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 The Behemoth of Bust 

June 27, 2006 
paragraph indentAmerican sportswriting has changed a lot since the 1920s. It’s less lyrical, hyperbolical, and moralistic than in the days when Grantland Rice and others set its lessons in rhyming verse. Schoolchildren used to memorize “Casey at the Bat” — the tragic story of Mudville’s great slugger striking out in the clutch. But American optimism demanded a happy sequel, Today's column is "The Behemoth of Bust" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.so other poems quickly appeared in which Casey got another chance and won the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth.

paragraph indentI’m not complaining. In our day the story would probably be told in free verse, with Casey winning the game but flunking a steroids test and turning out to have bet heavily on his own team.

paragraph indentThat was the golden age of nicknames for sports heroes. Every great star was given his own honorific title, usually alliterative. Jack Dempsey was the Mannasas Mauler; Luis Firpo of Argentina was the Wild Bull of the Pampas; Joe Louis was the Brown Bomber. Red Grange was the Galloping Ghost. Christy Matthewson was the Big Six; Walter Johnson was the Big Train; Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse; Ted Williams was the Splendid Splinter; Joe DiMaggio was Joltin’ Joe; Bob Feller was Rapid Robert.

paragraph indentThen there was the one and only George Herman Ruth. The Babe, the Big Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. Kal Wagenheim’s hilarious and moving 1974 biography lists some of his other appellations: the Mauling Mastodon, the Behemoth of Bust, the Mammoth of Maul, the Colossus of Clout, the Prince of Pounders, the Mauling Monarch, the Bulby Bambino, the Mauling Menace, the Rajah of Rap, the Wazir of Wham ...

paragraph indentThere were others too, but I’ve probably satisfied your curiosity by now. Suffice it that in this category, Ruth’s record is probably safe. He’d come a long way from the Catholic orphanage where the other boys had called him ruder names. It’s often remarked that he owed none of his feats to performance-enhancing substances; on the contrary, Wagenheim gives the impression that whenever he showed up at the ballpark drunk and sleepless, he was apt to slam a couple of homers, whereas his attempts at clean living had the opposite effect. It was the sportswriters who sounded as if they were on stimulants.

[Breaker quote for The Behemoth of Bust: a/k/a the Wazir of Wham]paragraph indentRuth enjoyed many advantages. He had a worshipful press that largely protected him from scandal; he played against only white players (except in a few exhibition games); he never hit against the slider; he played before night baseball.

paragraph indentFor all that, he was a stupendous talent beyond comparison to anyone else, sometimes hitting more home runs than all the rest of the league’s teams put together. Most of his records lasted a generation or more. And before he played daily, he set pitching records that lasted nearly as long.

paragraph indentToday ordinary players make millions of dollars a year. When Ruth was emerging as the hottest player ever known, he had a contract dispute, which he eventually settled for $27,000 — spread over three years. During the Depression, when reminded he was being paid better than President Hoover, he pointed out, in his good-natured way, “I had a better year than he did.”

paragraph indentBy then he’d played a magical decade for the New York Yankees, who’d bought him cheap from the desperate Boston Red Sox in 1920. But his decline began almost precisely with the Depression. He yearned to manage the Yankees when he retired, but the team’s owner reasoned, with iron plausibility, that the wild-living Ruth was not the man to impose discipline on younger players. Other owners felt likewise, and Ruth never got a chance to manage. He played a final dismal fraction of a season with the Boston Braves, smashing three colossal homers in his last game, and then the greatest career of all time was over.

paragraph indentIt was the greatest career less because of those astonishing records than because of the sheer joy Ruth brought to the game — and gave to the fans, especially boys, always dear to this orphan’s heart. That delight leaps off every page of Wagenheim’s biography, until the last sad chapters, which recount Ruth’s agonized struggle with throat cancer. Shortly after his farewell to his fans ay Yankee Stadium, he was dead at 53.

Joseph Sobran

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