Renowned sportswriter Tommy Holmes of the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Herald-Tribune once wrote:
“Some 20 years ago, I stopped talking about the Babe for the
simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen
him didn’t believe me.”
Wow, can I relate to that!
Whether talking about Babe’s nearly superhuman athletic ability, his legendary showmanship, his extraordinary charisma or his seemingly endless charitable and humanitarian activities, the tale indeed sounds like fiction. Upon Ruth’s death in 1948, famed New York Times columnist Arthur Dailey expressed a similar sentiment:
“Writing about Babe Ruth is akin to trying to paint a landscape on a
postage stamp. The man was so vast, so complex and so totally
incredible that he makes mere words so puny and insignificant. They
say that truth is stranger than fiction. So was Ruth. No
scenarist would dare borrow fragments of the Babe’s life for use in a plot.
They would seem much too fantastic for belief.”
So, here we are sixty-two years later, engaging in the joyous ritual of honoring Babe Ruth as a humanitarian. We start by acknowledging that George Herman Ruth was a naturally nice person. Yes, he was a tough kid, growing up wild and reckless on the waterfront streets of
When he became a professional ball player at age nineteen, Ruth was coarse and crude, but what else could be expected from a youth with such an emotionally crippling background? In those early years, he did struggle to balance his newfound freedom and notoriety, but was never known to be hurtful or mean-spirited. It just wasn’t in Babe’s nature to cause sadness to other human beings. As he matured, Babe Ruth evolved into one of the most charitable and generous souls that anyone could ever meet.
Babe Ruth became actively involved with at least 42 different charities and organizations whose purpose was to serve their fellow man. He regularly visited hospitals, orphanages, prisons, schools, sanitariums and other similar institutions. During a visit to Hawaii In 1933, he spent time at a leper colony despite warnings from local authorities.
In fact, Babe was the first prominent American athlete to regularly participate in philanthropic activities. Certainly, there were kind-hearted athletes prior to Ruth, but, for whatever reasons, they just didn’t do the things that the Babe did. Essentially, every socially active athlete since Babe Ruth has followed in his footsteps. And please do not indulge in the myth that these activities were performed for notoriety. Dozens of Ruth’s associates have gone on record saying that for every such publicized event, there were, at least, twenty that went unnoticed except to the beneficiaries.
Babe Ruth made it a habit to champion any worthy cause. Although of German descent, he spoke out against Nazi Germany long before it became fashionable. He sold war bonds throughout World War II, and, when he became terminally ill soon after that great conflict, he volunteered to receive experimental treatment which put his life at risk for even earlier death. Even in his passing, Babe found a way to help mankind. And, even though most modern Americans are unaware of Ruth’s contribution to race relations, it was a very important part of his life.
As early as 1918, at age 23, Ruth began his long journey to integrate Major League Baseball. Men of color from Ruth’s day were well aware of Babe’s efforts on their behalf, and, to a man, told me in numerous interviews of their heartfelt appreciation. In fact, the historical evidence strongly suggests that Babe Ruth did not achieve his lifelong dream of managing a Big League team because of his advocacy of integration.
Some of Ruth’s biographers have implied that he was not hired due to his lack of personal discipline. After years of research, I can lay that fiction to rest. First, when on the ball field, nobody played with more discipline and courage than Babe Ruth. Second, although the Babe liked to party, I can state unequivocally that most stories of Ruth’s rowdiness are vastly exaggerated. Most importantly, I have confirmed that at least half of the franchise owners of Ruth’s day, including Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, extolled Babe’s qualifications to manage. I am convinced that it never happened because Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis knew that Babe Ruth would have advocated the inclusion of African-American players on any team that he managed.
In the matter of race, Babe Ruth was simply color blind. Wherever he went around the world, including Latin America and the
Everybody knew his story, and understood his flaws. They saw a man who regularly experienced adversity. He battled weight problems, he became ill, he suffered injuries. Early in his career, Ruth was suspended for different reasons, and, during his entire career, he frequently struck out. But, no matter what happened, he always picked himself up and swung for the fences. People loved him for that. Despite the fame and fortune that he eventually earned, everybody related to Babe Ruth. They were one with him. Folks who were sick or “down and out” would look at Babe, and say to themselves: “If that poor kid from the streets of
Many folks, even today, have heard the story of young Johnny Sylvester of
Well, it really happened that way, and it is amazing that this scenario occurred over and over again. In that same year, young Billy Kennedy of
It is difficult to imagine how stressful it would be to carry such a burden: knowing each day that someone was likely to reach out to you in the hope that you could either save them or someone that they held dear. But this was the life that Babe Ruth willingly embraced. In 1928, when traveling by train through the Mid-West on a barnstorming tour, a man suffered a heart attack. Babe was not trained to deal with such medical crises, but, when professional help boarded the train at the next stop, they discovered that Ruth had struggled valiantly for thirty minutes to save the man’s life.
That leads directly to the oddest incident in Major League history. On May 19, 1929, a violent thunderstorm roared past Yankee Stadium, causing the players to run for cover and the game to be delayed. Tragically, there was a stampede for an exit in the right field bleachers, whereupon hundreds of fans were injured, two mortally. Seventeen-year-old Eleanor Price was one of them, and she was carried unconscious across the playing field by a policeman. Babe Ruth saw their approach, and immediately shouted into the stands for a doctor. One gallant physician stepped forward, but he had no equipment with which to help.
So, young Eleanor was carried into the Yankee clubhouse, and when the emergency personnel entered, they found her in Babe Ruth’s arms as he rubbed her head, imploring her to live. When medical intervention was not possible, it had been decided that her best chance was for someone to raise her spirits. Who better than Babe Ruth to do that? It was an impossible task; Eleanor’s injuries were so massive that she never had a chance. Babe probably sensed that, but he tried anyway. And when he failed, he couldn’t overcome his sense of loss. Within a fortnight, Ruth suffered a nervous breakdown which forced him out of the lineup for three weeks.
As always, he resumed carrying his burdens, and continued being Babe Ruth. But, isn’t it difficult to truly comprehend all this? Even though we know by way of careful research that these things actually happened, they still seem implausible. Like Tommy Holmes and Arthur Dailey, whose quotes we heard at the outset, I have given up trying to explain Babe Ruth. Unlike them, I haven’t stopped talking about him. I know that many folks won’t believe what they hear, but I still enjoy trying.
Babe Ruth is an American original. He belongs to all of us. If someone chooses not to invite him into their heart, it is their loss. If Babe Ruth had not existed, we would almost certainly have invented him, just like other fictional heroes who make us feel good…characters like Paul Bunyan and Superman.
But, thankfully, Babe Ruth did exist. His elegant daughter Julia is with us tonight as proof. Despite his imperfections, Babe left us a legacy of extraordinary kindness, courage, hope and almost unbelievable optimism. Okay, he wasn’t a choir boy, but he didn’t have to be. Ruth left the entire world significantly happier as a result of his all-too-brief time on earth. He instilled us with joy and wonder about just being ourselves. We will never see his like again, and very few others who embody true humanitarianism as did Babe Ruth.
Bill Jenkinson, Baseball Historian
Speaking at the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame
June 12, 2010