I Dreamed I Saw Babe Ruth Last Night
I wrote this on May 10, 2006, as Barry Bonds was nearing Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714. Hadn’t given it a thought in the nearly eight years since until this morning. I was surprised and pleased to still like it. Maybe you will too.
I dreamed I saw Babe Ruth last night
Alive as you and me,
Says I “But Babe, you’re so long dead!”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he.
Barry Bonds is at this writing closing in on Babe Ruth’s longtime record of 714 home runs, the last signpost on the rocky road to his ultimate destination, Henry Aaron’s mark of 755. By declaring that Major League Baseball would not commemorate Bonds’ 715th, whenever it came, as that would only create a new entrant into second place, Commissioner Bud Selig was not being unfair, but he may have been engaging in early-warning damage control. If performance-enhancing drugs are determined to have fueled the Giant star’s assault on the record books, the Commissioner will be sure to authorize a rather subdued celebration if and when he hits No. 756.
Last night as I drifted off to sleep, my mind was spinning about the journalists’ umbrage, the fans’ moralistic contempt, and the startling level of venom that follows Barry from one city to the next, as if Hitler were playing left field for San Francisco. What would the Babe feel about all this, I wondered? What would he say to Barry, and to you?
And in an instant, there he was, ready to reveal all without so much as a question from me.
“Hot as hell, ain’t it, kid? Hot for everybody in baseball, hot for the game itself. Sometimes I look down on all this hubbub and wonder whether anyone can come out of this all right. Me? I’m past reckoning with, but if I all I am today is that number, 714, then I sure made a mistake in the way I lived my life. Henry Aaron didn’t take anything away from me when he hit more home runs. He just achieved something great that was all his own, and he did it under terrible pressures that I never had to face. See, I’d had the home run record ever since 1921, when I hit my 139th, so 714 meant nothing to me except that it was the first ball to fly out of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and the last I would hit as a big leaguer. Playing ball was a nonstop joyride for me, even with the fusses now and then with Judge Landis or Miller Huggins. My heartaches came earlier and later than my baseball days, that’s why I hate to see Barry trudging forward, having no fun when this should be the greatest time of his life.
“Looking back on my boyhood, I honestly don’t remember being aware of the difference between right and wrong. I was a bad kid. My parents tossed me into an orphanage in Baltimore — St. Mary’s Industrial Home — when I was seven and they never came to visit, not one Sunday in twelve years. Well, I guess I was just too big and ugly for anyone to come see me. It wasn’t until I signed a baseball contract with the Orioles that I left St. Mary’s, at age nineteen. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the school or the way the Xavierian Brothers treated me. Brother Matthias was the man who introduced me to baseball and gave me my life’s calling — though it wasn’t much compared to his, that’s for certain. What I became, what I had, what I left behind me — all this I owe to the game of baseball, without which I would have come out of St. Mary’s a tailor, and a pretty bad one, at that.
“Barry, you seem to have led a charmed life early, but maybe your troubles were just waiting for you to reach the top so that the tumble would be more bruising. I don’t know what you did that made you become so great a home run hitter in your late years, when all the rest of us players would be winding down. Life may begin at forty for people in other lines of work, but that’s where it ends, more or less, for the baseball player. For me, I knew it was time to quit when it started to feel as if all the baselines ran uphill. Maybe what you did to stay in peak condition wrinkled somebody’s nose, maybe it upset the Commissioner or broke some rule, or maybe you even broke the law. I did the same, in my own day and in my own way, so I’m not one to judge. We had a thing called the Volstead Act and I broke it every day until it was repealed. I’ll tell you, Barry, I admire your God-given ability, your work habits and conditioning (these were not exactly priorities for me), your dedication to being the best, and not letting the bastards get you down.
“When I was a ballplayer, if I made a home run every time I came to bat, the fans would think I was all right. If I didn’t, they thought they could call me anything they liked. They had vile mouths then, those bums in the stands, even worse than today’s boo-birds, and I charged in after them more than once I’m sorry to say.
“Barry, don’t ever forget two things I’m going to tell you. One, don’t believe everything that’s written about you. Two, don’t pick up too many checks. Even with today’s big paychecks, a guy could go broke. Oh, and I guess there’s a third thing: scallions. Flaxseed oil may be great stuff, but scallions are the sure cure for any batting slump.
“To the fans I would say baseball was, is, and always will be to me the best game in the world. It’s bigger than the players, the owners, and the fans. As I once said of Ty Cobb, who later became my friendly golf partner, you might say about Barry Bonds—that he is a *****. But he sure can hit. God Almighty, that man can hit. Give him his due.
“I’ve heard people say that the trouble with the world is that we haven’t enough great leaders. I think we haven’t enough great followers. I have stood side by side with great thinkers — surgeons, engineers, economists, men who deserve a great following — and have heard the crowd cheer me instead. If there’s a mess in baseball right now, you fans don’t exactly have clean hands. You wanted home runs from all spots up and down the lineup, and you cheered as the ballparks became smaller and the ballplayers grew larger. Didn’t some Boston writer once say, ‘Beware of what you want … you just might get it?’
“I honestly don’t know anybody who wanted to live more than I did. It was a driving wish that was always with me in those days after I left baseball, a wish that only a person who has been close to death can know and understand. It was hell to get older. But now I see that I get to live forever. Every home run recalls my name. I hope it will for Barry too, and Henry Aaron, and Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and more.”
And then Babe faded from view. I had more questions for him, about his own life, his legendary feats, how he thought he would fare as a player today, what his stats would look like. And I really wanted to know what he thought about baseball’s future, as a national pastime and an increasingly international one.
Maybe he’ll check in again after Bonds hits No. 715.