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What's behind people's enduring interest in Babe Ruth

New York Yankees' Babe Ruth hits a baseball in this undated photo.
New York Yankees' Babe Ruth hits a baseball in this undated photo.

Baseball has changed over the years, but one thing that has endured is fans' fascination with one of the greatest sluggers ever to set foot on the diamond: Babe Ruth.

The 19-year-old who was plucked from St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys to play for the Baltimore Orioles in 1914 later joined the New York Yankees and helped turn the team into a baseball juggernaut in the Roaring '20s.

Ruth put up never-before-seen stats — he ended his career with 714 home runs, which remains the third-highest tally to this day — but it was the larger-than-life aura that surrounded this exceptional and wildly popular sports figure that cemented his place in American culture.

"Babe was the blueprint for generations of athletes. He is the standard against which all major leaguers measure themselves. He was the first athlete with an agent and the first sports celebrity," said Katie Dick, director of external affairs at the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore.

The Bambino's popularity didn't come only from his contributions to the game of baseball, Dick added. "Babe was a showman — he knew how to give a good quote, a good photo. His personality perfectly fit the time in which he lived, and the photos and videos you see really capture that star power. Even 100 years later, Babe is still effortlessly cool."

On what would have been George Herman Ruth Jr.'s 129th birthday, here are a few videos of the legend himself — both on and off the field.

The famous called home run

Perhaps the most famous video of Ruth is distant, grainy footage of the slugger appearing to point to the outfield, indicating he's about to hit a home run, moments before sending one flying out of the park.

There's some dispute about whether he was actually predicting that he'd hit a home run, and Ruth himself apparently told different versions of the story.

But the video contributed to the myth. And for those who couldn't see him play in person, it gave fans a glimpse of Ruth's singular style.

"It wasn't just that he hit more home runs than anybody else," sports writer Red Smith once said of Ruth. "He hit them better, higher, farther, with more theatrical timing and a more flamboyant flourish."

Baseball icon? Check. Movie actor? Yep!

You knew Ruth was multitalented, but did you know he also made the occasional jump from the sandlot to the silver screen?

In this short film, Fancy Curves, Ruth is asked by a group of young women in the stands at one of his games if he'll teach them how to play baseball.

Before deciding, he jogs over to his wife, Claire Ruth, to ask her permission, which she grants.

"What seems like a cutesy addition is actually telling — Claire did act as a manager for Babe," Dick said. "She would give him an allowance of $50 to discourage overspending. She negotiated endorsement deals with Babe's agent, Christy Walsh. [And] the Yankees would send her to training camp to ensure that Babe was on his best behavior."

According to IMDb, Babe Ruth acted in at least 10 films throughout his life.

Ruth was a role model for children

Several videos show Ruth thronged by young fans. He showed off his iconic swing, demonstrated how to throw a specific pitch and took time to sign autographs.

In this newsreel footage from 1924, Ruth is seen teaching a line of young boys how to hold a bat. He then hits a series of fly balls into the outfield, and groups of children rush to retrieve the balls slammed by the baseball great.

Ruth showed a lifelong fondness for kids. While playing for the Boston Red Sox, Ruth routinely invited children from nearby orphanages to his farm for a picnic and baseball game, according to a Society for American Baseball Research biography.

One video from 1941 shows him chatting with children in a New York City polio hospital and expressing support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt just after the U.S. had entered World War II.

Even more modern fans of the game still look to Ruth as one of the greatest baseball players in history — a testament to the staying power of his celebrity.

"He is larger than life, surrounded by so many myths and legends," Dick said, "and that is what fascinates people to this day."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]