Author’s note: I am heavily indebted to Robert Weintraub and his engrossing account of Babe Ruth and the 1923 baseball season for this piece. It was in reading his book, The House That Ruth Built, that I first recognized the many common threads in the lives of Babe Ruth and LeBron James. Far from being a Babe Ruth scholar, I relied exclusively on Weintraub for my treatment of Ruth.
In October 1923, on the eve of the World Series, one figure commanded the public’s attention, and took responsibility for much of the ink being spilled on the nation’s sports pages. George Herman “Babe” Ruth towered over the American sporting world of the early 1920′s, his legacy built on mammoth long balls, barnstorming tours through small-town America, and a reckless, salacious lifestyle in the Big Apple. Though only twenty-eight at the time, The Babe’s home-run hitting prowess had already proved an electric shock to the sport of baseball, winning Ruth and the Yankees legions of new fans, while at the same time upsetting baseball traditionalists everywhere who venerated small ball. With The Babe and his New York Yankees preparing for their third straight World Series appearance against rival New York club, the Giants, the debate over Ruth’s legacy in the game faced a defining moment. Would Ruth finally defeat the wily, small ball-oriented Giants and silence the critics who said his long balls and bombastic personality were but a passing fad, or would he come up short for the third straight year and risk cementing his reputation as a postseason choker?
One needed to look no further than Babe Ruth’s opponent in the 1923 Fall Classic, skipper John McGraw and the New York Giants, to find some of his most vocal detractors. The Giants had shut down the mighty Babe the October before, winning the Series in five games, giving old man McGraw a welcome opportunity to crow about Ruth’s impotence (2-17 during the Series): “I signaled every pitch to Ruth…We pitched only nine curves and three fastballs to Ruth during the entire Series. The rest were slowballs [changeups], and of twelve of those, eleven set him on his backside.”1 The undisputed batting king of the regular season, Ruth flopped in 1922 and failed to lead his Yankees to a World Series title. Not only had they lost two straight World Series’ titles to their crosstown rivals, the Giants, but Ruth’s long ball philosophy appeared to have no substance when confronted by well-executed, fundamental small ball. As a Detroit paper opined, “McGraw came as near to perfection in his strategy as man probably ever will come in baseball.”2
More personally, newspaper columnists derided Ruth in the aftermath of 1922 for his poor Series’ showing, labeling him an “exploded phenomenon” and a “flat failure.” Though no one could argue with his regular-season dominance, all agreed with Arthur Robinson of the New York American, who wrote, “A man of a thousand successes, the Babe has since his ascendancy as a home run hitter been a World Series jest.”3 In more sweeping terms, Baseball Magazine contended, “It is almost certain that Ruth can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of the fans…Ruth is no longer a youngster, except in disposition, and bids fair to become a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.”4
The attacks were not limited to Ruth’s play on the field, either. As is often the case when a hero fails to live up to expectations, Ruth’s character flaws came under scrutiny. In a dinner organized for New York sports writers to which the Babe was invited, the keynote speaker, New York State senator Jimmy Walker, chastised Ruth for how he had disappointed the nation’s children with his behavior. Indeed, Ruth had a reputation for heavy drinking and had already developed a noticeable gut. On top of that, the 1922 season saw Ruth suspended at the beginning of the season for an unauthorized barnstorming tour, then ejected and stripped of his team captaincy soon after his return from suspension for throwing dirt on an umpire and climbing into the stands to confront a heckler. The rest of the offseason proved little relief, as questions lingered about Ruth’s drinking and devotion to the game. A much-publicized winter retreat to his rural Massachusetts home, aptly named Home Plate, where he vowed to abstain from liquor and work himself into shape, failed to quiet the skeptics.
In March, on the eve of spring training, Ruth faced the further embarrassment of an underage woman claiming he had fathered her child. The married Ruth was widely known to be lacking in chastity, but the woman’s portrayal of Ruth as a deadbeat further eroded his standing in the eyes of the public. The woman’s accusations turned out to be fabricated, but, coupled with the lingering effects of his awful World Series performance the year before, they seemed to demoralize him in early exhibition play. In the words of the baseball scribe, Grantland Rice, “The old time air of complete confidence that feathered his other spring trips has been missing to a large extent so far and his once-perfect timing has not been in evidence.”5 In interviews, Ruth admitted that his poor performance was worrisome, particularly as he felt like he was letting down the children across the country who worshiped him: “I’ve been getting a lot of letters from kids who say they’re rooting for me to come back…They’ve been doing a lot of worrying about me.”6
Then, near the end of spring training Ruth shook off his baseball blues and began pounding the ball. His rhythm carried into the regular season and he went on to post career highs in batting average and on-base percentage and win the League Award, given to the American League’s most valuable player. The accolades poured in once again, his foibles of the year before forgotten: “The greatest ever; his name and deeds will echo through the ages.” “This season Babe has had his heart and soul in his work.”7 Yet, one task still awaited the Babe: winning a World Series title with the Yankees. His two previous championships with the Red Sox had come as a pitcher, and since his transition to the outfield, he’d batted a woeful .212 in the World Series in two appearances. The 1923 showdown with the New York Giants offered him another chance to undo the narrative, which dogged him still, that of regular season hero and postseason goat.
Fast forward with me eighty-eight years to Miami, Florida and AmericanAirlines Arena, home to the Miami Heat. Superstar LeBron James trudged off the court on June 12, 2011, having just lost the NBA Finals to a stubborn squad of defense-minded veterans from Dallas. Only twenty-six years old and already a two-time NBA MVP, King James faced a summer of vicious criticism from all sides for his abysmal performance against Dallas. Sparkling regular season statistics: 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game, had tailed off in the Finals. Most notably, he suffered a nine-point drop in scoring average, the largest such discrepancy ever, according to Elias Sports Bureau.8
ESPN columnist Bill Simmons lamented James’ failure to dominate the series, comparing him to the late Wilt Chamberlain, who, despite his immense talent and gaudy statistics, ended his career with only two championships, never equaling the success of his archrival, Celtic Bill Russell.9 More stinging reports labeled LeBron a coward, no longer a go-to guy, and reminded the public of his previous failures, too. Though many others held off judgment on LeBron’s ultimate legacy, the most damning indictments stemmed not from the Heat’s loss to the Mavericks, but rather from his perceived lack of character and leadership. Given an opportunity to claim his first title, LeBron largely disappeared during crucial Game 4 and Game 6 losses. No longer, the critics crowed, could James ever be compared to be such greats as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird, who, despite occasional failures, never shrank from the spotlight. Just as Babe Ruth in 1922 faced the questions and the unfulfilled expectations of his many erstwhile admirers, LeBron stumbled into a long, painful offseason.
Ten months later LeBron and the Heat have roared into the playoffs, the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and presumed favorites to reach the Finals following Derrick Rose’s ACL tear. LeBron once again put up dazzling regular season numbers: 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game, to go along with career highs in field goal and three-point field goal percentage. He will almost certainly win his third MVP title later this week. Not surprisingly, the prerequisite redemption story made its appearance, too, last week in Sports Illustrated. Gracing the cover of the nation’s premier sports publication, LeBron humbly reflected on the year before: “I lost touch with who I was as a basketball player and a person.”10 One could hear in King James’ words echoes of The Babe addressing the sports press in the fall of 1922: “I know as well as anybody else just what mistakes I made last season. There’s no use in me trying to get away from them.”11 Then, just as Ruth retreated to his Massachusetts farm to refocus on his priorities, so LeBron found himself during the summer of 2011 by returning to his boyhood home of Akron, Ohio. There he biked the off-road trails of northern Ohio, trained with his high-school basketball coach and, though not much of a reader, delved into a book on leadership: The Ant and the Elephant.
Should LeBron regain admittance to basketball’s brightest stage, the NBA Finals, however, the questions, criticisms, and doubts will come flooding back. Eighty-nine years ago Babe Ruth entered his third straight World Series with the skepticism of the baseball world weighing on him. Let down not once, but twice by the great slugger, the press put their money on his rivals, the Giants and their already legendary manager, John McGraw. It was up to Ruth alone to banish his Fall Classic foibles and power the Yankees to victory. He proceeded to do so in dominating fashion, batting .368 and hitting home runs three home runs as the Yanks won in six. The Babe vanquished the nagging doubters that fall, and with his extraordinary talent, proceeded to rewrite the record books and win three more world championships by the end of his career. Nearly a century later Ruth is the mythic hero of our American sporting history, the thought of him ever being labeled an “exploded phenomenon” or “flat failure” beyond comprehension.
LeBron James has many years to go until his final legacy is written down, his personal myth recorded for posterity. Should he this season claim the final jewel in his already heavily-encrusted crown, the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the King may well be on his way to immortality. The roots of a legend have already been sowed: the young, fatherless boy from rural Ohio ascending to the ranks of NBA royalty; the precocious high-schooler who sold out a college gym; the Chosen One who broke the heart of curse-ridden Cleveland to build a dynasty in Miami. They remind one of the orphan boy Ruth wowing the crowds in Boston with his arm and his bat; the Great Bambino leaving Beantown to play under the bright lights of New York City; The Babe erecting a sports palace and beginning a Yankee dynasty on the expanse of his broad, muscled shoulders. Our grandchildren may never know that King James, too, had once labored under the strangling fear of being forever labeled “choker” and “coward.”
1 Robert Weintraub, The House that Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011), 145
2 House that Ruth Built, 146
3 House that Ruth Built, 9
4 House that Ruth Built, 61
5 House that Ruth Built, 99
6 House that Ruth Built, 292
7 House that Ruth Built, 307
8 ”Steve Kerr: LeBron James has work to do,” ESPN.com, June 13, 2011. http://sports.espn.go.com/chicago/nba/news/story?id=6656859&campaign=rss&source=NBAHeadlines
9 Bill Simmons, “NBA Finals Game 6 Retro Diary,” Grantland.com, June 13, 2011. http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6657623/nba-finals-game-6-retro-diary
10 Lee Jenkins, “LeBron James,” Sports Illustrated, April 30, 2012, 40
11 House that Ruth Built, 67-68