12/20/2013 3:20 P.M. ET
Stories of the Babe still resonate today
Baseball that Ruth signed for sick boy with promise of a homer goes up for auction
By Terence Moore / MLB.com
Nothing tops a tear-jerking story in sports, especially if it involves baseball, the overwhelming king of generating such things. When you put George Herman Ruth in the middle of it all, it's almost too much. I mean, here we are, 87 years after he ripped a home run to help a sick kid get better, and the Babe still rocks, along with the legend of Johnny Sylvester.
Be prepared to cry ... again.
I'm sure you've seen The Babe Ruth Story. If not, let's start with something that just happened: One of the world's most famous baseballs went up for auction Friday, and the whole thing goes back to Ruth and Sylvester, the slugger and the youngster who are linked forever. Several months after Sylvester fell off a horse during the summer of 1926 in New Jersey, Ruth got word that the 11-year-old had taken a turn for the worse. So the Babe joined five of his teammates with the Yankees in signing a ball they shipped to Sylvester by air mail from St. Louis, where they were preparing for Game 4 of the World Series.
That was touching enough, but it gets better. Ruth scribbled a promise to Sylvester on the ball: "I'll knock a homer for Wednesday's game." In the end, the Babe slammed three of them, and it gets even better. Sylvester quickly recovered after those homers to become a national sensation along the way to living another 64 years. You know, all because Ruth went from Sultan of Swat to Healer In Spikes with the flick of his wrists of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence.
Right? I mean, right?
John Thorn paused a moment on the other end of the phone as the official baseball historian for the Major Leagues.
"My basic feeling is this fact is too good to check," Thorn said, chuckling to suggest there really isn't flying reindeer.
If there isn't, keep it to yourself. I'm among those who believe fantasy often is good, especially in baseball, but you always have those seeking their version of whether the Homer in the Gloamin' happened closer to dawn than dusk, or how much of the blood on Curt Schilling's sock was the result of a teammate spilling red soda near his feet, or if much of the Sylvester story was the figment of somebody's imagination.
Added Thorn, "Baseball has so many borderline, apocryphal tales, and if the story is really great like Babe Ruth pointing to center field in the 1932 World Series and calling his shot, you don't want to pierce that balloon. So was Sylvester sick? Yes. Did Babe Ruth agree to sign a ball to him? Yes. Did he promise to hit one home run and then wound up hitting three? Yes. The broad details are true enough for me. Whether each subset of fact is as has been reported, probably not."
The same goes for Ruth pointing toward a spot beyond the ivy at Wrigley Field during that 1932 World Series against the Cubs. Then the Babe delivered the ball in a hurry to that very spot.
Or so the story goes.
Many of these otherworldly things involved Ruth, which only makes sense. Courtesy of his bat and his charisma, he was bigger than life on and off the field during the 1920s and much of the 1930s.
"For instance, there are other incidents of the called shot, where he purported to call his shot, and then sometimes he did and sometimes he didn't," Thorn said.
Even so, players beyond Ruth have contributed through the decades to baseball's flirtation with (choose one or more) Ripley's Believe It or Not!, "Tales from the Crypt" or Grimm's fairy tales.
Take the 1909 World Series, for instance. Legend has it that Ty Cobb continued his reputation as an ornery soul by ripping the ancestry of Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner while standing on first base. In essence, Cobb uttered a slur before telling Wagner that he was going to steal second. When Cobb slid into the bag moments later, he not only was thrown out, but he was slapped so hard in the face by Wagner's tag that blood gushed from his mouth.
"None of it happened, but it's such a great story," Thorn said, chuckling some more, before recalling another one from the 1880s involving baseball standout King Kelly.
This was before the sport allowed free substitution in which you could replace a teammate without telling anybody. During this particular time, you had to declare you were entering the game from the bench. And, on this day, Kelly didn't take his normal spot in the outfield or behind the plate.
As Kelly sat in the dugout, a foul ball came his way. He jumped up, yelled, "Kelly catching for Boston," and made the catch.
"Well, it never happened," Thorn said. "Even though it's another great story, it's another one with no basis of fact. But baseball is like politics. There are so many bogus Abe Lincoln stories. Of course, George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree, nor did he toss a silver dollar across the [Potomac River]. It's not enough to have heroes. We have to make them Superman. We have to inflate them further. Americans love lies, but only if they're in on the joke."
For those of us who were diehard Big Red Machine fans, it wasn't funny when our team trailed the Pirates in the fifth and decisive game of the 1972 National League Championship Series in Cincinnati. The Reds eventually surged from behind in extra innings to reach the World Series. But it wouldn't have occurred if not for Johnny Bench's two-out solo homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie things.
Before the homer, Bench said somebody motioned for him in the on-deck circle to look toward the stands. It was his mother, and she told her son, "Hit me a home run," and you know the rest.
That really did happen, didn't it?
"Uh, sure," Thorn said.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.