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Larger Than Life : The World Hasn't Forgotten Babe Ruth. If Anything, the Fascination With the Bambino Has Increased

April 17, 1992|PAT CALABRIA | NEWSDAY

Like the air, Babe Ruth is all around us. Like a book or a snapshot, he endures. Nearly 44 years after his death, the Babe still breathes in movies and music and literature, as if he retired his pinstripes only yesterday, not 1935. As if he was less a ballplayer than a historical figure or an idol of pop culture--slugger, hero, myth.

Surely, more than any athlete of his time (maybe more than any athlete, ever), Ruth's impact spread wildly, so that he has become an everyday part of the American vocabulary. The autographed baseball is now as common as aspirin, but it was Ruth who popularized the practice in the '20s, joking that balls which didn't contain his signature were rare. Even today, a feat of colossal proportions is called "Ruthian."

Luciano Pavarotti is known as "the Babe Ruth of opera." Pele was "the Babe Ruth of soccer," Willie Sutton, "the Babe Ruth of bank robbers," Francisco Churruca "the Babe Ruth of jai alai." When an obscure hitter from the '30s named Hal Lee died in 1989, the only reason the news even made the papers was summed up in the final sentence of a brief obituary:

"He played with Babe Ruth in the Boston outfield."

Plus, the fascination with Ruth appears to be growing, if that's possible, with last year's made-for-TV movie "Babe Ruth" followed by the opening today of the feature film "The Babe" starring John Goodman. Two years ago, Life magazine named Ruth to its list of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century, alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Charles Lindbergh and Dr. Jonas Salk.

"It's remarkable," said Robert Creamer, whose definitive biography "Babe Ruth:

The Legend Comes To Life" was published in 1974. "When I wrote the book, Ruth had been dead 25 years. He had not played ball in almost 40. And yet every day I would see his name in the newspaper or in various references, somewhere. Now it's 18 years later, and the same thing is still going on."

Naturally, much of Ruth's mystique is built on his gigantic appetites--for food, liquor and women. Former teammate Charlie Devens, 82, remembers that Ruth "once drank a quart of whiskey on the train between Boston and New York, and he got off at 125th Street with a smile on his face." Jimmy Reese, 90, roomed with Ruth, and recalls: "He was his own worst enemy--at the ballpark all day and at 'em all night. He was unlike anybody I ever met."

But George Herman Ruth was more than just a pot-bellied, cigar-chomping creature of the tabloids, given the lasting impression he has made. Annual attendance at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore has steadily climbed to over 40,000 since it opened in 1983. Ruth generated the most references by far--67--in Paul Dickson's recent collection of "Baseball's Greatest Quotations." In the past few years, his likeness has been marketed to sell automobiles, soda pop, cutlery, cereal, sportswear, china, TVs, pizza and greeting cards.

It's even harder to comprehend Ruth's ability as a ballplayer, since he was probably the best left-handed pitcher of his generation and a great hitter, virtually at the same time. ("Imagine Roger Clemens becoming Cecil Fielder," Creamer said.) He compiled a lifetime record of 94-46 and 29 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series, a mark which lasted 44 years. He also was a gifted outfielder and baserunner, even after his weight ballooned to 250.

But more than just setting records, Ruth revolutionized--and rescued--the sport. When he joined the Yankees, baseball's hold on the public had been loosened by the Black Sox betting scandal, nervous owners were seeking a box-office attraction and the home run was still an unheralded offensive tool. The year before, Ruth had set the single-season home run record with 29; National League leader Gavvy Cravath hit just 12.

"Babe saved the game of baseball," Reese said. "After the scandal, people gave up on the game. They were disgruntled. But then the Babe came along and people said, 'I've got to go out to the ballpark and see that big lug.' "

When Ruth, alone, clubbed an astounding 54 home runs his first year in New York, no other American League team totaled more than 46. With fans flocking to see his wide, looping swing and the Yankees doubling their attendance to 1.3 million, the flabbergasted owners quickly changed the rules, signaling the end of the Dead Ball era. The ball was made more lively, the spitball and other trick pitches were outlawed and more top-heavy bats with thin handles, like Ruth's, were manufactured.

Of course, Ruth went on to hit the magic number of 60 home runs in 1927, but his sheer power and flair for the dramatic was equally spellbinding. In spring training, he clouted a ball estimated at 579 feet. Fifteen years later, the final home run of his career for the Boston Braves cleared the roof of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

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