"To hell with Babe Ruth," the Japanese soldiers would shout out to the Americans during World War II combat in the Pacific. It's funny how things change. Years earlier, Ruth had visited Japan and been so popular he helped raise the popularity of baseball in that country to the point that it has endured down to the present day.
They liked him as much as we did, so perhaps that's why it was easy for them to intuit that profaning the big man (and one really doubts they said "to hell," as war generally inspires harsher language) would hurt us more than anything else, perhaps even more than, "The 4-F guys at home are sleeping with your wives and girlfriends while you're rotting in the jungle" -- something that they also tried via propaganda DJ Tokyo Rose.
If you hunt around, you can find recordings of Rose introducing suggestive songs such as, "My Resistance is Low," and even though it's 70 years later, if you can't feel the insidiousness of it -- the anger steaming off those G.I.s as they sweltered on Guadalcanal or struggled along the Kapa Kapa trail on Papua New Guinea -- your internal empathy engine is malfunctioning.
My mother always tells me, a kiss is alright,
But when it's dark and after 12, and you turn out the light,
I ought to say 'No!', make you let me go,
Oh, but my resistance is so low.
Ruth, an enthusiastic collector of women in his younger days, might have found the latter more amusing than anything else, but he took the appropriation of his name very personally. Old, out of shape, and frequently ill, he couldn't take a direct role in the war, but he threw himself into supporting the war effort. He also bought $100,000 in war bonds, becoming, as the wartime song went, one of the men behind the man behind the gun. As his best biographer, Marshall Smelser, put it:
Babe Ruth in his late forties had become a patriotic symbol, ranking not far below the flag and the bald eagle, invariably photographed promoting remote battles or the relief of the miseries that follow battles. He canvassed door-to-door for the Red Cross, umpired benefit gall games, gave baseball films to the Navy and the Red Cross for showing in ships and in overseas servicemen's clubs, sold war bonds in theaters and on the radio, let his name and steadily fatter face to bond-selling contents.
75 Years Later
75 Years Later
Babe Ruth began his journey to national symbol-hood 100 years ago today, on July 11, 1914, when he made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox. He pitched, he won. Later he transitioned to the outfield, and well, you know the rest. Ironically, his is not a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story, not a Horatio Alger story -- Alger was a pedophile, so let's delete him and his no-longer-read stories as a byword for boy-makes-good tales anyway -- but a Dickensian one, a juvenile delinquent so recalcitrant that his family gave up on him, had him officially labeled, at age seven, "incorrigible or vicious," and "beyond ... control" of his parents. Smelser again, speaking of Ruth and his father:
"Big and Little George appeared hand in hand at St. Mary's on June 13, 1902, to enroll Little George, who wept and asked to go home with his father. The Xaverian Brothers were used to tears in such cases and took him in hand easily... In that twelve-year span he spent about seven and a half years at the school. Several times he went home [but when] he returned to St. Mary's in 1912 [he] never went home again. From 1912 until his discharge from the school in 1914, he had no visitors, ever."
Yes, he learned to excel at baseball there, but he was really taught to be a tailor. He was good with a needle and thread all his life. In an interview on Thursday, Ruth's stepdaughter Julia recalled, "I went off to camp and he made me a bedspread." That he became the greatest baseball player of all time -- and despite there being many reasons to deprecate his statistics compared to today's players, despite Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds surpassing him, no one can ever surpass him as the founding father of the modern game -- was a kind of fluke, a miracle.
Babe Ruth in his element, 1922. (Getty Images)
That summer of 1914 was a momentous one. Europe was about a month from destroying itself, plowing under a civilization that had taken a thousand years to build and had seemed to many to be just peaking. America (and Babe Ruth to a limited extent) would get drawn into that conflict, with consequences for our way of life as well. Yet, that year we also got something that is as quintessentially ours as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. To hell with Babe Ruth? Hell no. God bless Babe Ruth. God Bless America. In a way, it's saying the same thing.