Even the most imaginative of storytellers couldn't have created Babe Ruth. He was too real for fiction. The personification of the American Dream. Uneducated, unsophisticated, uninhibited yet unsurpassed. An original. There has indeed been only one.
The most meaningful inspiration he provided was demonstrating that regardless of how humble a background, including lack of social standing or academic advantages, the genius of excellence is somehow always recognized and rewarded.
Babe Ruth became America's gift to sports, an icon. Yet had it not been for the Baltimore Orioles, there's likelihood he never would have been discovered and probably would have continued his apprenticeship as a shirtmaker. There's belief among some historians that the Orioles never actually watched him play, but visited St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in early 1914, where they " scouted" him sliding on a patch of ice.
Reports on George Ruth had been so persistent in Baltimore that Jack Dunn, owner/manager of the Orioles, became his ward in signing him out of the school and sent him to training camp in Fayetteville, N.C., for a contract of $600 for the season. Young George had never ridden a train, slept in a hotel, seen an elevator or watched a professional game. In his pocket, he carried 11 cents.
As Ruth's career is analyzed from his obscure beginning to the pinnacle of achievement, the more mythical it seems to be. But, he was, in truth, vibrant, fun-loving, boisterous and always approachable. No man was ever so earthy or human, possessing frailties and strengths in near equal abundance.
A distinguished jury of educators, commissioned by Life magazine, evaluated the passing scene for the century that's winding down. Their conclusion was to list Ruth among the " 100 most important Americans of the 20th century" -- the only Baltimorean or Marylander so honored.
His performances and personality ultimately allowed him to be the only sports figure to influence the language. Anything " Ruthian," a word in modern dictionaries, refers to massive or majestic accomplishment. Not bad for a kid who came from a home for orphans, delinquents and runaways and had only a rudimentary education.
What he was able to do as the hitter of a baseball is almost beyond compare. He delivered a home run 8.5 percent of the time, far and away the best in history. Statisticians may note that Roger Maris broke his home run record for a season, 60, and Henry Aaron over a career, 714, but numbers don't tell the full story.
For Maris to reach 61, he had to play 10 more games. And Aaron had the advantage of 3,965 additional chances at bat than Ruth to achieve 755 home runs. How many might the Babe have accounted for had he been given the same numerical opportunities?
Students of research have examined him from every perspective. They have, in a sense, stripped him of his clothes to find the truth about a colorful figure of down-to-earth simplicity who was never spoiled with even a tinge of pomposity. He had an astonishing capacity for enjoying the pleasures of life -- wine, women and song. This isn't hard to document, because he was always out in the open and never hid in the protective shadows of duplicity.
Ruth's love of children was genuine. It wasn't orchestrated. He remembered his underprivileged past and visited orphanages and hospitals wherever he went. It was as if he were on call. Once at a Cleveland boys' home, as he prepared to demonstrate hitting, a disabled child watched from the sidelines.
The Babe asked the youngster if he ever played. " Yes, I'm a pitcher," the lad explained. Then go out there, he instructed. Three pitches from the boy and Ruth missed all three. It gave a child, too often neglected and with little in life, a boasting right none of the others had. He struck out Babe Ruth.
His popularity never waned. American soldiers in World War II often used his name as an identifying password near enemy lines. When Japanese forces charged U.S. Marines at Guadalcanal, they figured the most penetrating denunciation would be to scream, " The hell with Babe Ruth."
In 1934, when Ruth and a touring team of major-leaguers visited Japan, more than a million citizens showed up. They descended on the motorcade in Tokyo for the chance to touch Ruth or merely to see him. The sheer bulk of the masses and the fanaticism brought the welcome parade to a standstill.
Everything about Ruth was colossal. He powered home runs with frequency and for longer distances than any other man the game has known.
Incredible as it seems, two years he hit more home runs than the entire totals of the seven other American League clubs. He was the first to reach 30 homers, the first to hit 40, 50 and then 60. It almost had to be that way.
At his initial training camp in the Orioles' opening intrasquad game, this green kid from an orphanage struck the longest home run that had ever been hit in the Fayetteville area. A historical sign marks the spot, erected by the state of North Carolina.