In a front page story in the New York Times, John Branch reports that a well preserved film from 1927 has been recently discovered that shows the New York Yankee baseball greats, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, in various poses, wearing so-called "barnstorming" uniforms that they donned to make extra money after the conclusion of the regular season. At one point, a rare and vivid close-up of the Babe can be seen. One of the things that makes this an interesting film is that it was recorded just weeks after the completion of one of the greatest seasons any professional sports team has ever enjoyed. Yet, why the front page of the New York Times? How can it be that these two men, particularly Babe Ruth, continue to attract such attention and warrant this much publicity after all these years?
We have to suppose that all the usual explanations apply. Babe was larger than life. Babe was endlessly flamboyant. Babe was an adult who never really grew up. Babe had gargantuan appetites for everything: food, fun, thrills, sex. But you know what? I can't resist asserting that the main reason was his unprecedented and unparalleled greatness as a baseball player. Somehow, in all the talk about the Babe and there is a lot to talk about, this main thing gets overlooked. When baseball was still young but also had already become the sport that most Americans paid attention to, no one came even close to Babe Ruth's amazing skill for hitting the ball out of the park paired with remarkable hitting consistency and superb fielding ability. Of course, consistency and fielding ability could be found in many players, but no one ever hit home runs the way Babe Ruth did and no one ever hit so many of them when everyone else was hitting so few. When he first did this, especially in 1920 and 1921, it must have been absolutely shattering to baseball fans. No other player came even close to his dominance, and no athlete since, not Michael Jordan, not Tiger Woods, not Wayne Gretzky, ever stood so tall above all of his peers. We remember the Babe still for a lot of the crazy things he did, but in the end it was his ability to do something that no one else on earth could do that holds him so strongly in our memories.