My three grown children may — to use a famous baseball quote — say it ain’t so, but their father is not old enough to remember Babe Ruth. The first time I heard of Ruth was when my father showed me a picture he had of the Famous Sultan of Swat, who was standing at the end of a dugout, a photo taken from the upper deck without a telephoto lens.
Even if I’d known who Babe Ruth was, in the photo he was just another player in a baseball uniform. So now that it’s conclusively established that I never saw him (I was a baby when he died, 73 years ago this month), the reason I’m writing this distant replay of a distant replay is because of the way Ruth said good-bye. Not in the storied speech he delivered at Yankee Stadium as he was dying of throat cancer, but how he said good-bye on the field.
It was a game for the ages.
At 39, the age he always seemed to look, Ruth quit the New York Yankees. The next year Boston’s Braves, the National League team that shared his original big-league city with the cross-town Red Sox, signed him as vice-president, assistant manager and part-time outfielder. What they really wanted was Ruth the meal ticket, for the starving stadium in which they played, because almost nobody went to watch the Braves.
His presence turned red ink to black for the Braves, just by having been baseball’s biggest star. On the field, in the first five weeks of the season, The Bambino hit only three home runs. Sports Illustrated called him “a travesty of his once great self” with failing eyes, few hits and little range in the outfield. The greatest home-run hitter of his time, and then of all-time, was regularly being booed.
On a Saturday in late May, Ruth and the Braves were in Pittsburgh. Ruth hit home runs in the first, third and seventh innings, with a single in between that gave him a 4-for-4 outing and six runs batted in. It was a classic performance and he retired for good five days and one at-bats later, without getting another hit.
Babe Ruth’s last hit was a home run (as it should be), his 714th and the longest one ever seen in Pittsburgh and the Pirates’ fans gave him a standing ovation.
I wish I’d been there but — my grown children need to know — I wasn’t.
Post expires at 11:59pm on Tuesday September 21st, 2021