September 20, 2004
You Could Look It Up
On Bonds and The Babe
Babe Ruth doesn't get enough play. Next year Barry Bonds is going to sail past his home run total with nary a peep uttered about the big man, 714 being just one more milestone on the road to Hank Aaron and 756.
Even quiet George Sisler, whose single-season record for base hits in a season may be surpassed by Ichiro Suzuki, has gotten more face time than the Babe lately. Sisler even has a statue outside of Busch Stadium, a ballpark in which he never played. Ruth, who did play in Yankee Stadium--often called the house that he built--has no such monument in the Bronx. That is, unless you count the headstone and plaque (there is a reason generations of children have assumed Ruth is buried under there) now removed from play, lonely in Monument Park. Current featured exhibits at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore are on the Orioles--not the Jack Dunn ones that Ruth played for but the current Peter Angelos also-rans--and the Colts.
When Bonds passes Aaron, if not before, there will be a rush to anoint him as the greatest something. Greatest home run hitter. Greatest actor in a non-singing part in a musical. Greatest beer and cheese combination. Greatest baseball player. This would be extremely short-sighted. To displace Ruth as the greatest ballplayer of all time, the aspirant must meet a higher standard. If the greatest baseball player is measured not just in muscles and eye-hand coordination but in his impact on sports and society as a whole, then Babe Ruth owns the title and has never lost it, never wavered in his possession of it, and never will. The first sports superstar, Ruth is the father of all modern baseball players, and all stars in every sport.
George Herman Ruth and modern technology matured together. In the years immediately prior to Ruth's emergence as a slugger in 1919, there was no such thing as mass media. Television had not yet been invented. AM Radio was still in the planning stages; it would be years before the majority of homes owned radios. Movies were a comparatively recent phenomenon, primitive and silent. Only one-third of the country had telephones. Large swaths of the country were still without electricity. The country was bigger then, not so connected; at night the skies were dark and towns just a few miles apart existed in undisturbed isolation.
The idea of a national celebrity in the sense that we understand it was impossible; even presidents were elected sight unseen. People might read about the candidates' positions in the newspaper, but they didn't see them, didn't hear them talk. Then they went out and voted the party line because that's what you always did. Sporting events--baseball games included--were local affairs followed locally in local newspapers. Not nationally, not regionally. Locally. The Sporting News, at that time a publication that acted as a catch-all for news of the game, was a novelty. Baseball attendance peaked in 1909 at 7.2 million. The average for the 10 full seasons prior to 1919 was 5.5 million, or 344,000 per team. "Major Leagues" was really a misnomer; the American and National Leagues were major in the sense that they had monopolized most of the biggest cities, not in terms of national attention. The same was true of other sports. The NFL, new as of 1920, was just hanging on; in 1927 it would collapse from 30 teams to 12. The NBA had yet to be born.
Ruth came along at the moment that mass media was not only inventing itself, but was searching for a purpose. Within a couple of years of Ruth's 1920 transfer to the Yankees, radios started appearing in people's homes. The first World Series broadcast--starring the Babe--aired in 1921. Newspaper circulation increased dramatically. Syndicates were created to distribute content nationally, so when New York World columnist Heywood Broun wrote "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail" after the Yankees won the 1923 World Series, the entire country read his words. There were more magazines than ever, and soon even movies learned to talk. Ruth sold the newspapers. He helped make the radio necessary. He was even in the movies. He wasn't good, but he was there.
(Hunting for home run number 700, Barry Bonds didn't even sell out Milwaukee. That is, perhaps, more an indictment of Milwaukee and its commitment to baseball than it is of Bonds. Still, the general apathy towards Bonds underscores the ambivalence which many fans view Bonds. Though, by his sheer power, a charismatic presence, Bonds does not try to engage the fans. Ruth had been sprung from an orphanage, was on the roller coaster ride of his life, and never hesitated to let everyone know it.)
There were now a multitude of brand new eyes and ears in the form of cameras and microphones. Who were they supposed to see and listen to? The President? Not with bland characters like Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in the White House. No, to find true excitement you had to look to the ballpark, where there was a big, brash, uninhibited slugger smashing home runs at a rate never before seen.
And the home runs were only half the package. Ruth was quotable. He did outlandish things. He would mug for the camera, wear costumes, fight with his manager, crash his car, succeed grandly and even fail grandly. Ruth had not only power, but personality. That vital combination captured the cameras and the microphones and the printing presses at the exact moment that a national hero became technologically possible. His reach became global, spread overseas. "Who is this Baby Ruth," asked the British playwright George Bernard Shaw, "and what does she do?"
The year of Ruth's arrival the Yankees doubled their attendance. The boom spread throughout the big leagues as more and more people who were otherwise uninterested in the world of "inside baseball"--the hit-and-run, bunt, and stolen base--came out to see Ruth hit. Aided by a livelier baseball, Ruth's style of hitting spread, and ever more fans were drawn to the ballparks. In 1930, as the nation sunk into the greatest economic depression of modern times, attendance reached an all-time high of 10 million. Ruth is often credited with "saving" baseball by diverting attention from the Black Sox scandal, which broke wide open in 1920. This is an understatement. He single-handedly created the modern game.
Ruth transformed baseball from the national pastime--something people played in their back yards and sometimes went to see--into big-dollar entertainment. Professional athletes moved from the cultural background to the foreground. All of the familiar trappings of celebrity--endorsements, gossip in the tabloids, breathlessly reported salary squabbles, and the high salaries themselves--reached their modern form with the Bambino. There were popular athletes before Ruth, but he was the first star.
The argument about who was the greater hitter, Ruth or Bonds (Aaron, a superb hitter, was not quite in their league; Ted Williams deserves to be part of the discussion) will rage on. Using Equivalent Average (EqA) as a yardstick, the standings are currently Ruth, .366, Bonds, .356, with that Splinter guy and his .364 EqA but paltry 521 home runs resting in the clubhouse. On a shelf. In a can. None of it is relevant.
Bonds is clearly one of the greatest players of all-time, and this discussion should not be construed as a denial of that, but rather as an assertion that he exists in a different category from Ruth, that tagging anyone with the "greatest" mantle, greatest meaning supreme, paramount, this one above all, is inappropriate. He may be the greatest something, but Ruth will never be surpassed in his importance to the game.
Bonds will hit more home runs than the Bambino, and he will outshine Ruth in popular memory because popular memory is short. Ironically, the camera eye that Ruth drew to himself would from then on search relentlessly for new heroes to tout. His home runs turned on the lights. His smile set the film rolling. He brought down the spotlight.
That Bonds currently stands in that spotlight takes nothing away from the man who first electrified the game, lit it for all time. Bonds may hit with Ruth, but he will never surpass him. There is only one greatest, one founder. As long as Ruth is part of the discussion, some other adjective will have to be found for Barry Bonds.