Imagine the chaos in the sports universe if word got out that Babe Ruth used performance-enhancing drugs. Would he be vilified for sins committed during the Coolidge administration? Or would the moral posturing that has enveloped the Barry Bonds coverage finally subside? Maybe Mark McGwire would end up in the Hall of Fame. Or maybe the record books would get a whole fresh batch of asterisks.
The Bambino fell ill one year attempting to inject himself with extract from a sheep's testes. This effort by more than a few athletes of his era to seek the healing and strengthening properties of testosterone prefigured the craze for steroids. When Ruth fell ill from his attempted enhancement, the media was told that Ruth merely had 'a bellyache.'
"There's nobody today who has anything like the combination of Babe's accomplishments, personality, and impact on his generation."
While the story never got much press, it caught Gelf's ear when we came across it in Welcome to the Terrordome by Dave Zirin, whom we interviewed earlier this year. We brought the story to the attention of Bob Creamer, venerable sportswriter and author of the authoritative Babe Ruth biography Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. Creamer was one of the original hires of Sports Illustrated in 1954. He's old enough to remember a time when segregation was the norm and prohibition was the (widely ignored) law. As someone who has covered the game of baseball for over half a century and is still very much a fan, Creamer is one of the few people who can compare the modern athlete with the great ballplayers of old, based on the knowledge of having covered both. Below, Gelf talks to Creamer about the Babe's legendary status, baseball's "integrity," and, of course, sheep testes. The interview was conducted via email, and has been edited to trim down Creamer's endless wealth of knowledge.
Gelf Magazine: Sixty years after his death, and with most of his records now passed, Babe Ruth still stands as one of the world's most famous athletes. Why has he remained such a powerful figure for so long?
Bob Creamer: His accomplishments, his name, his appearance, and his personality all contribute. What he did is difficult to appreciate today because so many of his records have been surpassed, but in his day he was simply miles beyond everyone else, all the way through his career. When Henry Aaron passed Ruth's career home-run record, he was 40 years old; when he retired he was only 41 homers ahead of the then-second-place Ruth. When Barry Bonds broke Aaron's record, Barry was 43 and is now (and perhaps forever) only 10 or so homers ahead of Henry. When the Babe blew past Roger Connor's career record for home runs in 1921, he was only 26, and when he hit his last home run in 1935, the next best home-run hitter was more than 350 homers behind. The Babe was the first man to hit 30 homers in a season. He was the first to hit 40, the first to hit 50, the first to hit 60. He was miles and miles ahead of anyone else.
And he'd been a great pitcher, too. Before he began his switch from pitching to hitting, he had averaged 22 victories a season for three years. He beat Walter Johnson, who was probably the best pitcher who ever lived, five straight times one season. In the 1916 World Series he pitched a 14-inning, complete-game, 2-1 victory over the Dodgers. In 1918, a Boston sportswriter said, "The more I see of Babe the more he seems a figure out of mythology." And that was before he even began playing for the Yankees, his greatest seasons.
He towered over everybody as a player, and with that great made-for-headlines name, his big round face and his loud, boisterous, outgoing personality, he became known to everybody. He loved crowds, he loved people and everyone felt they knew him, baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. When I was researching Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, it seemed as though everybody had a Babe Ruth story to tell. Story after story becomes legend, and legends loom large in people's memory.
BC: I think his long-term status faded a little when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa blasted past 60 homers a couple of times in the late 1990s. Before then, in the 70 years from 1927 when Babe hit his famous 60 in a season, only one manRoger Maris with his 61 in 1961had gotten that far. "Babe Ruth" is still a magic name, and he might finish first if a vote for the best all-time athlete was taken today, but he's not quite as transcendent as he was. However, if new generations gain an appreciation of how far ahead of his time he was, maybe he'll still be the same old Babe.
GM: There's a tendency in today's sports media to frame every scandal as "tarnishing the integrity of the game." But did a game that was once segregated and influenced by gambling and a range of other issues really have integrity to lose?
BC: There is so much bullshit in sport and sports reporting that I wince when the word "integrity" is used. Baseball is a wonderful, complex sportthe best ever devised in my prejudiced opinionbut it is also a huge business run by businessmen whose primary interest is to make money, lots of it, and who have about as much interest in "integrity" as Enron. Like most of us, they're short-sighted and selfish, and when they do the right thing it's either by accident or when it is forced upon them. Like integration, and policing medicinal drug use.
But you're being unfair when you indict baseball for being segregated before Jackie Robinson. Younger generations have little appreciation of how entrenched segregation was in this country 60 years ago. It was everywhere, so much so that decent, everyday Americans (I include myself in that category) hardly noticed it. During World War II, the US Army enforced segregation in its personnel, and few people other than blacks paid much attention. When I was in the Army during the war, there were no blacks in my platoon, none in my company, none in my battalion, or my regiment, or my division15,000 men, all white. The 92nd Division was black. Baseball was white.
When baseball and the media talk about steroids threatening the game's integrity, they're not asking if drugs, steroids, and hormones have skewed the results of games and seasons and World Series. What they're worried aboutthe horror!are the sacredness of baseball records and the sacredness of the Hall of Fame. Should Barry Bonds's great home run records count? Does Mark McGwire deserve to be in the Hall?
What nonsense. Baseball records and election to the Hall always have been skewed by forces that affect statsdead balls, lively balls, prevailing winds, the designated hitter, smaller ballparks, bigger ballparks, raised pitching mounds, lowered pitching mounds, modern surgical miracles. But as far as hurting the so-called competitive integrity of baseball, steroid users aren't in a class with the Joe Jacksons and the Pete Roses who brought big-time gambling and its obvious dangers into the clubhouse. Or for that matter, steroids aren't on par with the designated hitter, eithera cataclysmic rule change that was adopted almost as an after-thought but which has skewed baseball profoundly, notably in World Series and interleague play, as well as home-run records.
"There is so much bullshit in sport and sports reporting that I wince when the word 'integrity' is used."GM: In a recent interview Gelf conducted with sports columnist Dave Zirin, he made the point that just like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and who knows who else, Babe Ruth also used banned or performance-enhancing substances. For one, he consumed a fair amount of alcohol during the time of Prohibition.
BC: In trying to answer that charge, I keep laughing out loud, literally. Jesus Christ, everybody drank during Prohibition. Sure, Ruth drank, he drank a lot, and so did a lot of other people, including a lot of other ballplayers. Did it affect his play? Did it help his home-run hitting? I'm damned if I know, or if anyone does, but I honestly don't see a relation to, or comparison with, steroids.
GM: Well, Zirin presents another charge, which he found in the Baseball Hall of Shame Warped Record Book, that alleges that Ruth injected himself with sheep testosterone. As Ruth's biographer, do you believe this story to be accurate, and if so, what are your thoughts on Ruth's history with these substances?
BC: I've never heard the sheep-testosterone story before, but I googled Ruth and sheep testosterone and found your interview with Dave Zirin, as well as Dave's column mentioning the sheep stuff and a similar column by Stephan F. Nathans. If I weren't such a cynic, I'd be outraged by the casual acceptance of the sheep-testosterone story by the writers, and their undocumented projections of the item.
In your interview, Zirin comes across as a very bright, very concerned, very responsible journalist. But in his column he wrote, "When Ruth fell ill from his attempted enhancement [meaning the sheep testosterone], the media was told that Ruth merely had a bellyache." In doing so, Dave committed the common journalistic sin of writing from ignorance with confidence.
Who says it was sheep testosterone that made him mysteriously ill in 1925? Ruth collapsed at the railroad station in Asheville because he had been on a tear for weeks. He was in the midst of breaking up with Helen, his first wife, and taking up with Clare, his second, and in the meantime screwing every willing woman he came across as the Yankees barnstormed north toward Opening Day. He was eating too much crap, drinking too much, fucking too much, sleeping too little, wearing himself out. He developedit's logical, isn't it?a stomach ulcer. Every detail relating to that barnstorming trip and his own train trip from Asheville to New York and the hospital points to ulcer, and so does the medical report from the hospitalnot to mention the great raw scar wound in his belly after the operation.
So which is it? My assertion that he had an ulcer? Or that sheep testosterone made him sick? Or was it, as the gossiping old ballplayers liked to whisper, syphilis? You don't cut into a man's stomach to cure syphilis or, I assume, to counteract sheep testosterone.
Ballplayers, especially old ballplayers, are like old women gossiping over a cup of tea. They pass along rumors and hearsay as fact. Read Eldon Auker's autobiography, which despite its charm and vivid recollectionsthe once-great Tommy Bridges as a pitiful drunk on Auker's front lawn is onepasses along gossip he heard as factual information. We sportswriters do the same. And readers and reviewers and other sportswriters accept it and it becomes what Mark Twain called the petrified truth.
If Ruth did, in fact, take sheep testosterone, I'd bet my hat and ass that he didn't take it to help him on the ballfield. He'd have taken it for the same reason Rafael Palmeiro took some other performance-enhancing substance: to have even more fun in bed.
[Editor's note: Gelf gave Zirin a chance to respond. He wrote:
I have nothing but respect for Robert Creamer, but his criticism is far too confident and self-assured by half. He is correct that there are no signed affidavits proving that Ruth injecting himself with sheep testicles. That being said, it would fit with what we know about both the early days of the development of testosterone and Ruth's own penchant for self-destructive experimentation. It is sourced in Baseball's Hall of Shame and has also been a topic of discussion by many an old-time writer. Is it plausible that Ruth tried injections to enhance his abilities (whether in bed or otherwise)? I do think it is plausible. Is it a stone-cold fact? I can't say that any more than Bob Creamer can say with certainty that it was an ulcer, or that it was syphilis.]
GM: Alright, so the Bonds-Ruth comparison falls short in that arena. The people at Baseball Prospectus did a comprehensive statistical analysis to determine whether Ruth or Bonds was a better player. By adjusting for the era, competition, league, home field, and other factors, they determined that Ruth had an edge in hitting, especially for power; Bonds was the better fielder and base-runner; but Ruth's pitching dominance really put him over the top as a complete player. What do you think about comparing players across generations?
BC: It's fun but it has little validity, in sports or in anything. You can't switch people to different eras and say how they would do. You can't. But, of course, I've done it, or tried to. I've compared Ruth and Bonds and argued that Ruth was greater because in his day he dominated the game far more than Barry did 70 years later. But there's the rub. It was 70 years ago. How many factors were different 70 years ago? Almost everything was differentthe color of the players, the size of the players, the size of the gloves, the texture of the fields, the dimensions of the ballparks, the time of day that games were played, the number of double-headers, the paucity of radio coverage, the lack of TV, the omnipresence of newspapers, and on and on and on.
The impact that athletes (or politicians or presidents or anyone) have on their time can give you an idea of how big they were at the time. I can say that Ruth had a much, much greater impact than Barry did, but I can't say Babe was a better player. Just like you can't say Barry is better than Willie Maysalthough personally I don't think Barry could carry Willie's glove.
"Ballplayers, especially old ballplayers, are like old women gossiping over a cup of tea. They pass along rumors and hearsay as fact."GM: How do you think Ruth would've fared had he remained a pitcher?
BC: I wonder. Lots of people point out, correctly, that Ruth was a truly great pitcher before he became a fulltime outfielder, a Cy Young winner if they had had that award back then, and a cinch Hall of Famer as a pitcher if he had remained on the mound. But you wonder. He stopped pitching seriously when he was 25. In 1919, his last season as a part-time starter, he gave up more hits than innings pitched, gave up more walks than strikeouts, and opposing batters hit .290 against him (in four previous seasons opposing batters never hit higher than .214 against him). Maybe that fall-off was due to playing the outfield most of the time between mound appearances, but Dizzy Dean and Dwight Gooden, two other pitchers who were fabulous when they were young, did relatively little after the age of 25. Maybe Ruth would have tailed off the same way. Who knows?
GM: The Babe transcended his sport because of his outsize personality and because he was so far ahead of the competition. Are there any contemporary athletes who remind you of Babe Ruth?
BC: Tiger Woods towers over his game and his impact transcends his sport, although in personality he is the total opposite of Babe: quiet, controlled, intellectually superior. Michael Jordan, although in retirement he has moved out of the spotlight more than Babe did. Years ago I thought Mike Tyson might be. I'm a Tyson fan, in that I still root for him to somehow conquer his demons. What a shame that he was so psychologically warped. He's a tragic figure in the classical sense of the word. But there's nobody today who has anything like the combination of Babe's accomplishments, personality, and impact on his generation.