In a March column titled “Time for Selig to Bury Bonds,” New York Daily News sports pasha Mike Lupica wrote, “They will cheer [Bonds] in San Francisco when he passes Babe Ruth, and we will hear again that his most vituperative critics hate him, the arrogant black star, for passing the portly white guy who has been one of the famous names in American sports since the ’20s. As if Bonds is breaking some kind of record by passing Ruth. As if we care about that anymore.”
But as Bonds, now with 713 home runs, staggers on buckling knees toward Ruth’s epic 714 total, Lupica has been proved painfully wrong. Even though the actual home run record is Hank Aaron’s 755, the baseball world is on edge as Bonds approaches the Great Bambino.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, whose gray, shadowed countenance looks like a map of Mordor, announced that there would be no ceremony when Bonds passes Ruth. “Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record,” Selig said. “We don’t celebrate anybody the second or third time in.”
But as Selig well knows, the church of baseball puts its faith in a catechism of sacred numerology. The most historically important arguably is 714. As Josh DuBow of the Associated Press writes, “More than three decades have passed since 714 represented baseball’s career home run record. Yet there is still something magical about Babe Ruth’s old record. ‘The average person probably knows 714 more than 755…but 755 is the record,’ Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.” It doesn’t take Kreskin to divine the message Selig is sending by ignoring Bonds’s run on history. In a Chicago Tribune piece called “This Snub’s for You,” Phil Rogers seethes, “Babe Ruth, celebrated as the grandest character in baseball lore, is being chased by an anti-hero whose act has grown tired and, at times, pretty much pathetic.”
Even though Bonds has never been convicted of any crime, has never tested positive for a banned substance and has played the game at a higher level than any player of his chemically enhanced generation, he is the game’s pariah, the media-appointed “symbol of the steroid era.” Now that the owners have mined their billions from the 1990s home run binge, and everyone has a Congressional hangover, Bonds is persona non grata.
The thought of Bonds passing Ruth clearly makes Selig’s pallor turn an even murkier shade of gray. Babe Ruth, Lupica’s assurances aside, remains the most treasured and important figure in baseball history. Home runs are still called “Ruthian.” Yankee Stadium is still the House That Ruth Built. Ruth is the man with the fifty-four-ounce bat, someone so portly the famed Yankee pinstripes were first stitched on just to make him appear less rotund.
Yet Ruth is also someone treasured through a vapor of nostalgia so thick that he has become myth to the disservice of all except those who use his dewy memory to bash present-day players for their moral failings. The truth is far more complicated. The description of a mercurial, complicated, egomaniacal star whose personal behavior might skirt legality is one that matches not only Bonds but Ruth as well.
Ruth’s 714 home run record lacks the spit-shined purity his backers trumpet. The Sultan of Swat made his bones playing against only a select segment of the population because of the ban on players whose skin color ran brown to black. Ruth never had to hit against Negro League greats Satchel Paige or Lefty Mathis to amass the magic 714. Yet no asterisk for institutionalized racism mars the Babe’s marks. Ruth also was a habitual user of a banned substance that was deemed unambiguously illegal by the federal government–a drug Ruth believed enhanced his performance: alcohol. Ruth was a star during the roaring prohibition 1920s, and as teammate Joe Dugan said, “Babe would go day and night, broads and booze.”
But Ruth didn’t just stop at the watering hole to find an edge. According to The Baseball Hall of Shame’s Warped Record Book, by Bruce Nash, Allan Zullo and Bob Smith, the Bambino fell ill one year attempting to inject himself with extract from a sheep’s testes. This effort by more than a few athletes of his era to seek the healing and strengthening properties of testosterone prefigured the craze for steroids. When Ruth fell ill from his attempted enhancement, the media was told that Ruth merely had “a bellyache.” This was believable since Ruth was a glutton, famed for eating eighteen-egg omelets. The Sultan of Swat was also a glutton for women and violence, and he could be roused to fisticuffs if it was suggested, as it often was, that he was part black. The Babe’s famous trade-out of Boston in 1920 was justified by Sox owner Harry Frazee by saying that Ruth was “one of the most selfish and inconsiderate athletes I have ever seen.”
Of course in Ruth’s day, without twenty-four-hour sports yipping and with sportswriting reduced to sonnets of heroism for a country weary after World War I, his flaws were essentially invisible to an adoring public. But Bonds’s flaws are picked over, his every strikeout met with cheers by a herd of likeminded writers who who act more like the White House press corps than independent journalists.
It’s a shame, because this could be an opportunity to reacquaint a new generation of fans with the singular Ruth. It could be an opportunity to explain that all heroes are flawed and no era is pristine. Instead, the media is smothering Bonds, and the rest of us, under the weight of a bowdlerized Babe.