It's the classic photograph of Babe Ruth—and baseball as it used to be. The Sultan is caught at the end of his swat, feet splayed, bat in front of his right shoulder, eyes gazing up in wonder as the ball heads toward Jupiter. The picture of The Babe (below, right) is the essence of baseball's era of baggy-pants innocence. Reggie Jackson, the quintessential contemporary home-run hitter, doesn't look like that. At the end of his stroke, Jackson is rapt in wide-eyed admiration.
Ruth was the superstar of the baseball little boys play; Jackson is a superstar in a game filled with grown-up compromises. In Ruth's case, the press and public willingly forgave a multitude of sins—from gluttony to lust. Even now, perhaps, we prefer the simple, heroic image that comes through in the photograph. A painting of the picture once hung in the Hall of Fame and is now displayed prominently at the Babe Ruth Birthplace in Baltimore. The photo also served as the model for a postage stamp to be issued this July in connection with the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star Game.
Ruth was 35 at the time the picture was taken, but still at the top of his game. It was May 1, 1930, and the Yankees were playing an exhibition at old Oriole Park, a splintery-benched International League teacup in North Baltimore. This was to be the last game Ruth would play in his hometown.
Ruth died in 1948, but the photographer who took the picture, LeRoy Merriken (left), is alive and well and living in Baltimore. In the 53 years since he snapped the photo, Merriken has covered murders, fires and Presidents' funerals. But baseball remains his favorite subject. He has photographs he took of minor league Oriole pitchers Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw before they moved up to the majors with the Philadelphia Athletics. And he hasn't missed an Opening Day in 67 years. But none of his work is as celebrated as the picture he took of Ruth. He made his reputation on it.
"I knew Babe would hit one out that day," he says. "I stood 15 feet from home plate and kept my camera, a Speed Graphic, on him every time he stepped in to face the pitcher. The first time up, he struck out. The next time, he took a couple of cuts and missed. I was waiting for him to swing hard. When he did, the ball went over the fence between center and leftfield, and I took that picture. It was just a lucky shot, I guess."
Roy Merriken is a slight, dapper gentleman, with the contented look of a somewhat absent-minded leprechaun who's found a pot of gold he'd misplaced. Born on Sept. 16, 1897, Merriken is 2½ years younger than Ruth would be and, at 5'3", 11 inches shorter. His first viewfinder was a knothole in the Bull Durham sign in left-field at the old American League Park. "I used to stake out that hole hours before game time," he recalls. "Then they'd open the gates and let all of us kids in after the seventh inning."
Merriken dropped out of school in the eighth grade to take a job as an office boy at the Baltimore American. "My boss told me that if I wanted to get ahead I'd either have to become an artist or a photographer," he says. "I said I couldn't draw a straight line, so he lent me a camera, a Graflex that weighed about twice as much as I did."
He took his first baseball pictures in 1914, the same year that Ruth left a Baltimore reform school to join the minor league Orioles. Merriken took the team picture that year because he was a cub photographer and the Orioles were the second-string team in town. The upstart Federal League was trying to make it as a third major league, and the veteran writers and photographers were across the street watching the local entry, the Terrapins, at their park. The Terrapins allegedly had major league talent. Ironically, the fans and press were missing the professional debut of the best baseball player of all time.
The Federal League folded following the 1915 season. About the only thing that it accomplished in Baltimore was to force Jack Dunn, the Orioles' owner, to sell Ruth to the Boston Red Sox because the Orioles' gate receipts were so low. Ruth left Baltimore on July 11, 1914.
By the time Merriken took Ruth's picture again. The Bambino had appeared in nine World Series, slammed 60 homers in a season and "built" Yankee Stadium. Merriken never tires of recounting the circumstances surrounding The Babe's 1930 clout in Baltimore, but, alas, the record doesn't bear him out. If you look at the box score of that game, you find that Ruth didn't hit a home run. In five plate appearances he struck out, walked, flied twice to center and doubled. "While the fans were disappointed when The Babe failed to lift one out of the park," reported the Baltimore Sun, "they did see him hit a home run—for the dressing-room door when [Joe] Hauser hit the last grounder. The Yankees had to catch a train.... The Bambino [playing first base, rare for him] made only a passing grab at the ball as he dashed for the dugout. Baltimore galloped home with the winning run."
In the idolatrous world of baseball romantics, everything that Ruth hit was a homer. Merriken still remembers taking a picture that day of Ruth hitting one out of the park. As oldtime sports editors used to say when confronted with facts that conflicted with their legends, print the legend.