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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

"None of these kids today can hit like he could," said Ben Chapman, 83, who played with Ruth for five seasons. "He could really hit a ball a long way. I remember I was in St. Pete in 1928 playing second base, or trying to, and he hit a fly ball that must have been nine miles high. I missed it by 25 feet."

Seventy-two of Ruth's records still survive, including his ratio of one home run every 11.8 at-bats. His 714 career home runs are second only to Hank Aaron's 755, and pro-rated on Aaron's nearly 4,000 more at-bats, Ruth would have hit 1,051.

His success was every bit as huge off the field. Ruth had a cameo role in a Harold Lloyd movie, starred in a silent film titled "Headin' Home" and landed a small part playing himself in "Pride of the Yankees." The Babe also owned a piece of a cigar factory, and endorsed underwear, candy, sporting goods, Wheaties, shaving cream, razor blades, overalls and chewing tobacco. He toured in a vaudeville act.

He was a fierce negotiator, had an agent when that was unheard of and never hesitated to point out his value to Yankee Owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. "A man ought to get all he can earn." Ruth was quoted by Creamer. "It's a business, I tell you. There ain't no sentiment to it."

He made $70,000 in 1928, when a pair of men's leather shoes at Macy's cost $6.94, a tweed knit dress at Wanamaker's was priced at $16.50 and a seven-room duplex on East 69th Street sold for $3,800. In 1930, when Ruth signed for the enormous figure of $80,000, pitcher Herb Pennock--a star in his own right--was the next highest-paid Yankee at only $17,500. After the Babe retired, Lou Gehrig had the top salary in baseball at $30,000.

Ruth's staggering earnings were matched only by his flamboyant personality. He drove a Packard with his given initials "G.H.R" monogrammed on to the driver's door. He wore a camel's hair cap, tilted rakishly to one side, to the dismay of his genteel second wife, Claire. He often devoured three hot dogs during batting practice and washed them down with a bicarbonate of soda. An intestinal disorder that sidelined Ruth seven weeks in 1925 was privately believed to be a case of syphilis.

In her book, "My Dad, the Babe," the late Dorothy Ruth Pirone wrote that Ruth "would drink a highball, smoke a cigar and chew tobacco--all at the same time."

When Roger Maris was in the process of eclipsing Ruth's fabled home run record, with 61 in 1961, Ruth contemporary Jimmy Dykes said, "Roger Maris is a fine ballplayer, but I can't imagine him driving down Broadway in a low-slung convertible, wearing a coonskin coat." To Stephen Lang, who researched and played the role of Ruth in the TV movie, "Ruth personified an entire period, the Roaring '20s, which personified America. Nobody roared louder than Ruth."

Although notoriously foul-mouthed and beefy (the Yankees narrowed the famed pinstripes on their uniforms in 1929 to help streamline Ruth's appearance), the Babe was nevertheless endearing to children and adults alike. He forgot teammates' names, calling them "Horse Nose" or "Rubber Belly" or, most commonly, "Kid." Attempting to quote the Duke of Wellington, he called him, "Duke Ellington."

Introduced to Calvin Coolidge on a sweltering day at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., Ruth said: "Hot as hell, ain't it, Prez?" Pirone remembered that when Ruth met Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, he tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Hiya, Queenie."

His size and reputation gave him a Bunyanesque appeal few celebrities have ever achieved. Ruth, in fact, used a 52-ounce bat early in his career, later scaling down to a 44-ounce model; by comparison, Aaron used a 34. He was genuinely fond of children--and sometimes genuinely irritated by them--his kindness probably resulting from his parents' fateful decision to ship him off to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore at 8.

"Daddy loved kids,," said Julia Ruth Stevens, 74, who was Ruth's stepdaughter and eventually was adopted by the Babe. "He wanted every kid to try to play baseball. He thought it was just the greatest game ever invented. He'd sit down and talk to a kid and say, 'Even if you miss, you've got to try, and try hard, because this is the way life is.' "

"He knew kids didn't want anything from him, other than an autograph," said Frank Slocum, whose father, Bill, covered Ruth for the Hearst papers and was a ghost-writer for the Babe. "He understood it as a sign of affection . . . it was fun for him."

Throughout his life, Ruth was happily photographed in a variety of ridiculous poses--wearing a ten-gallon hat, dressed in a skirt, playing the saxophone -- and he possessed a natural charm and ease that made him a playmate as much as a star. "

"Like Peter Pan," Creamer said, "he never grew up."

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