The Behemoth of Bust
American sportswriting has changed a lot since the 1920s. Its less lyrical, hyperbolical, and moralistic than in the days when Grantland Rice and others set its lessons in rhyming verse. Schoolchildren used to memorize Casey at the Bat the tragic story of Mudvilles great slugger striking out in the clutch. But American optimism demanded a happy sequel, so other poems quickly appeared in which Casey got another chance and won the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Im not complaining. In our day the story would probably be told in free verse, with Casey winning the game but flunking a steroids test and turning out to have bet heavily on his own team.
That was the golden age of nicknames for sports heroes. Every great star was given his own honorific title, usually alliterative. Jack Dempsey was the Mannasas Mauler; Luis Firpo of Argentina was the Wild Bull of the Pampas; Joe Louis was the Brown Bomber. Red Grange was the Galloping Ghost. Christy Matthewson was the Big Six; Walter Johnson was the Big Train; Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse; Ted Williams was the Splendid Splinter; Joe DiMaggio was Joltin Joe; Bob Feller was Rapid Robert.
Then there was the one and only George Herman Ruth. The Babe, the Big Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. Kal Wagenheims hilarious and moving 1974 biography lists some of his other appellations: the Mauling Mastodon, the Behemoth of Bust, the Mammoth of Maul, the Colossus of Clout, the Prince of Pounders, the Mauling Monarch, the Bulby Bambino, the Mauling Menace, the Rajah of Rap, the Wazir of Wham ...
There were others too, but Ive probably satisfied your curiosity by now. Suffice it that in this category, Ruths record is probably safe. Hed come a long way from the Catholic orphanage where the other boys had called him ruder names. Its often remarked that he owed none of his feats to performance-enhancing substances; on the contrary, Wagenheim gives the impression that whenever he showed up at the ballpark drunk and sleepless, he was apt to slam a couple of homers, whereas his attempts at clean living had the opposite effect. It was the sportswriters who sounded as if they were on stimulants.
Ruth enjoyed many advantages. He had a worshipful press that largely protected him from scandal; he played against only white players (except in a few exhibition games); he never hit against the slider; he played before night baseball.
For all that, he was a stupendous talent beyond comparison to anyone else, sometimes hitting more home runs than all the rest of the leagues teams put together. Most of his records lasted a generation or more. And before he played daily, he set pitching records that lasted nearly as long.
Today ordinary players make millions of dollars a year. When Ruth was emerging as the hottest player ever known, he had a contract dispute, which he eventually settled for $27,000 spread over three years. During the Depression, when reminded he was being paid better than President Hoover, he pointed out, in his good-natured way, I had a better year than he did.
By then hed played a magical decade for the New York Yankees, whod bought him cheap from the desperate Boston Red Sox in 1920. But his decline began almost precisely with the Depression. He yearned to manage the Yankees when he retired, but the teams owner reasoned, with iron plausibility, that the wild-living Ruth was not the man to impose discipline on younger players. Other owners felt likewise, and Ruth never got a chance to manage. He played a final dismal fraction of a season with the Boston Braves, smashing three colossal homers in his last game, and then the greatest career of all time was over.
It was the greatest career less because of those astonishing records than because of the sheer joy Ruth brought to the game and gave to the fans, especially boys, always dear to this orphans heart. That delight leaps off every page of Wagenheims biography, until the last sad chapters, which recount Ruths agonized struggle with throat cancer. Shortly after his farewell to his fans ay Yankee Stadium, he was dead at 53.
|Copyright © 2006 by the
Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate
Archive Table of Contents
Return to the SOBRANS home page.
|FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.|