The US and its sporting giants: Bonds can't beat the legend of the Babe

Barry Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, surpassed Babe Ruth's baseball record when he hit his 715th home run this weekend. But, extraordinary player that he is, Bonds can never hope to replace the Great Bambino in the hearts of Americans. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent US

Of all the legends that have sprung up around the iconic American game of baseball, perhaps none tops this one. It is Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, and Babe Ruth - the superstar hitter of the New York Yankees - is up to bat against Charlie Root of the Chicago Cubs.

The two men duel inconclusively over the first four pitches. Then, just before the fifth pitch is thrown, Ruth makes a pointing gesture towards the far spectator stands, somewhere behind centre field. With his next swing of the bat, he sends the ball flying out of the park for a home run, knocking it to the very spot he had indicated.

Anyone familiar with the game of baseball will understand just how extraordinary this is. Few things in sport are harder than swinging a bat and hitting a baseball successfully (which is to say, without being caught or thrown out) when it is hurtling towards home plate on an unpredictable trajectory at anything up to 100 miles per hour.

Even the best hitters can manage it no more than one time in three that they come up to bat, and even then they have limited control over the trajectory of the ball. Home runs are rarer still - the top players in the professional game are generally thrilled if they hit 30 to 40 of them over the course of a 162-game season.

There are ample reasons, then, for the hit known as "Babe Ruth's called shot" to enter American folklore. Ruth was a larger-than-life figure, in every sense of the word, who not only set the standard for every player to come along in his wake, but was also largely responsible for shaping the way the modern game is played.

Home runs were a relative rarity until he proved their effectiveness by hitting more than 700 over his career. Baseball players, in and of themselves, used to be regarded as interchangeable minions of the organisations that employed them, until the Babe proved they could also be superstars.

Could anyone seriously claim to top that kind of achievement? Ask a baseball historian, and the answer will almost certainly be a flat "no". Ask a fan of the present-day San Francisco Giants, though, and you will get a very different response. The Giants' own home-run king, Barry Bonds, hit the 715th out-of-the-park ball of his career on Sunday, propelling him past Babe Ruth's benchmark record of 714. Only one other player, Hank Aaron, has ever hit more, and the chase is now on for Bonds to catch up with Aaron's 755 total.

San Francisco's home-town newspaper, the Chronicle, summed up the local attitude yesterday with a headline that read: "Bye, Bye Babe." The implication was clear: the legend of the Great Bambino has finally been eclipsed.

There's no doubt that Bonds is an extraordinary player. Over the past 19 years, he has worked to become one of the most consistently dangerous batters in the game, culminating in the fabled 2001 season, when he set the record for the most home runs - 73 - hit by a single player in one year.

But Bonds is also mired in controversy over his alleged use of steroids, drugs which not only help a player build up muscle but also help sharpen precisely the kind of lightning- quick reflexes a home-run hitter needs. Outside San Francisco, he is widely viewed as a villain and a cheat whose place in the record books is an offence to the entire game; he is heckled and booed whenever he comes up to bat.

Only in his home town does he continue to be revered as a hero. Indeed, the Giants' box-office receipts depend in large measure on whether he is in the line-up for any given game. He may, at 41, be past his prime and prey to constant problems with his knees. It may be true that the only reason he is still playing at all is to chase those outstanding records. But his fans don't care. They know he is still a superstar who continues to give pause to every pitcher who faces him, and that's more than enough for them.

This is an argument that goes well beyond simple sporting prowess. In many ways, it goes more generally to the heart of American culture. Is raw statistical achievement the benchmark of success in this society, or is greatness also about something that the record books alone do not show? Does America like its heroes unquestioned and unsullied, or is there also some attraction in the notion of tearing up the past, knocking down the old icons and installing new heroes in place of the old ones?

Buried in the Bonds vs Ruth arguments are some uncomfortable truths about America's propensity for mythologising and over-idealisation of the past. Bonds may be a controversial figure now, but it is often forgotten that Babe Ruth himself was no angel. The Great Bambino was a binge-eater and binge-drinker, whose weight ballooned alarmingly at several important junctures during his career. He would regularly break team curfew rules on game nights and drove more than one team manager to distraction. He could be vulgar and lewd, vain and demanding. He all but destroyed his first marriage with his propensity for casual sexual encounters.

Ruth was fortunate, though, to live in a more forgiving age. As long as he kept producing marvels on the field, fans and critics were prepared to overlook the fact that he happened to be hungover as he donned his pinstriped Yankee uniform, say, or that his ability to charge round the bases was compromised by the extra pounds he was carrying. Ruth calculated, correctly, that his achievements were on a scale that did not entirely oblige him to live by the rules of ordinary ball-players.

Once he had been established in the popular consciousness as a force of nature, his every move became a source of wonder, not all of it entirely rational. Did he really call that home run in the 1932 World Series, as the next day's newspapers excitedly proclaimed, or was he pointing towards the outfield for some completely unconnected reason? Die-hard baseball fans have been examining film footage of the moment for years, and the more honest among them willingly concede it is impossible to tell.

Babe Ruth wasn't just a prodigious player, though. He was also a pioneer of the sport and, in that respect, he will always eclipse Bonds or any other player who happens to demonstrate exceptional ability but is otherwise just one major leaguer among many.

Ruth's start in life is one of those American Dream stories. The son of a Baltimore saloon-keeper, he was abandoned by his parents and consigned to a reform school for orphans, the St Mary's Industrial School for Boys. He showed every sign of becoming a delinquent and a drop-out until the school's disciplinarian, Brother Matthias, channelled his energies into sport and encouraged his obvious natural talent for baseball.

Ruth could do everything. He is remembered for his batting, but he was also an ace pitcher in his early career with the Boston Red Sox. All-rounders are virtually unheard of in baseball, and the only reason Ruth did not pitch more is that it would have prevented him from playing every day. (It takes 4-5 days for a starting pitcher's arm to recover.)

In 1919, when Ruth was 24, a cash-strapped Red Sox manager sold him to the Yankees - a move so providential it spawned another potent baseball myth, the "Curse of the Bambino", which said that the Boston team could never win another World Series again. Indeed, the drought lasted all the way to 2004.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were transformed. Their gate receipts increased so sharply they were able to move out of the stadium they shared with the New York Giants and build their own ball park. Yankee Stadium, completed in 1923, is still known as "The House That Ruth Built".

What electrified the fans, above all, was Ruth's power hitting. In his first year with the Yankees, he hit 54 home runs - more than the number recorded by most entire teams in the major leagues. Up to that point, baseball had been a game of stealth, not power, with the emphasis on getting on base rather than smacking the ball into the stands. Within 10 years, every team was chasing home runs, although none had stars who could do it with the regularity and apparent effortlessness of Ruth.

It wasn't just the home runs. Ruth's batting average was consistently among the highest in the game. His consistency, and his ability to drive in runs, remain awe-inspiring even today, and there are any number of records, aside from the home-run total, which remain undisputably his. Ruth's personal story was also a potent factor in creating his myth - Hollywood romanticised him more than once on celluloid, and he was lavishly credited for his charity work on behalf of disadvantaged children.

When he died of cancer in 1948, at the age of 53, it triggered an outpouring of grief more commonly associated with a beloved political figure or religious leader. More than 200,000 people filed past his coffin as he lay in state at Yankee Stadium. At his funeral in New York, tens of thousands of people crammed the streets around St Patrick's Cathedral.

Neither Barry Bonds nor any other modern player could possibly dream of such a send-off. The epitaph on Ruth's gravestone perhaps sums up how an adoring nation felt, and continues to feel about him: "May the divine spirit that animated Babe Ruth to win the crucial game of life inspire the youth of America!"