The day after Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the year, I let the historian in me get the better of the baseball fan. I went to the library and looked up the coverage Babe Ruth got 71 years ago in The New York Times after he smashed his 60th home run of the 1927 season.
I was moved to do so by McGwire himself. After hitting that 62nd home run, he climbed into the stands to embrace the family of Roger Maris, the man whose home run record he had just broken. It was a gesture of kindness on McGwire's part, but clearly he had also felt that a record like his only had resonance if it linked him to baseball's historic past.
In looking up the reportage on Ruth, whose 60 home runs in a season was baseball's most famous record until Maris broke it in 1961, I saw myself carrying to its logical conclusion McGwire's concern with baseball history.
Researching the coverage on Ruth in a baseball season that has become pure joy for me turned out to be a much more humbling experience than I anticipated, however.
To begin with, there was the emphasis given to the 1927 story. It was not front page news in the Times. That was reserved for a tornado in St. Louis, a French tariff proposal to President Coolidge, and a story on Gov. Al Smith. I had to turn to Page 12 to find the story of Ruth's home run, and even then the story only shared top billing on the sports page. The Times banner headline led off with Ruth's feat but quickly moved on from Ruth and the Yankees to the tight National League pennant race from which the New York Giants had just been eliminated.
Even more surprising was the article itself, written without a byline. It celebrates Ruth's feat.
"Babe Ruth scaled the hitherto unattained heights yesterday," is its lead sentence. But never again is its prose congratulatory. The Babe's home run is described in economical prose.
"The Babe took a vicious swing at the third pitched ball and the bat connected with a crash that was audible in all parts of the stands. It was not necessary to follow the course of the ball. The boys in the bleachers indicated the route of the record homer."
After that, the story changes perspective so that we see the homer as players on the field did.
First, we get the view of the losing Washington Senators pitcher. Then the story shifts perspective again, recording how, "According to Umpire Bill Dinneen at the plate and Catcher Muddy Ruel the ball traveled on a line and landed a foot inside fair territory about half way to the top of the bleachers."
Significantly, Ruth himself is never quoted, nor is there ever any discussion of how he might have felt about breaking the home run record he had established in 1921. The person who gets the most attention in the story is the man who caught homer No. 60, Joe Forner of 1937 First Avenue, Manhattan, who is chided for being "far from modest" for rushing to the Yankee dressing room after the game to let Ruth know who had the ball.
By the end of the Times story both Ruth and the fan who caught his home run are, however, incidental figures. The final paragraph is about how the Yankees scored their three other runs. It mentions Ruth, but it focuses on the Yankees Gehrig and Meusel. These days it is difficult to imagine any editor being satisfied with the Times 1927 story. But as I reread it, I realized how much that is both our loss and our problem.
SEVENTY-one years later, the appeal of the Times story is its confidence in all that it can leave out and still be exciting. Its author doesn't worry over an audience that has been jaded by videotape after videotape of Ruth's feat. And, most impressively, he trusts that the interest we take in a game like baseball shouldn't be elevated to the level of national news, or transformed so that a player's inner life - even that of the Babe - becomes subject to public scrutiny.
* Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of 'The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self' (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).