In Memoriam: George Herman "Babe" Ruth, 1935-1988
By Chris Oakley
From the New York Daily News, September 5th, 1988:
George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the baseball outfielder whose phenomenal slugging talent and larger-than-life personality made him one of the Yankees’ first bona fide superstars of the television era, died last night at the age of 53 of throat cancer at Columbia University Hospital. According to a Yankees team spokesman, Ruth’s family was by his side at the time of his death; a public memorial service is scheduled for Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In a statement issued from his home in Tampa, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called Ruth "a unique talent whose presence will sorely be missed in the baseball world". Though Ruth first broke into the major leagues as a pitcher, he is best known as a power-hitting outfielder whose spectacular line drives earned him the nickname "the Sultan of Swat" from Sports Illustrated at the height of his career. In his twenty-two years in the majors he set a career home run record that still stands today; he also held the single season home run record until it was surpassed by Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves in 1975.
Ruth was born on June 6th, 1935 in Baltimore to a saloonkeeper whose high blood pressure kept him out of the Second World War. It didn’t, however, prevent the senior Ruth from getting in frequent and bitter verbal confrontations with his oldest son; to escape his stressful home life, Babe often fled to the sandlots of downtown Baltimore to take part in pickup ball games with some of the other local kids. It was during one such game when the Babe was nine that a coach with a Catholic Church-sponsored Little League team noticed the future Hall of Famer and encouraged him to try out for one of that team’s outfield spots. Ruth did, and before long it became apparent that the boy had a genuine talent for the game-- one good enough to inspire the Yankees to offer him a contract with their top minor league affiliate when he was just seventeen.
He was called up to the majors in mid-August of 1952 when ace Yankees reliever Allie "Super Chief" Reynolds broke his throwing hand in a car accident; Ruth took up Reynolds’ spot in the Yankee bullpen and quickly established himself as a first-class relief pitcher in his own right. After making two crucial saves for the Yankees in the 1952 World Series, Ruth assured himself of a permanent spot on New York’s roster; however, the Yankee front office didn’t want to part with Reynolds too quickly, and so beginning with the 1953 season Yankees manager Casey Stengel began working to re-mold the Babe as an outfielder. By 1956 Ruth was playing the outfield full-time and striking fear in opposing pitchers with his mammoth home run swing.
Ruth was a favorite of sportswriters throughout his career; even if nobody else wanted to talk to them after a game, the Babe was always good for at least one quote-- and often more than one. Other than Stengel, Ruth was the most-interviewed member of the Pinstripes during their heyday. The TV cameras loved Babe, and after his March 1957 stint co-hosting The Tonight Show with Jack Paar it quickly became clear the feeling was mutual. In 1958 Ruth cut a deal with NBC to host his own talk show during baseball’s offseason; it aired weekday afternoons for ten years and featured guests from all walks of life.
The 1961 baseball season saw Ruth get involved in a three-way race with Yankee teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle to be the first to achieve what no ballplayer had done, and few had come close to doing, since Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers in 1938: hit 60 or more home runs in a single year. Mantle was the early favorite to win that contest, but injuries forced him out of the Yankee lineup by mid-July. Then it was thought that Maris might be the one to tie or surpass Greenberg’s single season mark; however, the constant pressure of TV and newspaper interviews drove the psychologically fragile North Dakotan to an emotional breakdown in early September and he would not play for the Yankees again until the start of the 1963 season. This left Ruth as the only man still in position to pursue Greenberg’s record.
On September 15th, 1961 Ruth officially tied the record with a two-run shot to center during the fifth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers in Detroit. In his first at-bat of the second game of the doubleheader, Babe surpassed the record with a solo blast to right field; no one who was at the stadium that afternoon or who saw the game on TV would ever forget the sound of the bat cracking against the ball as the historic shot went soaring into the Tiger Stadium bleachers. Ruth was mobbed by his Yankee teammates as soon as he crossed home plate, and in the days right after the epic homer he was bombarded with congratulatory letters and telegrams, including one from Mickey Mantle and another from future President of the United States Richard Nixon, who’d been a fan of Ruth’s since seeing the Babe’s notorious "called shot" home run during a Yankees-Senators night game at Griffith Stadium in 1958.
Twice married and once divorced, Ruth appeared almost as often in the society pages of New York’s newspapers as he did in the sports pages. In the mid-1950s he was the subject of rumors of a supposed affair between him and actress Marilyn Monroe; however, their respective PR representatives vehemently denied the rumors and little proof has been found to suggest the affair ever actually existed.
What was indisputably true was that Ruth had a close association with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack; he spent so much time around them in his off-hours that he came to be unofficially dubbed "the fifth Rat Packer" by Variety magazine. Sinatra, in fact, arranged for Ruth to have a cameo part in the 1960 Las Vegas heist caper movie Ocean’s Eleven; Ruth returned the favor the following year by convincing Yankee play-by-play announcer Phil Rizzuto to bring Sinatra on as a special guest color commentator for the 1961 World Series. Ruth also became involved with one of the other great musical phenomenons of the ‘60s, the Beatles; he acted as special guest MC for their legendary 1964 Shea Stadium concert and had a brief walk-on role in their 1966 movie Help!. When Beatles founder John Lennon was gunned down in 1980, Ruth would be among the pallbearers at Lennon’s funeral.
At the end of the 1966 baseball season Ruth, whose batting average had fallen off considerably after reaching a career high of .356 in 1962, was released by the Yankees to make room for younger players. It was a decision that would come back to haunt the Bronx Bombers: seizing the opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of their American League rivals, the Boston Red Sox signed Ruth to a two-year contract and placed him in the cleanup spot in their batting order for the 1967 season. A rejuvenated Babe hit .348 that year and helped power the Sox to their first World Series championship since 1918; before Ruth left Boston in 1971 the Sox would rack up three Series titles and four American League pennants.
Ruth returned to New York City midway through the 1971 season in a trade which sent him to the New York Mets; in 1973 he made his final World Series appearance as a utility player with the Mets team that lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games. He ended his playing career in 1974 with 755 career regular season home runs and 17 World Series homers; while those two records continue to hold, his single season mark fell just a year after his retirement when Hank Aaron hit 62 homers for the Atlanta Braves. Aaron, with 752 career homers, trails only the Babe on the all-time list.
Ruth was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980. Once he retired as a player, there was widespread speculation he might eventually return to the US majors in a coaching or scouting capacity. But it would be in Japan that Babe started his managerial career; during the 1975 Japanese baseball season he led the Hiroshima Carp to a second-place finish in their division, and the following year he guided the Carp to victory in the Japan World Series. Ruth finally got the chance to manage Stateside in late May of 1978 when George Steinbrenner recruited him to succeed Billy Martin as Yankees skipper after the notoriously temperamental Martin was fired yet again following a poor start to the 1978 season; Ruth turned the Yanks’ fortunes around and steered them to a World Series triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He would stay on as Yankees manager until August of 1982, when he was himself fired after an 11- game losing streak on the road against the AL West.
Ruth’s final major league job was a two-year stint as a special consultant on player development with his hometown Baltimore Orioles; he retired from that post at the end of the 1985 season and devoted the rest of his life to combatting throat cancer, a disease which had claimed his mother and with which he himself had been diagnosed in late 1984. His final public appearance was June 23rd of this year to participate in ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the opening of Yankee Stadium.
Having experienced a rough childhood, it was only natural that Ruth would have a soft spot in his heart for the disadvantaged. He contributed to at least a dozen charities and had a special clause in all his playing contracts which provided for a portion of his annual salary to be donated to the Boys’ Clubs of America. After Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash in 1973 while helping deliver earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua, Ruth stepped into Clemente’s role in the relief effort and used his considerable influence to drum up support for a telethon to raise money to fund additional aid to the quake survivors. When Boston, like so many other American cities, threatened to erupt in full-scale rioting in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, Ruth held an impromptu hitting clinic in the city’s Roxbury district; that along with a televised James Brown concert and a plea for peace by then-Boston mayor Kevin White helped preserve the fragile calm inside the city.
Ruth was the first major league player to endorse a video game; in 1983 he did a series of commercials for Atari to promote their Home Run Derby game cartridge, which was quickly renamed Babe Ruth’s Home Run Derby in response to the Sultan of Swat’s enduring popularity among baseball fans. He was also one of the first American athletes to have his own TV cartoon series, providing narration for the NBC educational program Babe Ruth’s American Stories from 1959 to 1962. He was a regular in hundreds of TV spots for foods like Armour Hot Dogs and Folger’s Instant Coffee, and for a decade after his retirement owned a minority share in two East Coast restaurant chains.
The Yankees have announced that Ruth’s number will be permanently retired prior to their September 9th home game against the Detroit Tigers. There are also plans to erect a bronze plaque in the Monument Valley section of Yankee Stadium honoring Ruth’s career; at the Hall of Fame a special exhibit is being organized to commemorate the greatest moments of his playing days. In Japan, Hiroshima Carp fans will hold a candlelight rally tomorrow night to pay their final respects to the man they affectionately knew as "Beborusu" and a delegation of Carp front office executives is preparing to fly to New York City to attend Thursday’s public memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Ruth is survived by his first wife Helen, his second wife Claire, and four children; in lieu of flowers, Ruth’s family has asked that mourners make a donation to the Boys’ Clubs of America or the American Cancer Society. Following the public memorial service, a private burial will be held on Long Island.