A Ball and a Bat: Exclamation Point of Our Time

The home run mystique involves the power of one dramatic blast to pull a people together

Historians are busy these days trying to make an accounting of this passing century. They ask: "What personality, or event, or invention is characteristic of this divisive, tumultuous period?"

How about the home run?

It seems fitting that the home run is making the front pages in the waning days of the American Century: The balls flying off the bats of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are the exclamation points of the era.

The home run figures prominently into the contemporary American psyche.

There are two ways of looking at a home run: as a social historian (outside the foul line) or as a baseball historian (inside the foul line).

From the latter perspective, the importance of the home run and its mystique descends directly from the days of Babe Ruth.

Before the 1920s the home run was not that important. The great players of that age were one-base-at-a-time men. To men like Ty Cobb, the game consisted of singles, doubles, and stolen bases. Also called "one-station-at-a-time ball," this type of play was a product of the 19th century: methodical and scientific.

Then came Ruth, the "Paul Bunyan" of baseball.

With one mighty swat, he accomplished the same end: scoring runs.

It was more than all of those one-base-at-a-time steps that the others - combined - took before him. With Ruth it was quick and easy.

In terms of social history, Ruth's quick and easy approach was particularly appealing in the 1920s, when increasing numbers of Americans were moving into the regimented work experiences of desk jobs in bureaucracy and assembly lines in factories.

Their work was comprised of processes, slow and methodical. That is why they connected with Ruth - he took them away from all that. It was like getting rich quick.

Babe Ruth was a natural-born hitter. Unlike the hard-working Ty Cobb, who was driven by his demons, Ruth didn't seem to have to work at the game.

Ruth was like the movie stars of the time who were discovered overnight - their seemingly effortless rise to fame and fortune was so unlike the arduous work of a bureaucrat or an assembly line worker.

Ruth was a compensatory hero. He helped the person in the bureaucracy or in the factory feel a share of the power that could overcome obstacles with one dramatic blast.

Polls show Ruth still ranks as one of the all-time great sports figures. He served as a symbol of power despite despite the fact he was overweight, a drinker, and a womanizer.

Ever since Ruth hit 60 home runs in a season there's been this kind of chase. After Ruth it was Jimmy Fox in the 1930s, and of course there was the race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Nobody really wanted Ruth's record broken. But if anyone had to do it, the public preferred Mantle. Maris was considered a flash in the pan.

Although this year's race between McGwire and Sosa wasn't without its controversies, overall it was a good thing for baseball, and for the country.

One facet I like about this good-natured competition is the contrast between the two players - McGwire is old American stock, and Sosa is from a poor, Caribbean background. This nicely represents the demographic transformation in this country. Sosa represents our society's increasing ethnic diversity, and McGwire represents the well-known tradition.

AT the same time, the public's emotional involvement in this home run race encourages a kind of primitive solidarity among the population despite our diverse backgrounds. Our society has many forces that pull it apart. We don't have a king or a national church, but we do have a national sport. This is a tie that binds.

* Benjamin Rader is a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He wrote 'Baseball: A History of America's Game' (University of Illinois Press, 1992).

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