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Actually, it's simplistic to call Ruth potbellied. He had a complex consociation with his waistline, rather like the course of a stormy soap-opera marriage. At the age of 16, Ruth was "tall and rangy, a smooth-muscled, broad-shouldered youth with long arms and long legs," wrote Robert Creamer in his classic biography Babe. But almost as soon as Ruth hit the big time he started living like a big-timer—lots of food and booze and little physical conditioning. It was largely because of Ruth's bulk, Creamer reported, that Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees' natty owner, decided to dress his team in the now traditional pinstripes and dark-blue stockings; Ruppert thought the uniform would make Ruth look trimmer. (Years later, the Orioles would scrap their orange uniforms partly because they made Boog Powell, the team's paunchy, 250-pound first baseman, look like the Great Pumpkin.)
Ruth weighed about 260 pounds when, just before the 1925 season, he collapsed in Asheville, N.C., with the famous "bellyache heard 'round the world." During the winter of 1925-26, Ruth's waist measured 49¾ inches and his chest only 43 inches, an anatomical combination that would not seem to add up to a .372 batting average, 47 home runs and 145 RBIs, Ruth's numbers in 1926. After a showdown with manager Miller Huggins over his lack of discipline, Ruth compromised a bit, and over the next few seasons his waistline gradually inched down to 38. But he has remained an inspiration to potbellied men through the years.
There has been no paucity of paunchy pitchers through the years, for obvious reasons: Pitchers don't play every day, and they're not expected to do all those athletic things other players do, like run bases and beat out bunts. The first stout pitcher may have been Cy Young, well conditioned for most of his record 511 wins but, near the end of his career, decidedly out of shape around the middle. In fact, his inability to bend over and pick up bunts was the reason his career ended in 1911. If Young were playing now, he could pitch until he was 65, because nobody knows how to bunt—and, on artificial turf, nobody can, anyway.
Lolich, who pitched in the majors for 16 years, mostly with the Tigers, owned the most famous modern-day paunch. "Lots of guys have a good belly and a bad arm," he was fond of saying, "but I've got a bad belly and a good arm." With a career record of 217-191, Lolich could back up, or front up, what he said. Now the proprietor of Mickey Lolich's Donut & Pastry Shop in Lake Orion, Mich.—call that caloric justice—Mickey shows up at old-timers' games and sees a lot of guys who look like, well, Mickey Lolich.
"All the guys who used to look trim and nice now have potbellies," Lolich told Ira Berkow of The New York Times. "They look at me and say: 'You haven't changed. You could still go out there and pitch.' It's true. I was just ahead of my time."
What Lolich was to the potbelly in baseball, surely Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, the paunchy pigskin pitchers for the Washington Redskins, were in football. Around the nation's capital in the '60s and early '70s, Jurgensen's paunch was defended as stoutly as federal junkets were. Elsewhere, it was a source of amusement. Former New York Giants coach Alex Webster remembers that during the average season, Jurgensen's belly would get bigger with each succeeding reel of game film, and the film session before a Giants-Redskins game invariably ended with the Giants breaking into laughter. Of course, the Redskins beat the Giants four out of five times while Jurgie was quarterbacking and Webster was coaching, so Jurgensen's belly couldn't have been too hilarious on Sunday afternoon.
Jurgensen's weight usually drifted into the 215-to-220-pound range, but he could always offer a Lolichian defense: It didn't affect the arm. Kilmer, for his part, always denied that he carried excess baggage, and once explained that it appeared so only "because I liked to wear bigger jerseys and not those form-fitting things."
While Jurgie and Kilmer were singled out, as quarterbacks tend to be, thousands of pounds of soft midsection went unnoticed in the middle of the offensive and defensive lines. Paunches are not as easily identifiable on linemen, and in many cases, they are not really paunches at all. In men of great strength, what is sometimes mistaken for a paunch is lordosis, a curvature of the spine caused by poor posture and excess weight. Lordosis produces a hollow in the back and a bulge in front. One of the most famous cases of lordosis in sports belonged to a very strong man, the U.S.S.R.'s two-time Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting, Vasily Alexeyev.
Recently retired Cowboy defensive tackle Randy White was another swaybacked athlete. For linemen like White, a few extra pounds and pronounced lordosis mean more leverage and strength. Besides, who wants to tell White he's paunchy? Heck, I would even be afraid to tell him he has pronounced lordosis.