Sports Nut

Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules

In defense of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, jaywalkers, and all the other scofflaws that make America great.

Babe Ruth’s plaque at Yankee Stadium

First of all, I have absolutely no doubt that, had steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs existed during Babe Ruth’s career, Babe Ruth would not only have used them, he would have used more of them than Barry Bonds. I don’t understand how anyone can be confused about this. The central theme of Babe Ruth’s life, which is the fulcrum of virtually every anecdote and every event of his career, is that Babe Ruth firmly believed that the rules did not apply to Babe Ruth. I have outlined this argument before, and I apologize for repeating myself, but why was Babe Ruth raised in an “orphanage”? Because he refused to go to school. He supposedly threatened to throw his manager off the back of a moving train —about as clear a symbol of disrespect for authority as one could possibly find. He was caught using a corked bat, which was not a big deal to the league authorities because they didn’t understand what you could do with a corked bat, and he very probably continued to use corked bats for much of his career.

Ruth knew perfectly well that he wasn’t supposed to eat eight or 10 hot dogs between the games of a doubleheader, but he did it anyway. In 1930, the Yankee players were introduced to the president of the United States before a game at Yankee Stadium. The other Yankee players said things like, “Thank you for coming, sir” and “Honored to meet you, Mr. President.” Babe Ruth said, “Hot as hell, ain’t it, Prez?” Every story about Babe Ruth, every episode, reflects this very deep belief in the importance to Babe Ruth of not obeying the rules.

I am not saying that we should not admire Babe Ruth, that we should not respect him, that we should not honor him. What I am trying to get people to face is the cast of mind that made Babe Ruth what he was. It was not very different from the cast of mind that made Barry Bonds who he was, or made Roger Clemens or Ted Williams who they were. I myself am a stubborn, sometimes arrogant person who refuses to obey some of the rules that everybody else follows. I pay no attention to the rules of grammar. I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25. It has to do with following the rules that make sense to me and ignoring the ones that don’t. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am. I started the Baseball Abstract, self-publishing it when self-publishing was cumbersome and impractical, because it was my book and nobody was going to tell me how to write it or tell me what people were interested in.

When Babe Ruth came to the major leagues, it was the universal belief of baseball men that trying to hit long fly balls was counterproductive. It would lead to some home runs, yes, but it would lead to more strikeouts and to more long fly balls that would be caught. “Smart” hitting was using a level, controlled stroke and putting the ball in play.

People write that Babe Ruth was “allowed” to develop a hitting style based on a powerful uppercut because he was a pitcher, so nobody worried that much about his hitting. Bullshit; he hit that way because he was Babe Ruth, and he was deeply convinced that the rules did not apply to Babe Ruth. Like a scientist, like you and me, Babe Ruth did not believe that what everybody “knew” was necessarily right. A lot of what people “know” is nonsense, and the rules based on that knowledge are fetters and hobbles.

Branch Rickey was that way. The “rule” in Branch Rickey’s time was that blacks and whites were supposed to go their separate ways. Branch Rickey thought that was a stupid rule, and he wouldn’t follow it. Commissioner Landis hated Rickey because he was always pushing the limits of the rules, trying to get by with whatever he could get by with.

It is a very American thing, that we don’t believe too much in obeying the rules. We are not a nation of Hall Monitors; we are a nation that tortures Hall Monitors. We are people who push the rules.

When I lived in Boston, there was a rail line near our house. At the end of our street there was no rail line crossing, and there were signs posted: “NO CROSSING” and “Danger: Do Not Attempt To Cross.” But there was a grocery store right across the street, and there was nowhere close to cross—you were supposed to walk 200 feet in one direction or the other to cross the street safely. We paid no attention to the signs; we crossed wherever and whenever we felt like it, as long as we figured we wouldn’t get killed by the six lanes of traffic or the trains running in both directions. Sometimes there would be a cop posted there, for safety, and people would ignore the cop and cross right in front of him, and he would yell at them, but he wouldn’t do anything.

That was very American. You wouldn’t do that in Germany. You wouldn’t do that in Canada. You sure as hell wouldn’t do it in Singapore.

I am not suggesting that this is necessarily a good thing. I have just finished writing a book called Popular Crime, and one of the issues I looked at is why America’s crime rate is much higher than that of most other advanced nations. This attitude that we have toward following the rules is certainly very relevant to that.

Roger Clemens prepares to testify before Congress about drug use in baseball 

Violent crimes are terrible, terrible things, devastating to people’s lives, and we do have more crime in America because we are not people who take all of the rules very seriously. This latitude that we give one another creates a space in which a culture of crime lives and breeds. It is dishonest not to admit that this is true.

At the same time, America is an immensely creative country, very inventive, extraordinarily dynamic, meaning that things change in America at a staggering pace. Not only do Americans derive fantastic benefits from this, but the entire world derives great benefits from it, from the things that Americans invent and create. And this … nature that we have (which is not truly nature or truly natural) … of giving one another space to ignore the rules and do whatever we think is right is central to our creativity, our inventiveness, and to the power of American society to stagger, adjust, and rush forward.

So am I saying, then, that in order to get the dynamism and power of American life, we have to put up with crime and with the other dangers that crop up in a society in which people don’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to the rules? (A relative of mine lives in a farm country where crop dusters spray pesticides and chemicals from the air. There are very strict laws regarding the spraying of chemicals from the air, but these are hard to enforce, and the crop dusters don’t always pay careful attention to them and wind up spraying chemicals on my relative’s house, which understandably infuriates him.)

No, not at all; that’s a sloppy, defeatist answer. There are two lousy answers here:

1) That we need to become a nation like Germany in which people respect and obey the rules, whether they make sense or not.

2) That we have to tolerate the violence and the being-sprayed-with-pesticides and the being-hit-by-trains that come from living in a society in which people don’t pay a lot of attention to rules that they don’t like.

No. 1 is a lousy answer because the inevitable consequence is that America ceases to be the dynamic, crazy, and creative country that gives the world an endless flow of new inventions. No. 1 is a lousy answer because the inevitable consequence of No. 1 is that Babe Ruth goes to jail. In his time, nobody wanted to send Babe Ruth to jail, but now we do want to send Barry Bonds to jail, and we want to send Roger Clemens to jail, and we (for reasons that I don’t understand) find it necessary to piss on Mark McGwire’s shoes in order to defend the honor of Roger Maris. I am not happy about this. There is no real difference between sending Babe Ruth to jail and sending Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens to jail. The only relevant difference is the difference between America in 2010 and America in 1940.

You think Babe Ruth didn’t violate the law? Babe Ruth violated the law more often than television reruns old episodes of Copsor Andy Griffith.You ever hear of Prohibition?

But No. 2 is a lousy answer, too, because that means that we go on getting people murdered and hit by trains and sprayed with pesticides and bilked out of their savings by Wall Street geek-geniuses who can invent new financial instruments much faster than the regulators can figure out how dangerous they are.

The answer is not No. 1 or No. 2; it is tolerance and vigilance, and it is a sense of perspective. The people who sent Martha Stewart to jail were the people who were supposed to be watching Wall Street. They went after Martha Stewart because she was an easy target. Also, they didn’t understand financial derivatives. Nobody did; as it turned out, the people who were trading in them didn’t understand them, either. That’s why Lehman Bros. went bankrupt; they were trading in something they didn’t understand.

So now it is Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in the crosshairs of the prosecutors, and the question I would urge you to think about is not only “Are these people guilty?” It is also, “Is this prosecution necessary and appropriate?”

Who is it that these people are not watching? We know now, in retrospect, who the people who sent Martha to jail should have been watching. In 10 years, we will know who is robbing the candy store while the feds are chasing Roger. It is not our job to know that now; it is their job, and frankly they should go do it. Is it really necessary to send Babe Ruth to jail, to teach him a lesson about refusing to go to school and making off-color remarks at nice old ladies’ dinner parties and drinking during Prohibition? Or can we let him be Babe Ruth, arrogant and charming and irresponsible?

Just my opinion. Let Babe Ruth alone. Go bother the crop dusters.

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