American Culture

Rogues, scandals and the Church of Baseball: S&R honors Babe Ruth

Walt Whitman once said, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” You could look it up. – Annie Savoy

I’ll promise to go easier on drinking and to get to bed earlier, but not for you, fifty thousand dollars, or two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars will I give up women. They’re too much fun. – Babe Ruth

Today is Opening Day for America’s Pastime, and to mark the occasion S&R honors our newest Scrogue, George Herman Ruth. The Bambino. The Sultan of Swat.

The Babe.

What Ruth lacked as a scholar he more than made up for in roguishness, and his appointment to our masthead comes at a time when our game is facing its own set of troubles. The Mitchell Report is a desperately flawed effort, but BALCO, the Federal pursuit of Barry Bonds, admissions of cheating by Andy Pettite and others, the now-discredited denial of cheating by Rafael Palmeiro, the strange case of Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser, and Fat Bastard roasting on a spit before Congress all make clear the magnitude and scope of baseball’s rampant performance enhancing drug scandal – one so vast it is likely destined to stamp a huge asterisk on everything that happened between the 1994 baseball strike and now.

No, this isn’t the first time baseball has had to confront an integrity-of-the-game issue. There were bribery, game-fixing and gambling scandals in 1887, 1908, 1914, 1917 and 1918. The 1919 Black Sox scandal was probably the most infamous single moment in American sports history and resulted in eight players being banned for life, including the legendary “Shoeless Joe” Jackson. (Jackson hit .378 with three doubles, a homerun and six RBI in the Series, so yes, there’s reason to question whether the gamblers really got their money’s worth out of him.)

The 1980s gave us the Pete Rose betting scandal and a nasty cocaine scandal involving a significant number of players, including top stars Dave Parker and Keith Hernandez.

Then there was the suspicion that Hank Greenberg got robbed of a chance to break Babe’s homerun record in 1938 because he was Jewish and the institutional color barrier scandal that kept blacks out of the game until 1947.

You also had individual players who were sort of ongoing scandal cases. Ty Cobb was, by all accounts, was the nastiest son of a bitch who ever laced up a pair of cleats. And Gaylord Perry was baseball’s answer to the pro wrestling heel – everybody knew he was juicing the ball, but they only caught him at it once in 22 seasons.

This latest round of infamy is different, though, because never before was baseball’s estabishment complicit in the construction and execution of the scandal. You have to be pretty simple to believe that baseball didn’t know about the epidemic of clubhouse pharmacology, but hey – the game had shot itself in the foot with the 1994 strike and it needed to win fans back. And chicks dig the long ball, you know? Sadly, the sport doesn’t have a real commissioner anymore and Congress only gets involved when it sees a shot at a photo op.

Let’s have a brief poll here: That anybody still watches or attends games is an indication that:

a: Americans have given up and are too cynical to care anymore.
b: Fans are too dumb to realize there’s a real problem.
c: Our nation no longer has the integrity necessary to confront moral challenges.
d: Hey, it’s just a game.

The Babe, of course, was one of baseball great rogues. He was drinking and chewing tobacco by age seven and as an adult his drinking, eating and carousing were nearly as legendary as his considerable on-field exploits.

Sportswriter Bill Broeg said that “to try to capture Babe Ruth with cold statistics would be like trying to keep up with him on a night out.” On and off the field, Ruth’s gargantuan appetites, charisma, and ego kept the media scurrying in the wake of his latest generosities and indiscretions. The same Ruth who would happily spend hours of free time with needy children was ejected for swinging at an umpire who called ball four on the first batter the young pitcher faced in a June 23, 1917 game. Red Sox teammate Ernie Shore relieved Ruth, the runner Ruth had walked was caught attempting to steal, and Shore retired the next 26 batters to earn credit for a perfect game. As for Ruth’s legendary carousing, roommate Ping Brodie quipped, “I don’t room with him. I room with his suitcase.”

In his 22 seasons in the Bigs Ruth hit 714 homeruns. His lifetime batting average was .342, his on-base percentage was .474 and his slugging percentage was .690. His OPS – on-base plus slugging, the stat that most modern day analysts see as the most important indicator of a player’s offensive impact – was a staggering 1.164. By comparison, last year’s MLB leader in OPS, Alex Rodriguez, posted an impressive 1.067. That’s one great season – Ruth bested that mark significantly over his career. In his best year, 1920, Ruth’s OPS was an unfathomable 1.382.

Oh yeah, and if he hadn’t been moved to the outfield because of his stick, he’d be in the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest pitchers in history, too.

He did this all without performance-enhancing drugs. Instead of steroids, speed and HGH Ruth relied on a rigorous performance-dehancing regimen. Hung over and reeking of cheap women, we imagine, stepping into the batter’s box after a sleepless night and jacking balls deep into the right-field bleachers. Day after day, year after year. What would he have done had he lived in the weight room like today’s athletes and consorted with pharmacists instead of women of questionable character?

We can celebrate his appetites and the epic shadow his myth cast across all who would follow him, but we should also take a moment to indulge some sympathy for the man. After all, this kind of personality doesn’t just happen, it’s shaped. He grew up in an apartment over a bar in a not-great neighborhood and spent much of his childhood on his own. At the age of 12 he was given away by his parents and once handed over to the orphanage he rarely saw them again in his life.

Let me say that again. His parents gave him away, in much the same fashion someone might dump a rambunctious puppy after it piddled on the carpet one time too many. Imagine how that might have affected you – neglected for so many years, probably starved for attention and love, and then…discarded. In what ways does this explain the man’s appetites? In what way might this explain his desperate pursuit of the attention of women?

As massive as his accomplishments were, is it possible that the legend of Babe Ruth was a fraction as large as his insecurities? What kind of emotional pain must he have endured – in a world where men, especially men of his stature – didn’t talk about their pain?

In any case, welcome to Opening Day, 2008. And no, the Sunday night prelude doesn’t make Sunday Opening Day and we won’t even talk about the silliness of playing two real games in Japan then returning to the US to play some more exhibition games. We’re also not going to get all hung up in MLB’s attempts to find medical care for its own self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. No, around here we understand that the ultimate joy of the game is playing it.

So here in Denver, the Opening Day that matters most is next Sunday, when my National Adult Baseball Association 38+ Denver Grizzlies square off against The Shack at 9am at D’Evelyn High School. There will be no steroids, no organized cheating and no cynical pandering to our culture’s worst instincts. Instead, you’ll just have a couple teams of over-the-hill guys who love the game and are willing to deal with the Monday-morning stiffness that comes with indulging that passion.

We’ll leave you with some wisdom from the greatest sports movie ever made, Bull Durham.

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball. – Annie Savoy

Play Ball!

11 replies »

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  2. Also, the House That Ruth Built begins its farewell tour. It was supposed to start today, but it was rained out. Is Joba Chamberlain the reincarnation of the Babe? Sure looks like him.

  3. The Yankees are loaded this year. But I heard Manny Ramirez finally got himself into top shape. So who knows?

  4. Baseball is still the best sport around. There’s nothing quite like spending an afternoon at the ballpark. For the first time in my adult life, I’ll be going to games without my lovely wife. It won’t feel quite the same, but the game is really all that matters. Scandals and whatever is wrong with Baseball means nothing to me. The call “Batter up” evokes such a strong emotion to me that it nearly brings tears to my eyes. No wonder why there is so much poetry written about baseball.


  5. Baseball is magical. The Babe was the best that ever played the game. Thanks, Sam, but was the “Fat Bastard” comment necessary?
    Go Yankees