One question that has come up repeatedly in the mainstream media’s handling of Barry Bonds‘ pursuit of Babe Ruth‘s place on the all-time home run list is “Why isn’t Bonds as popular as Ruth was?” Variations on this theme include, “If Bonds isn’t perceived as the same level of baseball god as Ruth right now, is there a time when he will be seen that way?”
The assumption here seems to be that home runs were the only reason why Ruth became famous, and hitting the same number of home runs as he did entitles one to the same kind of appreciation. That expectation leaves out roughly 98% of the Babe Ruth story. Even the question “Who is better, Bonds or Ruth?” completely misses the point. George Herman Ruth became the Babe because of when he played and who he was. His home runs opened the door to stardom and the big man walked through it. Bonds will never be what Ruth is or what Ruth was, and it has only a little to do with the rumors of his dalliance with performance enhancing drugs or his lack of charisma or how many home runs he hits. Given his talent and his personality Ruth would have been a star in any era, but the Babe was a creation of his time. That moment is gone and won’t return; Bonds could hit a thousand home runs but he still couldn’t bring it back.
Babe Ruth and modern communications technology matured together. In the years surrounding Ruth’s emergence as a slugger in 1919, mass media as we experience it today did not exist. Television was in the early prototype stage. The first radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, didn’t go on the air until November of 1920. Movies were not long out of the nickelodeon stage; “Birth of a Nation,” one of the first long-form dramas to grab the public, had been released just a few years earlier, in 1915. Only one-third of the country had telephones. Computers, and therefore the Internet, were decades away.
There was no such thing as a national celebrity in the sense that we understand it; even presidents were elected sight unseen. The people who voted to reelect Woodrow Wilson in 1916 or Warren Harding in 1920 might have seen some pictures in the newspaper and possibly read some speeches but unless they had turned up along the campaign trail to see them speak, they had no idea how they sounded or moved. Sporting events, including baseball games, were local affairs followed locally in local newspapers. Baseball’s pre-1920 attendance peaked in 1909 at 7.2 million. The average for the ten full seasons prior to 1919 was 5.5 million, or 344,000 fans per team per year. “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 something or someone to talk about. The only pre-existing media was newspapers. With urban populations rising throughout the second-half of the 19th century and literacy rates rising with every year (by 1920 94% of the population could read), there was a huge audience for both English and foreign-language newspapers as well as magazines. With most major cities having at least two competing dailies (now almost unheard of), the need for compelling subject material was great.
By the 1920s, the average American household was receiving more than one newspaper. The number of radio stations jumped from five in 1921 to over 500 in 1922 and over a thousand in 1923. In 1922, the year Ruth struggled with multiple suspensions for illegal barnstorming and fighting, a grand total of 100,000 radios were manufactured. By 1925, it was estimated that 50 million Americans were listening in. 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. Much of the new media was produced in New York City, and in a wonderful coincidence, as of 1920 that was exactly where Ruth could be found. Simultaneously, the economy took off; after some post-war doldrums from 1919 through 1921, the Gross National Product rose annually with no inflation and little unemployment, so people had the funds to spend on these new forms of entertainment and information.
Americans had 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 the country enjoying a rare moment of 20th century peace and bland characters like Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in the White House. True excitement could be found at the ballpark, where there was a big, brash, uninhibited man-child smashing home runs at a rate never before seen. And never mind the home runs, he was photogenic. He was quotable, though perhaps only a small percentage of the things he said weren’t profane in some way. He did outlandish things. He would mug for the camera, wear costumes and funny hats, fight with his manager, crash his car, talk on the radio, act in movies, succeed grandly and even fail grandly.
Ruth’s power wasn’t just in his bat, it was in his personality as well. 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 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 even more fans were drawn to the ballparks. In 1930, in the midst of a devastating depression, attendance reached an all-time high of 10 million.
Ruth transformed baseball from the national pastime–something people played and sometimes went to see–into big-dollar entertainment. Professional athletes moved from the cultural background to the foreground. More, 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. The camera eye that Ruth drew to himself would from then on search relentlessly for new heroes to tout.
The debate as to whether Ruth or Bonds was the greater player or athlete will go on without resolution. (Our own Baseball Between the Numbers has one possible answer.) Despite the image we have of Ruth as a bulbous, beer-swilling, hot-dog stuffing proto-DH, he actually kept up his conditioning (at least relative to his time) for much of his career. He ran well despite small ankles and was considered a good defensive outfielder until the late phase of his career. His excellent pitching record also speaks for his ability, though perhaps also for the softer level of competition of his time. Still, Bonds is quite possibly the superior, more versatile athlete.
But Ruth’s place in history has little to do with such considerations, and it is taking nothing away from Bonds to say so. The year is 2006, not 1920, and Bonds follows a trail already blazed by the Babe. His home runs turned on the lights. His smile set the film rolling. He brought down the spotlight. Bonds can borrow it, but it will never belong to him the way it did to Ruth.