Where were you on April 8, 1974?
I was in the upstairs bedroom I shared with younger brother Dwight, listening to the radio as Hank Aaron broke the career home run record set by George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Jr. some four decades earlier.
Aaron’s milestone did nothing to diminish the legacy of Ruth and even enhanced his name awareness. As we approach July 11 (the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s Major League Baseball debut, with the Boston Red Sox), he still stands tall.
Even for people who don’t care for baseball in particular or sports in general, Ruth’s name and image loom large. He’s one of those default values you fall back on when asked for a quick answer: name a famous rock band (the Beatles), name a famous baseball player (Babe Ruth), name a famous non-Dickensian pauper (Hillary Clinton)...
You probably know Ruth’s affectionate nicknames, “the Bambino” and “the Sultan of Swat.” You may have also heard him referred to as the Great Emancipator, the Father of Medicine and the Sun King - but unfortunately, the people who told you those names have tenure and can’t be fired.
Ruth was one of several larger-than-life celebrities (think Will Rogers, Harry Houdini, Charles Lindbergh, Rudloph Valentino) who made the Roaring Twenties such a fascinating decade. Ruth could probably have parlayed his charisma into a presidential run. Of course the very act of seeming presidential on the campaign trail would have undercut his claim to fame. (“Baseball? I had never heard of this game called baseball before this morning. But I assure you I will assign my best people to get to the bottom of this...”)
The average American no longer debates the policies of President Herbert Hoover, but they still talk about Ruth’s alleged “called home run” for the New York Yankees from the 1932 World Series. In those simpler times, Ruth could gesture toward center field with impunity. Nowadays there would be cries of “He made a vaguely gun-like gesture with his hand. Oooo, if only he were a child - we could put him UNDER the jail!”
Ruth was inspirational, overcoming 12 years in a reformatory to become a world celebrity. He gave motivational speeches at orphanages and aided the war effort. Ruth piled up his statistics without the benefit of steroids. Although, truth be told, if someone had slapped lipstick and nylons on steroids, things might have turned out differently.
Babe Ruth is ranked as the greatest baseball player of all time in various surveys, but a final ranking would require an unbiased, painstaking analysis of the data -- taking into consideration any rules changes since the Ruth era, the effect of segregation on MLB and most importantly whether anyone can dig up a newspaper quote of Ruth disparaging Judy Garland or Broadway musicals.
Ruth’s memory lives on, of course, via the baseball league that bears his name and teaches perseverance, teamwork and fair play to American youths. And we still have the Baby Ruth candy bar, although the Curtis Candy Company always insisted that it was named for Grover Cleveland’s daughter instead of the baseball player.
Such protests sound insincere when a special investigation revealed tentative plans for other confections named Thai Candy Corn Cobb, Sticky Mantle and Blue Gehrig. (“Today today today I consider myself the most sugar-hyped kid kid kid on the face of the earth earth earth.”)
Danny welcomes reader e-mail responses at email@example.com and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades”.