Sports have given us some of our most quoted philosophers and professors on life and success.
Vince Lombardi and his “Winning isn’t everything” quote or Leo Durocher’s claim that “Nice guys finish last.” Phil Jackson’s books are full of his Zen philosophy and are often quoted. The lineup is long and distinguished and the list of popular wisdoms by our sporting stars has become part of our American scripture. However, all athletes are not quotable. Stars like Babe Ruth, for example.
George Herman Ruth — The Sultan of Swat — the Bambino — arguably one of the greatest pure hitters in baseball history, was rarely quoted. Ruth was said to be uneducated, childish and crude while often not quotable in polite conversation or mixed company. The Babe did say something that is rarely quoted but may be the most important observation in American sports — and maybe life. George Herman “Babe” Ruth said, “It’s hard to beat a guy who won’t quit.”
Babe’s words are simplistically elegant and ferociously true.
Those who watched my dad play baseball in Sesser, Illinois, in 1940-1941 called him a great catcher. He was reluctant in his later life to talk about his career. I wrote about his life in baseball and war in my book, “Playing with the Enemy” (Savas Beatie and Penguin USA).
We never talked about his time in the game until the end of his life, but one of my earliest memories was of him quoting Babe Ruth. During times of frustration, or when I would want to give up on something, he’d calmly say, “It’s hard to beat a guy who won’t quit.” I’d look at him like he didn’t understand what I was going through. He’d shrug and say, “Don’t give up. Never quit.”
Years of experience creates understanding.
There was a time in my early life when I thought persistence and stupidity were synonymous. I mean really, why keep trying to do something that is too hard or that isn’t working? My dad and I were in a business together and he died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack at only 57 years old.
I was not yet 30, but left running a business that previously relied on his charisma and personality. I almost failed numerous times in those early years but my father’s voice, quoting Babe Ruth, kept ringing in my ears. I learned through experience and being a business leader, most people give up too easily. That business succeeded wildly, largely based on persistence.
A Thanksgiving lesson at the Kankakee River State Park
My grandsons, Caleb and Noah live in beautiful southern California. At their young ages of five and seven, they are already hard to impress. They live at the foot of a beautiful mountain range and a short drive to the beaches on the Pacific Ocean and Disneyland.
While they were visiting over Thanksgiving, I wanted to take them to our state park for a lesson. Caleb didn’t want to go, saying “There are no mountains or bears, so it’s no fun.” His other grandpa, Stu Leach, and I bundled up the boys and took them, almost against their will, to the park. It was a cold and crisp day. We parked and headed for a walking bridge over Rock Creek, a miniature version of a Grand Canyon, cut out by years of the little creek winding through the landscape to the Kankakee River.
As we got half way across the bridge I stopped the boys and told them to look down. I asked, “If you stood in that creek, do you think the water would cut you?” The answer was an eye-roll and the obvious “no.” I explained how years of persistent passage of water cut through limestone and granite to create this beautiful little canyon, and that great things often take time but will not happen at all if you give up. I explained that if the little stream had dried up centuries ago, we’d probably be standing in a farm field rather than a bridge overlooking at a beauty of nature.
Did my grandkids understand? Probably not, but it also takes persistence to raise a child in the ways that help them lead a happy and successful life. As long as I live, I’ll keep talking to Caleb and Noah about persistence and other life lessons because, “It’s hard to beat a guy who won’t quit.”
I don’t give up.
How about you?