(Re) Play Ball!
In baseball, the past is present
By Randy Horick
AUGUST 24, 1998: Babe Ruth died 45 years ago last Sunday, but he made an amazing comeback this year.The "Sultan of Swat" now wears a uniform of the St. Louis Cardinals. And of the Seattle Mariners. And of the Chicago Cubs, in whose northside ballpark he hit his famous, much-debated "called" home run. He has even turned up in the uniform of his old team, the Yankees--one of whom actually dons the Bambino's cap when he pitches.
It doesn't matter that, as a player, Ruth was superior to all of his reincarnations. He hit for a better average and struck out far less often than the Cardinals' Mark McGwire. He was an even more prodigious home-run hitter than Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners. He was a better all-around player than the Cubs' Sammy Sosa. And, back in his years with the Red Sox, he was a better left-handed pitcher than David Wells of the Yanks--the man who bought Babe's vintage cap. (Ruth, we might add, was also a vastly more voluminous eater than the portly Wells; once, on an excursion to Coney Island, the Bambino conspicuously consumed four porterhouse steaks and eight hot dogs.)
Nor does it matter that McGwire, Griffey, and Sosa are hotly pursuing a record--most home runs in one season--that hasn't even belonged to Ruth for 37 years. The most significant similarity between Babe Ruth and today's Baby Ruths isn't on the field anyhow.
In 1920, baseball as a national pastime had been given up for dead. The scandal of the year before, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of sand-bagging in the World Series, had left the game discredited and a shambles. Baseball (and baseball attendance), the prognosticators professed, would slowly recede, yielding its position to newer, more robust games like football.
Instead, Ruth changed everything. That season, his first in Yankee pinstripes, he established a record with a jaw-dropping slugging percentage of .847. He batted .376 and scored 158 runs.
But his other mark--54 homers--was even more amazing. No previous major-league player had ever come remotely close to that total; the Cardinals' George Sisler, the National League's top home-run hitter in 1920, finished with only 19.
Ruth suddenly rendered antiquated the old, slashing, base-to-base style of play epitomized by Ty Cobb. In the process, he captured the imaginations of jaded fans. In 1920, one season after baseball went comatose, the Yankees nearly doubled the previous year's attendance, becoming the first team in any sport to draw more than a million spectators.
Baseball's predicament in 1920 was more than a little like the pinch in which the pastime found itself just a year ago. The strike of 1994 nearly dealt baseball a mortal blow. The greed and shortsightedness of the players, combined with the avarice and myopia of baseball's owners, left sullen fans calling down a pox on both houses.
When the game returned in 1995, the crowds did not. Even before the strike, younger Americans appeared to hold more interest in other sports. Baseball was too boring, the pundits pooh-poohed. Baseball games lasted too long. Baseball needed more continuous, full-tilt action--like a video game.
Just as Ruth, in the minds of some sports historians, once saved baseball, so McGwire and Griffey are receiving credit for reviving interest in the game now--credit that is well deserved. But the truth is, had it not been Ruth in the 1920s, it would have been someone else--maybe Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx. And had it not been for McGwire and Griffey, others would be stepping to the plate.
Professional baseball is a cyclical, rhythmic game, and its popularity has waxed and waned like the tides over the course of 125 years. It is a patient that routinely makes miraculous recoveries after suffering long, presumably incurable illnesses.
This time, the healers are easy to identify.
The long-leaderless owners, whose stewardship of the game has so often seemed incompetent, indifferent, and infantile, fortuitously blundered into two brilliant strategems: interleague play and wild-cards. Both ideas, initially reviled by baseball purists, have instead invigorated baseball. The possibility of a wild-card playoff spot has resuscitated fan interest in at least six major-league markets where the pennant races by now are pretty well decided.
Meanwhile, interleague games have nurtured crosstown and geographic rivalries. On top of all that, fans seem to have noticed that baseball is the only big-league sport in which you can still get a good seat for under $20.
Especially, though, baseball is beginning to thrive again because a new generation of players is chasing hallowed old records.
Roger Maris' magical home-run mark of 61, which both McGwire and Sosa still have decent chances of eclipsing (each had 47 by Monday), has stood for 37 years--longer than Ruth himself held the record.
For better than half the season (and better than anyone in decades), Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers looked as if he might improve on an almost impossible standard: Hack Wilson's 68-year-old record of 190 RBIs.
The Yankees are on pace to win more games in a season than any team ever, erasing a record that was established in the first decade of this century.
And each time he takes the field, of course, Cal Ripken Jr. sets a new mark that probably will never be broken.
That's baseball's comparative advantage. Every new achievement evokes the glories of the past, in a way that's not possible in other sports.
Fans who last saw football and basketball in the 1920s would barely recognize those sports today. The games have changed fundamentally.
Baseball has remained remarkably the same for 75 years. Because the game has such continuity, the benchmarks of the past still have relevance to the present.
Few football fans can tell you how many yards O. J. Simpson or Jim Brown gained during their record-setting seasons. But any self-respecting baseball aficionado can rattle off the two unsurpassed marks that were established in 1941: Ted Williams' .406 batting average and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
All records are made to be broken. But in baseball, they're not broken very often. And when some player challenges an enduring old mark, it creates not only fascination with the chase but with baseball's tradition and cycles.
In our collective memory, McGwire and Griffey recall Ruth and Maris; Gonzalez's RBI runaway this year forces us to look with renewed appreciation upon Wilson's even more stunning accomplishment in 1930; and the 1998 Yankees bring to life their famous, pinstriped predecessors of 1927.
In baseball, reincarnation is not only possible but essential. The game's singular genius is that its old heroes live forever, because twinkling new stars always appear to remind us of them.
"The poetry of earth is never dead," observed Keats in his sentimental sonnet about grasshoppers and crickets and the rhythm of the seasons. He just as easily could have been writing about seasons in baseball:
"On a lone winter evening, when the frost
The same sentiment, appropriately, was expressed more eloquently and succinctly by the great baseball philosopher, Lawrence P. Berra. "It's déjà vu," said the Yoge, "all over again."
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