DON'T KNOW much about baseball, but I know this: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, like Roger Maris and Hank Aaron, will never hold the stature in world public opinion that Babe Ruth held.
To friends and foes of this country, the Babe was the USA.
The best evidence of that came on the bloody islands and atolls of the South Pacific during World War II. Enemies of America cursed the Babe in what might be called a battlefield rite.
"By 1943, most Japanese fighting men in Asia and the Pacific were trapped and doomed and knew it," wrote John W. Dower in his 1986 history, "War Without Mercy." "Scores of thousands fought with fanatic tenacity, and frequently they went berserk in the final battles, allowing themselves to be mowed down in hopeless attacks, engaging in bizarre and almost ritualistic dances in the line of fire, charging to their deaths screaming not only the emperor's name but also outlandish phrases in English."
Among the phrases that Dower culled from war correspondents' reporting were "Japanese boys kill American boys!" and "Blood for the emperor!" and "Banzai, the [expletive] Marines will die!" and one that became probably the most repeated, according to the folklore of the battlefield: "To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Babe Ruth!"
The ultimate insult and challenge was not "To hell with Franklin D. Roosevelt!" or Douglas MacArthur or Joe Louis or Clark Gable or Charles Lindbergh. But "to hell with" a retired baseball player who was more of a symbol of America than Uncle Sam was.
Can anyone imagine some future enemy of this country yelling "To hell with Mark McGwire!" or "To hell with Sammy Sosa!" I can't. Nobody yelled "To hell with Roger Maris!" in Vietnam. Nobody yelled "To hell with Hank Aaron!" in the Persian Gulf.
I grew up reading the stories of war correspondents in newspapers and in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Time. I remember when the "To hell with Babe Ruth!" story first appeared. It was so well known at that time that I thought it would endure.
I was surprised recently to learn that I might have been wrong. My neighbor with whom I take a daily constitutional didn't know what I was talking about when I mentioned it, and he is a retired brigadier general in the Delaware National Guard. Another neighbor who is old enough to remember World War II never heard of the story. An archivist at a military historical facility specializing in World War II never heard of it, either.
It's such a great story that I hope this report will help revive it.
Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.
Pub Date: 10/04/98