When Babe Ruth took the field as a professional baseball player for first time 100 years ago today, he was just a satchel-mouthed southpaw from Baltimore trying to make a name in Boston. No one at Fenway Park that day knew the slender rookie with the broad nose and uneven lope would hit 714 home runs and build a house in the Bronx.
Ruth would later claim that the most memorable thing that happened to him on July 11 was that he met his future wife at a coffee shop. The story is likely apocryphal, but the falsehood better underscores the importance of the date. Babe Ruth was not just larger than life—he was bigger than truth. He was the first sports superstar, a figure who transcended records and statistics and resides as comfortably in American folklore as Paul Bunyan.
We won’t belabor the Sultan of Swat’s numbers, because they’re less important than his essential Babe, but consider this: In his last two years as a pitcher in the Red Sox rotation—before they decided he had a future as a slugger—Ruth compiled 47 wins (and 58 complete games). In his first two seasons with the Yankees, 1920-21, he amassed 113 home runs and 308 RBI. Yankee Stadium opened two years later. Babe Ruth was extraordinarily good at baseball.
He was also extraordinarily good at being Babe Ruth. The slugger’s flair for the dramatic off the field - he wore a fur coat better than Broadway Joe - made him one of the most recognized people in America. Ruth lived large, spent extravagantly, had outsize appetites in food, alcohol, and women, and often left a trail of wrecked cars in his wake. Or that’s the myth anyway. Again, the truth here takes a backseat to the narrative of Ruth. And this is what makes Ruth so important. Yes, Ted Williams analyzed his swing, but Nike's Phil Knight understood his popularity. Babe went big then went home then went big again. He just did it, and it was everything (and everyone).
Legends are legends, but a lot of the stories about Babe were true and that caught up with him. His size made triples into doubles and his reputation made him an iffy job candidate. He was never offered the big-league managing job he wanted. He did a little coaching with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that was about it. Still, 100 years after he pitched seven innings and beat the Cleveland Indians in Boston, everyone knows who Babe Ruth was. He's a legend.
Photos by Photoquest / Getty Images