He was anything but a saint. He gambled, chased women and spent many late nights drinking with teammates and friends. But when George Herman Ruth, better known to his legions of fans as “Babe,” stepped out onto a baseball field, magic happened. And in a pregame ceremony on Aug. 16, 40 years after Ruth’s tragic death from throat cancer, fans in New York City—where Ruth played from 1920 to 1934 as a Yankee—paid tribute in Yankee Stadium to the man many people still regard as the greatest player in the history of the game. “Baseball dictionaries dryly refer to him as the game’s ‘greatest offensive player,’ ” commented Jim Kaplan in The New York Times. “Yes, and the Pacific Ocean is a nice body of water. Ruth not only rewrote the record books, but the definitions.”
Four decades after Ruth’s death at 53, his legend lives on. Each year, a steady stream of people still visit his grave at the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y., about 50 km north of New York City. Cemetery superintendent James Ford said that many visitors leave flowers, Yankee caps and baseballs behind in tribute. The reason for that adulation is clear: over his 22 seasons in the major leagues, Ruth hit a total of 714 home runs and batted in 2,211 runs. Those records stood until the 1970s, when Henry (Hank) Aaron finally broke them. Aaron finished his 23-year career in 1976 with 755 home runs—only 41 ahead of Ruth—having been at bat almost 4,000 times more than the Sultan of Swat, another of Ruth’s nicknames.
Even Canada lays some claim to the Babe Ruth legend. Michael Johngren, a research associate at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., said that Ruth batted his first homer as a professional in Fayetteville, N.C., on March 7, 1914, when he had just started with the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor-league team. But that home run occured during a spring training game between opposing squads of the Orioles. In fact, Ruth batted his first home run in an official game on Sept. 5, 1914—when he was playing with the minor-league Providence Grays—at the Hanlan’s Point ball park in Toronto.
In 1935, Ruth, by then released by the Yankees and playing with the Boston Braves, finally retired from the game at the age of 40. Over the preceding years his output had waned. But even in decline he showed flashes of greatness. Only days before his retire-
ment and by some accounts suffering from another late night in the bars, he hit three home runs in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
On April 27, 1947, stricken with throat cancer, Ruth appeared before a crowd of almost 60,000 people in Yankee Stadium—known to many as “The
House that Ruth Built”—for Babe Ruth
Day. There, he spoke warmly of the game that he had helped to immortalize and that had immortalized him. “The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball,” he told the crowd in a hoarse and barely audible voice. “You’ve got to let it grow up with you, and if you’re successful, and you try hard enough, you’re bound to come out on top.” Sixteen months later, he was dead—but even now, his legend continues to grow.
PEETER KOPVILLEM with LARRY BLACK in New York City
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