It is the image that should be remembered as the day one of the greatest legends of sports said his farewell to the game nicknamed “America’s Pastime”. Although not a particularly accurate portrayal, it is the most fitting and lasting memory of the man known as Babe Ruth.
The unfortunate reality is that this 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph was taken a full 13 years after George Herman Ruth, universally known by the alias of “Babe”, bowed out of baseball after a brief and unceremonious stint with the Boston Red Sox. The iconic image of a frail legend was nonetheless more than suitable to capture the greatness that he deserved. It was on that day, the Yankees Silver Anniversary of Yankees Stadium that Nat Fein of the New York Herald Tribune visually bookended Babe Ruth’s historic career.
Most attempts to put his baseball accomplishments into context are pointless not only because all others at the time paled in comparison, but also the vastly different era they occurred. In 1914 when Babe Ruth broke into the major leagues as a pitcher, major league baseball’s primary competition was relegated to tennis and golf. The heroes on the baseball diamond were almost mythical and why someone as historical as “The Bambino,” easily became larger than life. His on-the-field swagger, pure hitting prowess, and power were idolized by reporters of all major newspapers and fans alike. Let’s not forget that New York City was very much the center of the universe at least when thinking about domestic and international clout. Being the worthy hometown hero in New York City certainly came with its privileges.
Statistically, his numbers were off the chart. At the time of his retirement, the “Sultan of Swat” had 714 home runs or nearly twice that of Ty Cobb, his closest competitor. Even as of 2021, he retains the record for the highly coveted career slugging percentage at .690. These numbers barely graze the surface of his impact on baseball. Despite the many records he held and have since fallen, Babe Ruth’s feats over the course of his career can stand against any player of any era. For instance, in their fifteen seasons together, he led the Yankees to seven American League pennants and four World Series Championships. Another example is that he led Major League Baseball in home runs in 12 seasons! His big swing boosted the sport’s image and introduced the “live-ball” era where home runs became the norm. Lastly, let’s not overlook the fact that prior to his power hitting, he was a 23 game-winner as a pitcher. Twice!
Not to be considered perfect, Babe Ruth’s legendary feats on the field were also accompanied by less favorable news. Living prior to the time when athletes cherished their bodies for the careers they supported, Babe Ruth indulged in womanizing, drinking, and cigar smoking. Beyond living it up, his name was also attached with one of the most infamous curses in sports history. After leading the Red Sox to World Series victories in 1915, 1916, and 1918, Red Sox management greedily traded him away creating what became known as the “Curse of the Bambino”. The “curse” persisted for 86 years, finally ending with the 2004 World Series Championship.
The fact that the most famous number three jersey to play the game unceremoniously finished it by walking off the field mid-game, mid-season, on the team his initial trade cursed for 86 years is irrelevant. Babe Ruth’s place in the Baseball Hall of Fame and fans’ hearts was solidified well before any of those events took place. History tends to favor the glory days including June 13, 1948. Fittingly on that day, Babe Ruth, wearing his pinstripes proudly, received the reception he had earned in the home he earned it. It was after all aptly named, “The House that Ruth Built”.