A baseball autographed by legendary play

A baseball autographed by Babe Ruth, currently in the Hall of Fame. The Hall’s new exhibit, “Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend” opened this week. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s first appearance in Major League Baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown opened a new exhibit this week, “Babe Ruth, His Life and Legend.” The Hall of Fame is also celebrating its 75th Anniversary.

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.

BL: Ruth’s records have been shattered, of course. Henry Aaron hit a lot more home runs than Ruth’s 714 and several players, beginning with Roger Maris, have hit more than 60 in a season. Make a case for Babe Ruth’s undiminished stature.

JI: Well, I think when you take a look at Babe Ruth, unlike so many others, he was a legend when he was still playing. Others have surpassed him in terms of total home runs and  other records, but when he played he was so much better than the rest of the field that that still stands tall today.

BL: When the Hall of Fame opened 75 years ago, Time magazine opined, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what Abner Doubleday did at Gettysburg, but it can never forget what he did at Cooperstown.” This is a lovely thought, but Abner Doubleday didn’t do anything at Cooperstown, did he?

JI: He did not. In fact, the myth goes that in 1839 he had invented the game of baseball, and that’s why we opened 100 years later. But when you look at it, he was at West Point as a cadet back then. He was at Fort Sumter, fired the first shot for the union. And the story goes that he didn’t start baseball, but he started the Civil War.

BL: What was the first piece of baseball memorabilia acquired by the Hall of Fame?

Babe Ruth, the "Sultan of Swat." (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Babe Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat.” (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

JI: Things like a piece of wood that Cy Young chopped [or] the last razor blade that Cy Young used to shave. These were the types of relics that the folks here in Cooperstown believed made sense. Now of course, the razor blade is here, and when you next come to Cooperstown I don’t think I’d let you use it, but you’re certainly welcome to look at it.

BL: Ruth was an exceptionally accomplished player, as well as a gloriously popular figure, but he was also a rogue whose various excesses involving food, drink and women are part of his legend. Is any of that included in the exhibit?

JI: We do talk about the life and times of the Babe, and this exhibit is presented in a scrapbook fashion so that you actually feel that you’re walking through a scrapbook. We don’t dwell so much on some of the things that would be very prolific today with the advent of social media, but we do talk about his exploits on the golf course or with young children — visiting them in hospitals and promising them home runs — and just some of the ways that he reacted and interacted with fans and why he was so adored.

BL: We heard a great story years ago from a former neighbor of Babe Ruth’s here in Massachusetts, who remembered him sledding downhill with a bunch of kids and ripping his pants wide open at the bottom. I’m wondering if that’s included in the scrapbook?

JI: Well, we don’t have the pants, but that story might be told. And I think that story is so emblematic of who Ruth was. He came out of an orphanage and the industrial school at St. Mary’s in Baltimore and spent a lot of time with a lot of children. So his affinity for kids, especially those that were underprivileged or sick, is not unusual and is a part of his story that we like telling more so because it’s often under-told.

BL: I remember the Hall of Fame of my youth as kind of a solemn place. There was a room with all the plaques of course, and there was a very small gift shop where you could buy a New York Giants cap. Tell us a little bit about the contemporary Hall and the ways in which it’s meant to appeal to younger fans.

JI: Well, the Hall of Fame has morphed and grown so much over the decades, we’re very proud of where it stands today. The museum is very much alive, from activities with Hall of Famers to other ballplayers who come through, to sleepovers in the plaque gallery, to activities for children — a scavenger hunt that they take if they come through the museum, compelling video and multimedia. We firmly believe that the museum is far more engaging than it’s ever been and appeals to fans of all interest levels at any age.

BL: Are there other events going on throughout the summer of the 75th Anniversary that we should let people know about?

JI: Bill, it’s truly a celebratory year. From the Ruth [exhibit] opening this week, to induction weekend which comes at the end of July. Six living inductees, very, very special, big class. Six days later on Aug. 2, there will be a 75th anniversary concert to celebrate the Baseball Hall of Fame with Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, our house band, Paul Simon, Bernie Williams, Juan Luis Guerra from the Dominican, great soul singer Yolanda Adams, it’s going to be a phenomenal show.