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O'TOOLE: Thank you, Babe Ruth, for achieving the American Dream

• Mar 6, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Major League Baseball teams are in the early days of spring training. Coincidentally, 100 years ago, 23-year-old Babe Ruth began spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, prior to his penultimate season playing for the Boston Red Sox.

Before the 1918 baseball season, Babe hit nine career home runs. In 1918 alone, he hit 11 home runs. He was not in the batting order on a regular basis — he was a pitcher, and a winning one at that. In fact, he led the Red Sox to a pennant and a World Series title that year. But striking out batters was satisfying only to a point.

To understand why The Babe wanted and needed more than to blow a fastball past a hitter, it’s necessary to go back to his early years, what little we know of them.

When George Herman Ruth Jr. was 7 years old, his father left him at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys in Baltimore. The main building was five-stories tall, a gloomy throwback to medieval times. The six-building campus was enclosed by a wall. What must the boy have felt, being abandoned to such a foreboding place? How delinquent, incorrigible or wayward could he have been?

His younger sister was at home with their mother, while he was sent to this religious reform school where obedience was the most important virtue and a leather strap the most common disciplinary tool.

Life at St. Mary’s was strict and scheduled. Young George was fed oatmeal for breakfast, and soup and bread for lunch and dinner, except on Sundays when there were hot dogs in the morning and three slices of baloney at dinner.

He was big for his age, even then. The other boys called him names for his size and his olive skin, curly black hair and oversize facial features. Racial and ethnic slurs would dog him throughout his life. They began at St. Mary’s.

Brother Matthias was a mountain of a man himself. And the brother could whack baseballs into the air one-handed. He taught George to pitch and hit.

George found something he was good at. He loved it, too. It was at St. Mary’s that he hit his first home run. Author Glenn Stout observes, “Well, it left the yard, and it never came back. That’s the feeling he wanted, that’s what he was chasing, and every subsequent home run was Ruth’s pursuit for that sense of freedom, of the ephemeral possibility, once again. Even better, when you hit a home run, everybody loves you for it. What can possibly feel better to an unloved young boy than that?”

It was that desire to hit balls into oblivion and be loved for it that prompted the 1918 decision to quit pitching, though he didn’t quit completely until he was traded to the Yankees in 1920.

Baseball changed forever when Babe Ruth joined the Yankees. It went from being a low-scoring game of strategy, with the bunt being the most frequent way of hitting the ball, to a high-scoring game of power-hitting, fielding agility and base-running speed.

Prior to 1920, home runs were largely accidental. Stout explains, “Outfield fences were meant to keep crowds off the field, not keep the baseball in, for the notion of hitting a ball over the outfield fence was, in most instances, absurd, the fences too distant and the ball too soft.”

It was during his career with the Yankees that Babe became a legend, setting several records, including the home run record, which was later — much, much later — broken by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. Wait, who?

Before he became The Great Bambino, The Big Bam, The Sultan of Swat, The Colossus of Clout or The King of Crash, to list a few of his many nicknames, Babe Ruth was America’s darling.

Death cast a dark shadow over the country in 1918. America was fighting in World War I. There were shortages of most everything because the government snapped up resources to support the war. The death toll was 58,480 Americans killed and 189,955 wounded. Another 600,000 Americans died during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Baseball was our national pastime. It was a temporary escape from the horrors of war and death. Everyone wanted to know: did Babe Ruth hit a home run in today’s game? Every movement he made inside the ballpark was reported in the papers, and people pored over every word. He was someone America loved rooting for. He had achieved the American Dream.

The Babe was 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds at a time when the average American infantryman was 5-7 and 140 pounds. He was a giant, literally and figuratively. The kids loved him, and he loved them. He let them follow him down the street after games, often buying them ice cream, maybe giving them baseballs signed in his perfect handwriting.

Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball career lasted 22 seasons. He still holds the records in on-base plus slugging percentage and slugging percentage.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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