Hall of Fame sorting through Babe's legend
New exhibit explores fact and fiction of baseball's larger-than-life hero
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- What do you say about someone whose legacy is larger than all of our other heroes, the ones who we say are larger than life?
John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, asks that question another way.
"How many Twitter followers would Babe Ruth have?'' Thorn wonders.
No one knows for sure, of course. But 65 years after his death, we can say the Babe would still be trending.
Many of Ruth's best known records have been erased, but America's fascination with the urchin from St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore remains. Scores of books have been written about Ruth through the years, with the latest Ed Sherman's "Babe Ruth's Called Shot,'' examining his long-debated blast at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series.
Why has Ruth had staying power atop our pantheon of icons?
"Ruth's greatness and aura have transcended time,'' Sherman said. "His feats were so staggering they morphed him into a mythic, Paul Bunyan-type figure. We still talk about him because he always has been the standard for excellence in sports. Even Michael Jordan was known as the Babe Ruth of basketball. No explanation required.''
There's no forgetting Ruth's greatness. He won 94 games as a pitcher, including 47 in a two-season stretch with the Red Sox, and set the mark with his 60-homer season in 1927 and 714 over his career. He still holds some records, including 177 runs and 119 extra-base hits in a season, both set with the Yankees in 1921.
But a lot of myths have been created about Ruth through the years, including the so-called Called Shot against the Cubs. His life away from baseball contains its own set of mysteries.
Those are the things that the National Baseball Hall of Fame is delving into in its new exhibit, "Babe Ruth: His life and his legend.'' It opened on Friday as a part of the Hall's 75th anniversary celebration.
Under the oversight of curator Tom Shieber, the exhibit uses newspaper clippings, recorded interviews and artifacts to explore Ruth.
Using what he calls a "scrapbook style,'' Shieber works to tell Ruth's story in a fresh style. There are clippings about divorces, deaths and suspensions as well as some relics that date to lesser known feats, like a 500-foot home run he hits in an exhibition game at New Haven, Conn., and his exploits barnstorming, including one run in which he hit 20 home runs in 21 games.
There's even a newspaper story about a called shot in 1927, that one to end an exhibition game in Fort Wayne, Ind., against a semi-pro team. The crowd was reported at 35,000.
That was the way it was everywhere Ruth went, in part because of how the newspaper reporters of his day manipulated his image to fit their needs.
"The golden age of sports, which Ruth dominates, was also the golden age of sportswriting and newspapers,'' author Jane Leavy said. "The explosion in column inches and in advertising on those column inches, and the dedication of a preponderance of them to Babe Ruth, was extraordinary. You had the first tabloid in New York, the New York Daily News, created in 1919, hiring a guy, Marshall Hunt, who was a 24/7, full-time Babe Ruth writer. This was unprecedented.''
Thorn points out how coverage glorifying Ruth and other heroes frequently altered facts, spinning events essentially in real time.
"I don't think you can read contemporary accounts of Babe Ruth by many of the most illustrious journalists without a carload of salt,'' Thorn said. "Which is not to say that the legend is uninteresting. How the fact gets rolled up into this big dumpling with the dough of imagined story is a fascinating process. … You have legend creation at the outset.''
And historians continue working to get to the real story.
"The challenge is that we all know the legend,'' Thorn said. "The legend kind of eats up the life. We know about the called shot, St. Mary's, the sale to Yankees, the sad circumstances of his retirement. We can position the signposts of his life. A lot of the interesting detail we skip over. We want the royal road to knowledge, and Babe Ruth was a complicated individual, maybe the first great media celebrity.
"As such we felt we owned him. Him knowing us as we knew him. It was a personal relationship with the Babe established in the 1920s that endures to the era of Miley Cyrus.''
Mike Gibbons, the executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, was part of a group that interviewed more than 100 people who had met Ruth when they were children.
"To a person, they all agreed it was among the most important moments in their lives,'' Gibbons said. "They didn't see him in the ballpark, they would go to movie theaters, see him in their neighborhoods. There's a story that this woman said her father was a butcher in New York and Babe would go there from time to time. Babe was going to stop by her father's house and word spread throughout the neighborhood, and all these kids lined the street -- imagine this! -- dozens if not hundreds of children.''
Leavy has written two baseball classics in her biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. She is working on a Ruth biography, and admits that he is a difficult subject.
"I may shoot myself for doing this because God knows there's plenty out there that has been written about the Babe, some of it very, very good and some of it, eeeh,'' Leavy said. "I thought very, very long and hard about whether to take on [Ruth as a subject].''
But how do you say no to the Babe?
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.