x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

This Babe was Ruthless

He was a character on and off the field and his record for most home runs stood for 34 years.


Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full list at the end, but this week William Johnson looks at baseball's George Herman 'Babe' Ruth.

Babe Ruth was a major league slugger in every sense of the word; a rough diamond to continue in the vernacular of his beloved baseball. He punched and kicked his way out of the meanest streets of America to become a sporting legend. He once found the perfect way to tell the world how a game, that confuses as many as it entertains, changed his life. "If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery," said Ruth before he was struck down tragically early at the age of 53 by throat cancer.

"I have the same violent temper my father and elder brother had. Both died of injuries from street fights in Baltimore, fights begun by flare-ups of their tempers." Considering his own untimely death was almost exactly 60 years ago (Aug 16 1948), Ruth's legacy has enjoyed a remarkable staying power because he came third in a poll conducted just before the millennium to find the United States' "Athlete of the 20th Century".

Michael Jordan, still worshipped by millions of young basketball enthusiasts and unrivalled at the top of his sport at the time of the voting, won it from the master of boxing, Muhammad Ali. Yet Jordan was once described by the owner of his Chicago Cubs club as "the Babe Ruth of Basketball". Ruth was widely regarded as the sporting personality of a vintage era - the Roaring Twenties - when icons like Jack Dempsey (boxing), Bobby Jones (golf), Bill Tilden (tennis), and Red Grange (American football) ruled roost.

The United States public idolised their Babe not just for the phenomenal number of home runs he whacked with his fearsome bat, but for the extraordinary amount of beers he swigged, the mountain of hot dogs he devoured and the bevy of beauties he conquered. His philandering - he was rumoured to have contracted venereal disease at the height of his sexual activity - led to one of the other famous remarks attributed to him.

"I'll promise to go easier on drinking and to get to bed earlier, but not for you, not for $50,000 dollars, nor $250,000, will I give up women. They're too much fun." The non-sporting pursuits of Ruth, who was still at school when he started drinking whiskey and chewing tobacco, led to a misapprehension by those who did not see him perform, that he was overweight and a "passenger" on the field when he was not batting.

Admittedly, he became slow and ponderous towards the end of his lengthy career, but he was an impressive physical specimen at the peak of his powers. He had to be in good shape to accomplish what he did more than 20 thrilling years representing Baltimore, Boston and New York. Playing in 1927 for the New York Yankees, he helped them launch as a renowned worldwide name on the strength of the four World Series he helped them win. Ruth became the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season - a record which stood for 34 years.

He went on to hit a record aggregate total of 714 home runs which was not bettered until Hank Aaron notched his 715th in 1974, while his statistics for batting (0.393 in his best season) and slugging (0.690 for his career) were of record-breaking proportions. Those mercurial hitting talents made him a hot commodity to the point that he was sold to the Yan kees by the Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee to raise funds for staging Broadway shows.

Big transfer fees - that one was for $100,000 accompanied by a $300,000 loan - were reflected in the pay packet and in 1930, Ruth was asked by a reporter how he felt about his salary of $80,000 being $5,000 more than that of the president Herbert Hoover. "I had a better year than he did. How many home runs did he hit?" was the spontaneous put-down of a politician by the sportsman. Some of Ruth's other years were not as enjoyable, however. He was suspended for 10 Red Sox matches in 1917 for striking an umpire.

He was again disciplined for throwing dirt at a match official and remonstrating with a heckler in the crowd. "I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands," he declared. A bat he used for more conventional hitting - the one which earned him his first home run - was sold at an auction in 2004 for $1.26million (Dh4.62m), a figure that was rivalled by the $996,000 paid a year later for his contract to mark his signing for the Yankees.

While Ruth, christened George Herman when he was born in 1895, revelled in the nickname the "Sultan of Swat", it was his Babe moniker that contributed to his fame the world over. It originated in his native Baltimore after he had been plucked out of school by the local Orioles club as a talented left-handed pitcher whose natural talents with the bat had yet to be discovered. The owner of the club, Jack Dunn, was legally obliged to act as guardian to the 19-year old Ruth and when the other players were introduced to George, they referred to him as "Jack's newest babe".

The title stuck and the rest is history. Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Redgrave is the all-time best, text G19 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday August 14. wjohnson@thenational.ae