Saint Babe

Musings on the 70th anniversary of George Herman Ruth’s passing, and the difficulty for the modern fan to connect with an icon.

One of the distinctives of Evangelical or charismatic Christianity is a personal experience of the divine. If one has spent any time around Evangelicals or charismatics, she has no doubt heard something along the lines of ‘It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.’ The emphasis is on a personal encounter and subsequently with the divine as necessary for salvation. With charismatic revivals, they typically go from firebrand in the first generation to fervor in the second and then at best a flaccid fundamentalism in the third. People who were there remember what it was like, their children try to retain that fire and their children’s children don’t quite get it. They weren’t there.

There aren’t many left who could say they saw Babe Ruth play. He passed from a titanic figure in the baseball world (and American life) to a legend. This guy played 80 years ago, and those of us who were raised on the modern era are unable to truly comprehend Ruth.

We are not the Sandlot generation whose fathers regaled them with the stories of Murderers Row. We’re detached from that, or the golden era that followed with Mantle, Mays, Aaron. Babe Ruth to us is a myth.

The closest corollary I can muster is having seen Michael Jordan play basketball. We were spoiled in the late 80s and early 90s with WGN telecasts of Chicago Bulls games. We saw Jordan turn the NBA inside-out game after game for year after year. We were there, we saw it. With LeBron James’ ascendance to the highest echelons of greatness, debates pop up over who was greater. Those of us who saw Jordan tend to insist it was Jordan; those who saw LeBron but not Jordan tend to claim LeBron. Both have incredible basketball resumes, both have taken the game and bent it to their will.

In similar baseball debates, there is Hammer, Mays, Mantle and Mike Trout is on his way to barging into that rarified air. The Babe doesn’t enter those debates; somehow, he exists beyond them.

The numbers are staggering: the .690 slugging percentage, 714 home runs, a career OPS approaching 1.200, the combination of power, average and getting on base we’ve only witnessed in three players since: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. Even then, none were the pure hitter Ruth was over 22 seasons. Bonds was the greatest we’ve ever seen. Aaron hit more home runs. Mays is widely regarded as the best ballplayer of all time. Ruth is transcendent.

Even amongst Yankees fans, there is only reverence for the Babe. They remember Reggie Jackson, some remember Mantle’s playing days, a scant few remember DiMaggio. Derek Jeter retired a few years ago. Lou Gehrig’s dramatic exit from the game due to illness humanized him.

We weren’t there; all we know about Ruth as a player are the numbers he left behind on a stat sheet, and radio and newspaper were the only media telling the story (and likely stretching the truth.) We don’t have Cut4 tweets, no ‘position player pitching’ memes (he did that five times after converting to a full-time outfielder). Little film footage exists. Unlike religious experience, there is no manifest present either; the Babe doesn’t reveal himself to zealots. There are only stories and numbers, both of which are malleable to whatever narrative the narrator might prefer. It’s been done with sacred texts, the same is done with box scores and gamers.

And that’s how we get from George Herman Ruth to the Babe to Saint Babe, doctor of the baseball faith.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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