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The game that Ruth built

Forget Bonds. The Babe invented the home run--and gave us baseball as we know it.

1920 home run totals: Boston Red Sox: 22; Chicago White Sox: 37; Baltimore Orioles: 50; Cleveland Indians: 35; Babe Ruth: 59
1920 home run totals: Boston Red Sox: 22; Chicago White Sox: 37; Baltimore Orioles: 50; Cleveland Indians: 35; Babe Ruth: 59 (Greg Klee / Globe Staff Photo Illustration; Ruth Image / Corbis)

"HANK AARON BROKE Babe Ruth's record. We don't celebrate anybody the second or third time in," said Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, explaining why he's not planning to commemorate the moment that Barry Bonds passes Babe Ruth as the number two home run hitter of all time.

Though Bonds is now 41, bothered by a bad knee and bone chips in his elbow, and under investigation for possibly lying to a federal grand jury about steroids, it's probably just a matter of days until the Giant tops the Babe. On May 2, Bonds smacked his 712th homer; Ruth hit 714 lifetime dingers, and Hank Aaron, the career leader, hit 755.

You can understand why MLB execs don't want to throw Bonds a party: Being seen with him might raise disturbing questions about their own culpability in baseball's steroid problem. But by dressing up politics as principle, Selig is giving up the chance to celebrate not only Bonds's achievement, but also Ruth's legacy.

And that's too bad. Because for all intents and purposes, Ruth created the game of baseball that we know today. It was the home run that made baseball a truly exciting game. It brought life to what we now call the dead ball era by injecting the dangerous possibility that any one at-bat might turn the world upside down. Babe Ruth understood that reflexively, and he didn't give a damn if anyone disagreed.

. . .

In baseball's earliest decades, players didn't think in terms of hitting for power, and neither did managers or executives. During the first 75 years of baseball history, the strategies traditionalists still prize today evolved and then came to dominate the game: bunting, moving runners over with ground balls, the hit-and-run.

Even had players tried to hit home runs, conditions were stacked against them. They couldn't swing for the fences, because there often weren't any fences at baseball's first fields. (The first concrete-and-steel stadium, Philadelphia's Shibe Park, didn't open until 1909.) More important, players were having a very hard time seeing the ball: Spitballs and scuffed balls were not only legal, but common, and balls discolored by tobacco juice, grass, and dirt routinely stayed in play.

It wasn't until the winter of 1919-20--after a worldwide influenza pandemic raised concerns about balls spreading infection--that baseball first banned the spitball and teams started keeping fresh balls available for play. By that time, Babe Ruth was already the most famous home run hitter in the game. Even when he was toiling as a starting pitcher for Boston, the effortlessness and distance of his blasts attracted huge attention.

Ruth hit only four dingers in 1915, for example, but one of them went into the faraway upper stands at New York's Polo Grounds, another landed in the right-field bleachers at Fenway Park, and his final shot of the year left the ballpark in St. Louis and broke a window in a building across the street. In 1916, Ruth hit just three homers, but they came in three consecutive games, which was enough to stir up buzz. "The more I see of Babe the more he seems a figure out of mythology," one writer stated in 1918. That season, the Red Sox deployed Ruth, who had been one of the American League's top hurlers, in the outfield for 59 games. But Ruth was raring to play full time, and his determination to mash as many taters as possible was only stoked further when Boston sold him to the Yankees before the 1920 season.

In a strategy that was revolutionary at the time, Ruth held his bat at the end, without choking up, and swung hard, all the time, focusing on his follow-through. "The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go," he said. "I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or miss big."

That philosophy appalled traditionalists, who had honed their tactics when home runs were still rare. Watching Ruth hit a shot over a group of palm trees during spring training in 1919, Giants manager John McGraw, who was proud of having turned small ball into a science, said, "If he plays every day, the bum will hit into 100 double plays before the season is over." Ty Cobb, a phenomenal line-drive hitter and fearsome baserunner, fully understood the threat Ruth's power represented to the old-school style of play. Cobb taunted the Babe with racial insults (even though Ruth was white), and asked people if they smelled anything when Ruth was around.

But there wasn't much else Cobb could do about Ruth. Once the spring of 1920 dawned, with clean, new balls in the air, and once Ruth moved out of Fenway Park, it was bombs away for the Babe. He clobbered 54 home runs in 1920--more than any team in the league--and 59 homers in 1921.

Ruth was truly dominant; more important, though, he was a one-man tipping point who demonstrated that players could consistently hit for power. In the 1920s and 1930s, other great players such as Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx approached Ruth's numbers and sometimes posted totals comparable to his. Even some players who weren't so great did, too, such as Hack Wilson and Ken Williams. Meanwhile, home run totals went up across baseball, and kept going up as more players emulated Ruth.

Ruth's impact extended to every area of baseball, even corners not commonly associated with his influence. He made big money, and while his salary dwarfed others--when Ruth earned $80,000 a year in the early 1930s, Lou Gehrig made $25,000--it dragged player pay upward.

The home run revolution that Ruth kicked off even changed the structure of ballparks--which in turn led to more home runs. In 1920, the Yankees doubled their home attendance to more than 1.2 million, which got other clubs to thinking about how to accommodate new fans. As sportswriter Leonard Koppett has pointed out, when Ebbets Field first opened in Brooklyn in 1913, it seated 18,000 fans, with a grandstand ending just beyond third base, and had a left-field wall 419 feet from home plate, along a street. The Dodgers installed left-field bleachers in 1926, wrapped the grandstand all the way around left field five years later (bringing the capacity to 32,000), and in 1941 added box seats in left. By the time Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella were taking aim at Ebbets Field's left-field wall, it was a mere 343 feet away.

All the while, the man they called "the Sultan of Swat" was routinely crushing balls farther than fans had ever seen, on his way to leading the league in homers 12 times and slugging percentage 14 straight years. Babe Ruth was the first man to hit 30 home runs in a season, and to hit 40, 50, and 60 home runs. He was the first player to hit 300 career home runs--and 400, 500, 600, and 700.

Ruth was so huge that he made an impact even when he played games that didn't count. In 1924, the Yankees were able to acquire center fielder Earle Combs from the minor league Louisville Colonels by offering them $50,000, a couple of players, and a promise that the Bombers would play an exhibition game in Louisville with Ruth in the lineup.

. . .

Barry Bonds, allegedly with massive chemical help, has dominated baseball like no slugger since Ruth. And quite apart from his possible steroid use or perjury, it's his legacy to have shown us what the Ruthian revolution looks like when it's taken too far.

The home run re-arrived as a cultural force in the late 1990s--Nike's "Chicks dig the long ball" ad debuted the spring after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced to break Roger Maris's single-season home run record--but it became clear soon afterward that homers were coming cheap. By the time Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001, the nation essentially yawned. And over the past few seasons, Bonds's power has reduced his plate appearances to a series of intentional walks interrupted by mammoth blasts. Too much power, it turns out, is fairly boring.

Bonds, sadly, was by far the best player of his generation even before apparently turning to anabolics. As he passes Ruth, the best player of any generation, on the lifetime home run list, commissioner Selig and his deputies will stay away. But that shouldn't stop us from celebrating the Babe, and the game he left us.

Peter Keating covers sports business for ESPN the Magazine. His book, "Dingers! A Short History of the Long Ball," from which this article is adapted, will be published this month.

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