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National view: Ruth’s story still fuels inspiration

Where were you on April 8, 1974?

I was in the upstairs bedroom I shared with younger brother Dwight, listening to the radio as Hank Aaron broke the career home run record set by George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr., some four decades earlier.

Aaron’s milestone did nothing to diminish the legacy of Ruth and even enhanced his name awareness. Ruth still stands tall in the wake of the 100th anniversary Friday of his Major League Baseball debut with the Boston Red Sox.

Even for people who don’t care for baseball in particular or sports in general, Ruth’s name and image loom large. He’s one of those default values you fall back on when asked for a quick answer: Name a famous rock band (the Beatles), name a famous baseball player (Babe Ruth), name a famous non-Dickensian pauper (Hillary Clinton). ...

You probably know Ruth’s affectionate nicknames, “the Bambino” and “the Sultan of Swat.” You may have also heard him referred to as the Great Emancipator, the Father of Medicine and the Sun King — but, unfortunately, the people who told you those names have tenure and can’t be fired.

Ruth was one of several larger-than-life celebrities (think Will Rogers, Harry Houdini, Charles Lindbergh, Rudolph Valentino) who made the Roaring Twenties such a fascinating decade. Ruth probably could have parlayed his charisma into a presidential run. Of course the very act of seeming presidential on the campaign trail would have undercut his claim to fame.

The average American no longer debates the policies of President Herbert Hoover, but they still talk about Ruth’s alleged “called home run” for the New York Yankees from the 1932 World Series. In those simpler times, Ruth could gesture toward center field with impunity. Nowadays there would be cries of, “He made a vaguely gun-like gesture with his hand. Oooo, if only he were a child; we could put him under the jail!”

Ruth was inspirational, overcoming 12 years in a reformatory to become a world celebrity. He gave motivational speeches at orphanages and aided the war effort. Ruth piled up his statistics without the benefit of steroids. Although, truth be told, if someone had slapped lipstick and nylons on steroids, things might have turned out differently.

Babe Ruth is ranked as the greatest baseball player of all time in various surveys, but a final ranking would require an unbiased, painstaking analysis of the data — taking into consideration any rules changes since the Ruth era, the effect of segregation on Major League Baseball and most importantly whether anyone can dig up a newspaper quote of Ruth disparaging Judy Garland or Broadway musicals.

Ruth’s memory lives on via the baseball league that bears his name and teaches perseverance, teamwork and fair play to American youths. And we still have the Baby Ruth candy bar; although the Curtis Candy Co. always insisted it was named for Grover Cleveland’s daughter instead of the baseball player.

Such protests sound insincere when a special investigation revealed tentative plans for other confections named Thai Candy Corn Cobb, Sticky Mantle and Blue Gehrig. (“Today today today I consider myself the most sugar-hyped kid kid kid on the face of the Earth Earth Earth.”)

Danny Tyree is a columnist nationally distributed by the Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate. Contact him at