The greatest hero of them all

January 27, 1995|By James H. Bready

LONG AGO, I saw Babe Ruth play. I was a kid in the stands; he was the large, unmistakable, famous man at bat. I probably wished him ill, him and all the high-riding Yankees. An 8-year-old kid, his 7-year-old brother, their newspaperman father alongside, and thousands of other fans there in Philadelphia all had many bad hopes for the visiting team. Afterward, we went home and my mind soon purged itself of defeat's useless detail.

Most of those other fans are long since dead. Babe Ruth died before his time. Eventually, the newspaper life sucked me in, too. I turned up in Baltimore, the city of Ruth's origins as well as the site of a well-run, thriving museum where his persona lives on.

Now and then, somebody raises questions that have nothing to do with 714 homers or a .690 slugging average (still the highest ever) or even Feb. 6, 1895 and his arrival. Why, in the public mind, does the image of Ruth still outshine that of every other old-time ballplayer?

Now that a succession of biographers have brought out Ruth's )) libidinous, self-indulgent off-field life, is he still a proper object of youthful attention? Has the life of someone from the Jazz Age any relevance for a generation that thinks of baseball caps only as caps, and wears them facing backward?

Ruth himself was certainly no deep-thinker, no pursuer of "relevance" and "meaning." He came to play ball. But sometimes reactive testimony is as valuable as the reflective kind. Ruth did, by his example, leave a precept of sorts.

In his lifetime, that example was summed up in the word hero. Was not this the man who transformed baseball strategy from move-the-runner-along to smash-that-pitch-over-the-fence? Who, with his distinctive physique and newsreel prominence, was the superman small boys dreamed of emulating?

Thorpe, Grange, Tilden, Dempsey, Bobby Jones -- it was an age of hero-athletes, and the one with the catchiest name, the most statistical of achievements was Babe Ruth.

Today there is mostly just celebrity. We have learned that there are many sides to a human being, and we demand to see them all, particularly the baser ones.

What then has the recollection, the example, of Babe Ruth to say to us moderns? Ruth, with his "Hiya, kid!" grin, his way of swinging big and striking out and forgetting about it, his usual willingness to get along with even the umpires. He set out to enjoy what he was doing, and doing it made him happy.

In photos, how often is that moon face frowning? During his 15 years as a Yankee, the team lost more pennants than it won; but was Ruth ever heard making excuses, blaming others, going whine- whinewhine?

True, nobody this side of idiocy is uninterruptedly happy. Ruth started out unhappy -- on visitors' day at St. Mary's Industrial School there was seldom anyone waiting to see him. In later life, his appetites occasionally got the better of him. In retirement, he aspired to a major league managership, and was coldly rejected. The medics of the 1940s couldn't do much for a middle-aged man in the agonies of throat cancer.

Yet the marvelous athlete we see in our mind's eye as he circles the bases, that fellow with the number "3" on his shirt back is, yes, having fun yet.

For whole decades, Babe Ruth took life as it came and improved on it. He looked on the bright side -- and invited us to do so as well.

Did I see him play? Most happily, yes.

James H. Bready is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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