How serendipitous that Jim Thome would become the eighth player in Major League history to hit 600 career home runs the day before the 63rd anniversary of Babe Ruth’s death. Most articles detailing the event alluded to the fact that the 40-year-old slugger accomplished the rarified fete in the second fewest at bats ever, trailing only, you guessed it, George Herman Ruth.
I mention the Thome milestone and the subsequent link to Babe Ruth because it serves as yet another example of how Ruth lives on in the day-to-day vernacular of our national pastime. 63 years after his death, he remains a baseball standard; still part of the discussion.
And all these years later, Babe Ruth remains relevant not just to the sport he helped define, but to America’s cultural landscape as well. The Bambino was so much the colossus, both on and off the playing field, that he transcended baseball to become a national icon, right up there with Martin Luther King, JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, who, ironically, shares the same August 16 death date as the Babe.
For the past quarter century I have taught a writing course at a Baltimore university. As a way of introducing myself on the first evening of class, I have always asked students to raise their hands if they never heard of Babe Ruth. In twenty-five years, no student has ever raised a hand. They may not all know he was a great ball player. They may not know his slugging records. But they know the name, and that is testament to his continued staying power as one of the most celebrated Americans of all time.
There are lots of reasons why: his extraordinary skills as a ball player; the fact that he arrived in New York at the very height of the countries’ ‘roaring twenties’ swagger; his playful, boyish image. But, and perhaps most importantly, it was Ruth’s understanding of the power of media that helped secure his perpetual celebrity. Almost from the get-go of his professional baseball career, Ruth befriended the press, making certain that each and every beat-writer on the circuit was his friend.
That savvy, that ability to manipulate the most powerful force on earth, media, ultimately propelled Babe Ruth towards his eternal role as an American icon, 63 years after his death and counting.
Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.