Sunday, February 06, 2011

In Memoriam: Babe Ruth

While a few of his records have fallen in the eight or nine decades since he first set them, the fact that today's super athletes with their workouts, macrobiotic diets, and/or use of anabolic steroids have only just recently begun equaling the big league achievements of one George 'Babe' Ruth is as much a testament to the prowess of the man as the fact that he was a fat, drunk, cigar-smoking womanizer when he made them in the first place.

PhotobucketBorn in Baltimore on this day in 1895, his was a rough childhood*, spent in a house filled with death in a neighbourhood known as Pigtown; only one other of his seven siblings survived childhood, and his mother died when he was in his teens. Of course, he was out of the house by then, having been placed in an orphanage by his father in 1902.

While he was trained as a tailor in the orphanage, it was at baseball that he truly excelled, and while there he was encouraged in his gift by Brother Matthias Boutlier. When he was sixteen, while pitching for St. Mary's Industrial School at a game against Mount St. Mary's University, Ruth was discovered by Joe Engel, an opposing player who informed the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles' manager Jack Dunn of his pitching ability.

Three years later, after watching Ruth pitch for himself, Dunn not only signed the promising teenager but became his legal guardian, since in those days the legal majority required to sign a contract was 25. Not only was Ruth's career born, but Dunn's 'newest babe' earned himself a lifelong nickname as well. In July 1914, Dunn traded Ruth and two other players to the Boston Red Sox, having been turned down by both the Philadelphia Athletics and the Cincinnati Reds two days earlier.

Ruth, of course, made his name in Boston - where the talented pitcher emerged as an even more powerful hitter - but it was his trade from Boston to the New York Yankees in December 1919 that gave birth to Ruth as a legend, thanks to the Curse of the Bambino, as well as a bona fide celebrity. Beginning in 1920 the once-powerful Red Sox went into something of a slump, whereas the lacklustre Yankees became the winningest team in American baseball, the winner of 26 World Series championships and 39 American League Pennants**.

Ruth's last championship hit, on October 1st at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs in Game Three of the 1932 World Series was also one of his (and the game's) greatest; known as Babe Ruth's Called Shot, it's the famous moment when he apparently pointed to the center field bleachers and then proceeded to fire a 440 foot home-run there off pitcher Charlie Root***. By 1934 - the same year his image 'graced' the baseball card shown above - though, the steam had just about run out of Ruth and his career... He'd been considering a number of offers to become a manager, but in almost every case his wife Claire Merritt Hodgson - whom he'd married after his estranged first wife, Helen Woodford, died in a house fire in January 1929 - was the undoing of the deal. In the end, Ruth returned to the city where he'd found his early fame, playing his final season for the Boston Braves in 1935.

Babe Ruth, of course, was one of the greatest players American baseball has ever produced, and as such earned the 95% vote that ensured his induction as one of the first five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in January 1936. As much a showman as an athlete, he made numerous appearances on radio and in silent films; he even starred in a one-man show on Broadway! The greatest of his celluloid appearances, though, was undoubtedly the three scenes in which he played himself in the 1942 film Pride of the Yankees opposite Gary Cooper, who played Ruth's team-mate Lou Gehrig. Ruth's last appearances at Yankee Stadium - one in April 1947 at 'Babe Ruth Day', at which he gave a heartfelt speech before a capacity crowd of 60,000, and the other at the Yankees' 25th Opening Day in June 1948 when his number, 3, was retired - contained many echoes of Cooper/Gehrig's triumphant moment in that film. Ruth himself was played by William Bendix in the 1948 biopic The Babe Ruth Story, attending its premiere in July 1948 despite being gravely ill.

Babe Ruth died just days later, August 16th, aged 53; he was buried at Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York.

*One which played a crucial role in shaping the philanthropist he would become, long before he'd established the Babe Ruth Foundation.
he only other professional sports team in North America that even comes close is the Montreal Canadiens hockey franchise, who've won the Stanley Cup 24 times since 1909.
Root went to his grave adamant it hadn't happened.

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