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Among the deeply theological subjects John J. Timmerman wrote about in the old Reformed Journal, none was more winsomely treated than baseball. This tip of the cap to America’s pastime and its most legendary hero appeared first in the issue of July-August, 1974.
During the first quarter of this century, baseball was the national pastime in attendance, public interest, and consummate skill. Many think it has been slipping ever since.
The game of sheer strategy, the John McGraw, New York Giants type of game, is as dead as the baseball it was played with. Today a low-scoring game is usually unintentional. The old game of a sharp single, stolen base, well-executed bunt, and sacrifice fly, ensuring a one-run lead which was made to hold up through superb fielding and tricky pitching, is almost obsolete. George Herman Ruth, who already as an all-star pitcher with the Red Sox was blasting the dead ball over the longest fences, together with the cork-center ball changed the game permanently in the 1920s. With the Yankees Ruth hit more and longer home runs in a dozen years than any other player, with accompanying batting averages from .300 to .393. The day of the classic, lean beauty of the old game was over, and after 1920 not only Ruth but most of the batters were swinging for the stands. The old, tricky pitches were outlawed; attendance boomed; and baseball entered its greatest age.
At the center of the dramatic revolution in the nature of baseball was the raucous, illiterate, and superbly coordinated son of a German saloonkeeper in Baltimore. A troublesome lad, he was at an early age put into the care of St. Mary’s Industrial School, where he was saved from a sinister future by Brother Matthias — “The GREATEST MAN I ever knew,” as Ruth said — who transformed the seedy boy from the waterfront into a vividly exciting baseball player. The life of Ruth, gaudy, uninhibited, often vulgar, moving from indigence and barkeeping to national prominence, drawing bigger crowds than presidents and glamorous Hollywood stars, exalted into a hero by boyhood America, is a saga in success and snuffed-out sunlight. He was cheered and hooted for twenty years, experiencing unparalleled acclaim and bitter frustration. He was the symbol of a dazzling era even when he stood at home plate in Yankee Stadium — sick, suffering, and near death — to receive a last tumultuous hurrah. Beaten down by cancer, he croakily mumbled thanks from his ravaged throat, and then after hobbling to the dugout said to old friend Dugan, “I’m gone, Joe. I’m gone, Joe.” A few days later, he died. The famous number 3 uniform was retired, and baseball never saw his like again.
Mr. Robert W. Creamer, senior editor of Sports Illustrated, in his biography Babe (1974) has written a first-rate life about Ruth. It is a popular, unsentimental, and highly skilful narrative. Creamer effectively uses all the resources of biography: the meticulous statistics with which baseball is almost obsessively concerned, newspaper accounts, an enormous range of interviews, substantially accurate conversations, and the physical data of ball parks. In all the multifarious data, we never lose sight of Babe and the sharply etched portrait that is constantly emerging. There is little waste and little pointless repetition. The style is lively, fresh, and easy, and the character of Ruth becomes luminously alive.
Ruth was a character, an extraordinary human being in whom the purely physical reached an excellence and intensity seldom seen. His personality forces an ambivalence from admiration to disgust. At twenty, fame stoked his natural exhibitionism into flame for over a decade. Ruth did things with resonance. Everything about him was gargantuan: his size, which he constantly fueled with prodigious meals, beer, whisky, and interminable hotdogs; his pursuit of women in every American League port; his grotesque social ineptitude; his madcap driving; his mammoth home runs and the crowd-pleasing elan with which he struck out; even his proneness to injury and the exciting ritual of a dramatic exit from the stadium on a stretcher…
The fact remains that no player ever did what Ruth did. For three years he was the best pitcher, or at least the best left-handed pitcher, in the American League. In 1916 he won twenty-three games, had nine shutouts, and the lowest earned run average in the league. He won twenty or more games a year for three years, but his overwhelmingly impressive batting turned him into an outfielder in 1920, when he was sold to the New York Yankees, in whose employ he accumulated the most astonishing batting record ever compiled in a similar span of years. It is wholly unlikely that any single player will duplicate his dual achievement.
Ruth’s enormous appeal says something about American culture and human nature. He was the epitome of the Horatio Alger hero in his rise from rags to riches through pluck, industry, and ability, although he was no prim moral model as Ragged Dick and other Alger heroes were. An unruly bartender’s son rose from snitching beers to handing out hundred dollar tips to waitresses. He offered vicarious satisfaction to the man tied to the weaver’s shuttle hour after hour. He was the daydream come true of a home run in the last of the ninth with two out and the score tied. His uninhibited vulgarity tallied with the freewheeling morality of the era. Ruth meant power and Americans liked power. His geniality and largesse attracted people. He would autograph scorecards long after other players had wearied of it, and he would serve the little kids first; he never forgot St. Mary’s Industrial School. He would put a five-dollar tip on the table while Lou Gehrig sneaked in a dime. He seemed to justify the whole American inflation of sports. Finally, after the betrayal of the White Sox in the World Series, Ruth restored integrity to the game. Nobody doubted the validity of his swing. Finally, he gave his best to the game even when he was as taped and bruised as Mantle. Ruth never quit; he was mowed down by cancer.
Some are no doubt thinking, “But it’s all just a game.” And no doubt it is. And I am not confusing it with much more important forms of effort and excellence. But what a game it was! A major league park was a happy place years ago with the flags streaming, the vivid green of natural grass, the graceful, geometric design of the diamond, with its precise chalk-white lines, the traditional and exacting ritual of the action. The hum and stir of the big crowd, the sense of steady action punctuated by sudden drama, all made for pleasure. Many of us have happy memories of great plays. I have seen Ruth hit his long home runs, and I once saw Lefty Grove shut out the tremendous Yankees of 1928. I saw Detroit play when they had Cochrane, Gehringer, and a major league team. However, the best catch I ever saw occurred at Riverside oval in Paterson, when a centerfielder called Murphy ran at top speed into the farthest reaches of left-center field and caught the ball with his bare right hand. There were no important consequences; it was simply a marvelous piece of coordination and judgment as pleasing in its own way as a well-executed sonnet. There is something memorable about excellence wherever it occurs.
Copyright 1974, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.