By Chuck Mindenhall
April 8th, 2016
My grandfather, who was born in 1911 in Leadville, Colorado, was an avid baseball fan even at ten thousand isolated feet, and it was in large part because his entire youth happened to coincide with Babe Ruth’s storybook years in baseball. To this day, Ruth feels like a myth, an inflation of facts — just something the old boys conjured up at the saloon, who could spit into a can and make a sharp ping, then go crush a 400-foot homer with a wink. He was a figure so ahead of his time that a hundred years later we still haven’t caught up all the way. Ruth’s records, even as some of them fall, still sit in the books like golden markers, like historical connections to our past, like religious comparisons, like the breeze on a warm summer day.
The “Bambino” is at the center of it all. The way the game is played today, what makes it exciting, was Ruth’s evolved expression. Perhaps the best young pitcher in the Bigs when a still member of the Boston Red Sox between 1914-1919, he never missed batting practice. He tried to plant souvenirs into the stands with one violent uppercut swing. He carried a bigger bat, and tried to crush the old tattered wool and horsehide balls over the fence — a gimmick that the old-timers, bred to move base runners along, only sniggered at.
By 1918, when he helped the Red Sox win what would become their last title for 86 years, he had 11 homeruns. There were no home runs hit in the Fall Classic that year. The following season, with World War I over and his regional status already expanding to cult, he hit 29, shattering the record, and ending what would become known as the “Dead-ball era.” Babe Ruth didn’t invent the long ball; but he brought it crashing into fashion. To this day the home run lives as the most exciting element in baseball. Ruth’s signature forever lives on in an optimist’s credo: “Swing for the fences!”
After 1919, Ruth’s his life began to take on its mythological proportions, which was not only the thing my grandfather talked about, but the subject of a century’s worth of literature — from Robert W. Creamer’s definitive Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, to Dan Shaughnessy’s The Curse of the Bambino, to Glenn Stout’s new book, The Selling of the Babe, and many more.
Said his old teammate in Boston, Harry Hooper, “I saw a man transformed from a human being into something pretty close to a god.” What an era followed.
Sold to the New York Yankees for $100,000 the day after Christmas, 1919, the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry was cemented forever, as the Yankees went on to win seven pennants and four World Series with the “Bambino” transforming into the most famous athlete of the Roaring ’20s. The Red Sox wouldn’t win another World Series until 2004. Ruth became the centerpiece of baseball’s greatest rivalry. Perhaps no year was bigger than 1923, the season that Yankee Stadium opened up for business. Dubbed aptly the “House that Ruth Built,” the Bambino hit a home run in the opener, right on cue. That season he would go on to become the American League’s most valuable player, and catapult the Yankees to its first ever world championship, defeating the rival New York Giants.
The 1927 Yankees, with Ruth now a living legend who shattered his previous records by cracking 60 home runs — each one described in scrupulous detail by the fascinated New York media — are still considered by many to be the greatest baseball team of all time.
Ruth became live-action history with every ballpark he visited.
But Ruth was so many people. At 6-foot-2, and weighing north of 200 pounds — a titan in his day, which played right into his other nickname, “The Sultan of Swat” — he was the pug-nosed boozer with a wild streak, whom in his early days in Boston could regularly be found passed out on Batavia Street on the South End after a bender. Ruth was drawn to the red lights, but he was a fan favorite for his interactions, often walking home with kids after a game, or flipping them nickels beforehand. He lived for the moment, both on and off the field — and on the field, it’s a testament to how ahead of his times he was that he could live the lifestyle he did and yet make the game seem so easy.
His stats in the 22 seasons between 1914-1935 speak for themselves. He was a seven-time World Series champion, a 12-time homerun leader, and a six-time RBI leader. He was the 1923 AL MVP. His numbers live on forever. His #3 does too. It was retired forever in 1948, the year Ruth died.
Today he lives on as the game’s most hallowed legend, a man whose name is not only synonymous with baseball but with America itself. He is baseball. During the lazy, dog days of summer at the old ball park — from Fenway to Chavez Ravine, from Yankee Stadiums to Wrigley Field — Ruth can be heard from with every crack of the bat. His voice is the barrel hitting the ball. My grandfather was fortunate enough to be among those who grew up with Babe Ruth, who saw a one-of-a-kind athlete go from being a crude, uneducated kid to one of the greatest Americans of the 20th Century.
Or, as Hooper said back in the day.
“Babe has created an expectation of hero worship on the part of the youth of this country, and it was a most fortunate thing that Ruth kept faith with the boyhood of America because they loved him.”
A century after he debuted in the Big Leagues and began making baseball what it is today, they still do. The Bambino lives on.