Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth Photo: Creative Commons

It seems appropriate somehow that the day after the Super Bowl marks the birthday of the greatest American sports icon in history – and he didn't play football.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth has ascended such a level of legend and mythology that it beggars belief he was actually a real person.

His accomplishments were as extraordinary as those of American icons like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed – except Ruth was a flesh-and-blood human being.

His life and career are so well known that I don't even have to explain what “714,” “the called shot,” “60” and “1927” mean.

He was not only the greatest baseball player who ever lived (or ever will live), but I also believe Ruth is the most enduring American icon of them all.

No one else comes close.

George Washington is too remote a figure from the distant past; Abraham Lincoln was a rather dour and tragic figure; Douglas MacArthur was humorless and too austere; John Wayne wasn't a “real” cowboy or war hero; Elvis Presley ruined his career by making atrocious films and became a bloated, pathetic figure at the end; Bing Crosby was a highly unpleasant man who was cruel to his own children; and Frank Sinatra had some, uh, questionable friends.

But Babe Ruth?

He was not only the greatest star of his profession (by a wide margin), but he was charming, warm, funny, lovable and unfailingly friendly to children and his fans.

No novelist or Hollywood screenwriter could possibly create a character as compelling or a tale as improbable as Ruth's.

Born in the rough-and-tumble docks of 1890s Baltimore to German immigrants, Ruth was an incorrigible child who was placed in a grim orphanage (and never again saw his family).

Like a Charles Dickens character, Ruth found himself at the very bottom and overcame all his disadvantages to become a superstar.

As a teenager, Ruth faced as bleak a future as one could imagine – he had absolutely nothing going for him whatsoever. He was poor, uneducated, uncultured, homely, and with no family and no connections.

But he embodied the very notion of American egalitarianism by achieving success purely through his amazing talent and the power of his huge personality.

Let us settle the question right now of who is really baseball's greatest player. Some might pick Ty Cobb or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove (and provide some convincing evidence to back their arguments).

However, what separates Ruth from all these other great players is that he was also one of the best pitchers of his era during his early seasons with the Red Sox.

Indeed, if Ruth had never converted to full-time outfielder duties, he would likely have gone to the Hall of Fame anyway – solely as a left-handed pitcher.

Could Cobb pitch? Could Johnson hit majestic, towering home runs?

More to the point, could Aaron devour 12 hot dogs, then go 2-for 4? Could Stan Musial be suffering from a deadly hangover and then hit three home runs? Did Grove have a candy bar named after him?

While much time is focused on Ruth's home run prowess (when he retired his 714 homers were hundreds ahead of the next challenger); he was actually a great all-around player – at least during the first half of his career.

According to contemporary accounts, Ruth was an excellent base-runner, a fine defensive outfielder and hit for a high average (as high as .393 in 1923 and a lusty .342 for his career).

More importantly, Ruth didn't look like an athlete at all. He had a huge belly, spindly little legs and a peculiar pigeon-toed gait.

Ruth also apparently eschewed training or exercise, and of maintaining anything resembling a healthy diet.

He looked more like your local garrulous bartender than the world's greatest ballplayer. That, too, was part of his enormous appeal – the Everyman who performed superhuman deeds.

Was Ruth all “good”?

Of course not. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he consumed too much junk food, he gambled, he caroused, he patronized brothels... but all this forms part of his unforgettable legend. He lived life to the fullest during the intoxicating “Jazz Age.” As a poor boy from a dreary background, he yielded to every imaginable temptation. (Can you blame him?)

And he was never cruel nor unpleasant nor hurtful to anyone – he was, in effect, a good-natured, man-child who never bothered anybody.

Like almost all great men's lives, Ruth's story was ultimately a sad one.

When his skills eroded, the New York Yankees (the team he single-handedly turned into a cash cow), refused to hire him as a coach or manager and unceremoniously dumped him by trading him to the Boston Braves – the worst club in the league.

Broken-hearted, Ruth would live only about a dozen years after his retirement – dying of cancer in 1948, at the too-young age of 53.

Ruth's death was treated like the passing of a statesman – thousands lined up on a hot day in Yankee Stadium to view his body.

The legend of Babe Ruth is bigger now than ever – his very name is synonymous with success, fame, accomplishment and dominance. He will never really die.