Babe Ruth, for at least half a century, was the most famous professional athlete in existence. Perhaps even the most famous person, period. His name was so intertwined with the game — and, by extension, with America itself — that Japanese soldiers in World War II running toward US positions would scream, “Fuck Babe Ruth!”
Sportswriters and even Hollywood screenwriters spun tales worthy of a descendent god about him. He visited a dying kid in the hospital and promised to hit a home run for him; he did so and the kid recovered. He got mad at the pitcher in the 1932 World Series, pointed toward the bleachers and immediately hit a home run in that very spot. He hit a dog with a vicious line drive once and scooped the critter up in his arms and ran down the street, still wearing his spikes, to get the pooch to the veterinarian
All bullshit. Pure bullshit.
Sports fans lapped it all up and sportswriters endeared themselves to their subjects by churning out such hagiographic drivel.
Here are a few facts about the Babe that the newspapermen of his day kept under their hats.
- Ruth missed almost a third of the 1925 season when he was hospitalized for what newspapers characterized as the “big bellyache heard ’round the world.” Supposedly, the Babe had eaten too many hot dogs at one sitting. The essential untruth of that story is easily debunked: people overeat all the time; they don’t have to go to the hospital and miss several months of work. Nevertheless, that was the generally accepted spin. Truth was, Babe Ruth had either contracted a venereal disease (he was a profligate, nearly pathological swordsman, another factoid neatly glossed over by reporters) or was institutionalized so he could “dry out,” the preferred terminology of the day for alcoholic rehab.
- Ruth and his teammate Lou Gehrig originally were quite friendly but eventually became estranged. Sportswriters ascribed their chill to mutual jealousy or some other such innocuous human failing. The truth, once again, was far more fascinating. It seems one off-season the New York Yankees sailed around the world so they could play exhibition games in foreign countries. At one point during the barnstorming tour, several sources agree, Lou Gehrig burst into the Babe’s room and the two had it out. Gehrig’s wife, you see, was in Ruth’s room at the time and either was drunk (she’d been trying to stay away from booze but Ruth got her drinking) or was in the process of having sex with the Yankee’s cleanup hitter. Either way, Ruth and Gehrig did not speak for years afterward.
Two essential truths emerge:
- The American public too often prefers whitewashed hokum to harsh truth
- Professional baseball players forever have been young (both chronologically and psychologically) knuckleheads whose morals and everyday behavior resemble that of rutting hogs more than cultural icons.
God forbid journalists might reveal certain truths about our holy land’s cherished sports heroes. That’s the way sports reporting went until the spring of 1970 when baseball pitcher Jim Bouton’s memoir of his 1969 season, Ball Four, was released by World Publishing.
Bouton told the unvarnished truth about what went on in Major League Baseball dugouts, clubhouses, team planes and hotels, and the saloons ballplayers frequented until the wee hours. Ballplayers routinely took methamphetamine pills, “greenies,” before games. Entire teams would climb up to the roof of Washington’s Shoreham Hotel so they could peep in guests’ windows (the structure was L-shaped) in hopes of seeing women undress. Mickey Mantle and his coterie of pals drank like fish. General managers cheated players out of money as a matter of course. Ballplayers cheated on their wives and girlfriends just as frequently.
Ball Four was a rollicking, groundbreaking — hell, even revolutionary — sports book. It not only told the tale of pro baseball players in the late 1960s, it addressed race relations, anti-war protests, the generation gap, literacy and anti-intellectualism, labor unionism, and a plethora of timely, timeless topics. It was named one of the books of the century by the New York Public Library. Time magazine named it one of the 100 greatest nonfiction books of all time.
I read it in the summer of 1970 when I was 14 years old. I already was hooked on baseball, thanks mainly to my mother who faithfully followed the Chicago Cubs on her transistor radio as she kneaded bread dough. At that age, I was ripe to fall in thrall to a witty, comparatively sophisticated, iconoclastic jock. After devouring Bouton’s book, I turned around and read it again, cover to cover. I’ve re-read it a dozen or more times since.
I loved the idea of poking authorities in the eye, sneering at hidebound fuddy-duddies, overturning the apple cart, and spitting into the wind. Ball Four changed not only the jock memoir forever but sportswriting in general as well. Over the next few years, I’d recognize that journalists like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, my heroes, had been doing the same things in the political and social arenas too. Years after that, I discovered Molly Ivins who, too, was a rebel. They all — Bouton included — were cut from the same bolt of cloth.
Jim Bouton last week, Wednesday, at the age of 80. He’d been battling cerebral amyloid angiopathy and had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012.
Tonight, I plan to dig through my boxes of books to find my well-worn copy of Ball Four. I can’t wait to read it for the umpteenth time.
[ Here’s a terrific interview with Bouton, aided by his wife, Dr. Paula Kurman, a speech therapist. Bouton, at the time of the interview, had great difficulty speaking and remembering. His final days must have been a special hell for such a gifted raconteur. ]