Babe Ruth's legend lives on

American icon: Baltimore was the house that built Ruth, the slugger who invented sports celebrity.

Marylanders Of The Century

September 11, 1999

BABE RUTH'S impact is difficult to describe: It was too Ruthian.

He rescued and reinvented baseball as the American pastime. He was the prime reason for the first palatial baseball stadium. He was the first player represented by an agent -- and we know where that's led.

George Herman Ruth, born in a West Baltimore rowhouse, redefined celebrity. He was without question the best-known American personality in the years between the two world wars -- and remains high on nearly everyone's list to this day.

Like John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, his image represented America to the world. Japanese soldiers cursed his name, believing that would offend U.S. troops in World War II. Though some of Ruth's greatest baseball records have been eclipsed, no athlete has achieved such prolonged international fame.

Most people link the swashbuckling slugger to the New York Yankees, his team from 1920 to 1934. He also played seven years for Boston as a superb pitcher.

But if Yankee Stadium was the House that Ruth Built, Baltimore was the house that built Ruth.

Had Xaverian brother Matthias Boutilier not recognized Ruth's baseball prowess at the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, the lad might have been a shirtmaker or bartender like his dad.

One of the Ruth family's homes was located in today's Camden Yards outfield. George was shoplifting at age 5, chewing tobacco at 7. His parents sent him to live at the reform school because they couldn't control him.

His world was confined to Southwest Baltimore. When he left Maryland in his late teens on road trips as a member of the minor-league Baltimore Orioles in 1914, he rode a train for the first time and bribed a hotel elevator operator so he could joy ride up and down.

Ruth revolutionized the game, striking a baseball with a ferocity never seen. He hit more home runs than entire teams. He bashed one in Detroit 602 feet -- 100 feet farther than the homer hit by Mark McGwire last month that had the baseball world agog.

Others are still judged against Ruth's standards. His season record of 60 home runs and his career total of 714 were untouched for nearly two generations. He still holds most of baseball's slugging records. Opponents moved back their outfield fences to compensate. The Yankees built an immense stadium to suit not just Ruth's home-run hitting, but his magnetic gate appeal.

His rise came at a lucky time for baseball. A controversy over players fixing the 1919 World Series soured the public just as Ruth became a Yankee. He helped cleanse the stain of the "Black Sox scandal," as Cal Ripken's consecutive-games streak helped baseball recover popularity after a players' strike 75 years later.

Nothing in modern sports compares with the Ruth phenomenon. His exploits -- even his high jinks -- on and off the field assumed almost mythic status.

His popularity far surpassed presidents and entertainers. His devotion to children, his charitable work on their behalf after he retired, his zest for life and his boyish devotion to a game that captured America's heart made him a legend in his own time.

When Ruth died of cancer at age 53 in 1948, 75,000 mourners ringed Yankee Stadium where his body lay in state. His image remains marketable, even overseas: A chain of Babe Ruth restaurants thrives in London today. Baltimore, where he was born, raised and started his career, opened a museum to celebrate his achievements.

The endurance of his appeal defies explanation. He had a peculiar shape, a bulldog's face and a personal life of excesses as confused as any of today's superstars. But from the Roaring Twenties through the Depression, he made Americans feel good about themselves. He still does.

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