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The Bambino Has Left The Building?
The Polo Grounds: A Calm Review of Baseball ^ | 16 July 2002 | Jeff Kallman

Posted on 07/20/2002 2:36:48 PM PDT by BluesDuke

I inaugurated this journal earlier this week, after writing and editing one elsewhere but experiencing technical hiccups enough to make it hell's headache rather than heaven's exercise. Finding the incumbent terminal a far less arduous maneuver, wishing enough to continue my tiny stake in our baseball conversation, I opened shop here, with a remake/remodel of an essay I had published through the previous terminal.

That was "Missing Among The Memorables?" My purpose was enunciating this case: that Major League Baseball, offering the thirty most memorable moments across the game's memory lanes and asking for an isolation of the five paramount, had been insufficient - that, perhaps, a stronger course might be isolating ten paramount from fifty nominees or better.

An audacious suggestion, perhaps. In the event, I unfurled 26 more candidates of my own, and there it stood when a few acquaintances saw fit to tweak me for the man who was missing among my missing. But I noticed he turned up missing among MLB's Original Thirty, except in a kind of negation: one notorious team sale, lead victimhood in an incandescent strikeout feat, and two unbreakable records broken.

He turned up among my missing in a similar kind of negation, to wit: two innings after Grover Cleveland Alexander, old and perhaps hung over, wheeled in from the bullpen to kill a Yankee rally by striking out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded, our missing man - running on first with two out in the bottom of the ninth - was fool enough to try stealing second (he was out by two county lines) with Bob Meusel at bat and Lou Gehrig on deck. Game, set, and world championship to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Of course I am talking about Babe Ruth.

And I was surprised, too, to think he had offered up not one single moment above and beyond anything else, in any season, other than the suborinate or support (non-support?) roles in which he turned up cast.

My tweakers were invariably kind to my obvious lapses. Had I greater circulation and any profound influence, I should probably have expected to hear from those to whom any less than unquestioning sycophancy to the deity is tantamount to blasphemy and worthy of drawing and quartering. Either that, or I might have been ignored as obviously unworthy of acknowledgement, for having exposed my clear enough absence of senses and substance.

In either direction, my lapses might put me into some fairly elite company, never mind that they know and care not that I exist. The delightfully audacious columnist Allen Barra (he writes "By The Numbers" for The Wall Street Journal) has written a delightfully audacious book (Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century), in which he audaciously debunks the Bambino (it is the leadoff chapter, in fact) as a reality not even close to his mythology, thanks in fair enough part to all sports except baseball being allowed to choose a modernor contemporary as the class of their class.

I suspect George F. Will has read Mr. Barra's book, based upon a radio interview he gave last week. "Who was the best basketball player? We all know it's Michael Jordan. Who's the best quarterback? It might have been Montana, it might have been Marino. You talk in other sports and we're always talking about contemporaries. Why is it in baseball that Tris Speaker had to be better?" (Actually, Barra thinks Wilt Chamberlain was the best basketball player and Bart Starr the best quarterback, but let us not get technical.)

Oops. Mr. Will said Speaker, not Ruth. But Tris Speaker, as it happens, doesn't show up among MLB's most memorable moments. Neither does Ty Cobb, except in the breach of Pete Rose breaking his career hits mark. Nor do Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, or Mickey Mantle. (Mantle shows up as one of my nominations.) The Bambino is not exactly in the company of the Bad News Bears.

With one recorded exception thus far, my tweakers could not have cared less for any omission beyond Babe Ruth. (The exception was Bob Gibson and his 1.12 ERA for 1968. This was a nomination I might have made myself but for the otherwise dismissable Denny McLain - his vices turned to crimes early enough to squander his outsize pitching talent - having become baseball's last 30-game winner in the same season.) And I would be unconscionably unfair if I do not accept that they proffered some very sound evidence for the prosecution. Exhibit by exhibit, here it is:

His 60 home runs in 1927. This is one of the strongest items among the few I discuss here. And I say that even though a valid debate exists over whether the Babe had other seasons (the usual suspects: 1920, 1921, and 1926) equal or even superior to his 1927. There is no debate, however, that depositing 60 into the seats in 1927 was an incandescent achievement. In the first half of Ruth's century, only three got close enough to it: Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg.

But the MLB nominations list made account not of Ruth's establishing that record but of the star-crossed Roger Maris breaking it. And it was right, proper, and appropriate to do so.

No world divided over Sandy Koufax taking the single season National League strikeout record from Christy Mathewson in the same season Maris took out Ruth. Nor over Maury Wills taking out Ty Cobb the following season, or Lou Brock taking out Cobb lifetime, in due course, regarding stolen base records. No one wanted to hang Koufax for burying Bob Feller, or Nolan Ryan for nudging Koufax to one side, regarding the major league single-season strikeout record.

Maris was assaulted and battered for even thinking about getting within close enough range of Ruth. (As also would be Henry Aaron, just as disgracefully, when he approached and passed the Babe's lifetime 714.) Maybe you almost had to be there, to think that Babe Ruth going yard 60 times in a season and seducing a country was more memorable than Roger Maris pulling the trigger 61 times and defying a country, its baseball establishment (they put no asterisks on Koufax or Wills, folks), and even (it is believed) his employers.

Babe Ruth's offspring did not hear it said, in public for the most part, that her father "just wasn't what we wanted" in a big-bang, record-busting hero while he was alive. Roger Maris's children did not hear it said, much beyond their hearth and home, that their father just wasn't the son of a bitch he was cracked up unconscionably to be, when breaking a record he was told he had no right to even think about.

And it wasn't Ruth's descendants who needed either a too-premature memorial or Mark McGwire's public courtship to validate that the better man, if not the better ballplayer, had broken the glam record to set the mark McGwire was about to smash.

The "called shot" home run in Game Three of the 1932 World Series. Forget for a second the idea of choosing baseball's five or ten absolute most memorable moments. Try choosing the game's greatest myths that do not have the name Doubleday. I know which scenario would leave me trembling like hitters digging in against Randy Johnson.

But I also know that picking the "called shot" as a candidate for the greatest myths is a no-brainer. And we have no less impeachable a source, perhaps, than the big galoot himself. He actually admitted he hadn't exactly called his own blast off Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, but when the story went round regardless, he was ham enough - he was the big oaf with the big stick long enough - to go along with the gag.

Who could blame him?

Never mind that the 1932 Series was punctuated with ferocious bench jockeying between the Yankees and the Cubs, including and especially involving the Babe. Never mind that, when he batted in the fifth inning, he was answering the Cub bench jockeys by pointing a finger per strike in the count at Charlie Root on the mound, as if also to indicate he still had a strike or two left to hit, and that for one of those he just so happened to extend his arm doing it.

And then he just so happened to bomb one over the wall and into those bleachers. But who was even Babe Ruth to let the truth get in the way of a good story? (If Ruth could hit home runs at will any old time he chose to, Carl Hubbell would have been missing one future Hall of Famer when he struck out the fearsome foursome batting behind the Bambino in the '34 All-Star Game.) Especially if the story was begun by one of his leading mythmakers, sportswriting legend Grantland Rice?

He virtually ended his career with a three-homer game. The Babe's final three yard shots in major league competition - that could be considered defamation of character: he was playing for the Boston Braves, against the Pittsburgh Pirates - came in the same game. That is impressive enough by itself, even if you have done it a time or three before.

Unfortunately, it was not Ruth's absolutely final major league game as an active player.

That it matches the Ruthian legend to think he went out with a three-swinging bang is, of course, a wonderful thing to imagine. But thanks to the man playing another couple of feeble regulation games before hanging it up at last, imagination is all it is.

The Babe says farewell at Yankee Stadium. A tweaker (the same gentleman as re the three-dingers-he's-out myth, in fact) believes I should have nominated that day in 1948 when - gray, emaciated, vanquished - Babe Ruth bade a formal farewell to the Yankees, to their fans, and to baseball itself. Suggested my tweaker: it was at least the equal of Lou Gehrig's nine years earlier.

If only.

Have you ever seen or heard the Babe's speech as he actually delivered it that afternoon, from beginning to end? If you have not, if you have only heard fragments but not the entire talk, you cannot know unimpeachably how arresting it really was.

What nature had endowed the legendary gospel bluesman Blind Willie Johnson's singing voice, throat cancer had done to the famous Ruthian vocal yowl. With this left to his larynx and very little at that, the ravaged Ruth willed himself to talk into the microphone before him. His redemptive testament to the power of baseball, its meaning to him, his implicit wish that he could truly stand higher than the game itself, is nothing short of magnificent and gripping, even 54 years after he delivered it.

Death's approach had humbled this outsize character as (we learned later enough) no man or moment could otherwise do, and he made no bottom of the ninth bid to disguise, resist, or blast death out of the park. "There've been so many...lovely things...said about me," rasped the Babe in conclusion (the pauses are his), "and I'm glad...that I had the thank everybody. Thank you."

And after a second of quivering silence, the rolling swell of applause.

The moment was, indeed, beyond these things.

But it was not to the height of Gehrig.

There are differences and distances between a man in his latter fifties brought toward death by (arguably) his own excesses, and a man not even close to his forties who is brought to death by an uninvited enemy of unknown origin. For better or worse, Babe Ruth with death come calling was aged beyond his years and the fault lay not within his stars but within himself. For better or worse, Lou Gehrig, a man to whom vigor did not conjoin vice, looked aged not a day, when he pushed his already weakening hands to his hips and told a crowd which included Babe Ruth that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

And it is not Babe Ruth's farewell that is the most analogised, quoted, misquoted, borrowed, rented, stolen, or recreated in the history of American sports. They hadn't rounded up actors and others of fame or infamy, on a Saturday this May, to prelude every major league baseball game with an anniversary reading, from beginning to end, of Ruth's farewell.

Babe Ruth is doomed to settle for having had one of the ten most memorable careers of all time. So he belongs not among those having committed the most memorable single moments the game has ever known. That's a crime? Then ask yourself when we can expect Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson, Don Larsen, or Johnny Vander Meer in the Hall of Fame. That isn't Don Larsen's fast ball grip depicted in sculpture outside Yankee Stadium, and they will not likely erect a stature of Johnny Vander Meer outside Cincinnati's coming Great American Ballpark.

Babe Ruth cannot point honourably to any single moment of his that joins the other nominees' in transcending even the game itself. But neither can the other nominees - or those who may yet prove to have been his on-field superiors - equal or supplant the Bambino as the game's penultimate icon. All things considered, I should think that a very reasonable exchange.

©2002 Jeff Kallman

TOPICS: Sports
KEYWORDS: 1927season; 1932worldseries; baberuth; baseball; halloffame; memorablemoments; newyorkyankees; ruthfarewell
Need a good baseball debate, especially as re the Memorable Moments picking and choosing...
1 posted on 07/20/2002 2:36:48 PM PDT by BluesDuke
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To: 2Trievers; Charles Henrickson; Cagey; Zack Nguyen; hobbes1; hole_n_one; Hildy; CARDINALRULES; ...
As Clyde of the Ant Hill Mob used to say, All right, youse mugs...make with the debates that are won by de bats!
2 posted on 07/20/2002 2:48:08 PM PDT by BluesDuke
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To: BluesDuke
3 posted on 07/20/2002 10:12:46 PM PDT by Zack Nguyen
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To: Zack Nguyen; All
Thanks Zack. One little correction, though: the Babe's farewell at the Stadium was 1947; he died in 1948.
4 posted on 07/20/2002 10:53:55 PM PDT by BluesDuke
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To: BluesDuke
Bump for later reading...
5 posted on 07/21/2002 2:14:23 AM PDT by NYCVirago
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To: BluesDuke
Batter up! Great essay Dukester! &;-)
6 posted on 07/21/2002 2:54:01 AM PDT by 2Trievers
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To: BluesDuke
Can't wait to read that book, BluesDuke.

Here's a question: Do you think the use of steroids has had anything to do with McQuire, Bonds, Sosa, etc. shattering Maris' single season home run record? If so, shouldn't there be an asterik beside their names?

I find myself watching less and less a game I truly love. Well, at least we have the history of the game to fall back on and we have great people like you to bring us that history. Thanks.

7 posted on 07/21/2002 5:23:20 AM PDT by Dawgsquat
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To: Dawgsquat
I don't watch any games anymore because they cancelled the world series and I'm a Cub fan for 50+ years.

I just can't relate to people who make, on average, in excess 0f 1 million a year (now 2.4) striking for more money.

Besides that, they have people pitching who should be single A ball with their 5.00+ eras.

IMO, the National Pastime is past time.
8 posted on 07/21/2002 9:11:51 AM PDT by poet
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To: poet
BTW, I forgot to mention that I own a comic book and sports card store and I no longer stock more than 1 box of baseball on my shelf. 95% of my sales are basketball. When I ask the kids about baseball, they say "it's boring".

The all star game left a bad taste to the bb fans I've talked to.
9 posted on 07/21/2002 9:17:50 AM PDT by poet
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To: Dawgsquat
Can't wait to read that book, BluesDuke.

And, frankly, I can't wait to sell it! ;)

Here's a question: Do you think the use of steroids has had anything to do with McQuire, Bonds, Sosa, etc. shattering Maris' single season home run record? If so, shouldn't there be an asterik beside their names?

In order, my answers are I don't know for dead solid certain (and neither, absent tangible and real rather than speculative evidence, does anyone else); and, absolutely not. You can make as much case that McGwire, Bonds, Sosa had in fact been constructing those bodies over long and consistent years (a case very much strengthened by the simple enough point that for at least three generations, now, baseball players could easily afford to spend the offseason working out, as opposed to working for a living, and they were speaking of such strength training and building for years long enough before Jose Canseco strolled into the league) as you could make the cynical case on the 'roids.

That doesn't mean steroids are not in wide-enough spread use in baseball; Ken Caminiti (a far more credible testament than Jose Canseco, who has had a long-enough time ax to grind) made that clear enough. So have the 80 percent of players polled recently (by USA Today, an easy enough poll to take if you figure there are only 550 or so major league baseball players) who said they favour testing for the 'roids (Curt Schilling has been merely the most vocal such advocate). But unless the evidence is brought in incontrovertibly, it is patently unwise and unfair to name a particular player.

And if you were to try to forge a judgment based on any statistical anomaly and on that alone, you would have to exhume Roger Maris for a test - of all the five men who have hit 60 or better even once in baseball history, Maris (not a huge man by the standards of physiology today - and, by the way, baseball players on the whole were becoming improved physical specimens over their forebears as soon as 1975-76 - but not necessarily Mr. Skinny, either, if you remember the famous shots of him hitting one out when wearing no sweatshirt under his Yankee uniform) actually had the biggest jump from his previous season's home run total. The problem does exist, but regarding a particular player it ought to be show the real evidence. And I think that time is coming sooner than we might expect - even if the leadership of the Players' Association continues insisting the steroid issue is merely a collective bargaining matter, they will find it increasingly untenable to hold that position when a firm enough majority of their clients want testing.

Now: Do I think there ought to be asterisks on McGwire/Bonds/Sosa if they turn out to have been doing the roids? No, no, a thousand times, no. For better or worse, baseball allowed the condition to exist in which the 'roids could have been indulged, and baseball's government turned a consistent and all-but-willful blind eye to the prospect. (One remembers when Thomas Boswell dropped the dime on Jose Canseco as far back as 1991 - it was Boswell who got semi-crucified for even thinking such a thing; no one dared question a guy whose glandular bombs were putting real or imagined asses in the seats.) And if that is the case, the asterisk question is as ridiculous as it was when Roger Maris busted the Babe. (And does anyone else aside from yours truly continue marveling at the hypocrisy of the Maris attackers in 1961, when nobody even though to suggest that, well, if Mr. Frick thinks it all ought to be nicked with an asterisk, then let's slap that asterisk on Sandy Koufax breaking the National League's single-season strikeout record…or Maury Wills breaking the single-season stolen base record a year later…Koufax merely broke Christy Mathewson; Wills merely broke Ty Cobb. Guess they weren't lucky enough to have Ford Frick as their ghostwriters.)

I find myself watching less and less a game I truly love.

The game itself is hardly diminished because the business that surrounds and presents it is a disgrace. The business that surrounds and presents baseball has been a disgrace since well enough before Babe Ruth popped 60 into the seats in 1927, the distinctions being that it was not much discussed in public the way we have done since the (just and appropriate) demise of the reserve clause. But the game has never been a disgrace. Even in the eras where baseball's government skewed toward an imbalance of power (the original live-ball era; the 1990s, to name two), the game itself seemed to have a way of overcoming.

This season, the game is not strictly a matter of power versus power - as many high-scoring games have come from passels and packs of running and slash-hitting as from the three-run bombs. The leading pitchers in each league this season seem to have earned run averages under four this season, with many of them going under three. At the All-Star break I counted at least twelve pitchers who, at that point, were on paper holding pace to be twenty-game winners. Twelve pitchers. (I couldn't name the last time there were twelve 20-game winners in the majors, either.) The pitchers are taking the inside part of the strike zone back, at least whenever they can conjugate this day's umpire's deviations. (You thought the Constitution has been rent by judicial licentiousness?) The hitters aren't all looking to go jack over the wall, though I noticed recently those who do mostly know how to do other kinds of hitting as well, and rather well at that. And if you want to look cynically, think of it this way: Sammy Sosa mostly has to hit all those bombs, because as often as not it's the primary way the Cubs get any runs on the board at all. ;)

And as much as I cringe at the thought of Bud Selig's innocence (this is, normally, something like speaking about political morality), if the All-Star Game's managers had managed their resources a little more prudently, not to mention paying attention to which of their pitchers were at what point of their normal scheduling (it turns out that, had their teams been on schedule rather than at the All-Star break that night, Philadelphia's Vicente Padilla and Seattle's Freddy Garcia would have taken their regular turns in the starting rotation), the All-Star Game would not have ended in a tie.

Well, at least we have the history of the game to fall back on and we have great people like you to bring us that history. Thanks.

That's a very pleasant thought, of course. But for better or worse baseball's history is not always or strictly as wonderful or romantic as us sentimentalists would like it to believe. At the minimum, our ignorance has been anything but bliss. And, as wonderful as baseball's history has been, there has been a corollary side effect, to which I alluded somewhat in my piece: a prejudice has hold, still, that in any sport you are allowed to talk about its greatest practitioners and draw them from the modern or contemporary play of it…except baseball. Suggest even quietly that Alex Rodriguez, for example, may yet prove to be the greatest baseball player of all, and as often as not you get jumped by the crowd who cannot abide suggestions than anyone beyond a Ruth, a Cobb, or a DiMaggio, or a Speaker, had the Right Stuff. (By the way, if I had to make the absolute choice between the two, I'd pick DiMaggio over Ruth: Ruth's Yankees didn't win as many pennants and World Series with him as DiMaggio's did with him. And Ruth's teams never said of him what DiMaggio's said of him: that with him they always felt like they had the chance to win.)

It is as if surpassing those men in terms of performance achievement could possibly eliminate them as icons of the game, and this is patently not true. You could line up ten players who will make Babe Ruth look less valuable to his teams than they, but you could never eliminate the image of Babe Ruth, the standing of Babe Ruth, in the firmament of the game. Not even if you come up with a player who obliterates Ruth's offencive statistics (defencively, he was at best an average outfielder; other than his slugging averages and on base percentages, he was at best a barely average baserunner and as a basestealer he should have been arrested for stealing runs from his teams) completely would you obliterate Babe Ruth, period.
10 posted on 07/21/2002 9:47:22 AM PDT by BluesDuke
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To: BluesDuke
Hey baseball fanatics ... lighten up a bit! &;-)

11 posted on 07/21/2002 10:43:55 AM PDT by 2Trievers
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To: 2Trievers
I'm not entirely sure, but I think I saw her in the box seats at Dodger Stadium a few weeks ago...but I don't think those were her hands in the gloves! *he ducks...he runs...!*
12 posted on 07/21/2002 11:11:44 AM PDT by BluesDuke
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To: BluesDuke
Coulda' ... it's the new VS sports bra. *wink* &;-)
13 posted on 07/21/2002 2:17:44 PM PDT by 2Trievers
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To: BluesDuke
As usual, a steady, logical response to my query. Thanks. I guess I won't give up on the game just yet.
14 posted on 07/22/2002 9:46:49 AM PDT by Dawgsquat
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