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BILL PLASCHKE

Fifty Years After His Death, Babe Ruth Sill Captivates As Man, Myth, Legend

August 16, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

9. Ruth's first home run as a professional baseball player, occurring in that initial spring training, was the longest ball ever hit in Fayetteville, N.C.

It broke a record set by Jim Thorpe.

10. In that first year in professional baseball, he received one piece of fan mail . . . from Brother Gilbert of St. Mary's.

11. Several years later, in an unexplained fit of rage, Ruth tore up 100 letters that had gathered in his Yankee locker. Upon piecing them back together, a trainer discovered $6,000 worth of endorsement checks.

12. In his first five weeks in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox, Ruth bought a car, got a license, was in an accident, had his license suspended, met and proposed to his first wife.

13. In Ruth's first World Series pitching appearance with the Red Sox, he pitched 13 consecutive scoreless innings. Yes, in one game.

14. Ruth moved from pitcher to the outfield in 1919 with the Red Sox after a man named George Halas flunked a tryout at that position.

15. The $125,000 paid to the Boston Red Sox for Ruth by Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert at the end of 1919 was more than Ruppert had spent to buy the entire Yankee franchise.

There were no players involved in the deal because all parties agreed no amount of players could equal Ruth.

16. Ruth learned about the sale while playing golf at Griffith Park. He had just finished an exhibition here with a group of pitchers against whom he hit 125 home runs in one hour.

17. In 1920, Ruth's first year with the Yankees, workers at the Polo Grounds created vertical foul lines to help umpires judge Ruth's mammoth blasts.

This led to the invention of the foul pole.

18. Ruth was so popular during that first year in New York, he had a pay phone installed next to his locker.

19. At home, Ruth changed his unlisted phone number so much he often forgot it.

20. In 1920, the first year Ruth's home runs captivated the nation, he hit 54. Finishing second in the major leagues was St. Louis' George Sisler with 19.

Ruth nearly doubled the major league record, and hit more than 14 of the other 15 major league teams.

21. Although reputed as a giant, Ruth stood only 6 feet 1 1/2, no taller than the Dodgers' Todd Hollandsworth. He was considered big because, at the time, he was four inches taller than the average major leaguer. Put 250 pounds on that frame, and you have Cecil Fielder, only shorter.

22. In the spring of 1925, Ruth was so overweight and in poor health that when he missed a connection on a train ride to New York, the London Evening News reported he had died.

23. Babe Ruth was the first athlete to have a business manager, a young guy named Christy Walsh, who met him by posing as a bootlegger's delivery boy.

24. Once Ruth showed up after the start of an 8 p.m. Yankee team dinner with no cap, torn shirt and uniform pants caked in mud.

After that day's spring training game, he had lost track of time while playing with dozens of children in a sandlot down the street.

25. During another spring training game, reeling from a hangover, Ruth ran into a palm tree while chasing a fly ball and knocked himself unconscious.

*

"It's amazing that so many people still love him, talk about him, write me letters about him," Julia Ruth Stevens said of her father. "And none of them ever knew him."

Oh, but we all knew him. Maybe not for what he did back then, but for how he affects us today.

Babe Ruth practically invented the autograph. Nobody in history had signed as many, or as often, always for kids who reminded him of himself. Collectors be warned: He signed so much, he taught Yankee trainer Doc Woods to sign for him.

Babe Ruth's presence inspired phrases such as "Ruthian," meaning huge, and "out in left field," which referred to any kid dumb enough not to sit behind him in right.

Babe Ruth was one of the first stars to appear in ads in his underwear, squelching the long-held rumor he did not wear any.

There is one thing it appears Babe Ruth did not do.

Ruth did not call his home run against Chicago Cub pitcher Charlie Root in the third game of the 1932 World Series.

Research for this column, which involved several books, including "The Life That Ruth Built," as well as ESPN and HBO documentaries, point to the same thing.

It seems Ruth was not pointing, but just angrily waving at the center field crowd after someone had tossed yet another lemon at his foot.

If he really did call the shot, why did none of the newspapers mention it the next day? Why didn't even Ruth mention it until the myth had grown the next spring?

Another myth is that baseball's greatest player was always embraced by the game he helped make famous.

When he retired during the 1935 season at 40, nobody would give him the one job he wanted, that of a manager.

"It was almost like baseball blacklisted my father," said Stevens, who recently published a warm family photo collection. "All this talk about him not being able to manage himself, that was baloney. They were just mad at him for salaries as a player."

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