Relative: Ruth's 3 a magic number

RICK MAESE

June 22, 2008

The debate rises up from the history books. The question is one of honor. And the woman at the center of it all swears she'll never stop swinging for the fences. Just like her grandfather.

"I'm not going away," she says. "If they think this girl is gonna go anywhere and shut up, they're dead wrong."

Linda Ruth Tosetti wants Major League Baseball to retire the number worn by her grandfather - Babe Ruth. If Tosetti gets her way, No. 3 would never be worn by another major leaguer again, similar to how baseball retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 in 1997.

And herein lies the debate. Would celebrating Ruth detract from Robinson's honor? Does it open the floodgates for family members of other Hall of Famers to start petitioning? And is Ruth as worthy as Robinson? Is anyone, for that matter, as worthy?

And hasn't the Babe already been honored plenty?

"My grandfather is remembered, but I don't think he's honored," says Tosetti, one of the Babe's six grandchildren.

Tosetti began making her push to retire No. 3 more than a year ago. In fact, she wrote to baseball commissioner Bud Selig last summer. He responded graciously and explained, "We retired Jackie Robinson's number for myriad ... reasons, but the sociological importance is obviously very critical to us." He told Tosetti that he would share her request with his colleagues.

But that didn't satisfy her. Tosetti is running a grass-roots campaign, and her Web site - retirebabesnumber.com - has helped to collect more than 6,000 petition signatures in just a few months. It's only the start, she says. She wants to overwhelm MLB with support for her cause, especially this year - the 60th anniversary of Ruth's death and the final year of Yankee Stadium, the house he's credited with building.

Suffice it to say, MLB probably didn't realize the can of worms it was opening by honoring Robinson in such a dignified and deserved way. But Tosetti has her points.

When we spoke recently, I played devil's advocate with Tosetti because, frankly, the issue is far from cut and dried. To her credit, she had a response for every concern.

Robinson wasn't honored because of his achievements on the field. His contribution to the game was so much bigger, I told her.

"I know it's for sociological reasons, but why should that penalize my grandfather? I don't understand that reasoning," she says. "Sociologically? Helping other people? Frankly, if Babe Ruth didn't save baseball, there wouldn't be a game for Jackie or anyone else to even play. Remember, after the [1919 Black Sox] scandal, everyone was disillusioned with baseball, and here comes my grandfather with his mighty bat, and he brought thousands of people back to the ballpark."

But wouldn't retiring the Babe's number dilute the honor bestowed on Robinson?

"Why would it water [it] down? I would think Babe Ruth would enhance it," she says. "If it was my grandfather's number who was retired first, I would welcome Jackie Robinson. I would think of it as enhancement. I don't understand that thinking at all."

So do we then retire No. 7 (Mickey Mantle) and No. 24 (Willie Mays) and No. 44 (Hank Aaron) and ...

"Why didn't they think of that when they did Jackie? There's no criteria written down," Tosetti says. "I think what Jackie did was very, very important. I think what my grandfather did was just as important. I can't argue anyone else who's coming along, but worrying about other players didn't stop them from doing Jackie.

"Making it stop before Babe is highly unfair and not right. If you put the two men together, one of them isn't as important as the other. There wouldn't be a game to be played if there was no Babe."

You can see just how thorny the issue is. For its part, MLB has no plans to retire any other numbers, nor has it ruled out the possibility. "It's under advisement," a spokesman told me.

Ruth isn't the only former player with a campaign built around him. For nearly three years, a Roberto Clemente faction has presented its own compelling case, bending baseball's ear, collecting signatures and rallying support to retire No. 21. They have already shared more than 22,000 signatures with MLB - to no avail thus far.

"I'm going to keep going," Tosetti says, "as long as it takes."

If Tosetti gets her way, Freddie Bynum will have to find a new number. So will Gary Sheffield, Ken Griffey Jr. and Evan Longoria. Not to mention every member of the Babe Ruth Museum's slow-pitch softball team. Michael Gibbons, the museum's director, wholeheartedly supports Tosetti's efforts but points out that every player on the museum's team wears the same number - No. 3.

"If they wipe No. 3 off," he says, "I guess we'd all have to go numberless."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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