NEVER IN ALL the history of American sports has anyone even remotely compared to Babe Ruth, the most fabled of all rags-to-riches stories. He stands alone. First came the immensity of his performance, then the resulting attention and, finally, the impact of the personality.
Life Magazine has picked the 100 most important Americans of this century, such as Charles Lindbergh, Douglas MacArthur, Louis Armstrong, Henry Ford, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Dr. Jonas Salk, Helen Keller, Allen Dulles and a galaxy of giants in all phases of medicine, politics, industry, education, finance, civil rights, entertainment and sports.
The master list of nominations began with 636 possible selections. Two of the country's leading historians, Daniel J. Boorstin, librarian of Congress Emeritus, and Neil Harris of the University of Chicago, were among those serving as consultants. Ruth was picked, they said, because "he made baseball the national game."
He's also the only Baltimorean and Marylander in the group, which is testimonial to what Ruth achieved in accomplishment and prestige. And, from another source comes the revelation that Ruth's name is the most sought-after in all the legions and legends of sports -- even now, 42 years after his death. A one-word explanation: incredible.
To advertisers, who like linking Ruth to products they are endeavoring to sell, he means more than any athlete -- past or present, living or dead -- you want to mention. Not Joe Montana, Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco, Pete Rose, Ted Williams, Red Grange, John Unitas, Bob Mathias, Jim Thorpe, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Joe Louis, Bob Feller or Joe DiMaggio.
Ruth, according to Dave Burns of Sports Celebrity Services in Chicago, is still a so-called "hot property." Close to 250 companies, including Coca-Cola, Sears Roebuck, Zenith, IBM, Owens-Corning Fiberglass, Western Airlines and United Valley Bank, are numbered among those clients utilizing Ruth, posthumously, in its promotions.
Western Airlines, for instance, proclaims, "Like the Babe, we make a lot of runs." This draws attention from would-be ticket buyers and, presumably, fills seats on flights for the company, the same way the Babe was a magnet for drawing spectators to ballparks. Burns was asked why Ruth, deceased for more than four decades, is still such a strong commercial commodity.
"Baseball, more than any other sport, identifies with nostalgia. Ruth was probably the most colorful and fantastic athlete who ever lived. His image is a great one. His legend will never fade. Also I'm happy to know some of the myths about the Babe have been debunked. I hope Baltimore, as his hometown, has success in putting his name on its new stadium."
When Ruth was living, he frequently endorsed cigars, breakfast food and, yes, even underwear. He never allowed his name to be used with whiskey or beer because he realized young Americans idolized him as an individual and didn't want to be a harmful influence. The Curtis Management Group is licensed by Ruth's survivors to handle the marketing process.
Mark Roesler, president of Curtis Management, explained the ground rules. "Our instructions from Ruth's heirs are to allow use of his name in tasteful ways. For example, they did not want him used in liquor or tobacco ads." This year alone, royalties created by the Babe's reputation will reach around $500,000 with the projection above $1 million by 1992.
Fees to use Ruth's picture and name on a product range from $500 for a one-time local utilization to $100,000 for a national campaign. Considering what Ruth means to America and possibly to generations still unborn, there's reason to believe he'll live for perpetuity. "I suspect," says Roesler, "we'll be getting requests for his use for decades."
The Hillerich & Bradsby Co., manufacturers of Louisville Slugger baseball bats, continue to make and distribute Babe Ruth signature models. That's because of the records he set, the fame he attained and how the stories of this larger-than-life individual continue unabated.
Ruth wasn't perfect and never claimed to be. He was beset with some of the same human weaknesses found in the rest of us. But he was genuine; never a phony. He brought honor, color and mystique to baseball, this kid the Baltimore Orioles signed out of St. Mary's Industrial School who became the most imposing personality any sport ever produced.