Babe Ruth? For three generations, from Roosevelt's New Dealers through the Baby Boomers, he was a set of numbers, the most charmed in modern American history. Children grew up with three numbers hammered into their brains: 1492, Christopher Columbus' year, 60 and 714. Ruth's 60 homers in 1927 and eventual career total were indelible footprints in two seismic paths, America's out of a crippling Depression and baseball's into America's National Pastime. They weren't numbers so much as memory aids; just hearing them unleashed a flood of thoughts and opinions.
Chances are, that is all that remains for all you of this generation; as in, "The guy who had all these records before Hank Aaron-going-on-Barry Bonds." Chances are, that's really all Bonds himself knows of the next man on his to-do list. Well, that, and that he must've had a hand in the construction biz because in the Bronx there's this "House That Ruth Built." Of course, the man was more than that. And the myth was more than the man. The essence of Ruth isn't what he did, but how he did it. As subtle as thunderclap and as conforming as 50 Cent, to call him a baseball player is to call Rodeo Drive a strip mall. Today, the concept "larger than life" is a lie. With omnipresent media, Internet streaming and 24/7 cable television cameras whose red lights never dim, life is as big as it gets. But in the '10s and '20s, Ruth towered over life, tales of his exploits fascinating the millions who would never see him in person. His fame knew no boundaries, of either country or time. His celebrity was neither simply domestic nor fleeting. There are tales of GIs returning from World War II fronts, a decade after his last game, with stories of being charged by Japanese troops screaming -- and how ironic, in a contemporary context -- "To hell with Babe Ruth!" As integral to the Ruth mystique is when he did it. It's not so much the cultural and baseball crossroads onto which he dropped, though it's impossible to overstate his impact on the masses during the uncertainty and disorder of the Prohibition '20s -- also known as the Roaring decade, when sports heroes, also including Red Grange, Jack Dempsey and Bobby Jones, united the nation like no one else could. Overlooked by historians has been the fact his sale by the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees -- a move that altered baseball history unlike any other -- came three months after the 1919 World Series, the one Chicago's Black Sox were suspected of throwing. So the sensation stirred by the Bronx Babe saved baseball by offering fans a refuge from the storm of accusations and charges that blew across the ensuing two years. Consider where the game was before Ruth reinvented it. It was Small Ball any way you want to look at it. When Ruth was hitting 54 homers in 1920, the St. Louis Browns were next with 50 -- as a team. The Browns' George Sisler was second among individuals with 19. How is that for dominating an era, always a leading index of Hall of Fame worthiness? When Bonds was hitting his 73 in 2001, seven others were clocking in at 47-plus. When Ruth was hitting 60 homers, the other position players on those 1927 Yankees were an average 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds -- an unscientific survey, yes, but it gives you an idea of how the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Babe stood out from his crowd. The Major Leagues' total attendance for 16 teams in 1919, Ruth's final season before New York, was 6,532,439. The attendance for the same 16 teams ten years later, with Ruth in New York, was 9,588,183. The stock market crashed but, with Ruth the leading bull, the baseball market was rising. The Babe changed how the game was played and viewed. He regularly put up ridiculous numbers, doubtless establishing fans' fascination with the sport's statistics. Consider the 1921 season, his second with the Yankees: While lofting 59 of his signature homers, Ruth also batted .378, drove in 171 runs and his total of 204 hits added up to 457 bases. In his 73-homer season, Bonds batted 50 points lower, scored 42 fewer runs, had 46 fewer hits and totaled 46 fewer bases. Ruth was a man of many dimensions, having all five tools before scouts began counting them. You never hear anything about his defense, but as a right fielder he notched 204 assists, including 11 seasons of 10-plus. No mystery where that arm came from. In his first big league life, Ruth was merely one of the AL's top pitchers, a two-time 20-game winner who held the record for consecutive World Series shutout innings until Whitey Ford broke it 40 years later. One thing for sure: Ruth didn't learn about hitting home runs from giving them up. In 1916, while winning 23 games, he allowed zero homers in 323 2/3 innings. That's right, zip. Nada. Nil. All this must sound like a fable, the invention of an author whose imagination puts Dr. Seuss to shame. The truly amazing part is that the Babe kept living up to the inflated expectations. The day Yankee Stadium opened, erected by his own popularity, Ruth put the first dent in it with a three-run homer for a 4-1 victory over the Red Sox. When a Major League All-Star Game became a reality in 1933, Ruth hit the first Midsummer Classic home run, a two-run blow for a 4-2 AL victory. For 31 years, he simultaneously held World Series records for both homers hit (15) and consecutive shutout innings pitched (29) -- which should be the end-all testament to his versatile greatness. He was Wilt scoring 100 points every night, Tom Dempsey kicking 63-yard field goals every Sunday, The Rocket fanning 21 every fifth day. The Babe indeed was before his time. He was anti-Establishment forty years before that became the Hippies' badge of honor. He infuriated people in authority -- owners, managers, cops -- and the masses loved him for it. Imagine the modern infamy of ending an entire World Series by getting caught attempting to steal when you represent the tying run. Compared to that, Bill Buckner minors in humility. Well, the Babe did that -- getting nailed by Cardinals catcher Bob O'Farrell in the ninth inning of Game Seven in 1926. Ruth spent most of his career getting nailed. He drew repeated suspensions -- five in 1922 alone -- for physically abusing umpires or ignoring rules of baseball and society. But throughout his transgressions, he was beloved, even by the people meting out the punishment. How else to explain the incident of June 8, 1921? Ruth had been arrested for speeding in New York, fined $100 and thrown in jail. He was still behind bars an hour into the Yankees' afternoon game. So Ruth changed into a uniform delivered to the jailhouse and, with the help of a police escort, got to the ballpark in time to help the Yanks rally for a 4-3 win. A fable, yes. But no happy-ever-after ending. The Babe's desire for a post-career managerial position elicited guffaws and scorn from clubs' executives, with the Yankees' own owner, Jacob Ruppert, rumored to have dismissed him with, "Manage the Yankees? You can't even manage yourself."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.