I talked with Lou Gehrig the other day. Ran into him at the barbershop. Roger Maris was in the chair, getting another one of those flattops. Busy day -- Elvis was waiting, then Albert Einstein, then Lou, then me. Old Number 4 was reading an old copy of the Police Gazette when I came in, but he put it down and asked me the question everyone seems to be asking.
"So what do you think about Barry Bonds hitting 715?" he said.
I told him what I tell everyone: I'm trying to be nice.
"It's a different time, a different situation," I said. "It's a different game. How's that sound?"
I know that Lou -- and everyone else -- wants me to talk about the steroids, the allegations of cheating. I'm not going to do it. I never talked bad in the press during my playing career about any other player, teammate or opposition, and I'm not going to start now. Not even about the most-disliked player I've seen in baseball since Chick Gandil and the rest of those 1919 Black Sox. It's like Clarence Darrow said when I saw him at the supermarket, "Babe, you don't want to get wrapped up in this steroid mess. Let the lawyers handle it."
I will say that I invented the four-ply wallop, the dinger, the dong, the circuit smash. If it weren't for me, Barry Bonds wouldn't have had a road to follow. Wouldn't have had the temptation to do bad things, either. Nobody would.
I was not only the best at what I did in this home run department; I was the first at what I did. I was the Vasco da Gama of home runs. I was the Charles Lindbergh. (I saw him just last week at the dry cleaners. Looked pretty good, Lucky Lindy did.) Before me, a home run was just a long fly ball. I captured people's imaginations in a way Barry never could, never will. From the time I hit my first professional home run -- Providence Clamdiggers, 1914 -- straight into Lake Ontario at Hanlan's Point Stadium in Toronto, I showed the excitement, the majesty, the uninhibited happiness of watching a baseball leave the boundaries of a simple game and land in real life, crashing through plate glass windows, clanging off facades, knocking over beers and landing once -- Washington, D.C., 1918 -- in a victory garden next to the turnips. That one was off Walter Johnson, too.
My nutritional supplements were hot dogs and a pint of lager. My drug of choice was bicarbonate of soda. My personal trainer -- and, yeah, I had one, a guy named Artie McGovern, who also worked with John Philip Sousa and some titans of Wall Street -- had me doing jumping jacks and push-ups. That was it. I was natural. My scouting reports were in my head, not in some computer or video vault.
These modern sluggers -- not so much Roger or Hammerin' Hank Aaron, but the rest of them, especially Barry -- seem artificial to me. Legally or illegally, they seem constructed in a fitness lab, tinkered and tweaked, outsized bodies put together by scientists and mechanics. Their ballplaying seems to be all business. They have helpers, coaches, stats men, nutritionists, psychologists, personal assistants. Where is the music, everyone doing the Charleston in the background? Where is the fun?
Does Barry ever smile except when he's making a commercial? He walks to the plate like he's taking out the trash. Every game seems like an imposition.
Myself, I grabbed life by the ears and took it dancing. I stayed up late and got up early and was nice to dogs and children and young ladies. Especially young ladies. Forget the home runs, I'd like to see Barry try to follow that pace. Baseball and everything around it were a joy and a wonder for me and I just kept swinging and some of those balls I hit are still traveling, kept in the air by conversation and lore, myth and romance. Will Barry be able to say that?
"You were Lucky Lindy," Gehrig said to me as he settled into the big chair to get his ears lowered. "These other guys, especially Barry, they're Steve Fossett or that Richard Branson character, spending money to buy records that don't really matter much."
I don't know much about those two fellas, Fossett and Branson, but I have to agree. No one can take away what I did. I forever am the Sultan of Swat. I also am the Caliph of Clout, the Wizard of Whack, the Wazir of Wham, the Mammoth of Maul, the Maharajah of Mash, the Prince of Pounders, the Behemoth of Bash. I am the Colossus. I am the Bambino, the Bam, the Big Bam. I am the Babe.
Barry Bonds is, well, Barry Bonds. Enough said.
Leigh Montville is the author of The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, published this week by Doubleday.