Filmmaker and noted sideline sitter Spike Lee has never been one to moderate his opinions. However, in a column for Gotham, a glitzy new magazine for Manhattan partygoers, Lee is almost temperate in his consideration of a question first raised some eight decades ago (though no less intriguing for its age): Was Babe Ruth black?
No one disputes that Ruth's maternal grandparents were German immigrants and thus unlikely to have had any black ancestry. However, although his father was the son of a couple considered white by those who knew them, it's certainly possible that in the roiling port city that was 19th-century Baltimore, African-American blood may have nourished the roots of the Ruth family tree. During Babe's baseball career the supposition was surprisingly common, despite Ruth's denials. The notoriously racist Ty Cobb once refused to share a cabin with Ruth at a Georgia hunting lodge. "I've never bedded down with a n——-," said Cobb, according to a contemporary, the sportswriter Fred Lieb, "and I'm not going to start now." The same repellent epithet was spit at Ruth by opposing bench jockeys, who saw in the Babe's full lips, broad nose and swarthy complexion a visual basis for their vile insults.
But what they may also have seen, at some subliminal level, was that this vastly superior athlete had to be, in a deeply fundamental way, different. It's a conclusion history would corroborate. After all, it is beyond question that the baseball players of the last 50 years are far superior to those who preceded them. How good could the stars of the first half of the 20th century have been if they were never tested in competition with black athletes? By that same logic isn't it possible that had Ruth been their lone black opponent, his very gifts would have proved the second-class nature of all-white baseball?
In his column Lee suggests that DNA testing of disinterred bones might ascertain the Babe's exact ancestry, but he doesn't propose that anyone dig up the Ruthian remains. In fact, there's no reason that anyone should. Why not simply accept the conjecture because of its appeal? History could hand down no sweeter judgment of the sport's contemptible practice of official racism than this: The lords of baseball thought they had kept their sport purely Caucasian? Well, we've got a surprise for them—the one black man they couldn't keep out made their puny, lily-white game his plaything.