by Jerry Amernic, special to NY SportsDay
Babe Ruth died on August 16, 1948. At the time, the U.S. was airlifting food and supplies to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin to counter a Soviet blockade of the city. Israel had just become an independent state, India was still reeling from the assassination of Mahatma Ghandi, and the bikini and television were becoming popular in America. The average new home in the country cost a princely $3,000.
Seventy years later the U.S. and Russia are in the midst of a new and still murky relationship. The Middle East remains a cauldron that can reach fever pitch at any moment, and people complain about the price of just about everything.
But Babe Ruth lives on.
He has been dead for almost three-quarters of a century and it has been 83 years since he last appeared in a baseball game. And yet, it seems not a day goes by when his name is not mentioned.
Baseball calls Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani the “second Babe Ruth” because of his prowess as a pitcher and slugger – the first such player since the Bambino. On August 5, the National Sports Collectors Convention completed a four-day, annual conference in Cleveland that attracted more than 40,000 people; the sports memorabilia and collectors business is today a billion-dollar industry and the most popular face on the posters, photos, trading cards, what have you, in the mammoth 1X Center convention hall was that of Babe Ruth. Witness the auction sale of his 1920’s Yankee jersey a few years ago for $4.4 million, still a Guinness World Record.
Indeed, a rundown of the nine most expensive items ever sold by one of the biggest auction houses in the business has five Ruth items on the list. Another list of the 15 most expensive things from sports memorabilia sold by any organization includes seven Ruth items.
“There are two categories in this business,” says Joe Orlando, President of PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator), which is a major player in the industry. “There is Babe Ruth, then there is everyone else.”
The Babe Ruth League, with over a million players aged 4 to 18 and two million volunteers supporting them, is one of the biggest sports outfits in the world. It got going in the early 1950’s with the blessing of Babe’s widow Claire who thought he would have liked having his name attached to an organization that helped grow the game with kids.
Then there is the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore in the very row house where he was born, the 16-foot bronze sculpture of him at Camden Yards where the Orioles play, scores of other statues, monuments and plaques throughout America and around the globe, not to mention last year’s exhibit of Babe Ruth portraiture and artwork at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian’s One Life series features people who had a major impact on American life and culture – Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham during the Watergate investigation – to name a few. But they did one on Babe Ruth. Here is what the Smithsonian said about the exhibit in its news release of May 31, 2016:
“This exhibition examines Babe Ruth as a baseball legend and the marketing frenzy his name and image fueled before the commercialization of sports superstars became routine. Related themes focus on star power in an age before electronic mass media and the use of portraiture in advertising. The photographic record alone is astonishing. Ruth was arguably the most portrayed American from the beginning of his professional career in the major leagues, in 1914, to his death in 1948. No president, Hollywood star, or athlete so enjoyed the limelight for as long as Babe Ruth.”
The guy gets around. There is also a long list of companies and organizations that have attached themselves to his name over the years. They include Sony, Chevrolet, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Sears, IBM, Mercedes Benz, Knights of Columbus, Coors Light, Visa, Nike, Adidas, and Citibank. A late arrival is Norwegian Airlines which last fall put a huge likeness of Ruth on the tailfins of its jets servicing U. S. destinations. Norwegian calls this the ‘American Heroes’ program and he was the first American hero.
Bill Jenkinson is a baseball historian, researcher and author who has been studying Babe Ruth for more than 30 years. In 2008, at a ceremony held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan marking the 60th anniversary of Ruth’s passing, an event attended by 2,500 people, it was Jenkinson who delivered the eulogy.
“Life had a way of regularly knocking Babe Ruth down,” Jenkinson said that afternoon. “But he always got back up, and when he did he swung for the fences. And Americans everywhere loved him for it. They saw this unlikely man constantly overcoming adversity despite his humble origins, and they applied his inspiration to the problems in their own lives.”
Maybe that’s what it is. Ruth was the consummate rags-to-riches poor boy who made it big. So big that his mere name has become America personified. But there is another side to the man, a softer side, which adds to the luster.
Not only was he the first athlete to have an agent and a personal trainer, but he was also the first philanthropist athlete. In the state of Florida alone, where both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees held spring training during Ruth’s heyday, he supported scores of charities such as the John Hopkins Children’s Hospital, YMCA, Lions Club, as well as girls’ clubs and women’s clubs. When he played for the Yankees in the early 1920’s he was known to drive his car up the west side of Manhattan on his way to the Polo Grounds, and later after it was built, Yankee Stadium, and he would stop at such places as the Hebrew Orphanage to lend a hand or give money away.
Details about Ruth the patriot and humanitarian are not as well known as other aspects of his life. We have heard about the World War II battle cry of Japanese troops – “To hell with Babe Ruth!” – as they stormed U. S. marines in the Pacific theater of that conflict. It was the most insulting thing they could say to Americans. But earlier, during that same war, he lent his name to a list of prominent Americans of German descent who took out full-page ads condemning Nazi Germany’s persecution of European Jews. His was the biggest name of all.
Mike Heffner is a co-owner of Lelands, an auction house that specializes in ‘Sports and Americana Memorabilia, Vintage Photography and Rock’n Roll’. He is the one who bought, for his client, the Ruth jersey for $4.4 million in 2012. Now he says that jersey might fetch more than $10 million. The question is why. This is Heffner’s take on it.
“He was a nice compassionate human being and we don’t see that much anymore. The fact is if Babe Ruth touches something it turns to gold. A bat. A ball. Anything that’s related to him.”
The aforementioned Jenkinson, who also spoke at a 2010 event when Ruth was quietly inducted into the Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in Boise, Idaho, agrees. And he goes a step further.
“We should honor him for the right reasons,” Jenkinson says. “We should recognize his greatest contribution to our common American heritage. It wasn’t the baseball records that he left us. It was his legacy of hope.”
[Jerry Amernic is the author of BABE RUTH – A Superstar’s Legacy]