His most extraordinary contribution to the game, however, rests in the fact that he alone changed its complexion and contour. It had been a game of “inside baseball,” a tightly-played contest for single runs – stolen bases; squeeze plays, placement hitting. But the booming bat of the Babe demonstrated that runs could be gathered like bananas – in bunches. He soon had everyone swinging from his heels, shooting for the fences and trying to follow his lead.
~Arthur Daley, New York Times, August 17, 1948
The National Pastime Museum recently asked its contributors: If you could go back in time, what baseball game would you most have liked to have attended in person?
I put some serious thought into the question. I decided it would have to be a game involving George Herman Ruth.
Like millions of others, I’ve always been fascinated by “the Bambino,” the “Sultan of Swat,” “the Jidge,” the “Colossus of Clout,” whatever your preferred handle. If Ruth wasn’t a real life person, I’m absolutely certain Hollywood would have cooked up a fictional character and called him the Babe.
Babe Ruth lived a life fit for fiction. At a young age he was tossed into a reform school in the dingiest part of town in south Baltimore, where he would catch the eye of a baseball scout. The scout catapulted him to a life of smashing baseballs farther and higher than ever thought imaginable. The Babe circled the bases in pigeon-toed fashion, winked to the bat boy on his way into the dugout after one of his many majestic blasts, and gestured with sharp military salutes to adoring fans during thunderous standing ovations. He smoked expensive cigars, drove flashy cars, attracted women like bees to honey, became a saloonkeeper’s best friend, and called everyone under age 40 “kid” and everyone else “doc.” He made more money than the president of the United States.
Hollywood being Hollywood, they would have cleverly invented this fictional character who despite his personal foibles, character flaws, and untamed rugged exterior was an extravagantly generous lug, a kid at heart really, who never forgot that his sole mission was to inspire the youth, especially the so-called “incorrigibles” like he was once tagged, to nudge these rebellious kids toward the greatest game in the world by getting them off the streets and out of trouble.
Fortunately, we didn’t need Hollywood; such a character existed for 22 seasons, most of them absolutely magnificent, legendary even—sprinkled, now and again, with a few tall tales and celebrated myths.
Which game would I have most liked to have attended? Not an easy decision. The Babe, after all, was involved in so many memorable games involving potent blasts and mighty clouts, it’s truly a monumental task to narrow it down to just one game. Should I choose his 60th home run off Tom Zachary in 1927 at Yankee Stadium? Or perhaps his 602-foot moon shot in 1926 that sailed out of Navin Field in Detroit? Or his historic blast off Bill Hallahan in the 1933 All-Star Game, representing the very first home run in the newly christened midseason classic. Then again, how could I go wrong with Game 3 of the 1932 World Series involving Babe Ruth’s fiercely debated (even to this day) “called shot” home run off Charlie Root, the husky rookie from Middletown, Ohio.
These were all strong possibilities, to be sure.
But I settled on April 27, 1947.
Baseball Commissioner, Albert “Happy” Chandler Sr., well aware of Ruth’s rapidly deteriorating health, designated “Babe Ruth Day” at Yankee Stadium, where Ruth (long retired and out of the public eye) would address the Yankee faithful, 27 years after first slipping on pinstripes. His address would be piped into baseball stadiums across the country.
Newspapers never used the word cancer when describing Ruth’s condition. The New York Herald Tribune reported that Babe Ruth had been sick all winter with a “throat infection.”
But every one of the 58,339 fans—who packed Yankee Stadium and focused on the Babe on that chilly April afternoon—knew all too well that the Babe’s life was nearing its end. His black hair had been replaced with streaks of gray; his signature strut was gone. He needed assistance walking, and his booming voice was now just a faint dissipated whisper and barely audible when he stepped to the microphone and addressed the Yankee faithful for the final time. Ruth would appear one more time at Yankee Stadium—June 13, 1948—when they officially retired his no. 3, but he was too sick to address the crowd and just gave a weak wave.
This is how New York Post sports columnist Jimmy Cannon (April 28, 1947) described his impression of the former Yankee great in the next morning’s edition:
The camel’s hair cap was flat and big on his head and his face was angular and creased. The camel’s hair coat blew loosely in the draught and there was no belly beneath his belt. The collar of the green shirt billowed out from the emaciated neck and the cigar was out in his left hand. The tan on his face seemed unnatural because he didn’t look like a man who had been out in the sun.
There was a guy on each side of him and they moved in close and braced him when they approached the stairs and the specials and peanut guys stood back and shook their heads as he passed. They know, as everyone who has ever read a sports page knows that the money he had drawn as a Yankee had built this stadium. Now the greatest Yankee of them all walked as a stranger under the stands and that’s the only part of a park a ball player really knows besides the field.
I did not choose this game to hear what the Babe had to say—his words were understandably brief. I just would have liked to have been there to have witnessed and captured in my mind this once-husky baseball giant and matinee idol who towered over the New York landscape for two decades, who brought thrills to millions of baseball fans for so many years by smashing records galore, visiting countless hospitals (think 11-year-old Johnny Sylvester, suffering from a spinal infection), touring schools, signing endless baseballs for anyone with a pen, and giving to charities. The Babe now was standing in front of a throng of admirers, helpless, frail, coughing, painfully aware his time was short.
Amazingly, the words that flowed from his strained throat had nothing to do with his many triumphs or records or mammoth home runs or his 714 career home runs and .342 lifetime batting average. He just came to say thank you and to make good on a promise former New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker once asked of him: “Never let those kids down.”
The Babe didn’t even let the kids down when he was near death. Before being introduced by Yankee radio announcer Mel Allen, Commissioner Chandler informed the crowd that Babe Ruth was taking on a new job as director of baseball for the American Legion. And with that, Larry Cutler, a 13-year-old boy from the Bronx representing the American Legion walked to the microphone to say: “It’s a great honor just to tell Babe Ruth how proud we are to have him back in baseball. Back where he belongs. And to know that Babe Ruth chose to be with us is the biggest and best thing that could happen in baseball. From all of us kids, Babe, it’s swell to have you back.”
When Ruth finally lumbered to the microphone, he appeared visibly nervous, not knowing if he would be strong enough to speak. After a faint cough and in a strained raspy voice, he slumped forward and whispered:
You know how bad my voice sounds—well it feels just as bad. . . . The only real game, I think, in the world is baseball.
As a rule, people think that if you give boys a football or a baseball they naturally become athletes right away. But you can’t do that in baseball. You’ve got to start from way down, at the bottom when the boys are six or seven years of age. You’ve got to let it grow up with you. And if you try hard enough you’re bound to come out on top, just as these boys have come to the top now.
There’s been so many lovely things said about me. I’m glad I had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you.
With a labored affectionate wave, the Bambino was escorted into the Yankee dugout and would then watch the game in a box just to the left of the dugout. It was a very un-Ruthian-like affair in which the Yankees and Washington Senators went seven scoreless innings before the Babe, accompanied by his wife and daughter, exited the stadium. The Senators eventually broke the deadlock and won the game, 1–0.
A major reason why I selected Babe Ruth Day was because it gave me an excuse to talk to someone who was sitting right next to the Babe on that breezy afternoon on April 27, 1947, and arguably knew him better than anyone.
Julia Ruth Stevens is Babe Ruth’s adopted daughter from his second marriage with Claire Merritt Hodgson, whom he married in 1929. I reached Julia Stevens by phone at her home in Henderson, Nevada, where she lives with her son and daughter-in-law. She turns 99 in July and pops up now and again throwing out first pitches at Major League Baseball games.
Julia Stevens’s most vivid recollection of Babe Ruth Day was a concern that her father wouldn’t get through the ceremonies without collapsing. She said it hurt for him to talk and even walk. Her greatest recollection, however, was the thunderous ovation Babe received that afternoon. The other lingering memory is watching Joe DiMaggio, George McQuinn, Frankie Crosetti, and Bucky Harris encircle the Babe, requesting his autograph.
Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, the sixth archbishop of New York, at the request of the Babe was present for the ceremonies and delivered the invocation. Stevens said her father and the cardinal were good friends and that when he was feeling strong enough he often attended mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Just bringing up the name of Cardinal Spellman sparked a memory in Stevens, one that has been a hotly debated topic for over 80 years now. “Cardinal Spellman [before he ascended to Cardinal] happened to be at the game when Daddy pointed to the bleachers and hit the home run,” Stevens said. “Cardinal Spellman said he did point to the bleachers.”
In further defense of the called shot, Stevens pointed out that Charlie Root always turned his back before he started to pitch. “Of course,” Stevens said, “he [Root] didn’t see Daddy when he was pointing.”
In addition to Cardinal Spellman, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt (soon to be the 32nd president of the United States) and his son James were at Wrigley Field for the “called shot” and always maintained the Bambino did indeed point to the bleachers.
James Roosevelt, the oldest son of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, told the New York Times in a 1982 interview: “I remember with great deliberation, he [Ruth] pointed to the longest part of the park. There was no question what the gesture meant. And when he hit the home run, I remember Dad saying: ‘Unbelievable!’”
Another wonderful memory for Stevens of Babe Ruth Day was the brand new stunning 1947 Regal Blue Continental, which was presented to her father by the Ford Motor Co. “Daddy loved that car,” Stevens said, “and drove it as much as he could.” The Babe wanted Julia to have the car when he died, which she eventually received and drove to her home in New Hampshire.
Unfortunately, the stunning set of wheels didn’t stay in her possession long.
It wasn’t long before one of the executors of Babe’s estate came to Julia’s house and took the car back, claiming the Ford Continental was not agreed upon in Mr. Ruth’s will.
Stevens says surrendering the car without a clear explanation from the executor backed by hard legal documentation was a big mistake. “You bring me something in writing that says that I can’t have that car,” were words Stevens said she should have used. “I was young and guess not thinking clearly.”
Aside from Babe Ruth Day, her most tender memory of Ruth was the day he adopted her. He was a wonderful father, Stevens says, so different from the womanizer and carouser that is often exaggerated by sports columnists. Ruth surprised her at her high school graduation, walked her down the aisle on her wedding day, and took her to theatre openings and football games. “Daddy always said football was going to be the new sensation in the coming years,” Stevens recalls.
I asked her if there is anything that is not commonly known about the Babe. She giggled and said, “Well, he always slept with his feet outside the covers, and he never liked to have his feet touched. I once tickled his feet, and he barked back at me, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ That was one of the few times I ever remember him being cross with me,” Stevens admitted.
Ruth was officially diagnosed with throat cancer on November 26, 1946. He was never told he had cancer. When he was admitted to Cancer Memorial Hospital (now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) in New York City on July 26, 1948, he asked, “What am I doing in a cancer hospital?” His wife made up an excuse that they were able to conduct testing here that they couldn’t do at other hospitals.
Julia Stevens believes her father guessed he was dying of cancer at the end.
The end came on August 18, 1948, at 8:01 p.m., a mere two hours after a special bulletin had been issued, stating that he was “sinking rapidly.”
According to newspaper accounts, the Rev. Thomas H. Kaufman of Providence College, Providence, R.I., blessed him shortly before his death, saying: “The Babe died a beautiful death. He said his prayers and lapsed into a sleep. He died in his sleep.”
Ruth was 53 when he passed. His open coffin was placed at Yankee Stadium, where nearly 100,000 people filed past to view their fallen hero for the final time.
His funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where Cardinal Spellman celebrated a requiem mass on August 19, a damp day with sporadic bursts of rain emptying on Fifth Avenue as a flock of 75,000 spectators crammed the streets—north and south along 5th Avenue from 46th to 57th streets. Inside, 6,000 mourners filled every pew in the cathedral with others standing at any available space. There were 50 honorary pall bearers, including New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Joe DiMaggio, Connie Mack (Philadelphia Athletics manager), Jack Dempsey (former heavyweight boxing champion), Bill Robinson (American tap dancer and actor), and Ed Sullivan (New York Daily News theatre columnist).
Ruth was buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York (25 miles from St. Patrick’s Cathedral). He rests alongside his wife Claire, who was buried next to him after her death on October 25, 1976.
In a fitting tribute to the Babe a day after the funeral, New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley wrote:
No man in the game could command the awe and respect he did. And he did it without trying. He was just Babe Ruth and that made him someone apart from the common herd. The King is dead, but the cry never will ring out. And long live the King.
He’s a ruler without a successor, one who stands even more majestically alone in death than he ever did in life. The Babe legend will grow because no other player will ever be able to dim the luster of it. Imitators will follow, but he alone was the genuine article.
So thanks to Julia Ruth Stevens, while we may not have been at Yankee Stadium in person on that heartbreaking day in 1947 when the Babe was in the final inning of his life, his daughter brought to life in magnificent colorful detail her most loving memories of the great Bambino, a person who to her was simply “Daddy.”