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ALEX BEAM

Barry and the Babe

By the time you read this, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds may have eclipsed Babe Ruth in the home run department. But there is one department in which Bonds will never overtake the Babe: the department of mythology.

Bonds has become a modern-day Iago, reviled on almost every street corner for his crimes against the sacred institution of baseball. (''An overweening monster" -- Slate magazine.) By contrast, Babe remains the subject of collective adoration, a chubby, jovial Falstaff cherished in loving memory through the gauze filters previously reserved for Doris Day in her 60s or Ronald Reagan in his 70s. Just the other day I heard Ruth compared to Albert Einstein and Franklin Roosevelt as one of the seminal figures of the 20th century.

The black man is the villain; the white guy is the hero. How many times have I seen this movie? Only about 50,000, I'd say.

Ruth may have been plodding, but he was far from lovable, as Leigh Montville's just-published biography, ''The Big Bam," makes clear. In fact, there is virtually no sin that has been attributed to Bonds that the Babe didn't commit first -- and more so.

Brutish behavior? Even though Ruth was the first baseball player to hire a full-time public relations aide, there were plenty of incidents his flack couldn't cover up. Ruth charged an umpire and on another occasion threw dust in an ump's eyes. More than once, the Babe plunged into the grandstands to take on a heckler, the kind of impulsive (and understandable) act that may shorten basketball player Ron Artest's career.

One of the offending fans called Ruth ''a low down bum." You don't need a fertile imagination to figure out what epithets Barry Bonds hears from the stands.

Like Bonds, and all superstars, the Babe lived a life almost completely apart from his teammates. After a youth spent in a work home, Ruth's greed as an adult proved to be insatiable. Contracts meant nothing to him, and he cannily lobbied in the press for huge raises, threatening to switch careers if his employers failed to meet his ever-increasing salary demands.

Did someone mention breaking the rules? Lusting after money, Ruth embarked on a lucrative exhibition tour scheduled right after the 1921 World Series, in open defiance of Article 4 of the Major League Code. Instead of cutting the cherubic miscreant a break, Commissioner Kenesaw Landis fined and suspended Ruth, and made the punishments stick. It was a rare loss for Ruth, the spoiled man-child who almost always got his way.

Yes, of course, Ruth was nice to children, and so is Bonds, at least according to the latest episode of ESPN's ''Bonds on Bonds." But both superstars were and are able to control what we see. One of Ruth's many ghostwriters thought his client's showy displays of affection for the younger set were ''a put-on and a sham." Others disagreed. Whatever the case, familial affection, to put it gently, was not the Babe's strong suit.

There are other similarities between these two men who are being treated so differently by history. Like Bonds, Ruth developed something of a persecution complex. ''They're all after me," Ruth complained after Commissioner Landis lowered the boom. ''If I'm not wanted in organized baseball, all they have to do is tell me, and I will step down and out."

Most astonishingly, Ruth was taunted throughout his career . . . for being black. As a young man, his sallow features and puffy lips earned him a nickname that can't be printed in the newspaper but that dogged him throughout his life. Near the end of his book, Montville writes:

''Was the Babe, by legal definition, a black man? He had heard the bad words for as long as he had played. He had been handed the wrongful stereotype that would be attached to the black athlete -- the natural talent, abilities transmitted by the touch of God, not acquired through industry and intelligence. He never had the chance to manage a team. So many of the pieces fit. If not a black man, he had been touched by the prejudices against a black man."

Perhaps Ruth and Bonds have more in common than we realize.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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