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  Legend, Truth Mix With Ruth: 100th Anniversary of Babe's Birth

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, February 5, 1995; Page D01

Five score years ago, the wife of a fat Baltimore saloon keeper brought forth upon this earth the infant man-child born to captivate our nation with each swish of his baseball bat. Tomorrow, his birth will have occurred exactly one century ago.

He was baptized George Herman Ruth, his full name that would later disappear as if annulled. From early manhood he would be known as Babe, the big man who electrified America by breaking the records, by bashing a home run every eighth time at bat (for accuracy make that 8.5) and by swatting pitches for distances never known before.

All this with his 54-ounce bat, the biggest carried by any major league player, yet manipulated like a toy in his hands.

When there was a question whether his latter-day challengers, the likes of Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg, were hitting the ball as far as Ruth, I put the matter to the great pitcher, Walter Johnson.

I accepted Johnson's answer as conclusive, for he said: "Let me put it this way. Those balls Ruth hit got smaller quicker than anybody else's."

For Babe Ruth, who had become America's baseball hero surpassing all others — by staging those magnificent outbursts of 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 a year later, he was credited with restoring public confidence in the game after the devastating Black Sox scandal of 1919 — the beginnings were not easy.

Early in his life, his mother died; his father was later killed in a street fight. Young George Ruth was incorrigible, a denizen of Baltimore's mean streets, filching whatever was necessary, and finding his way into reform school at the age of 8.

That would be his life for the next 11 years, as a ward of the St. Mary's Industrial School for Wayward Boys, a Catholic institution where one of the activities assigned to young Ruth was shirt making. It was also there, that, happily, he would encounter the kindly Brother Matthias, who would point him to his destiny, on the ball field.

It was baseball that became his passport to a new world, the glory world of Babe Ruth; his fairy tale of a story that would upstage even the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches-to-fame fiction so popular in that day.

At St. Mary's, baseball equipment was scarce and thus it was that the left-handed George Ruth, as the team's catcher, was content to play the position with the only available mitt, a right-hander's.

It was his zest for the game that quickly caught the eye of Brother Matthias, who gaped at the boy's whip of an arm and his constant eagerness to get into the batter's box.

It was Brother Matthias who brought to St. Mary's Jack Dunn, the Orioles' owner-manager, for a look-see at what in those days was called the young phenom. Dunn left St. Mary's with young Ruth in tow and headed for the Orioles' spring training camp, and later he would become the young man's legal guardian. The 19-year-old Ruth signed a contract for $600 for the 1914 season.

It was in the Orioles' camp that Ruth would acquire the name that was to crash upon the baseball world. A veteran Orioles player had greeted the arrival of Dunn and Ruth in camp with the comment, "Here comes Dunn with his newest babe." Now he was Babe Ruth forever.

Even as young Ruth had ignored baseball's precept that left-handers were not supposed to be catchers, he breached another no-no in the Orioles camp, working out as a left-handed shortstop before Dunn divined that pitching might be the boy's best calling.

Early in that 1914 season, Ruth, now an Orioles pitcher, caught the interest of the Boston Red Sox, who paid Dunn $22,000 for Ruth and two other players. That was consistent with Dunn's modus operandi: develop young players and then sell them off to the majors for a price. It would also be Lefty Grove's route to the majors.

The rest is the incredible history of Babe Ruth. His transformation from catcher to pitcher to outfielder to home run king would be told. His feats would send the sportswriters scrambling for the superlatives. In the slang of their time they would hail him as the Sultan of Swat, the King of Clout, the Bambino . . . any appellation that would distinguish him as the Royal Nonesuch, crusher of the batted ball.

The Once Slim Slugger
What became the popular image of Babe Ruth as the rotund-type fellow with the paunch and the mincing steps as he circled the bases is not quite an accurate one. The fact is that for most of the first half of his career, Ruth was a slim, if not svelte, 175-pound, 6-foot-2 athlete who could fly on the bases and skip in the outfield. It was some years after he joined the Yankees in 1920 that he ballooned to 220 pounds.

Every pitcher who faced him would have the memory of Babe Ruth stationing himself in the batter's box, standing a bit behind home plate, his feet close together, toes turned in somewhat. The bat on his shoulder was twitching a bit as if eagerly awaiting the pitch that Babe liked. The picture he presented was that of a menace looking down the pitcher's throat.

When he did uncoil that swing it was easy to see where the power came from. In addition to the hands and wrists that brought the bat flying off his shoulder, the Babe also got the big power from an almost imperceptible lunge that brought into play his hips and derriere, all of it adding up to a gorgeous piece of timing that sent the pitch streaking.

When he did whiff, and he led the league in strikeouts five times, the finish of his swing was accompanied by a vigorous pirouette that held its own fascination. He struck out with gusto. But Babe was not the wild-swinging, slugger-type strikeout victim who was often an easy out. He whacked the league's pitching for a .342 career average, and in 1923 he finished with a .393 average but failed to win the AL batting title by 10 points, with Harry Heilmann delivering his massive .403.

First, a Pitcher
Before there was Babe Ruth, the home run hitter, there was Babe Ruth the pitcher.

At Boston, Babe had demonstrated emphatically that he could pitch. In 1916 when his 23 wins helped take the Red Sox into the World Series, he notched nine shutouts. Ruth won all three of his World Series starts for the Red Sox in 1916-18, setting a record of 29 consecutive scoreless World Series innings, and winning the longest game in series history, a 14-inning affair against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Would you like to know his World Series ERA? It was 0.87.

In his six years of pitching for Boston, the Babe compiled one record that established his skills beyond doubt: He beat Walter Johnson six times in 1-0 games. And he once protected a one-run lead against Detroit's Murderer's Row by striking out Bob Veach, Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb in succession with the bases loaded.

It was at Boston that he first appeared in the raiment that distinguished him off the field — the camel hair cap and polo coat that would become his badge. He was the fans' easily approachable hero and the baseball writers' dream — accessible at all times and dealing lightly with their questions. It was after he was sold to the Yankees — for $125,000 and a $350,000 loan to Red Sox owner Harry Frazee in a deal that outraged Boston fans — that he began breaking his own home run records with big numbers like 54 in 1920 and 59 and 60 in later years.

Because Yankees General Manager Ed Barrow wanted Ruth's bat in the lineup every day, he was now playing the outfield and it was his presence that inspired owner Jake Ruppert to build Yankee Stadium, later to be called "The House That Ruth Built." Naturally, in the stadium's inaugural game, the Babe hit a home run to celebrate the occasion, and justifying the claim: "Put a camera on the Babe and he'll perform."

And so he did in the memorable third World Series game of 1932 in Wrigley Field when the legend of the "Called Shot" was born. The story went that Ruth, angered that the Cubs gave ex-Yankee Mark Koenig a miserly cut of the World Series money, deliberately pointed to a spot in right-center, thus telling pitcher Charlie Root he'd hit one out there. Ruth did, and the "Called Shot" became famous.

Not with me. I count myself as a reasonably accurate reporter, and having covered that game, I later re-read my account of it and there was no mention of a called shot. Neither did the Associated Press nor the Chicago papers mention anything about it. The only mention I could find was far down in the New York Times story, which mentioned that Ruth pointed at Root but gave only a vague reason why.

Years later, during World War II, Lt. Commander Bill Dickey, my housemate at Pearl Harbor, laid the story to rest for me after I asked him about the so-called "Called Shot." Dickey said, "Why spoil a good myth?"

The Stuff of Legends
The Babe was a hail fellow, had time for everybody, his interest in visiting sick boys in hospitals was real; so was his interest in junk food and night life. His roommate with the Yankees, Ping Bodie, once explained, "I don't room with Ruth, I room with his suitcase." His purported feud with Lou Gehrig, his rival on the Yankees, was inaccurate. They were friends, and Ruth helped Gehrig adjust his swing.

At Boston, the 20-year-old Babe married 16-year-old Helen Woodford, a waitress who would later lose her life in a hotel fire. His next bride would be a Ziegfeld Follies girl. After joining the Yankees, he became such a national hero that when he was taken off the Yankees' homebound train in Asheville, N.C., complaining of indigestion — actually it was a monumental gastric upheaval due to eating a raft of hot dogs with beer accompaniment — it came to be known as "the bellyache heard 'round the world."

In World War II, it was noted by U.S. troops in the Pacific that his fame had become international. On the Banzai charges, the Japanese taunted the Americans with screams of "To Hell with Babe Ruth." But at Osaka's huge Koshien Stadium they still commemorate the Babe's pre-war visit with the bronze plaque that bears his name. And to this time, the day they set apart to promote baseball among Japanese youth, they still call it "Babe Ruth Day."

Ruth was popular among all the league's ballplayers, and there is appreciation, not resentment, of his $80,000 salary in that era when the average pay was closer to $10,000. They could understand that even as a rising tide raises all ships, Babe's pay would help to raise the level of all baseball salaries.

It did come to pass that Hank Aaron broke Ruth's home run record (714) with 755. But don't compare Ruth and Aaron, who required almost 4,000 more at-bats to reach the record Babe attained. And it is remembered that against Ruth's .342 career batting average, Aaron's was a relatively feeble .305.

The Babe's final years were not happy ones. He could never persuade Ruppert to let him manage the Yankees — Ruppert probably believed Babe could sometimes not manage himself. He was offered the Yankees' Newark minor league team but refused to go to the minor leagues. The Detroit Tigers considered him and turned him down. And his decision to join the Boston Braves as a sometime-player in some kind of assistant manager was a disaster, with a 40-year-old Babe hitting .181 for 28 games in 1935, before he called it a career.

But the Babe did not end his career unnoticed. Just before he retired, he put on a show in Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Three homers in a single game. Something to remember him by.

The Babe labored through his final retirement years with throat cancer, yet tried to make all his public appearances. In 1948, at 53, he died. It was arranged that his body would lie in state at, where else, the House that Ruth Built. And by the thousands they came.

Shirley Povich, who was born 10 years after Babe Ruth is in the midst of his 71st year of writing about sports for The Washington Post.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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