Were Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley twins? On the surface, that's a
hard case to make. There's the age difference, 40 years. And the
separate sets of parents. The keen observer will also note the
dissimilarity in appearance. Women wept at the beauty of Elvis's
face, while Babe's moonish mug was so nonclassically
constructed, it could have stopped a clock in mid-tick.
But dig deeper into the lives and lore of America's two greatest
pop-culture gods and the similarities are astonishing, beginning
with the date they died, Aug. 16--Ruth in 1948 and Presley in
1977. Was there some kind of psychic-spiritual link between the
two men who changed our world by swinging their hips just so?
You be the judge.
Both rose from abject poverty to absolute royalty. Ruth was born
in a row house in Baltimore and became the Sultan of Swat.
Presley was born in a crude house his father built in Tupelo and
became the King.
The playful wink was a signature of both. Jimmy Austin, an
opposing third baseman who watched many of Babe's home run
trots, said, "He'd never pass me without giving me a wink." Were
they having fun? Ruth would come back to the dugout after a
homer, laughing and boasting, "Baby got his today!" Elvis on
stage would break into uncontrollable giggles.
They were the end of the world as we knew it. To purists, the
Ruth-inspired home run craze did for baseball what the
butt-mounted outboard motor might do for Olympic swimming.
Preachers and parents recoiled at Presley's body language.
Both busted out at 19, Elvis releasing his first record, That's
All Right (Mama), for Sun Records and Babe signing with the
minor league Baltimore Orioles.
Ruth loved music and Presley loved sports. Babe had a booming
baritone voice and considered himself a damn fine singer. Elvis
enjoyed touch football and full-contact roller-skating
scrimmages with his buddies.
Guns, guns, guns. Ruth loved to hunt, and he obtained a permit
to pack heat, to protect his ever-present wad o' cash. Presley
owned many weapons, including a machine gun.
They ate like pigs. Early in Babe's career he would down a
mid-game snack of hot dogs, peanuts and ice cream on the bench.
Elvis's favorite snack was a peanut butter and banana sandwich,
fried in a pool of butter. Guess what? They ballooned from sleek
young quarter horses--Presley 6'1" and 185 pounds, Ruth 6'2" and
185, both with broad shoulders and skinny legs--into hippos.
Ruth would pork up as heavy as 270 pounds. Presley, between
movies, would push 250.
Both were relentless in their pursuit of the wine-women-song
parlay. They bragged like schoolboys about their sexual
conquests and seemed oblivious to the anguish they caused their
wives. Helen Ruth suffered a nervous breakdown and finally left
her husband. Elvis was stunned and enraged when his wife,
Priscilla, left him for a karate instructor.
They delighted in the grand, impulsive gesture. Both gave away
Cadillacs as gifts. They were monstrous tippers, massive
spenders. Cars? They bought 'em like candy and drove 'em like
amusement-park bumper cars. Miraculous healing powers! Parents
brought sick children to Presley in hopes that his touch would
cure them. When Ruth promised a homer to a gravely injured kid
named Johnny Sylvester, then hit three, it was widely believed
that Babe had given Johnny the will to live.
Each was ruled by a colonel: Ruth by Col. Jacob Ruppert, the
Yankees' president, and Presley by Col. Tom Parker, his manager.
Nearing death, Babe leaned on a Louisville Slugger for support;
the woozy Elvis leaned on a jewel-studded cane. Each died
young--Ruth at 53, Presley at 42--and of his own excesses. Babe
smoked like a steel mill, sometimes 30 cigars a day, chewed
tobacco and dipped snuff and was done in by throat cancer. Elvis
spent his final years on a pathetic roller coaster of pills and
shots, uppers and downers. He died sitting on a toilet, the
King's final throne. Taking stock of what Babe and Elvis gave
us, some have tried to measure their legacy in numbers. How many
home runs, how many gold records. But how many was never the
point. The point was how.
Proposed: a holiday, Babe 'n' Elvis Day, Aug. 16. The difference
between this and the normal dead-guy holiday would be that
instead of taking the day off, everyone would take the day on.
Swing from the heels, sing from the heart, live larger, dream
bigger, eat more, sleep less, break new ground, break old rules,
break a record, cut a record, cut a swath.
And as you're trotting around third or leaving the building,
don't forget the wink.
Scott Ostler is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFF WONG [Drawing of Babe Ruth wearing sunglasses and jewelled jumpsuit and Elvis Presley wearing New York Yankees uniform]