- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

It is 8:15 p.m. in a New York City hospital room. A doctor steps back from the bed and nods. Those in the room bow their heads, and some make the sign of the cross.

The date is Aug.16, 1948 — 56 years ago today. After a two-year battle against cancer of the throat, George Herman Ruth is dead at the unreasonable age of 53. No one whispers, “Now he belongs to the ages,” as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton did at Lincoln’s deathbed. Perhaps someone should have.

Since his demise, Babe Ruth’s stature has grown larger, his prodigious hitting feats even more astounding. Few persons now living saw Ruth swing his 54-ounce bat and mince around the bases in that odd, pigeon-toed gait. By all odds, his fame should have lessened, given the subsequent swatting exploits of Messrs. Maris, Aaron, McGwire, Sosa and Bonds. Instead it has endured and attained even more mythic proportions.

He is not only perhaps the greatest baseball player ever — he is, and remains, a cultural icon. People throughout much of the world who don’t know a double play from a doubleheader know the name of Babe Ruth. In recent decades, only two other athletes have achieved such recognition — Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan — and they didn’t change their sports as Ruth did his.

Swing for the fences and forget about the Ty Cobb/John McGraw ethic of snarling for one run at a time. Power was the new thing, and nobody else turned on the switch as often and as dramatically as the Babe.

Over 16 seasons as an everyday player — he was a superstar pitcher first, of course — Ruth’s average yearlyoffensive numbers were .347, 43 home runs and 130 RBI. In his four highest-paid seasons ($80,000 from 1930 to 1933, when his age ranged from 35 to 38) Ruth’s numbers were .345, 43 and 139. Over the last four complete seasons, Alex Rodriguez has averaged .308, 49 and 132 while being compensated at the rate of $25million a year — and he’s a decade or so younger than the Babe was then.

I know, I know — you can’t compare salaries and performance then and now, especially in this free agency age. Except that you can, and it makes you wonder whether somebody’s nuts.

Sure the Babe never had to contend with jet lag, night games, closers or black and Latino opponents, big deal. He would have been a star in any era — and today, in the interest of self-preservation, he might have had enough sense not to gulp down all those hot dogs, guzzle all that booze and chase all those women.

For years, we were fed a teary tale of how Ruth collapsed on a North Carolina train platform with a monumental stomach ache in the spring of 1925, was rushed to New York for emergency surgery, recovered only to be fined a whopping $5,000 and suspended for insubordination by Yankees manager Miller Huggins and endured his worst season (.290 batting average, 25 homers, 66 RBI).

The only problem with the story, revisionist history tells us, is that Ruth’s complaint was located somewhere south of his burgeoning belly: He had a venereal disease. Of course, such ailments didn’t exist in print during the not quite uninhibited Roaring Twenties.

Ruth’s faults matched his successes in dimension. The rollicking roue who devoured food, booze and broads at a riproaring rate also purportedly promised and delivered a World Series home run to help a critically ill lad survive. Late in Ruth’s career, when his only remaining goal was to manage the Yankees, owner Jacob Ruppert told the Babe, in a stolidly Germanic accent, “How can you manage my team, Root, when you can’t even manage yourself?”

In the 1940s, baseball turned its back shamefully on the titan who had restored its popularity, and then some, after the Black Sox broke in 1920. He never managed the Yankees or anybody else, and the hidebound magnates of the day were too short-sighted to employ him as a goodwill ambassador.

So the Babe portrayed himself (woodenly) in a movie about Lou Gehrig, played a lot of golf and puttered around his New York apartment. Some Americans forgot about him but not Japanese soldiers who remembered his visit to the Land of the Rising Sun with an all-star team in 1934.

During World War II, enemy platoons were taunting each other across some battlefield in the Pacific.

“To [eternal fire] with Emperor Hirohito!” shouted the Americans.

“To [eternal fire] with Babe Ruth!” shouted the Japanese, although it came out more like “Babaruso.”

Late in 1946, lifetime smoker Ruth was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery, emerging gaunt of body and gravelly of voice, to become head of a boys’ baseball program sponsored by Ford. But his days were running out.

In June 1948, Ruth hobbled out to home plate for the Silver Anniversary of Yankee Stadium, wearing his famed No.3 uniform and leaning on a bat for support. Nat Fein of the New York Herald Tribune took a heartbreaking picture from behind, with the Babe’s ex-teammates standing in mute, hatless tribute and the Yankees’ many pennants waving in the breeze. The photo won a Pulitzer Prize.

His last public appearance came a few weeks later at the premiere of “The Babe Ruth Story,” a cinematic horror show in which actor William Bendix swung a bat like a man trying to beat a rug. The film ended with Ruth facing surgery for an undisclosed illness and agreeing to try a new drug in hopes of a miracle that would benefit mankind. But Ruth did not stay until the end of the movie, and there was to be no miracle.

On the morning of Aug. 17, 1948, the front page of the New York Times noted that former Undersecretary of State Alger Hiss soon would confront former Communist accuser Whittaker Chambers before the House Un-American Activities Committee, that President Harry Truman had launched another election-year broadside at the Republican-controlled 80th Congress, that Tokyo Rose would be returned to the United States to face charges of treason. But the biggest news was captured in a five-word lead sentence magnificent in its simplicity:

“Babe Ruth died last night.”

He lay in state at Yankee Stadium for a day and a night as 25,000 mourners filed by in silence — “even the children,” the New York Times noted. Flags flew at half-staff in New York City, Cooperstown and over City Hall in his home town of Baltimore. During the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, GOP presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey was among the honorary pallbearers. So, in one sense, was every person who had seen him swing a bat.

But Babe Ruth should not be remembered in a sad or negative way; he was much too ebullient for that, too majestic, too much of a little boy who never grew up.

“God!” former Yankees third baseman Joe Dugan told an ex-teammate as he sweltered during the funeral service. “I’d give anything for a cold beer.”

The teammate smiled. “So would the Babe,” he said.

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