Ruth#039;s legacy will never be erased

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2003

Barry Bonds wants to wipe Babe Ruth's name out of the record books. He wants to erase his legacy.

Sorry, but if Bonds hits 1,000 home runs, Ruth's linkage with baseball will never disappear.

Ruth will

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always be the Babe or the Sultan of Swat. Yankee Stadium will forever be known as The House that Ruth Built.

Obviously, Bonds doesn't understand Ruth's impact on the game. Bonds may surpass the Babe's record of 714 home runs by a lefthanded hitter, but he can't destroy the man who changed the game forever.

Every home run hitter who ever plays the game will have to live with the comparison to Ruth. It's much like the NFL rushing record and Jim Brown. Five players have passed Brown in career rushing yardage, but it was Brown who was voted the all-time greatest NFL running back.

Emmitt Smith set the record last year with 17,162 yards. Brown, who had 12,312 in just nine seasons playing only 12 or 13 games a year, fell to sixth place, but his prowess went beyond the numbers. His punishing running style combined with halfback speed set the standards by which every running back is compared.

The same goes with Ruth.

One thing most fans today don't realize is that Ruth spent the first five and half years of his 21 major league seasons as a pitcher. And a good one.

Ruth had a 94-46 career record, won more than 20 games twice, held the record for most innings pitched in a World Series game (14) in which he won, and held the mark for consecutive scoreless innings pitched until broken by Whitey Ford in 1961.

After going 9-5 in 1919, Ruth was switched to the outfield and hit 29 home runs. He hit 20 home runs the previous five years. Bonds hit 117 home runs during his first five seasons. If Ruth played full time and hit 117 during that span, he would have finished with 811 home runs and everyone would still be chasing him.

And Ruth's home runs weren't cheap. Even though he played in the dead ball era, Ruth hit plenty of 500-foot home runs. He even hit several in excess of 600 feet during game situations.

"It wasn't that he just hit more home runs than anybody else, he hit them better, higher, farther," legendary sports writer Red Smith once said. "Most of Ruth's home runs weren't measured because they went 475 to 500 feet on the average. If he were playing today, he'd hit 90 home runs."

Maybe so, maybe not. But he'd certainly hit 'em far.

In 1926, Ruth hit one over the wall of Detroit's Navin Field that traveled 602 feet on the fly and rolled another two blocks, about 850 feet from home plate.

And Ruth's final home run was just as memorable. Playing at spacious Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ruth's home run cleared the right field roof and traveled about 600 feet, the longest home run ever hit in that city.

Those prestigious home runs helped save baseball when it was about to die in the early 1920s. All-time hits leader Pete Rose said players owe everything they have today because of what Ruth did in yesteryear.

"Every player who ever plays this game ought to thank Babe Ruth for what he has," said Rose. "Babe Ruth saved baseball. He revived the game and brought back the interest. He filled the stadiums."

While Bonds and most of today's players distance themselves from the fans, Ruth welcomed them with open arms. Especially children.

Ruth loved children and children adored The Babe. Wherever he went, children flocked to him and he loved being surrounded by them.

There were regular trips to the hospitals and orphanages, and Ruth loved to give children gifts. He would bring children from the orphanage to ball games and make sure they had plenty to eat. If there was a charity, Ruth did whatever he could to make it a success. He never turned down a request to visit sick children in the hospital.

On the field, Detroit Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg said Ruth commanded attention.

"When he came out on the field, everybody stopped. It was like the star came on center stage. When he went to take batting practice, nobody looked at anything but Babe. He was in a class by himself."

When Ruth died, thousands passed by his body as it lay in state at the main entrance of Yankee Stadium. St. Peter's Cathedral was filled for his funeral Mass.

And that kind of adulation from fans is what's virtually erased from today's game.

Jim Walker is sports editor of The Ironton Tribune.