One hundred years ago this week, on July 11, 1914, George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth made his major league debut, for the Boston Red Sox at two-year old Fenway Park. Over the course of his baseball career, The Great Bambino set many records, including leading the league in home runs for twelve seasons; most total bases in a season (457); and highest slugging percentage for a season (.847). In all, he hit 714 home runs, a record that stood until 1974, when Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves claimed the title. But that is not why the Babe is immortal.
Other home run kings have achieved nothing like Ruth’s iconic status. Many decade-leading hitters—such as Harry Davis, Gavy Cravath, or Jimmie Foxx—are barely known. Even falling short of Ruth’s stature are the two players who passed him in home runs, Aaron and Barry Bonds (Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants), who took the top spot in 2007. Nor is Ruth’s immortality due entirely to the fact that he also excelled as a pitcher: for forty-three years he held the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in World Series play and his overall win-loss ratio (.671) remains the seventh best of all time.
Ruth’s immorality, rather, is due to how, through such extraordinary feats, he changed the game of baseball. He brought power to the sport at a time when typical strategy was to move players around the bases one small hit at a time. While baseball was thriving as an American pastime before he played, the Babe’s bold style, vast generosity, and utter unpretentiousness won the public’s adulation. His deep sense of ethics helped to rescue baseball from the damage done by the miscreant players who threw the 1919 World Series. His strength and optimism gave hope to millions during the Great Depression. Ruth made baseball a richer sport with a wider and enduring following, which is why we all recognize his name a century after his rookie year. And people venerate the Babe despite his many bad personal habits, such as gluttony, promiscuity, and pugnaciousness.
In American business, we have likewise enshrined transformative figures like Ruth despite faults. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt built the nation’s infrastructure while J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford forged its business structures and methods. We condemn the cheaters to memory’s hell—from Charles Ponzi to Bernie Madoff—or at least purgatory, as with Michael Milken. We remain ambivalent about the likes of Jay Gould and others still derided as robber barons. Read More