- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

“The best way to pitch Babe Ruth is to pitch behind him. He has no weaknesses except for [intentional] walks. You have your choice — one base on four balls or four bases on one ball.”

— Waite Hoyt

At 35, right-hander Waite Hoyt was pretty much done and merely hanging on to draw a Depression-era paycheck from the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he and the Bambino had been teammates on the New York Yankees’ Murderers’ Row teams a decade earlier, so now fellow pitcher Red Lucas was soliciting advice on how to handle the greatest slugger in baseball history before the Pirates played Ruth’s Boston Braves at Forbes Field.

The conference hardly seemed necessary. Fat and tired at 40, Ruth had appeared in just a handful of games for the Braves after signing on as player, vice president and assistant manager three months earlier. He had hit only three home runs, was batting about .150 and felt he had been betrayed by owner Emil Fuchs because the second two titles meant nothing.

Yet he was, after all, still Babe Ruth.

“Never mind his being through,” Lucas said. “I’m the guy pitching to him, and he might start again.”

Truer words were never spoken. The date was May25, 1935, and the doddering old ballplayer was about to reach back in time and become, for one last day, the fabled Sultan of Swat.

In the first inning, Lucas threw a breaking pitch on his first offering to Ruth. The ball came down in the right-field seats.

“Should have pitched behind him,” commented Hoyt, according to author Leigh Montville in his new Ruth biography “The Big Bam.”

By the time Ruth waddled to the plate in the third inning, the Pirates pitcher was Guy Bush, who had insulted him from the dugout ruthlessly — pardon the pun — before the Babe’s famous “called shot” home run off Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series between the Yankees and Chicago Cubs. No problem. Ruth again picked on a sinker and scattered the paying customers in the right-field seats.

In the fifth, Bush began throwing him heaters instead of breaking stuff. The strategy worked, sort of, as Ruth was held to a single.

Now it was the seventh, and he was up again. Bush tried another fastball, and this time the fans in the right-field stands didn’t have to duck. Ruth’s swat soared over the roof, rolled across a street beyond the stadium and came to rest in Schenley Park — the longest home run in Forbes Field’s 27 seasons. If anybody had thought to produce a tape measure, the blast would have been 500 feet plus.

Even Bush, his old adversary, had to applaud.

“The poor fellow, he’d gotten to where he could barely hobble [around the bases],” the pitcher said. “So when he rounds third base, I just look over at him and he kind of looked at me. I tipped my cap just to say, ‘I’ve seen everything now, Babe.’”

Inexplicably and unbelievably, the washed-up Ruth had unloaded three home runs in one game and Nos. 712, 713 and 714 of his career — a record everyone thought would stand forever. Henry Aaron surpassed that total 39 years later, and Barry Bonds stands poised to do so any day now. But neither would have as emphatic a final fling as the Babe.

Technically, it wasn’t final, though he never had another hit. That night his wife, Claire, and agent, Christy Walsh, urged Ruth to quit on the logical assumption that nothing could top what he had done.

“I can’t quit,” the Babe growled. “I promised that [indelicacy] Fuchs that I would play at least until Memorial Day.”

But as we know, one-day wonders last one day. The next afternoon in Cincinnati, Ruth struck out three times and pulled a leg muscle chasing a ball in the outfield. Worse, the Reds deliberately hit ball after ball to left field, knowing the limping Babe couldn’t move.

Why didn’t manager Bill McKechnie, a respected baseball man, take him out?

Who knows?

When the inning ended, Ruth went directly to the clubhouse instead of the dugout as the heartless crowd jeered him. As he walked off the field, a small boy approached him. Ruth picked up the kid, hugged him and kept walking.

In his final major league at-bat on Memorial Day in Philadelphia, he was retired on a meek infield grounder in the first inning and took himself out of the game. In 28 games, he batted .181 for a Braves team that finished with one of the worst records in history: 38-115.

Three days later, on June2, Ruth got into a heated argument with Fuchs before a game against the New York Giants over whether Babe could leave the team to recuperate from his second bad cold of the spring. The owner refused, and Ruth sent words to the New York writers that he wanted to see them. When they got to the clubhouse, Ruth announced he was quitting. McKechnie said he agreed with Ruth’s decision “so he won’t get hurt.”

Fuchs said Ruth had been fired.

Returning to New York, Ruth called Fuchs “a dirty double crosser” who had promised him the manager’s job for the following season and then reneged. Fuchs called Ruth “a shirker and peevish prima donna” who drank in front of younger teammates. And then the two men — perhaps baseball’s first Odd Couple — went their separate ways.

Ruth’s painful exit from the playing ranks foreshadowed the trauma and tragedy that marked the final 13 years of his life. He never did become a manager, spending just one more season in uniform as a figurehead coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, then left the game he had helped rescue with his booming home runs after the Black Sox scandal broke in 1920. In 1946, throat cancer struck him. Two years later, at the unreasonable age of 53, he was dead.

In his 22-year major league career — the first five as a star left-handed pitcher — George Herman Ruth had countless great days. For drama and pathos, the last of them might have been the best.

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