Babe Ruth stories bowl'em over

April 28, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Listening to Babe Ruth's daughter, now 77, talk about going bowling with "daddy" offers a deeply personal perspective on this mythical-like man who was more human than historians, with all their retrospective study, are able to fully comprehend.

It's a project, Ruth the man and Ruth the player, that is so extensive it can't be adequately covered in any assemblage devoted to words, pictures, opinions and statistics. That Hofstra University would want to make such an immense and intense effort, including three days of offering revealing research, only reinforces the fascination America continues to hold for its most storied athlete and beloved personality.

What could be called a Ruth-sized crowd moves about the lecture halls and playhouse of this attractive Long Island campus to hear professors, historians, statistical analysts from all over the country deliver papers and conduct forums . . . all this in the 100th year of the Babe's birth.

Julia Ruth Stevens, a daughter now residing in Phoenix, told of going bowling with her father when they lived in New York. "Daddy liked to bowl the smaller balls, not tenpins, and we had great fun together," she said.

When told that the sport of duckpins she was talking about was invented in Baltimore by two Orioles, John McGraw and Wilbert Robertson, for off-season diversion, Ms. Stevens welcomed the news as more than a trivial documentation.

"Daddy always talked about Baltimore," she continued. "You never forget where you are born and raised. St. Mary's Industrial School was his proud alma mater. Maybe you don't know it, but when we had friends in for an evening the beer Daddy always served was his favorite, National Premium, that he had shipped in from Baltimore."

The proceedings so far have included 51 college and university professors, all participating and offering their own personal evaluations of Ruth from almost every conceivable aspect. The subject of Ruth, dealt with from so many tangents, borders on the preposterous.

One imaginative commentator-writer, Oona Short, is offering a hypothetical dissertation on a fictional headline, "I Was Babe Ruth's Sex Slave," the kind of tale that might turn up in a current-day scandal sheet.

The idea is in connection with trying to consider how the mass media today might cover Ruth if he were alive and playing, both on and off the field.

From a more factual approach, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke discussed eloquently Ruth's formative years. His comments were delivered with telling effect and, when concluded, he received not only one standing ovation but two.

Schmoke was never better. He touched all the bases, to strike a baseball term. "We don't have the 'House that Ruth Built,' but we have the house and the community that helped build Ruth," he said. "When the Boston Red Sox sold Babe to the New York Yankees it was the greatest blunder since the Louisiana Purchase.

"We in Baltimore gave America Ruth's heart and spirit. He was larger than life, the Pied Piper of the game. In death and in life he has been an inspiration. He reached out to children. He belonged to no one yet belonged to everyone."

Jill McGovern, chairman of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, turned to executive director Mike Gibbons and said, "That was extraordinary."

After Schmoke's comments came those of Mel Allen, the retired New York Yankees broadcaster, who was the master of ceremonies when Ruth, stricken with cancer, although doctors never told him that, made an emotional farewell at Yankee Stadium on April 27, 1947.

Allen recalled the ovation was so loud and sustained that he had to get next to Ruth, cup his hands, and scream in his ear to be heard. "I asked him if he wanted to say something, although he didn't plan to talk because of how the illness had weakened his voice."

Allen said Ruth answered, "I must."

He then delivered, in struggling, painful tones, what baseball meant to America and how it was a game a boy had to grow up with and play from his early years -- not trying to start belatedly at age 15 or 16.

Baseball Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Robin Roberts, Harmon Killebrew and Ralph Kiner offered their reflections on Ruth. Roberts said he was a rookie in spring training in 1948 when Ruth was visiting the Philadelphia Phils' camp at Clearwater, Fla.

"He was talking to a sportswriter named Stan Baumgartner of the Philadelphia Bulletin," remembered Roberts. "I was warming up in the bullpen when I saw him. I reached down in the ball bag and got a brand new one and got his autograph. I still have it."

A lineup of Ruth biographers and historians assessed the Babe, such writers and historians as John Thorn, Peter Golenbock, Robert Cramer, Lloyd Johnson, Daniel Okrent, Arthur Schott, Dr. David Voight of Albright College and Kal Wagenheim.

More in-depth sessions continue today and tomorrow, including the awarding of a honorary degree to Phil Rizzuto, the Yankees' Hall of Fame shortstop. So it's now Dr. Rizzuto.

The Babe Ruth conference, like the man himself, represents an awesome undertaking . . . yet another demonstration of why he is the most dominating figure American sports has ever produced.

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