Babe Ruth: His Life and Legendby Kal Wagenheim
Kal Wagenheim illustrates this larger-than-life athlete in his book Babe Ruth: His Life & Legend, and describes him as both a product of his childhood in Baltimore and of his formative years as a/i>
The most famous and enduring baseball player in history, Babe Ruth is remembered for his dramatic heroism not only on the baseball diamond but also in his life.
Kal Wagenheim illustrates this larger-than-life athlete in his book Babe Ruth: His Life & Legend, and describes him as both a product of his childhood in Baltimore and of his formative years as a New York Yankee. Ruth struggled desperately with the dramatic contrast between the poverty of his youth and the glamour and stardom that his famed career brought him, and although his name became synonymous with wooing women and abusing alcohol, nothing could prevent him from becoming one of history’s greatest athletes.
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Read an Excerpt
Keep lean and strong and clean,
Keep spirited and keen.
"Play ball!" means something more than runs
Or pitches thudding into gloves!
Remember through the summer suns
This is the game your country loves.
"Born? Hell, Babe Ruth wasn't born! The sonofabitch fell from a tree!"
Joe Dugan takes a slug of his Early Times Bourbon on the rocks and lets go with a high-pitched, wheezy laugh. We're sitting in the crowded, talky bar of the Copley Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston. Glistening chandeliers, potted palms, sunlight through the tall windows. He looks around. "They didn't let ballplayers and actors into this joint back in the old days," he says.
"Jumping Joe" Dugan, third baseman for the '27 Yankees, greatest team ever. Anyone will tell you. He is seventy-eight years old, tall, thin, erect. The rhythms of his piping voice remind you of W. C. Fields.
"So you wanna know about Babe Ruth, eh? Ruth, Ruth, Ruth. He was like a big baby; a lovable devil. Grin on his face alla time. He was an animal, a great animal. Fell from a tree! Didn't look like anybody else. He had a nose! Ever see his nostrils? You could drive a Ford right into one o' them! Smoked cigars. Chewed snuff. Snorted it through his nose. He'd chew anything. Jesus!
"I batted against the Babe when he was a pitcher. He was one o' the greatest. When he was up at the plate, he swung from Port Arthur, Texas, at every pitch. Everything was go for broke. It was like Dempsey, the old knockout punch. When he got hold o'one, it was a homer in any park, including Yellowstone National, y'hear?
"Whitey Witt and I, we shared a room next to the Babe for a few seasons on the road, back in the twenties; that's when a shave and a haircut was a quarter. Lawton W. Witkowski was his real name. A little bowlegged Polack. Still lives down in Jersey. Oh, the Babe loved Whitey, because he was his kind o' guy. I was no altar boy, either! We were all good drinkin' men.
"It was prohibition then. They said you couldn't do it, so we did it! Ruth had a bootlegger in every town. 'Babe here, send up a case o' scotch, case o' rye, and fill the bathtub up with beer.' Standing order. And Whitey and I would help him drink it all! He didn't have much trouble getting me an' Whitey over there. Hell, the bastard was gettin' fifty or sixty thou a year, and we were making ten or so. He loved anybody who wanted to hang out with him. But geez, that was dangerous. Tough. He was an animal, he fell out of a tree. He never was born! Never forget the day in Chicago. Babe calls up this guy. 'Charley there?' 'No,' says the guy on the other end, 'but I'll take your order. What is it?' This is a true story now. So Ruth says, 'You know what it is. Rye, scotch, beer, have it up here right after the game.' Then he asks, 'Say, what happened to Charley?' The guy answers, 'He's got amnesia.' 'He's got what?' 'Amnesia!' So Ruth says, 'Fer chrissakes, send me a case o' that, too!' He thought it was an after-dinner drink, the sonofabitch! Oh, it was really somethin' on the road. The things I saw him do on and off the field--unbelievable! We were supposed to be in breakfast by nine o'clock. Half of us'd go down, sign in, and go right back and sleep it off. Not the Babe, though. He'd be out all night, and next morning his eyes'd be clear as a little baby's.
"One day, we went to Belmont. I bet fifty and Ruth bet five hundred across. The horse fell at the first jump. 'Dugan.' he says, 'you dirty Irish sonofabitch, fifteen hundred bucks--we coulda been drunk for a week!' But by the end of the day he won plenty. 'You in a hurry to get home?' he says to me. Sonofabitch takes me to a speakeasy. Got home at three in the morning. Next day, I played one inning and Huggins takes me out. 'You don't look too good,' he says to me. Ruth? The bastard hit two home runs. Never had a hangover.
"Babe was a broads' man. Met lots o' girls in his life. Beautiful and unbeautiful. Hell, he was no Clark Gable. No Rhodes Scholar, either. But with that kind o' money, they came right to the hotel! The Babe had a phonograph in his room all the time. Silk bathrobe on, in come the broads, great dancer.
"He was one in a million. We're playin' at the stadium one day and who comes in but President Coolidge. So we line up to meet the President. I say to Waite Hoyt, 'Let's stick around. Ruth'll have something to say.' I was third from last. I say, 'Hello, Mister President. It's a great honor to shake hands with you.' Ruth takes his cap off and says, 'Hot as hell, ain't it, Prez?' What the hell you gonna do with a guy like that? Coolidge looked at him, thought he was nuts!
"Al Capone? I met him, too. He invited Ruth to this big nightclub in Cicero, Illinois, and I tagged along. Never saw anything like that in my life. All kinda booze, beer, broads. He went for those broads. Now this fellow Aaron today, I guess he's great. He's gotta be great. But Babe Ruth was number one in America. Bigger than the President. There was never anyone like him. Nobody close. He was more than an animal. He was a god."
March, 1929. Saint Petersburg, Florida. Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, meandered about the spring training camp, his huge torso wrapped in a thick shirt, trying to sweat off a winter's worth of good living. Carl Sandburg, then a reporter-columnist for the Chicago Daily News, inquired:
"If some kid ballplayers asked you for five rules, five big points to watch, what would you tell them?"
"Cut out smoking and drinking, get enough sleep, get the right things to eat."
The Babe, says Sandburg, "wouldn't think of two more and was willing to let it go at these three." The rest of their colloquy went something like this:
SANDBURG: If some boys asked you what books to read, what would you tell them?
RUTH: I never get that. They don't ask me that question. They ask me how to play ball.
SANDBURG: What's your favorite flower?
RUTH (laughing): I don't care about flowers.
SANDBURG: What's your favorite horse?
RUTH: Oh, I quit that. I quit playing the ponies long ago.
SANDBURG: If some boys asked you for a model of a man to follow through life, would you tell them President Coolidge is pretty good?
RUTH: Well, I always liked President Harding ...
SANDBURG: Is there any one character in history you are especially interested in, such as Lincoln, Washington, Napoleon?
RUTH: I've never seen any of them.
On April 8, 1974, at 9:07 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time--when Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run in Atlanta Stadium--35 million television viewers across the nation saw the historic shot, and watched the ecstatic explosion of 53,000 spectators, as a huge electronic sign blazed with the letters: "MOVE OVER BABE, HERE COMES HENRY."
By some eerie coincidence, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth were born just a day (and thirty-nine years) apart: Aaron on February 5 and Ruth on February 6. But here the similarity ends. More than a contrast between black and white skin, the difference between Ruth and Aaron is one of opposite personalities performing on vastly different stages; America and Americans have changed far more than we realize in the past four or five decades.
In 1920, Babe Ruth hit more home runs than fourteen of the sixteen teams in the major leagues. He beat at least one entire team in twelve different seasons.1 But statistics don't begin to tell the story.
[1 In Henry Aaron's best year (1971), he hit 47 home runs, while the weakest club hit 71 and the average club had 120.]
Ruth was a mythmaker's dream. To begin with, he looked the part. At the peak of his power and fame, he was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed about 225 pounds--an extraordinary size for a man of his epoch. His massive shoulders and arms--and the big potbelly that made his legs look thin by comparison--formed a body that was recognizable from afar. His moon-shaped face, with the broad, flat nose, the small brown eyes, and the perpetual grin, was homely and unforgettable. It was an earthy, good-natured mug that almost cried out for caricature. He was a big swinger on and off the field; he was Zorba before Kazantzakis created him.
In contrast with the cool science of Aaron's batting technique, Ruth, in a rare moment of self-analysis, once said, "I swing with everything I've got. I hit big or miss big." He appealed to a deeply rooted American yearning for the definitive climax: clean, quick, unarguable. Ruth and his pitching adversary squared off like two Western gunslingers, as fans cheered for the symbolic annihilation of one man--either Ruth, twisting himself into a pretzel shape as he took a murderous swing at a third strike, or the pitcher, standing forlorn as the Babe's smash rocketed out of sight and he made his ritualistic tour of the bases.
On opening day of 1974, when Aaron hit his 714th homer, a man was arrested for "streaking" nude through the stands of Cincinnati's stadium. In 1927, the year Ruth hit his 60 homers, a female school teacher in New Jersey lost her job when she was seen smoking a cigarette after school hours. But the difference is far deeper than mores alone.
There was no radio until the middle of the 1920s, and television was a remote dream. Most Americans had never seen a big-league star in the flesh. Unless you lived in, or traveled to, the ten Eastern or Midwestern cities where the teams played, your chances of seeing a star were slim. The legend of Ruth's heroic home runs grew by word of mouth, buoyed by the hyperbole of the sports press--America's epic poets--who called him the Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the Prince of Pounders, the Wizard of Wham, the Bazoo of Bang, the Maharajah of Maul.
"The train would come puffing into the station in some small town," says a fellow who often made the trip, "and there on the platform would be dozens,sometimes hundreds,of people, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the Yankees, but especially of the Babe. Guess they had nothing better to do! The Babe usually sat near a window, and he'd really mug it up for 'em. If he was eating a hot dog, he'd wave it at 'em. If he was playing hearts, he'd show 'em what a great hand he had; then he'd wink and put his fingers to his mouth--a big secret between him and them. Oh, they loved it. They ate it up."
Jimmy Cannon could rightly claim a few years ago, "It is part of our national history that all boys dream of being Babe Ruth before they are anyone else." The adults dreamed, too. When Ruth was earning more than one hundred thousand nearly tax-free dollars a year--and spending more than that on liquor, women, horses, cars, and every imaginable caprice--a factory worker brought home about twenty-five dollars a week to feed his family and pay the rent. Even in 1929, the boom year before the crash, only two out of ten American families earned more than sixty dollars a week, and the savings of the richest sixty thousand families were equal to those of the twenty-five million families below them. The gap in lifestyle between a celebrity like Ruth and the average American was more like a yawning canyon. "The poor could wrap their dreams around him," said one writer. Today, a skilled blue-collar worker--with a carpeted home, color television, a phalanx of electrical gadgets, and a late-model car or two--lives a life that is at least comparable to that of the star athlete; comparable, certainly, to Henry Aaron, who dresses in quiet good taste and drives an economy car.
Today, in our more egalitarian society, with films and magazines that leave little for the inner eye to fancy, with television sets that show us the most remote corners of our world village--with zoom lenses and instant replays that capture, live, not only the 715th home run or the acrobatic end zone catch, but even the murder of Presidents' assassins--Americans have apparently lost their capacity to be awed. And, with 105 different professional sports teams, shifting franchises too quickly for loyalties to mature; with divisional playoffs and league playoffs and championship playoffs; with Monday Night Football and midweek reruns of last Sunday's game; with Saturday afternoons devoted to Wide World camera-skipping from motorcycle races to roller derby to golf to figure-skating to demolition derbies--Americans have no opportunity to focus their passions on a single figure. As Russell Baker recently noted when he announced he'd "stopped being a sports fan": "There was just too much of it ... it was like having a banana split with every meal."
The age of kings is over. The "star" has been eclipsed by the "superstar," and even that word has dimmed in meaning. Henry Aaron is the rightful heir to Babe Ruth's crown, but he seems to have come along at the wrong time.
So! To borrow a line from Babe Ruth's favorite radio program, The Lone Ranger, "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!"
Meet the Author
Kal Wagenheim, born in Newark, New Jersey, is a journalist formerly with the New York Times and currently editor of Caribbean UPDATE monthly newsletter, as well as an author, literary translator, and writer of plays and screenplays. He is also adjunct associate professor at Columbia University’s Writing Division, School of the Arts. Kal Wagenhiem’s website is www.kalwagenheim.com.
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