Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the Babe Hits One

When we read about the passing of a 100 year-old ballplayer--the oldest living former major leaguer, Bill Werber--it's great when we read about it in a bylined news story obituary, like that found in yesterday's NYT.

Richard Goldstein of course does a great job. It's not his first day on it. What makes the news story obit wonderful are the references to the era of the person's fame. This has always been appealing to me. To read of someone who was a teammate of Ruth's, who has now themselves only just passed away, is to reach back in time and be there. It's a time machine.

Think of all the people--family, friends, strangers--who Bill Berber could tell the Ruth home run story to, when Bill runs so fast from first after a Ruth homer that Babe later tells him in the dugout, "Son, you don't have to run when the Babe hits one." It's a treasured story to tell, and had to be a great one to hear directly from the person who was the out-of-breath youngster being grinned at by the Babe.

I didn't see Babe Ruth play. I was born shortly after he died. But my father did see the Babe play, and would tell me that Ruth in right field could almost throw a runner out at first because his arm was so good. Extreme right field at the older Yankee Stadium was not very big to begin with. Stick a cannon out there like Ruth, and I could see a catcher almost getting thrown out after a single.

It's the linkage to the past that the obituary brings when it's about someone who themselves had some mileage on them. There's such a thing as chain-of-custody for maintaining evidence. The same kind of chain exists with memories. I remember reading about Paul Mellon, the financier, philanthropist, thoroughbred race owner who lived into his 90s. His father was Andrew Mellon, a Secretary of Treasury under Harding, I believe. Paul's father was in his early 50s when Paul was born. I think I calculated that his father would have been 10 when Lincoln was assassinated.

Imagine being alive in the1990s and you can tell people your father talked about Lincoln's assassination first hand!

Imagine telling people you and the Babe were teammates.

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