Two giants with different lives and different legacies
Two giants: George Henry (Babe) Ruth and Orie Miller were born just three years apart in 1895 and 1892, respectively. They were a part of what journalist Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation” because they and their peers lived through both the Great Depression, and many served valiantly in the Second World War.
Ruth became the greatest sports figure of his generation and is a household name even today, nearly 70 years after his death. Miller made his mark in church administration—helping found Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Mennonite Economic Development Agency (MEDA), Mennonite Health Services (MHSA) and several other institutions that are still operating today. Miller accomplished much but has been forgotten by those in subsequent generations of his small Mennonite denomination.
Babe Ruth was undoubtedly the greatest athlete of his generation. His 1.185 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage still stands as a Major League record. He was known not only for his exploits on the field but also for his style, flamboyance and larger-than-life personality. The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum calls him “America’s first sports celebrity and an international icon.”
In 1969, church leader Robert S. Kreider wrote of Orie Miller: “He has seen more of the world than Marco Polo. He has opened more mission fields than David Livingstone. He has been as innovative in his world of church ministries as Thomas Edison was in the world of technology. Orie Miller may be the most remarkable Mennonite in our generation—perhaps our century.” Miller was a visionary and an incredible catalyst in helping form church institutions in response to various needs.
With very different lives: One was a braggart, drunkard and womanizer with a nasty temper, the other a church leader, family man, humble servant and peacemaker. The former was immortalized in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the subject of several movies. The latter has largely been forgotten by those in the next generation of young people who never met him. Hopefully that will change with the recent release of the 400-page biography My Calling to Fulfill by Hesston (Kan.) College history professor John E. Sharp. Published by MennoMedia, in cooperation with Mennonite Central Committee and Eastern Mennonite University’s Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society, the book gives a full portrait of Orie Miller’s remarkable life of vision and service.
Ruth: At 6 foot 2 inches, Ruth was an imposing figure both on the mound and at the plate. Later in his career, he ballooned to 256 pounds before dropping 44 pounds in the six weeks prior to the start of 1926 spring training. He always swung for the fences and lived large. His reputation for drinking, cussing and fighting began early. He was born at his grandmother’s home in Baltimore because his mother didn’t want her child to be born in their home, situated above the family-owned bar, several blocks from her mother’s place.
According to an article by Allan Wood, “Little George (as he was known) spent his [boyhood] unsupervised on the waterfront streets and docks, committing petty theft and vandalism. Hanging out in his father’s bar, he stole money from the till, drained the last drops from old beer glasses, and developed a taste for chewing tobacco. He was only 6 years old.”
Ruth’s behavior changed little as an adult. In 1915, at the age of 20, he married Helen Woodford, a 16-year-old waitress with whom he was smitten. They separated but never officially divorced. Ruth remarried in 1929, less than three months after Helen’s death in a house fire.
In 1917, he was ejected from a game and suspended after arguing balls and strikes with umpire Brick Owens and punching Owens in the head. In total, Ruth was ejected 11 times, four times by the same umpire—Owens.
In 1920, the year Ruth was infamously traded by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, many felt the asking price and the chance Ruth’s audacious behavior would lead to a quick end to his baseball career were too much of a risk for the Yankees. Ruth was known to frequent prostitutes, drink and eat to excess and show a general disregard for his personal health. Despite being overweight and carousing all night, Ruth played in Major League Baseball for 22 seasons and amassed a batting and pitching record that placed him in Baseball’s Hall of Fame and earned him the reputation as “one of the greatest baseball players of all time.” He died of cancer in 1948 at the age of 53.
Miller: Orie O. Miller was born in Indiana in 1892, the son of a farmer, Mennonite bishop and evangelist. He grew to be just 5 foot 10 inches tall but was nonetheless a natural leader. At 14 years of age he came to faith. Being a quick study, two years later he was superintendent of his congregation’s Sunday school. At the age of 18 he taught for two years at a country school while taking classes part-time at Goshen (Ind.) College.
Between 1912 and 1915, he was enrolled full-time at Goshen College. By 1913, he was the principal and an instructor at Goshen’s School of Business while also serving as a licensed minister at Barker Street Mission in Michigan.
Upon graduation in 1915, Miller married Elta Wolf and moved to her hometown of Akron, Pa., where he became involved in his in-laws’ shoe business, beginning on the bottom as a shoe salesman. However, within two years he was director of the Miller Hess Shoe Company.
Two years later, in 1919, at the conclusion of World War I, Miller did relief work in Beirut, Syria (now Lebanon). The following year, he pioneered Mennonite relief work in Russia. Soon thereafter, he helped establish Mennonite Central Committee. His association with MCC lasted more than four decades, and he served as its executive secretary from 1935 to 1958.
He simultaneously held positions on the executive committees of two of the Mennonite Church’s mission agencies, Goshen College, Mennonite World Conference and several other church organizations. In his retirement years, he served on the boards of Mennonite Economic Development Agency, Schowalter Foundation, Mennonite Christian Leadership Foundation and other church-related ministries. Miller accomplished all this while running a family business and raising five children with his wife.
Biographer John Sharp notes: “There is not a whiff of scandal surrounding Orie Miller’s life. As a matter of fact, once, while at a meeting in Chicago, he was approached by a “street walker.” After that encounter, he insisted future meetings be held at a different hotel in the city.” In the course of his long career as a lay church administrator he forever changed the way Mennonites do relief work, education, business and peacemaking.
With very difference legacies: In 1936, Babe Ruth was inducted into the inaugural class of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is the subject of The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore and has a candy bar named after him. A larger-than-life statue of Ruth stands in Camden Yards, home of his first team, the Baltimore Orioles, as well as in Monument Park within Yankee Stadium, his last team. On a more personal level, Ruth was known for his love of children, often signing autographs before and after games. He was also beloved by his two daughters from his second marriage, who fondly remembered their father helping decorate the family’s Christmas tree.
In contrast, there are no statues of or museums dedicated to Orie O. Miller, although Goshen College named a dorm after him. Eastern Mennonite University also has an Orie O. Miller Center for the integration of business, mission, development, education and peace. Additionally, there is a street named after Miller in Filadelfia, Farnham Colony, in Paraguay. But these are small honors when compared to those given to the likes of Babe Ruth. Orie Miller died in 1977 at the age of 85 while a resident of Landis Retirement Home in Pennsylvania, an institution he helped create. Ruth’s legacy lives on in the fame and honor given him by his fans and admirers. Miller’s legacy lives on in the many Mennonite Church institutions he helped establish and the assistance those agencies have provided to countless thousands of refugees, mentally ill people, young men seeking an alternative to war, and people oppressed by poverty.
Likely on to much different final rewards: Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed to mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.” Likewise, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of final judgment in which God separates the sheep from the goats concluding, “Then these [the ‘goats’ who did not feed the hungry, clothe the naked or visit those in prison] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (verse 46). Both Ruth and Miller were great men but in different ways. From a Christian perspective, only Orie’s work was truly significant and worthwhile.
Steve Carpenter is MennoMedia’s director of development and church relations.