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  1. Life & Culture

St. Petersburg should get ready to honor 100 years of Babe Ruth

He is the original G.O.A.T. in the Tampa Bay area, after all.
Babe Ruth, whose first spring training in St. Petersburg was in 1925, takes a practice cut on April 20, 1932, before the home opener at Yankee Stadium in New York.
Babe Ruth, whose first spring training in St. Petersburg was in 1925, takes a practice cut on April 20, 1932, before the home opener at Yankee Stadium in New York. [ Associated Press (1932) ]
Published Sep. 20
Updated Sep. 21

There are strange words in English called “contranyms.” These words are spelled the same and sound the same, but have contrary meanings. If you are lucky, context makes them clear.

A famous contranym is “cleave,” which can mean to join or to separate. If you “sand” wood, you make it smooth; but if you “sand” ice, you make it rough.

Which brings us to “goat.” The dictionary offers three definitions: the jumpy critter with a beard and horns, a lecherous old man and a scapegoat. It may be from this last meaning that New York sports columnist and cartoonist Bill Gallo got his inspiration.

Starting in 1957 — and extending for more than 50 years — Gallo would, at the end of World Series games, designate a hero and a goat. The hero got to wear a laurel wreath. The goat wore the horns. Mickey Mantle, often crowned the hero, once said that he hated it when Gallo gave him the horns.

I have no record of when sports journalism dumped the goat and exalted the G.O.A.T.: Greatest of All Time. It’s usually spelled using initials, but it’s pronounced like an acronym — like the horned animal — like the athlete who at a climactic moment drops the ball.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wore the horns for decades as one of the sorriest franchises in all of sports. Now they stand at the summit thanks to a quarterback honored as the G.O.A.T.

Local pride requires us to note that Tom Brady is not the first G.O.A.T. in Tampa Bay. I recently stood at a baseball field near a small body of water known as Crescent Lake in St. Petersburg.

I leaned against an outfield fence that was not here when Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees arrived for spring training in 1925, an annual visitation that lasted for decades. Ruth celebrated many vernal equinoxes in St. Pete, helped put the city on the map, contributed to local charities, partied hard and golfed himself back into shape at the club that now serves as Admiral Farragut Academy.

There is a legend, often repeated, that the man who would one day be considered baseball’s G.O.A.T. was afraid of alligators. Ruth could see them snoozing on the slope of the lake, and was known to take a peek now and then over his shoulder as he was playing right field.

Gators will eat just about anything. So will goats, for that matter. The G.O.A.T. was pickier. He preferred hot dogs, washed down with beer.

We are approaching an important anniversary in the history of St. Petersburg. In 2025, St. Pete will mark the centennial of the 1925 arrival of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees to Crescent Lake Park for their first spring training here.

So much has happened here in those 100 years. But where is the evidence, the legacy, the lingering presence of the G.O.A.T.? Tampa has the Yankees now. A bronze plaque on the campus of the University of Tampa marks one of the spots where the Sultan of Swat was said to have hit his longest home run.

It will not make Dr. Fauci grouchy if I predict that by the year 2025, the pandemic will be behind us, and that our pent-up desires will be expressed in our own version of the Roaring Twenties.

That renaissance should start now, and one of its elements should be to take the Babe out of hiding.

I propose:

  • St. Pete should declare 1925 the Year of the Babe.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays should retire No. 3 (once worn by perhaps their most prominent player, Evan Longoria). But Babe never played for the Rays, you say. But neither did Jackie Robinson or Don Zimmer, whose numbers are retired. A corner of the Trop, or the stadium that replaces it, should become an interactive Babe shrine.
  • A statue or mural, or both, should be commissioned to recognize the place, at what is now Huggins Stengel Field, where the Babe looked over his shoulder to watch for gators.
  • Local breweries should compete to create a Bambino Brew that Ruth would have liked.

  • The Dalí Museum should do something really surprising and freaky. The Babe was surreal.

  • How about a Babe Ruth Trail, a digital scavenger hunt to track the influence of the Babe? My first haircut in St. Pete was at a barbershop near the Princess Martha Hotel, where some Yankees used to stay during spring training. First thing the old barber told me: “You are sitting in the chair where I cut Babe Ruth’s hair.”