Posts Tagged ‘Babe Ruth’

The Classic Bob Gibson Followthrough

This is an edited version of a blog entry from way back in 2009:

It’s that time of the year.

Catchers and pitchers are reporting to spring training. Baseball is in the air. Is there any better time of the year?

Baseball has always held a special place for me. Oh, I was no more than an average player– decent bat, lousy arm and a so-so glove– but there was pure magic in seeing the heroes of my youth and hearing the stories of the early legends of the game.

I remember my grandmother telling me of going with my grandfather to New York City on their honeymoon in 1921 and seeing Babe Ruth play with the Yankees. Ruth hit a double and a triple as she recalled.

I remember sitting with my grandfather, the mythological Shank, so called for the holds he would apply to his opponent’s legs during his time as a professional wrestler, and watching the World Series in the afternoons of 1968. I had my tonsils out and was still recuperating and we watched the St. Louis Cardinals play the Detroit Tigers, who won the series. It was great watching with my grandfather plus I was introduced a player who became one of the heroes of my youth, Bob Gibson, the Cardinal’s pitching ace.

Gibby was it for me. The toughest guy out there, one whose competitive fire was, and is, legendary. So dominating as a pitcher that baseball changed the mound height because they felt the hitters needed help since he was practically unhittable. I read his early autobiography, From Ghetto to Glory, numerous times as a kid and that made him an even bigger hero to me. He was eloquent and college-educated, a rarity for ballplayers of that era, and his story was compelling, going from abject poverty onto college then a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters then on to baseball stardom.

He remains a hero.

Baseball was always played at our house. My dad was a pretty fair pitcher who had promise as a youth. In subsequent years, I have uncovered numerous news stories in old newspapers about his exploits on the mound and in the field. But later, as a dad, he would occasionally play catch with me and my friends. Eventually, he would break out his knuckleball, a pitch he was known for in his younger days. It was practically uncatchable, having a spectacular drop that would appear to be entering your glove only to end up hitting you in the stomach. Or lower. I was never able to master the pitch but still appreciate the awkward grace and dance of a well thrown knuckler.

Other times, I would pitch to him and he would hit flies to my brother in the outfield. Periodically, he would hit hard liners back at me. They would bang off me or make me dive out of the way and he would cackle. I would then try to drill him with the next pitch, which would make him laugh even more because he had gotten my goat.

I would calm myself and wait until he would pitch to me, waiting for the perfect pitch when I could send a hard line drive back at him, making him duck or dive. At such times, after having to jump out of the way or  defend himself with his glove, he would yell out a Hey! and give me a harsh look. Then he would usually laugh because he knew that I was just paying him back for his earlier actions. Payback was just part of the game.

Even my work has been somewhat affected by my experiences with the game. I remember the first time coming out of tunnel during a night game at Shea Stadium in the late 1960’s and seeing the field spread out before me. I was stunned by the colors that were so rich and lush under the warmth of the lights. It was a feeling that I think I wanted to replicate in some manner which ultimately led me to art.

Over the years baseball has become my calendar for the passing of the year and is a comforting friend on the days when the world seems ready to implode. I am still captive to the numbers and legends of baseball, one of those romantics who see poetry in a game based in tradition.

To that end, here is a wonderful version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame from Harpo Marx, played on I Love Lucy. It is delicate and graceful.  It’s the essence of the memory of baseball for me…

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Part of the charm of baseball for me are its mythic elements, the stories that captured my imagination as a kid.  For instance, Babe Ruth allegedly pointing to the centerfield fence to call his home run. Or Satchel Paige supposedly throwing strikes using a single gum wrapper laid on home plate as the strike zone.  Willie Mays’ fabled but very real over the shoulder catch. And Jackie Robinson stealing home in the World Series. Too many more to mention here.

This year has brought a player who may enter into that pantheon of mythic baseball lore.  Rookie Aaron Judge of the Yankees combines a physique that seems right out of tall tales with Paul Bunyan size and strength. He’s 6′ 8″ tall and weighs in the 275 pound range, the largest player by sheer body mass to ever play the game. But it is not a lumbering, heavy mass.  He is athletic and quick with a powerful and accurate throwing arm.

But it is his potent bat that has made him the big news of NY and the rest of the major leagues. He leads the American League in home runs, runs batted in, runs, batting average and walks.

All are amazing stats but it is the way in which he strikes his homers that has thrilled the crowds and made his every at bat must see viewing. His pregame batting practices are already legendary with balls flying to the deepest parts of the park where they have scattered bartenders and shattered television screens. The excitement has people coming to the games wearing costume powdered wigs and he even has a section of the stands named in his honor– the Judge’s Chambers.

He hits the ball with incredible power and the crack of the bat is startlingly sharp, with a thunderclap to it unlike almost any other player. His home runs leave the park at ultra high velocity and go ridiculous distances. Yesterday, he hit a ball at Yankee Stadium close to 500 foot that had the other players as well as the announcers in sheer awe.  He is simply hitting balls to places where they have never been hit before, even in batting practice. As Paul O’Neill said, it’s like he’s a big man playing in a Little League field.

I have to say that he has ignited that excitement in the game that I had as a kid where every game, every at bat has the possibility of the amazing or the transcendent taking place. Something that would tie your experience of it to the great myths of the game.

Now, the realistic part of me, that awful adult part, knows that the odds are that someday soon this torrid pace may slow and he will return to the ranks of the merely good ball players. Baseball is a humbling game for players and fans alike. But for know, Aaron Judge is playing the game like he’s in a comic book, like he’s King Kong swinging Thor’s Hammer at the plate. And that makes this middle-aged boy very happy. It’s a great diversion away from these troubling times.

Whenever he comes to the plate, I always think of this song from the 60’s. It was a minor hit in 1968 from Motown’s Shorty Long, who died the following year in a boating accident. I was just a kid at the time, idolizing Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson, himself a mythic character, but I remember this song well. Can’t go wrong here, Motown soul with the Funk Brothers laying down a great backing track. Courts in session, here come the Judge…


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Babe Ruth Syracuse NY Aug  1922I came across this photo yesterday.  It’s one of my all time favorites.  It’s a shot taken in Syracuse in August of 1922 that features Babe Ruth surrounded by a throng of kids.  He stands in the middle of the crowd,  glowing like a sun that is creating a gravity from which no kid can escape.    I think this photo perfectly captures the incredible charisma that Ruth displayed for the American public.

I believe this was taken at Burnet Park where the Babe appeared at a game between two teams in the newly formed Babe Ruth League.  One of the teams was from the  House of Providence orphanage in Syracuse and many of the kids in this photo are no doubt orphans.  They surely felt a keen kinship with Ruth who had been sent to St. Mary’s orphanage in Baltimore  by his parents when he was an out of control child.  He was one of their own.

It was easy to love the Babe when I was a kid.  I read everything I could on him, knew his stories and stats inside out and remember my Grandmother telling me about seeing the Babe play when she and my Grandfather were on their honeymoon in 1921.   I also remember standing in front of his locker at Cooperstown the first time I was there as a child, looking on at his bat and uniform as though I were a true believer  gazing at some ancient religious artifact.  His big hands had actually gripped the thick handle of the bat.  That amazed me because he was more a mythic character than real man at that point– Paul Bunyan dressed in pinstripes.

He really was a character out of myth.  Everything about him was big–  his physical stature, his appetites and excesses, his generosities and his successes and failings.  He won and lost on a grand scale.  In many ways, he was a pure symbol of our country at that time.  Big, brash, loud and naive.  Famous and wealthy but still of the people.  He was a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches hero come to life.  He was America at the time.

I could just go on and on about the Bambino but I think this photo just about sums its up.  His big round head dominates the scene and the kids reflect back to him the unabashed affection that he emitted towards them.  I always think of this photo as a the head of a sunflower with Babe being the very center and the kids being the golden florets that surround it.  The faces of those kids are wonderful as well, like a compilation of Americana pulled from  Norman Rockwell paintings.   I would imagine almost all are long dead since this photo was taken 91 years back but I wonder what became of many of these kids, what sort of lives they led.  How they made it through the coming Depression and World War and where they ended up.  But I can probably imagine that most of them remembered the day that they stood with Babe Ruth until the day they died.

Just a great photo…

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jackie-robinson-1956_April 15 means a couple of things to some people.  Of course, there is the unpleasant connotation of it as being Tax Day, the due date for income tax filing here in the USA.  But for the baseball fan, it is a date that marks the first day a black player took the field as a major leaguer, when a special player ran out to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1947.   This young black man was athletically gifted, smart and tough-minded.

That player was of course Jackie Robinson.

Major League Baseball now honors him on this day every year, Jackie Robinson Day, with every player on every team putting aside their own uniform numbers to wear his number 42, which is now retired throughout baseball. Currently, only Mariano Rivera wears the number 42 on his back  and after he retires at the end of this season, no player will ever wear the 42 on their back again outside of this day each year.

Retiring a number is a sacred thing in baseball.  A player’s number has an almost mystical connection with the fans.  Growing up, everyone knew that Babe Ruth was 3,  Lou Gehrig 4, Mickey Mantle 7, Willie Mays 24, Hank Aaron 44 and on an on.  Whenever I see the number 45 all I see is my hero Bob Gibson on the mound. And everyone , even Mariano Rivera fans like myself, knows that the 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson.

There is also a new movie out that bears that number and it tells the story of Robinson’s initial turbulent year with the Dodgers.  I haven’t seen it so I can’t really comment other than to say that it is a story that every child should know.  It is a remarkable story of self restraint and strength in the face of institutionalized hatred, one that made possible the  broader changes that took place in our country in the civil rights movement in the decades after Robinson’s first day on that field in 1947.

From what I have read, the biggest complaint is that the movie doesn’t really give a full accounting of Robinson’s life. Jackie was a legendary collegiate athlete at UCLA, lettering in four sports– football, basketball, track and baseball.  He was the NCAA champion in the Long Jump and could have easily played professional football.  Of course, that was impossible because  the NFL was segregated at that time as well.

Nor does it detail his military career which is of interest mainly for Robinson being court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus at Ft. Hood, Texas.   He was eventually acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel of officers  but it was an incident that foretold of his strength and willingness to enter the fight in taking on the segregated major leagues.

Nor does it address the health problems that led to his early death.  He suffered from diabetes and was nearly blind when he had a heart attack that ended his life at the age of 53.  It was much too early for this remarkable man’s story to end.

As I said, it’s a story that every child should know and celebrate.

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Oh, it’s that time of the year once more.  Pitchers and catchers reporting to warm southern sites.  The first tentative soft toss of the ball and the swing of the bat.  Spring training is starting and for diehard baseball fans  it is the true beginning of the year, a time when the disappointments of last year are wiped from the slate and all that remains is the giddy hope that your team will experience that special year this year, topping it all off with a World Series crown.  It is, for me,  the best and most hopeful time of the year.

The photo I’m showing here may seem at first glance to have little to do with baseball but it is from a very important goodwill  tour of Japan that American players took in 1934.  Lasting a full month, it featured some of the best players of the day but by far, the biggest draw was the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.  The crowds were massive wherever he appeared, with his every movement drawing oohs and aahs from the adoring Japanese fans.  This photo is from a parade from the Ginza in Tokyo which drew over 500,000 fans.  Most baseball historians mark this tour as the beginning of the baseball mania which still remains in Japan today.

I think it’s events like this that make me such a baseball junkie.  I mean, there’s  so much than just the game, which itself  has a Zen-like perfection in its geometry and a unique skillset  that allows players of any size to excell.  I mean, in what other sport can a 150 pound man utterly dominate a player that is a foot taller and  a hundred pounds heavier?  But it’s the  interweaving of the game with our history and our day-to-day lives through the past 150 years or so that also makes it different than other sports.  It has an ingrained tradition that  lives with us, existing in the same rhythm of our lives.  It is mythic with players like the Bambino who were larger than life and whose appeal made entire nations want to emulate him.  It inspires poetry and music.  It is, like those first days of spring training, all about hope and possibility.

It makes me want to smell the fresh cut grass of a ballpark.

Babe Ruth at the Meiji Shrine 1934

For more info on the 1934 tour of Japan, there is a book titled Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan from author Robert K. Fitts.  It documents all the aspects of this famed tour including what might be the first mission in espionage from Moe Berg, the Princeton educaated Detroit Tiger catcher who was an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) operative during WW II.  See? History!  There are excerpts from this book here.

Batter up!


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Self Portrait-- Jon Sarkin

I was sent a link by a friend in response to yesterday’s post that really sparked some thought early this morning as I read it.  It was a story about author Amy Nutt’s book, Shadows Bright as Glass, which concerns itself with the story of Jon Sarkin.

  Sarkin had been a chiropractor until a day in 1988 when he experienced a stroke which transformed his life in a way.  He began to paint voraciously,  trying to express somehow the new self he suddenly identified in the aftermath of the damage done to his brain by the stroke.  He knew that he was somehow changed, could sense that there were parts of his mind that had transformed him into what he felt was a completely different person.  Painting allowed him a vocabulary to express the new sensations he was experiencing.

It made me think about my own accident years ago and the transformation that has taken place in the time since.  I often think of my life before that time as almost another life in another person’s mind, even though I still feel the continuum of my existence.  I am the same but different.   I can’t put my finger on it exactly but  know that  it has been the seed for much of my work over the years, a seeking and expressing of true identity. 
In the Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball, which I’ve been viewing this week in the studio, someone described Babe Ruth after his death as the most natural, unaffected person he had ever met.   He was what he was.  This made me think of this same concept of identity.  How many of us are perceived as what  we really are?  Does anyone ever really know anyone’s true and central self?  I wondered how many of us live in lives that are counter to our inner identities, constantly struggling in our minds, perhaps on a very subconscious level, with maintaining an outer face that we sense is not our true self?  It seems to me that this conflict in ourselves would be the source of much unhappiness in this world.  I know it was for me.
I don’t know if there are answers to be found.  Yet.  We still seem to be in the earliest stages of knowing how the brain and  the mind connect and  interact but given the acceleration of  discovery and technology over the past few decades, we may know more soon.  For now, we are who we are.  Or at least, who we appear to be.

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Babe RuthI recently picked up a book titled Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles Conlon.  It is, as it says, a book of photos of baseball players from the first part of the 20th century.  The photos are all black and white and give the players a grim, rough edge.  Not that they needed the help.

From the time I was a kid I was always interested in baseball from the turn of the century.  I read all sorts of books on my heroes and we had an old souvenir-like program from the 40’s that had many of these same photos with short stories and stats of many of these players.  I spent hours and hours looking at these faces and names until they took on a talisman-like quality in my mind.  Guys like Nap LaJoie, Rabbit Maranville, Wee Willie  Keeler, Cy Young and on and on.  In reality, many of these guys probably wouldn’t shine in today’s game but in my mind they were magic.Ty Cobb

Of course, there was a hierarchy.  Shown above, the Bambino, Babe Ruth, was the king.  An actual Sultan of Swat accompanied by his prince, the steady Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig.  Then there was the nasty tempered Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, shown here in one of the most famous of baseball photos of its time.  Renowned for sharpening his spikes and using them on waiting fielders as he stole numerous bases, Cobb was always bitter over Ruth’s dominance of the spotlight.

These players always really stuck out in my mind because of the images and stories I encountered as a kid.  They were brawny and raw looking.  They drank hard.  They fought.  They had a hardened mythic look in their gray wool uniforms.  They didn’t look like the players of my youth.  In the 70’s baseball started to be played in awful multi-purpose stadiums with hard artificial turf surfaces, vast cold edifices that sapped all of the organic quality from the game.  The uniforms were evolving as well.  The 70’s brought these stretchy polyester space suits that only added to the artificial feel of the stadiums.  I always think of Willie Stargell, a large first baseman for the Pirates with a big personality who would’ve fit in well with my old-timers) in this god-awful form-fitting spacesuit.  He looked ridiculous.

Walter Johnson The Big TrainIt was easy at that time to drift away from the game that had provided so much magic when I was young.  I stayed away for almost twenty years, barely checking the races or stats.  I have a huge hole in my knowledge of the game from the 80’s and early 90’s.  The return of smaller stadiums built to fit baseball saw a rebirth but it was the Yankees that brought me back.  I had grown up despising the Yanks ( the voice of their announcer Phil Rizzuto was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me) but this team in the 90’s was a throwback.  They had grit.  They fought. They made plays that became mythic.  They made me feel like I was 9 years old again, reading the wonderful hyperbole of the old sportswriters as they made mighty pronouncements about the exploits of the Bambino.  Baseball was magic again.

So leafing through this book rekindled many memories.  With that I leave you with a short piece of film that simply shows the great Big Train,  Walter Johnson, throwing. I saw a part of this on Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary series on the game and was mesmerized by his extraordinarily long arms and the whipping action his arms.  There is a kind of poetic beauty in the motion.

Maybe that’s the poetry of baseball that people talk of…

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