In the early 20th century, Babe Ruth transformed baseball from a low-scoring strategic contest that emphasized speed into a clash of titans, in which a power hitter could win a game with a single stroke of the bat. But it was sports biographer Robert W. Creamer, who died on July 18 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., at age 90, who transformed Babe Ruth in baseball fans’ eyes, from a name on a candy bar into a flesh-and-blood hero who achieved greatness while continually struggling with his own frailties and excesses.
Creamer’s groundbreaking 1974 book, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, is filled with fascinating, amusing and poignant insights about the Sultan of Swat. Here are five of our favorites:
- Ruth went for years without knowing his own birth date. Ruth’s chaotic family life and upbringing — which included a stretch when he was remanded to a training school and orphanage — confused even him. For much of his life, he assumed that he had been born on Feb. 7, 1894. But when he had to obtain his birth certificate for his passport application to go to Japan in 1934, he discovered that he actually had been born a year and a day earlier. Ruth, nevertheless, thereafter continued to celebrate Feb. 7 as his birthday.”What the hell difference does it make?” he explained.
- He wasn’t much for following traffic laws. Ruth loved fancy cars, but he often got into trouble for ignoring traffic signals and speed limits. Once, for speeding on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, a magistrate fined him $100, which Ruth paid by whipping a $100 bill out of a roll in his pocket. He also was sentenced to a few hours in jail, which threatened to make him late for that afternoon’s game. Ruth, unfazed, had his baseball uniform brought to the jail. Word got around that Babe Ruth was in lockup, and when he was released, a motorcycle escort of policemen rushed him to the Polo Grounds, where he came through the gate to center field to a huge ovation. Amusingly, in the Harold Lloyd film Speedy, Ruth played a nervous passenger in Lloyd’s speeding taxicab. (See below.)
- He had a fear of running into outfield walls. When he joined the Yankees in the early 1920s, Ruth asked to play center field because he was scared of of running into the short outfield walls of the Polo Grounds, where the Yankees played before Yankee Stadium was built. “I’ll get myself all smashed up going after a fly ball,” he reportedly explained.
- He liked round numbers. Once, while negotiating a contract with the Yankees, he kept rejecting offers until the team proposed a then eye-popping five-year, $250,000 package. Ruth thought it over for a second, and then said that if they upped it from $50,000 to $52,000 a year, it was a deal. When asked why, he explained: “There are 52 weeks in the year, and I’ve always wanted to make a grand a week.”
- Ruth was a softie. Near the end of his career, Ruth attended a dinner in Pittsburgh to honor the great Pirates shortstop Rabbit Maranville, who was trying unsuccessfully to make a comeback from a broken leg at age 43. When Ruth got up to speak, his wisecracking demeanor vanished. “I’ve known Rabbit for a long time . . . and I love him like my own brother,” he said. As Creamer writes, Ruth’s eyes suddenly filled with tears and he could not speak. After an embarrassed silence, he finally muttered, “Damn it.” The orchestra had to begin playing to rescue him.