Babe Ruth is looking down from a baseball diamond in the sky, and he is laughing.
He is laughing because he has read the 90 papers that will be presented at Hofstra University's conference April 27-29 commemorating Ruth's 100th birthday. Academics from across the country have written about half of the papers, using their diverse scholarly backgrounds to find religious imagery in Babe Ruth movies, to analyze Ruth's behavior using Freudian psychology and to compare him with characters in Shakespearean tragedies.
Many of the scholars know the Babe would find their work hilarious.
"I think he'd probably have a couple more hot dogs, smoke a cigar and belch," said Adam J. Cox, a psychology graduate student at Lehigh University. "In many ways, if he attended this conference, I think he would be astounded that people took his life so seriously."
These scholars are definitely serious. Cox wrote a paper describing Ruth's off-field behavior as the ultimate expression of id, Freud's label for the primitive personality. Cox is part of a new generation of academics who in the early 1970s started considering any aspect of American popular culture worthy of research -- baseball and Babe Ruth included.
"Everything is fair game, so to speak," according to Peter G. Levine, a professor of history at Michigan State University who is one of the pioneers of academic sports history.
Levine began his scholarly career as a "traditional" 19th-century American cultural and political historian. But in 1976, in response to declining enrollment in Michigan State's history courses, he taught a course on sports history.
The success of that course propelled Levine to write two books, one on sporting goods magnate A. G. Spalding and another on sports and the American Jewish experience. He is currently finishing a television documentary and book with Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times called "Idols of Sport."
Ruth is one of those idols, and Levine is preparing a paper, "The Many Faces of Babe Ruth," for the conference. "It is a paper about identity," he said. "We can learn a lot about ourselves and Babe Ruth in the process."
Levine, along with other scholars, former players and sportswriters, is one of the stars of the four-day conference -- a conglomeration of panel discussions, paper presentations and exhibitions of art and memorabilia.
Hofstra has held annual conferences on famous people since 1976, but the scholarly interest in Ruth has been unprecedented, said conference chairman Eric J. Schmertz, the 68-year-old former dean of the university's law school. More than 160 papers TC were submitted, many of them by scholars who saw the conference as a much-needed respite from their traditional fields of study.
"It's sort of a holiday," said Frank Ardolino, 53, a professor of
English at the University of Hawaii who specializes in 16th-century literature, particularly Shakespearean dramas.
Ardolino said the Christ imagery in "Macbeth," "Othello," "King Lear" and "Hamlet" also appears in the 1948 "Babe Ruth Story," a movie definitely not written by Shakespeare.
Ardolino's holiday at the Hempstead, N.Y., campus is a reunion of sorts for Leonard Cassuto and David R. Grant. They grew up together collecting baseball cards in Queens, N.Y. Today, Cassuto is an assistant professor of American literature at Fordham, and Grant is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado.
The literary scholar and the mathematician found common ground in Ruth, whose greatness they defined through standard deviations and comparisons to the American literary canon. "I think this is the only opportunity we're going to have to collaborate in our scholarly lives," said Cassuto, 34.
Baseball always has been a part of Majorie Maddox's life. The grand niece of Hall of Fame baseball executive Branch Rickey, Maddox, 35, is an English professor at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. She specializes in creative writing.
For Maddox, who wrote a paper and submitted one of 30 poems, the conference on Ruth was a natural place for her work.
"Baseball's considered poetry in motion," Maddox said. "Both look deceptively simple when the parts are working so well."
This one-time conference is not the only outlet for aspiring baseball scholars. Membership in the Society for American Baseball Research, which was founded in 1971 by 78 academics and fans, has grown to 6,600 members, said its president, David Pietrusza.
SABR members take baseball very seriously, and many of them have submitted papers to the conference. Pietrusza wrote about the relationship between Ruth and baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who suspended Ruth for the first six weeks of a season for illegal barnstorming.
"Ruth's head was beginning to get swelled, and Landis unswelled it real quick," Pietrusza said.
Pietrusza, 45, said that the conference and its papers would not have made Ruth laugh, cry or eat himself sick. The hoopla wouldn't have fazed him one bit.
"I'm sure that everything that happened to him when he walked out of the gates of St. Mary's amazed him," Pietrusza said. "I'm not sure anything else would have come as a surprise. After all, he was Babe Ruth."