When a new movie about Babe Ruth was being planned several years ago, a researcher called a sportswriter known for his knowledge of Ruth.
" Is it true," the researcher asked, " that the Babe once hit a ball that went between a pitcher's legs and over the center fielder's head for a home run?"
The sportswriter laughed. " Of course not," he said, explaining that such a feat was physically impossible.
Yet it is true that Ruth once hit a ball between a pitcher's legs and over the center fielder's head. In 1927, he hit a line drive at Senators pitcher Hod Lisenbee, who jumped to avoid being hit. The ball nicked the underside of Lisenbee's thigh and, hit with tremendous power, took a huge hop when it landed just beyond the infield, bouncing over the head of center fielder Tris Speaker, who had been sneaking in hoping to pick off a runner on second (a favorite ruse of his). Ruth wound up with an extra-base hit.
So, the absurd story that the movie researcher was attempting to verify was not far from the truth. Ruth had indeed managed the seemingly impossible feat of hitting a ball between a pitcher's legs and over the center fielder's head. Just not on the fly, and not for a homer.
The story had swollen over the years, but the basic nut was true. So it goes with most of the Ruth mythology still in play today, a century after his birth and 46 1/2 years after his death. The stories sound ridiculous, impossible, the stuff of a fictional superman. But, in most cases, they're underwritten by the truth.
The mythic Ruth made famous by Hollywood, hyperbole and headlines -- the cartoonish character who supposedly saved sick children in the fashion of a faith healer, hit pop-ups so high that he circled the bases before they landed and spent every night with a different woman -- has much in common with the real Ruth, the human-sized, flesh-and-blood ballplayer/father/husband/citizen who had joys and concerns like the rest of us.
There can be no greater testimony to Ruth's amazing life and career: No one could be as astonishing as the mythic Ruth, as anyone who has seen the unbelievably hokey " Babe Ruth Story" starring William Bendix can attest (the best scene is when Babe says hello to a bedridden boy after hitting a home run, and the boy immediately stands up for the first time), but the real Ruth comes pretty close.
He never hit a pop-up so high that he was able to circle the bases before it came down (as advanced in the flimsy John Goodman movie, " The Babe," of a few years ago). But he did hit at least two triples in such a fashion. He really did. You can look it up.
He didn't race to a dying boy's bed before a World Series game and promise to hit a home run in the boy's honor, as the famous story goes. But he did write on a ball autographed by a number of Yankees and sent to the boy that he " would knock a homer" for the boy in the next game, then proceeded to hit three. He made good on the pledge.
He never cured a sick child just by saying hello, but he did brighten the lives of thousands of children, sick and healthy, with his tireless devotion to them. It is conceivable that his support helped a few sick ones stay positive enough to recover.
He didn't point directly to center field and hit a home run in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. But he did respond to incendiary taunting from the Chicago Cubs and their lemon-throwing fans by gesturing broadly toward the outfield, taking two strikes, muttering, " it only takes one to hit," and then hitting a huge homer. Not exactly the precisely called shot of legend, but in the neighborhood.
He didn't retire (as the Bendix movie suggests) in the clubhouse after a dramatic last game in Pittsburgh in which, despite his round belly and 40 years, he hit three homers to silence the critics who had said he was washed up. In reality, he played in at least four more games after Pittsburgh; his last game was in Philadelphia, and he left ignominiously after injuring his knee chasing a fly. Yet that Pittsburgh performance did occur.
Certainly, the mythic Ruth lived as high as high gets, filling his ample belly with food and drink and chasing women until dawn. The Goodman movie practically worked up a sweat attempting to underline his nocturnal bent. The real Ruth slowed considerably after his second marriage in 1929 (his wife took over his checkbook and kept a tight rein on him), and in his later years, he was a relatively strict and caring father. But the early, roguish Ruth of legend is not hyperbolized at all. He was one of the all-time " rounders."
Of course, at the core of this debate about myth and reality is a basic question: What was Ruth really like? It isn't an easily answered question. When sportswriter Robert W. Creamer was researching his 1974 biography of Ruth, he corresponded with Waite Hoyt, Ruth's teammate and fellow Hall of Famer. " I am almost convinced that you will never learn the truth on Ruth," Hoyt wrote, explaining that people's memories of Ruth were refracted by their own views of him and his exploits, making a single, clear portrait an impossibility.
Just raising the question -- what was he really like? -- implies that he was something less than the affable man-child of legend, perhaps something darker. His first wife, whom he drove to a nervous breakdown with his infidelities, would no doubt agree that he was selfish, at the least. And the jaws of modern political correctness would feast on a ballplayer who consorted with bookmakers, stayed out all night before big games (it got Michael Jordan in trouble) and generally acted as though he were bigger than the game.
But a detective seeking a smoking gun in Ruth's life, a nefarious truth in the reality inside the layers of myth, is going to be searching forever without success.
Ruth's former teammate and opponent Bob Shawkey told Creamer, " People sometimes got mad at him, but I never heard of anyone who didn't like Babe Ruth." He wasn't mean-spirited like Ty Cobb. He drank, ate and caroused to excess, wrecked cars, flouted authority and earned an outrageous salary, but he never hurt anyone other than himself, and he lived with an intrinsic boyishness and bonhomie that made it difficult to frown at him for long. His biggest mistake was getting married too soon.
To disparage him now, long after the fact, is to miss the point. He spawned a mythic version of himself because his life was the stuff of mythology, a singular and truly fantastic tale. He was the poor American kid who overcame adversity and made it to the top, yet never lost his humanity; a combination of Abraham Lincoln and Paul Bunyan. Such a life should be celebrated, not picked apart.
Seventy-five years later, it is impossible to overestimate the sensation he caused when he began hitting home runs. Until he came along, baseball was a tightly played game of singles, stolen bases and sly pitching, a low-scoring, conservative affair built around manufactured runs. To use a modern analogy, Ruth amounted to a burst of rap music invading this sporting symphony.
Instead of protecting the plate and playing for one run, he wound up and hit the ball out of the park on a high arc, swinging so hard that he wound up facing the umpire when he missed. No batter had ever taken such risks, swung so hard, hit balls so far. Ruth was breathtaking and revolutionary, and fans everywhere felt the tingle in their toes.
As a part-time hitter, he tied for the American League home run championship in 1918 with what was then a typical league-leading total of 11. The next year, he hit 29, then 54 the year after that. It was as if Michael Jordan had averaged 150 points a game or Joe Montana had thrown 100 touchdown passes in a season. Ruth might as well have flown to the moon.
He became a mythic figure even in life. When he made his return to Baltimore in 1919 to play an exhibition series against the minor-league Orioles, he hit homers in six straight at-bats spanning two games. Several years before that, he hit an exhibition home run in Tampa, Fla., that was measured at 600 feet. His last home run went over the roof of Forbes Field.
Almost ignored is that he became a home run hitter after winning 89 games as a pitcher. (He won 94 in his career.) It would be as if Mike Mussina turned to hitting today and went on to hit 700 homers. It's unthinkable. Incredible.
Although a fraternity of imitators immediately appeared, Ruth remained the unchallenged king of home runs throughout his playing days. He had about 350 more homers than any other ZTC player when he retired in 1935. The foundation of the public's fascination was Ruth's domination of the outsized new art of hitting the ball out of the park, in concert with his similarly outsized character.
" I swing big, with everything I've got," Ruth once said. " I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."
The myth that he spawned was tall, but so was the man. The myth suggests that Ruth was a warm-hearted, immature rogue capable of stunning baseball feats. Those who knew him might quibble with a few details, but not with the premise.