Column on Babe Ruth

This July 2007 column appeared in The Japan Times, and was then posted at thetruebaberuth.com

MLB, NPB should retire legendary Bambino’s uniform number

By ED ODEVEN
Should Major League Baseball retire Babe Ruth’s No. 3?

This question has become relevant in recent days. Why? The Hall of Fame slugger’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, has launched a petition and a Web site — http://www.retirebabesnumber.com/ — to make this wish a reality. This is not a necessary move to bolster the man’s legacy, or upgrade his spot to the upper echelon of baseball’s legends.

The Bambino is — and always will be — one of America’s greatest sporting heroes and performers, but, clearly, this would be a fitting tribute to the man who made the biggest impact on baseball in North America and Japan.

Without the Sultan of Swat, would yakyu enjoy its status as Japan’s No. 1 sport? Maybe not.

Consider: Before Babe Ruth visited Asia during a 1934 All-Star tour with fellow major league greats such as New York Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig and then-New York Giant Lefty O’Doul, Japanese baseball was popular at two levels, high school and college.

After Ruth’s home-run exploits thrilled a nation, Japanese business leaders decided to establish a pro league, which began two years later. The rest is history: the rousing success of the Giants, the great Yomiuri-Hanshin rivalry, and the extraordinary exploits of guys named Shigeo Nagashima (whose No. 3 is retired by Yomiuri), Katsuya Nomura, Minoru Murayama and Sadaharu Oh.

If Ruth hadn’t arrived here when he did and whacked all those home runs before awe-struck fans, pro ball’s establishment in Japan could’ve taken a few — or even many — decades to begin.

Ruth’s career, you’ve probably heard, was filled with legendary exploits. He was the first power-hitting superstar in baseball history.

When he hit a then-record 29 home runs in 1919, the No. 2 guy in the big leagues, Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies, hit only 12. Ruth had more homers than 10 teams that year!

What’s more, Ruth was also one of the game’s top left-handed pitchers before being converted to a full-time outfielder.

Ruth was so good, so exciting to watch, that pundits created an appropriate adjective (Ruthian) to describe an incredible performance. Decades later, a Jordanesque performance became an acceptable description for sportswriters to use in detailing a similar display of greatness.

* * * * *
Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923. In the first game at the ballpark, Ruth smacked a three-run homer, leading the Yankees to a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.

It’s still The House That Ruth Built.

When he retired in 1935, Ruth had 714 home runs, a figure that all MLB sluggers sought to match in the years to follow — that is until Hank Aaron hit No. 715 on April 8, 1974.

Prominent sociologists and everyday fans all understood that Ruth was a larger-than-life figure whose outgoing personality and willingness to sign autographs until the cow jumped over the moon helped baseball overcome the negativity caused by the aftermath of the Black Sox’s gambling scandal in the 1919 World Series.

On April 27, 1947, Babe Ruth Day was celebrated in pro ballparks in the U.S. and Japan.

That in itself is a reminder of the man’s lasting legacy on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. And what a fitting honor it was for him to be recognized in Japan in his dying days.

Just months before he passed away from throat cancer, Ruth attended the ceremonies that day in the Bronx.

The Yankees retired his No. 3, which signified his spot in the team’s batting order.

Yes, professional sports team owners and public relations/marketing types have at times appeared obsessed with retiring ex-players’ numbers to generate interest for the past. (It’s often nothing but a distraction for a bad team.).

As a result, it diminishes the value of having someone’s jersey number retired if too many of them hang from the rafters or are put on display at the arena.

But understand this: The great ones deserve great distinction.

Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997, the 50th anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is the only number MLB has ever retired.

In essence, Robinson paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, breaking baseball’s 20th century color barrier. He did it with dignity despite facing incredible hardships — and death threats.

Babe Ruth was a giant in his day and remains a man synonymous with greatness.

Major League Baseball should retire his jersey number. And it’s the notion here that Nippon Professional Baseball should consider doing the same thing.

 

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