Babe Ruth was the twinkle in America's eye - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Babe Ruth was the twinkle in America’s eye

BALTIMORE – Nearly a quarter-century ago, when this city opened brand new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a local sports writing legend named John Steadman hired a small plane to fly over the field on Opening Day, carrying a banner behind it.

The banner would declare, for all the thousands gathered below, a message from heaven itself: “The Babe Says Hi.”

Nobody around here would need an explanation. George Herman Ruth, known to the planet’s entire population as Babe, is embraced locally as the kid who was born a couple of blocks from the ballpark, on a scruffy little street in a narrow row house later transported into the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

Also, Babe’s dad owned a bar located precisely in what is now short center field at Oriole Park. The Babe was there only briefly since his family decided to farm him out to St. Mary’s Industrial School, where he was tutored in the tailor’s trade and, in case that didn’t work out, a little baseball.

The history lesson arrives today because the Babe’s back in the news. This week, rather belatedly, President Trump will bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Ruth and half a dozen other political, cultural and athletic figures.

Among them are Elvis Presley, who was arguably the Babe Ruth of rock and roll; football stars Roger Staubach (who served in Vietnam after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy) and Alan Page (who became the first black judge on Minnesota’s Supreme Court).

Also, the president has picked a few political favorites for the nation’s highest civilian award. One is Miriam Adelson. She is best known as the wife of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The two have contributed millions to Republican politicians, including $5 million in September to a pro-Trump PAC.

Also being honored is Senator Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator, who has been a tireless supporter of Trump, and the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Traditionally, the award goes to those who have triumphed so significantly in their fields that they’ve become cultural icons. That certainly fits any description of the Babe, who is regularly named the greatest baseball player in history.

But he was more than that. He was the twinkle in America’s eyes. He was the way Americans like to think of ourselves: child-like, full of fun, taking adversity’s best shot – whether it’s growing up in an orphanage or, at the end of his career, getting horribly disappointed by the game he had saved – and yet, never giving up that swagger, and that wink in the eye.

As a batter, Ruth sometimes hit more home runs than entire teams and finished his career with more homers than anyone had previously imagined. As a pitcher, he set records that lasted for decades.

This week, as the nation marks a hundred years since the end of the fighting in World War I, we might remember a story out of the last world war – about American troops in the South Pacific yelling across a battlefield at Japanese soldiers the most insulting thing they could think of: “To hell with Emperor Hirohito.”

And the Japanese troops yelled back the most insulting thing they could think of for Americans to hear: “To hell with Babe Ruth.”

It was John Updike who wrote, “In America, a man is a failed boy.” But it was Babe Ruth who was the role model for the American boy, extending youth forever, running through the grass, and hitting baseballs so far that they seemed to touch the heavens themselves.

About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press. Contact the author.

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