By Glen Sparks
Babe Ruth, dead at age 53, lay in state at Yankee Stadium, the house he built.
Fans, former teammates, dignitaries and assorted drinking buddies paid their respects to America’s greatest and grandest athlete on Aug. 17-18, 1948. About 77,000 people filed by.
The site of a forever-still Ruth probably struck many of them odd. Did the Babe ever stay still in life? One of his New York Yankee teammates, Ping Bodie, said, “I didn’t room with Babe Ruth. I roomed with his suitcase.” (This quote is attributed to most of Ruth’s roommates over the years.)
Fans knew him as the Babe, the Big Bam, the Wizard of Wham, the Colossus of Clout, the Prince of Pounders, the Rajah of Rap, the Maharajah of Mash and more. A player as great as Ruth needed many nicknames.
He did things big. “I swing big,” he said. “I like to live as big as I can.” He made headlines. “Babe Hits 60th Home Run of Season.” “Sultan of Swat Slams No. 714.” He did the improbable. In 1920, the Bambino blasted 54 home runs, more than any one team in the American League that year. He did the controversial. “He called a shot in the World Series!” some insisted… “No, he didn’t!” many cried.
Ruth suffered in 1925 from a bellyache “heard round the world.” Or, did he battle something more sinister? (“Syphilis,” some whispered.) He ate, drank, and wanted nothing more than to be merry. He punctuated the Roaring ‘20s, the Jazz Age.
Born in Baltimore, Ruth grew up rough and tumble. He learned baseball at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. The Boston Red Sox signed him as a burly left-handed pitcher in 1914. Ruth compiled a 94-46 won-loss mark but complained that he wanted to play every day. Boston sold Ruth’s contract to the Yankees in December 1919. An excellent pitcher was on his way to being a legendary hitter.
The Babe pitched in just five games as a Yankee. He led the American League in home runs 10 times. (Ruth also topped the circuit in homers twice while doing double duty with the Red Sox.) He hit 59 in 1921 for New York and outdid that by smashing 60 in 1927. He slugged his 714th homer on May 25, 1935, as a member of the Boston Braves. He also hit two other homers that day. Ruth smacked 15 World Series homers. Dizzy Dean said, “No one hits home runs the way Babe Ruth did. They were something special.” Ruth said of himself, “If I’d just tried for them dinky singles, I’d have hit .600.” Maybe.
He made his final appearance at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948. Now gaunt, he needed a cane to walk. He spoke to the crowd of 58,339 in a low, gravely voice and thanked all the fans for their applause through the years. The photograph that Nat Fein took of Ruth from behind won a Pulitzer Prize.
Cancer did in the Babe. The day before he died on Aug. 16, Ruth said to the great Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, “the termites have got me.”
Family and friends filled St Patrick’s Cathedral for Ruth’s funeral mass on Aug. 19. It was hot that day in New York City. One former Yankee supposedly turned to Ruth’s old teammate Waite Hoyt. “I could sure use a beer,” the ex-ballplayer said. Hoyt replied, “So could the Babe.”
The funeral procession left St. Patrick’s Cathedral and headed north to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., in Westchester County. About 6,000 people met the Babe’s casket.
Ruth’s second wife, Claire, who died in 1976, is buried next to her former husband (His first wife, Helen, died in a fire in 1929.) The grave site is marked by a tall, sandblasted image of Christ with his arm on a young boy. The Ruths share space at Gate of Heaven with, among others, actor Jimmy Cagney, manager Billy Martin, writer Herman Melville, and mobster Dutch Schultz.
Thousands of fans visit the Ruth site every year, according to an article written by Spencer Fordin for mlb.com. (Ruth’s former teammate and co-slugger Lou Gehrig is buried next door at Kensico Cemetery.) Some arrive by tour bus. In death, as in life, Babe Ruth remains an attraction. No one, not Cagney, not Martin, not Schultz, not Melville– the author of Moby Dick–gets as much attention as Ruth.
Some fans drop off a bat, a baseball or a ribbon from a youth baseball tournament, Fordin writes. Others bring a hot dog or a pizza. How many people left a beer?
Andrew Nagle, an employee of the cemetery, operated by the New York Archidiocese, confirms that the Babe tops ‘em all.“ No graves are visited like Babe Ruth’s grave,” he says.
George Herman Ruth Jr., the kid from the Baltimore waterfront, the “incorrigible” youngster dropped off at St. Mary’s by weary parents, the one-time great pitcher, the long-time preeminent hitter, remains the stuff of legend, of tales fit for the ages.