher's forehead and let the hits fall where they may. One season, 1930, 241 of them fell.

"People think Herman was a stupid clown when he was at the height of his career," Charlie Dressen once said. "I know different, because I played with him and also managed him. Let me tell you, Herman was a good outfielder. He could hit and throw. He was nobody's fool."

Babe did have a bit of the hotdog in him, however.

This was Herman coming to bat, as described by sportswriter Ned Cronin: "He takes his time, swinging his bats and loosening up his long, powerful arms. With what must be maddening unconcern for the opposing pitcher, Babe slowly selects a war club and then kneels down and carefully scoops a hole so he can get a toehold in the batter's box."

This, remember, was a time when pitchers didn't much cotton to hotdog batters, especially those who hit .393. Fortunately, Babe had himself some nifty reflexes. He told me that relief pitcher Charlie Root would frequently try to stick the ball in Babe's ear.

"You know those felt buttons (at the top of each baseball cap)?" Babe asked. "He knocked five of 'em off my cap. And he was my best friend."

I got the impression Babe didn't lose a lot of sleep worrying about his image. He had fond baseball memories, but he was busy getting on with his life. Friends had launched a campaign to get Herman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that wasn't his passion.

His passions were his golf game--he shot a 67 at age 66--his flowers and his wife, Ann.

He raised orchids, world-famous varieties, in the back yard of the house he lived in the last 56 years. One of his cross-breeds, Babe's Baby, was a pure red orchid that once sprouted 46 blooms on one plant. To Babe, that statistic was at least as significant as the 35 homers he struck in '30.

Babe and Ann married when he was 20 and she was 18. They brought up four children and recently celebrated their 64th anniversary. The day I hung around their home, I got the distinct impression it was a very nice, very lively 64 years.

"Life's been good to us," Babe told me.

The end was not pleasant. The stroke in '84 left him with impaired speech and other problems. The Dodgers invited him to throw out the first ball at the season opener last year. Babe went into his den and picked up one of his old souvenir baseballs. It dropped from his big hand. He shook his head, and Ann phoned the Dodgers and politely declined their offer.

"His legs gave out," Ann said Monday. "He fell a lot. He used a walker, then a wheelchair. Now he's free."

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