Tops in Sports has stayed that way thanks to Ruth's crown

John Steadman

January 09, 1991|By John Steadman

AWARDS in sports, too often, are totally contrived. As a for-instance, suppose a banquet committee in Kewanee or Keokuk, to mention two of our favorites places, desires to honor an athlete. It formally announces plans to present a trophy for "player of the year," "comeback of the year," "coach/manager of the year" and then proceeds to extend an invitation.

This is step one in making certain a celebrated personality will be in their midst and that he, or she, graces the head table. To make sure the stellar guest doesn't forget the date, the request is supported by appearance money or a generous expense arrangement.

That's the way life works in the sports banquet business. There is an exception and it happens in Baltimore on Friday night when the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association, made up of past and present major and minor leaguers, holds for the 38th time what is considered one of the foremost sports dinners in the country.

The centerpiece of the ceremony is the presentation of the Babe Ruth Crown, which goes to Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers and a similar retroactive award that goes to Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Such legendary figures as Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Ralph Kiner, Yogi Berra, Hank Greenberg, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Billy Williams, Al Kaline, Charlie Gehringer and Bill Dickey, among others, have stepped forth to accept the bejeweled, gold-plated crown.

Frank Sliwka, the chairman, says, "The reason we've had so much success is because Baltimore originated the Babe Ruth Crown to honor its most famous son and baseball's greatest player. Believe me, anything with Ruth's name on it sets it apart. It draws immediate attention. The idea was conceived by Lou Grasmick, one of the originators of the banquet, and a man with many imaginative suggestions."

Sliwka followed Grasmick as banquet chairman and, to his credit, refined the method for selection. It's no longer decided by a show of hands or a subjective evaluation. Sliwka devised a system that brings four points for most home runs, three for RBIs, two for total bases and one for batting average -- all phases of the game where Ruth excelled.

"I believe this to be the greatest and purest award in sports," insists Sliwka. "A player has to do it on his own. And after he does it, the records are there in black and white. No politics are involved. It's not a sportswriters association or a wire service making the choice. The fact we use Ruth's name on a true crown gives it extraordinary distinction."

There was a year, 1971, that Stargell led in home runs, 48, and all but figured he had the Babe Ruth Crown fitted on his head. But Joe Torre of the St. Louis Cardinals was tops in runs batted in, 137; total bases, 352; and batting average, .363. When Stargell heard the result he was disappointed.

"Willie didn't complain because he knew you couldn't argue with the record," Sliwka says. "But he made a promise. He predicted he would come back to win the crown. And he did only two years later when he led in homers, RBIs and was second in total bases. Now, it's appropriate Stargell comes back to get the retroactive Babe Ruth Crown that goes to a retired slugger."

The event's most distressing moment was three years ago when Jose Canseco of the Oakland A's was a no-show and stiffed a banquet where the proceeds are used to assist the Johns Hopkins Children's Center and the WBAL Kids Campaign. Babe Ruth may have been unhappy, too, considering the concern he expressed for youngsters.

Sliwka lauds Grasmick's perception of more than three decades ago to utilize Ruth's name in his old hometown. "That's another reason so many officers and members of our baseball organization want to see the new stadium called Babe Ruth Park," he says. "I know what it has meant to us to identify with the Babe. It has made us more than just another midwinter sports dinner."

The head table will have an assemblage of talent, playing before a crowd approaching 2,000. The presentations of the Babe Ruth Crowns to Fielder and Stargell in the dead of winter makes for the kind of excitement not usually experienced at a banquet.

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