Thursday, March 30, 2006

What We Can Still Learn From Babe Ruth


As modern times come and go, new and flashier heroes replace old ones, and PR firms look for the best face to put on their products. Nowhere does this seem more obvious in the world of sports, where heroes are replaced the moment their marketability stumbles. Because sports are huge business for all involved (shoe companies, TV networks and the leagues themselves), the face attached to a product is an important choice for companies/leagues to make. But perhaps more importantly, because sport is an enormous part of our culture, athletes and their antics have a part in shaping our culture, even our values. So in the shadow of juiced slugger Barry Bonds, it’s worth remembering some heroes who should never fade from memory.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth was an icon in every sense of the word. He was the face of baseball for several decades winning several World Series with the high profile Yankees. An imposing physical figure, he was also a charming personality, famously quipping that he should make more money than the president because he “had a better year than Hoover.” On the field, he practically invented the home run, hitting 60 1927; the previous record was his own 54, and before that 29 and 24. And lest we forget, he was traded to the Yankees for his pitching skills, not his bat. He won 65 games in 3 years with the Red Sox. If he had lost 20 pounds, he may have even been able to steal a few bases.

His single season record of 60 home runs should still be the standard, done in only 154 games without the benefit of microbiology. Roger Maris’ 61 came in a season with 8 extra games and McGwire’s 70 and Bonds’ 73 came with the aid of advanced steroids and at the expense of the integrity of baseball. The Babe did it without the tight stitching baseballs have now, and without so much as contact lenses. And to make it all the more impressive, he did it at a time when America desperately needed something to take their mind off the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” that devastated public confidence in baseball. Towards the end of his career, the popularity of baseball he helped reestablish was a great aid in coping with the Great Depression. Now, I would guess some in the blogosphere doubt the value of sports in society, but looking the role baseball played in American in the 1930s, it is hard to say sports were worthless. This was a time when the fabric of American culture was defined in part by baseball and its titans, when catching a game on the radio was part of everyday life for a vast majority of Americans.

I know that Ruth was no moral role model. A reputed womanizer, Ruth certainly enjoyed life in the worldliest sense. His drinking habits and cigar smoke-filled late nights make his physical accomplishments that much more impressive. But his charisma, his ability to connect with fans, especially children, and his enthusiasm for the game are a breath of fresh air compared to the labor unions and dollar signs that emanate from sports today. Ruth understood the role baseball had in America, and never seemed to have a sense that he was above it. In a sense, Ruth was a servant of the game, unlike the Bonds’ of the world, who see the game as servants of them. Ruth’s whole perspective of the role of sports in culture was one of appreciation and respect, something we have lost with the steroids scandal. These sorts of scandal (just like the 1919 Black Sox scandal) help create an atmosphere of distrust in sports. And if sports is big business, distrust in sports is distrust in business.

What makes an achievement authentic? What makes a sports star worthy of praise? What makes sports even matter at all? The answers to these questions can be found in the unique character of the Babe, a guy who has lost most of his records to modern day heroes, but a guy whose importance is hard to measure in numbers.