POLITICS NOVEMBER 23, 1974
"The Ruth," Heywood Broun once wrote, "is mighty and shall prevail." George Herman Ruth, Sultan of Swat, has prevailed, a quarter-century since his death and close to 40 years since he hung up his uniform as an active baseball player, to the extent of having four book-length accounts of his life and times appear this year. For a man who read and wrote only with difficulty, that is quite a bit of posthumous attention.
The immediate occasion, of course, was the recent assault upon the Babe's lifetime record of 714 home runs by Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves.With Aaron edging up upon Ruth's seemingly impregnable mark, various publishing houses agreed that Ruth would be in the news, that a biography might be a profitable venture. So we have four new biographies, about two too many.
By far the best of the new books is Robert W. Creamer's, which was serialized in Sports Illustrated. Also worth notice is Kal Wagenheim's Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend, which though written rather clumsily has much good material in it. (Oddly, only Wagenheim has thought to include a compilation of Ruth's lifetime record in his compendium.) Ken Sobol's Babe Ruth and the American Dream is a gauzy, debunking affair, mainly intent upon showing that the Babe was crude, lecherous, vulgar, stupid, swell-headed, cowardly, etc. If Sobol were to write a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, I'm sure he would concentrate upon the fact that Gen. Lee had diarrhea during the fighting.) Finally Robert Smith's Babe Ruth's America uses Ruth's career mainly to give us random discourse on political, social and economic life at the time. If the reader desires an 1800-word account of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, this is the book to read. On the other hand, if the reader wishes to learnabout Babe Ruth, the other biographies will prove more useful. Also, if the reader wishes to tax his eyesight, the blurred sans-serif typography in Smith is made to order. Ruth was a fairly elemental person, raised in a reformatory and greatly lacking in taste, but he was one of the most colorful of all athletes and by far the greatest power hitter in baseball history. He could hit a ball harder, longer and more frequently than any other player before or since. Ty Cobb had a higher batting average, but only because Ruth disdained punching out hits for his average and went for the fences. Aaron has now hit more home runs, but went to bat three times for every two of Ruth's. And Ruth dominated the game during his day to an incredible extent: in 1921, for example, when he hit 59 home runs, the two next leading home run hitters had 24 apiece, and only eight of the 16 major league teams had as many for their total team output. He also drove in 190 runs, hit for a .378 average, received 144 bases on balls, stole 17 bases, and had an incredible slugging percentage of .846.
In the 1920s the press, the economy and the Zeitgeist combined to make athletic heroes into figures of incomparable grandeur. Every sport had its paragons. Ruth, it seems to me, is the only one whose achievements do not depend, in part at least, upon the peculiar magnification of the period to give them their dominance. Reading Creamer's and Wagenheim's books, or for that matter just looking at the statistics ofRuth's record, makes one realize how magnificent an athlete he was. That he had the personality to match, and that the age demanded the image of its own accelerated bemusement, were fortuitous; his skill at hitting a baseball would have been sufficient.
The best way to convey what he was and did and what he represented was simply to relate the facts and quote the witnesses, and this is largely what Creamer and Wagenheim have done. In Creamer's words: "nobody else ever looked like Babe Ruth, or behaved like him. Or did all the things he did in his repressed, explosive, truncated life," It is good to have it told so well in print.
All of the familiar Babe Ruth stories are in these books. They are related factually and judiciously by Creamer, breathlessly by Wagenheim, sardonically by Sobol, and occasionally by Smith. Most of the stories have long been known, though Creamer in particular came up with some that I had never heard before, usually having to do with the Babe's innocent vulgarity, Wagenheim has one, however, that is a classic, almost worth the price of his book. It has to do with a writer-friend of the Babe's who journeyed up to Ruth's farm near Sudbury, Massachusetts in the early 1920s to visit him. He was ushered into the living room, where he noticed a grand piano, with the top badly scratched up. Remarking upon this, he was informed by Ruth that it was one of his best tricks.
Ruth left the room, returned with a cat, placed it upon a rocking chair, waited until it went to sleep, then opened the window a few inches, went into another room and returned with a shotgun. "My God," his friend thought to himself, "the sonofabitch is gonna shoot a cat for my benefit."
Ruth thrust the muzzle of the gun of the window and fired. Whereupon the cat made a magnificent leap, hit the floor once, and landed upon the piano, putting out its landing gear to brake the descent and adding a few more scratches.
"Babe," the friend asked, "what kind of cat is this that you can keep playing the same miserable trick on him?" "I dunno," the Babe replied, "but he does it every time!"
Louis D. Rubin Jr. is professor of American literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
By Louis D. Rubin, Jr.