CONSTRUCTING A LEGEND SINCE 1919
The Written Word
The rise of sportswriting and the culture that gave The Babe life
     Babe Ruth’s rise to legendary status coincided with a boom in the sportswriting industry. From 1915 to 1925, the average metropolitan newspaper doubled the amount of pages it devoted to sports coverage.
Sportswriters gather at the Polo Grounds.
Writers like Grantland Rice, Heywood Broun, Shirley Povich, Frank Lieb, John Kieran, Damon Runyon and Paul Gallico made a profession of covering the athletes in the golden age of sports. Inevitably, their writing turned skilled athletes into legends by waxing poetic about their accomplishments. According to Rice, "When a sportswriter stops making heroes out of athletes, it’s time to get out of the business," (Inabinett, p. ix).

     Sportswriters during this time traveled with the athletes and teams they covered and frequented many of the same establishments. Though other journalists claimed that this damaged their journalistic objectivity, sportswriters defended this behavior by writing engaging and revealing stories about the athletes that would not have been possible without such intimate contact. But the relationship sportswriters had with their athletes also deterred them from exposing the perhaps sordid details of their personal life. "We sing of their muscles, their courage, their gameness and skill because it seems to amuse readers and sells papers, but we rarely consider them as people and strictly speaking, leave their characters alone because that is dangerous ground," Gallico wrote when he left sportswriting in 1936 (Inabinett, p. 5-6).

     Those that followed Ruth did try to avoid writing about his personal life. This salvaged some of the Babe’s innocence and hid the great extent of Ruth’s extra-curricular excesses. Although he kept a mistress openly and went on prolific drinking and partying binges, sportswriters concealed more than a few of the Babe’s missteps from the public eye. To be sure, many of the Babe’s exploits were exposed in the newspapers. But according to Rice, newspapers did not cover half of it. "The truth of Babe’s life will never be written—the story of wrecked cars ha left along the highway—the story of the night he came near dropping Miller Huggins off a train—the story of the $100,000 or more he lost in Cuba one racing winter," Rice wrote in 1948 after Ruth died.

     Instead of focusing on off-field behavior, the sportswriters built Ruth’s legend on the diamond. They competed to give the Babe an appropriate nickname. Ruth was The Babino, The Sultan of Swat, Behemoth of Bust, Maharajah of Mash, Wazir of Wham, Rajah of Rap, and the Caliph of Clout. Newspapers began to carry sections entitled "What Babe Ruth Did Today." Filling the story with metaphor to describe actions was common during this time and Ruth’s mighty swing easily became a mythical trait. "It is just a picture of a large portly form taking a wild cut at the ball then loafing along the open highway with a stunned and startled crowd wondering who let old Doc Thor or the bolt-heaving Jupiter into the show," Rice wrote in 1926 (Inabinett, p. 42).

     This metaphor-rich style of journalism developed in the 1920s to sell newspapers by celebrating the purity of competition easily turned athletes into legends. Sportswriters gravitated toward athletes with star quality like Ruth and Jack Dempsey and mirrored their athletic accomplishments to great victories in life. It was the perfect metaphor: Life and Sport. "Life in the main is a battle against odds of one sort or another," Rice wrote in 1924. "The road to the top is always uphill and the onlooker at a sporting event senses in the struggle on the field a repetition of his own struggle in everyday life … He rises or he falls with his hero. It is a part of his own experience," (Inabinett, p. 18).

     On the hallowed battleground of sport, heroes were easily forged and written about. Since not everyone could get to see these sports heroes play, their legendary status was often built on the words of the journalist. When someone picked up a newspaper, an image of Ruth blasting another home run usually graced the cover of the sports section followed by a story detailing this event in Hurculean fashion. This burned an image of Ruth hitting homers into the mind of the reader. The two or three other times Ruth either struck out or walked in a game rarely make the paper. Therefore, it appeared to the public as if Ruth did nothing but hit home runs. Whenever you thought of the Babe, you thought of him blasting another one over the fence.

     Ruth realized the importance that the press played an integral role in establishing and maintaining his storied persona. He welcomed reporters and was always a good source for a quote. Whenever someone questioned a legendary deed, Ruth would hide behind the story the sportswriters told.
The legitimacy of Ruth's called shot lay with the writers who created the legend.
After news articles added to Ruth's legend with the legend of the Babe's called shot on Oct. 1, 1932, many fans asked Ruth whether he actually pointed into the center field bleachers before hitting a home run over that wall. "Why don't you read the papers?" Ruth answered. "It's all right there in the papers." He did not want anyone to question the legend that sportswriters created.

These were indeed the halcyon days of sportswriting where, as the old saying goes, "Heroes are not born but made." Growing economic prosperity and an increasing literacy rate fueled a boom in the newspaper industry and the press used to sports to sell newspapers. They capitalized on the increasing popularity of sports to build mythic heroes. Ruth was one of the main benefactors of this trend, a trend that was intricately tied both to advertisers and the consumer culture of the 1920s.


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