Although he had created an active and enjoyable post-baseball life for himself, all through the summer of 1946, Babe Ruth had a severe pain over his left eye.
What was at first thought to be a toothache or sinus infection eventually caused so much discomfort that Ruth was admitted to a New York hospital on November 26. The entire left side of his face was swollen, his left eye was closed, and he was unable to eat solid food. Doctors removed three bad teeth, then administered penicillin and other drugs. A month later, though, Ruth was still in pain and still in the hospital.
"They weren't really sure at first what it was, so they kept trying all kinds of different things -- and none of them worked," said Babe's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens. "When they did figure it out, they never told daddy, they never told mother, and they never told me -- but we had our suspicions."
What Babe had was cancer. Doctors finally discovered that a malignant growth had formed around the major artery in the left side of his neck. In the operation that followed, nerves were cut and the artery tied off. It was determined that the disease had originated in the naso-pharynx, a part of the air passage behind the nose that was unapproachable by surgery. Not all the cancer could be removed. Babe's wife Claire said she was eventually told the situation later, but Babe remained in the dark (at least as far as others knew) until the end.
The surgery was on January 5, 1947. In the month that followed, Babe remained confined to the hospital in a state of near constant pain and depression. His hair began to fall out, he lost a lot of weight (between 80 to 128 pounds), and expected to die.
Telegrams from the likes of Connie Mack and Jack Dempsey poured in. Claire read to him from these and some of the thousands of letters that arrived each week. One seventh-grader from New Jersey sent a religious medal and the moving message, "I know this will be your 61 homer. You will hit it."
Babe wore the medal pinned to his pajamas the rest of his life. On February 6, he celebrated his 52nd birthday in the hospital with Claire, Julia, and their dog, Pal, and they listened to a recorded greeting from Eddie Collins and Ted Williams. As the outpouring of support continued (including four birthday cakes), Babe's spirits improved.
Babe Returns to Yankee Stadium
On February 15, Ruth was released from the hospital and wept upon seeing the hundreds of admirers gathered outside as he was led to a waiting car. The traditional camel's hair overcoat and cap couldn't hide the obvious; it was feared that time was running out.
Baseball commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler declared April 27 would be "Babe Ruth Day" at Yankee Stadium and every other park in the league. Even in war-torn Japan (where footsoldiers had supposedly been taught to yell "The Hell with Babe Ruth!" when on the attack), there were monetary rewards for every homer hit that afternoon in honor of the great "Beibu Rusu."
Time has a tendency of altering history. Many fans and amateur filmmakers believe April 27, 1947, was Babe Ruth's last appearance at Yankee Stadium. It wasn't, but since he looked so poorly and the words he spoke in his cracking, hoarse voice have been replayed so many times, it has become known as his farewell speech. It may as well be; although his posture was stooped and he was shaky, his eyes tired and drawn, and his hair grayer than ever, he was eloquent and sincere in his message.
"Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen," Ruth began after a long coughing spell. "You know how bad my voice sounds. Well, it feels just as bad." He continued, "The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball." Babe spoke of the need for children to begin playing at age six or seven. "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, just like these boys have come to the top now."
He had a tip of the cap and a smile at the speech's end for the crowd of 58,000 (thousands more had listened over loudspeakers in other parks), but Julia remembered him feeling awful throughout the afternoon.
The remaining piece of the tumor was growing, and morphine was necessary to stop the discomfort. Babe still tried to live his normal life of golf outings and steaks, but now the drives fell far short off the tee and the meat was chopped up for him. Soon even biting down on the white of an egg caused excruciating pain.
Treatment with an experimental drug beginning in late June improved Ruth's health tremendously. Soon he had gained back much of his weight and was traveling 50,000 miles around the country as a representative for the Ford Motor Company and American Legion youth baseball. It was to be only a momentary reprieve.
The pain returned that fall, and when read today, the optimistic closing to his autobiography The Babe Ruth Story (written with old friend Bob Considine that hopeful summer of 1947) seems almost eerie:
"I've got to stick around a long, long time," it reads. "For above everything else, I want to be a part of and help the development of the greatest game God ever saw fit to let men invent -- Baseball."
Ruth attended the Dodgers-Yankees World Series that fall and in December dressed up as Santa Claus to entertain young polio victims. More messages of his mortality were forthcoming, though. By the end of the year Brother Gilbert was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Walter Johnson had succumbed to a brain tumor. Babe may not have known or wanted to believe it, but his own time was growing short.
Babe went to Florida for spring training in 1948 and met with Joe McCarthy, Ted Williams, and others, but he looked worse than ever. He said he felt 90 years old on his 53rd birthday; he was soon back in New York. His next major trip was to Hollywood, where he was billed as the technical advisor for the film version of The Babe Ruth Story, which was then being rushed through production to beat the inevitable.
The Ruths wound up never seeing any of the scenes being filmed, and the Babe's "advising" consisted of posing for pictures showing star William Bendix how to hold a bat. It was just as well; Bendix obviously wasn't a very good student, and the picture was a cliché-ridden travesty.
On Sunday, June 6, a tanned and emaciated Ruth gave a copy of the completed manuscript for The Babe Ruth Story to Yale University baseball captain George Bush, who couldn't foresee that photographs of the moment would be used during his successful presidential campaign 40 years later. A celebration honoring the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium was scheduled for the following Sunday. The Babe attended despite cold, rainy weather that left him with a constant chill throughout the day.
He entered the locker room after his old teammates, who watched in hushed silence as he was slowly helped into some clean, fresh pinstripes. There were photographs and smiles by his old locker (which, like his number three, had not been used since his retirement).
The Bambino then waited with a coat draped over his shoulders in the runway while the rest of the oldtimers were introduced. Finally his name was announced over the loudspeakers, and as W.C. Heinz so aptly wrote, "He walked out into the cauldron of sound he must have known better than any other man."
The words Ruth mumbled to the crowd that day have been forgotten, but one photograph of the event has endured as perhaps the most poignant in sports history. Taken from the back, it shows Babe standing at home plate, photographers and former teammates off to the side, while in the distance a crowd roars and the championship pennants his heroics produced flutter in the chilly afternoon wind. His cap is off and in his left hand, while his right hand rests on his bat -- now a means of support rather than a weapon.
On July 26, the Ruths went to the New York premiere of The Babe Ruth Story, but as Julia remembered, "he was so sick and so medicated that I'm not even sure he knew where he was."
Babe Ruth's Death
Babe and Claire left shortly after the picture started, and he never ventured from Memorial Hospital again. Answering letters and meeting with visitors right up until August 15, 1948, he died in his sleep at 8:01 p.m. the following evening. His last conscious act was reportedly autographing a copy of his autobiography for one of his nurses.
News of his death hit the papers and air waves immediately, and for the first time the words "throat cancer" were publicly linked to his name.
A long line of mourners encircled Yankee Stadium to pay their respects as Ruth's body lay in state. Over a two-day period, more than 100,000 passed his open casket inside the ballpark. They were men, women, and children of all races and ages; from Little Leaguers dressed in uniform to old gentlemen in derbys whose rooting interest in baseball pre-dated the 20th century. Vendors sold hot dogs and photographs of the Babe to those waiting their turn.
Another 75,000 were on hand for his funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral (most of them standing in the rain outside), and Cardinal Spellman delivered the mass in a service befitting an esteemed head of state. The only larger funeral in Ruth's lifetime had been that of President Franklin Roosevelt three years before. For someone who in his own unorthodox way had touched so many, it seemed an appropriate send-off.
"It was absolutely amazing, and I've heard a lot of different stories about it,"said Julia Ruth Stevens of the last crowds her father drew. "One man told me he had taken his little boy, who he had to carry, to Yankee Stadium during the viewing. He said when his son grew up, he wanted to be able to tell him he had seen Babe Ruth."
According to Bill Guilfoile, vice-president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the most popular attraction in the entire Cooperstown museum is the life-size wooden sculpture of Babe Ruth that stands just inside the main entrance. Younger kids often have no idea who the strange-looking fellow in pinstripes is, but they stand by nonetheless as parents shoot their picture alongside the Sultan of Swat.
By the time these same youngsters pass by the statue on their way out, they've usually become Ruth fans themselves. And so many years after the Babe's death, his fans remain legion. Learn about Babe Ruth's legacy on the next page.
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