“I only have one superstition: I make sure to touch all the bases when I hit a home run.” (Babe Ruth)
As one of America’s oldest and most beloved sports, baseball has long been touted as the national pastime, but of all the millions of people who have played it over the last few centuries, the first name that many associate with Major League Baseball is Babe Ruth, whose career spanned over 20 years on the way to becoming the sport’s biggest legend. The Bambino came onto the scene as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, only to be infamously sold to the rival New York Yankees, where he went on to set records for most home runs (714), runs batted in (2,213), walks (2,062), slugging percentage (.690), and on-base plus slugging (1.164). The Sultan of Swat’s records would take decades to be surpassed, but he also managed to win more than 20 games as a pitcher for Boston, along with three World Series before heading to New York. Boston wouldn’t win another championship for over 80 years after Ruth’s departure, a drought famously referred to as “The Curse of the Bambino.”
As if he wasn’t accomplished enough in Boston, Ruth went on to become a pop culture fixture in New York while playing 15 years for the Yankees on some of the sport’s most legendary teams. In addition to leading the Bronx Bombers to four World Series during his time there, Ruth set several single season and career records, elevating the team and MLB itself in ways that athletes could hardly dream of today. Ruth’s impact could be keenly felt in a 1922 article authored by Heywood Broun, "Cutting the Heart of the Plate,” which said of him, “No one ever requires more than one glance to identify Babe Ruth. Even a wholly ignorant person who had never heard of him would probably stop in wonder at the sight of Babe waddling by. It must be clear to all beholders that here is some great, primitive force harking back to the dim days of the race. William Jennings Bryan might well look upon the Babe and recant. To be sure, a certain ingenuity was required to fit just the proper name upon this personality. As George Herman Ruth he might have gone far but he could hardly have reached the heights. The man who made him by the gift of ‘Babe’ ought to draw a substantial royalty from Ruth's mighty income. But probably no single individual hit upon the happy thought. Undoubtably a mass movement was required. Babe Ruth has all the vigor and vitality of a piece of folk literature.”
Over a century after his MLB debut, Ruth remains as well known as ever, and people continue to discuss his exploits both on and off the field. Ruth used to wink at his reputation, joking, "I learned early to drink beer, wine, and whiskey. And I think I was about five when I first chewed tobacco.” Biographer Leigh Montville described a typical scene after a game: “The outrageous life fascinated [pitcher Waite] Hoyt, the...freedom of it, the nonstop, pell-mell charge into excess. How did a man drink so much and never get drunk?.... The puzzle of Babe Ruth never was dull, no matter how many times Hoyt picked up the pieces and stared at them. After games he would follow the crowd to the Babe's suite. No matter what the town, the beer would be iced and the bottles would fill the bathtub.”
Given the passage of time, people tend to debate how good Ruth would be today, including most recently a current MLB reliver, Adam Ottavino, who claimed he would strike out Ruth every time. That claim became even more controversial when Ottavino joined none other than the Yankees ahead of the 2019 season, which led to the reliever walking back some of the comments. But even as far back as 1929, Bucky Harris may have foreseen debates of this kind by pointing out, “These other home run hitters are neck and neck. When the Babe was doing his stuff, he was miles ahead of his field."