WASHINGTON, June 6, 2013 — A groundball skittered across the infield of the Baker Bowl, home park of the Philadelphia Phillies, and into the waiting mitt of Phillies first-baseman Dolph Camilli. An easy out.
Toward the dugout, wearing a Boston Braves uniform, hobbled the batter. And so ended the most illustrious career in baseball history. Babe Ruth, the man who had saved baseball after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, would never play another ballgame.
May 30, 1935, Memorial Day, spelled the end of his 22-year career. George Herman “Babe” Ruth, who had reigned at the acme of baseball’s hierarchy was done. No longer a Yankee, no longer an American Leaguer, no longer a player. This dynamic man, known for his prowess with a bat, would have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a pitcher even if he had never hit a home run.
The fact is — and it is a fact —the Bambino was larger than life, more towering even than his own record-breaking feats. This made his home run feats bigger. Bigger? They were gargantuan. Putting it simply: To this day, no player is more inextricably connected with the homerun than Babe Ruth.
His round-trippers helped make the “Roaring Twenties” roar and his swings for the fence made the “Jazz Age” swing.
The Babe blasted homers by the barrel. In regulation games, in exhibition games. In big cities, in hamlets. In the United States, in Japan. Anywhere and everywhere.
One sunny Sunday afternoon in 1927, before a game at Wrigley Field, the Babe put on a virtual one-man Home Run Derby. He stood in the batter’s box while several major-league pitchers lined up on the mound and, for one hour, alternately fired fastballs across the plate. During those 60 minutes, the “Sultan of Swat” walloped 125 balls over the fence.
Yes, Babe Ruth hit home runs when everything — his weight, his age, his diet, his health, his physical condition — all said he couldn’t, maybe even that he shouldn’t. The Bambino occupies baseball’s legendary throne, and nobody, not even “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg or “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, not the M&M’s (Mantle and Maris) have dethroned him.
While Hank Aaron, for example, did pass Ruth’s lifetime career total, not once did he break the 50-homer-season. Only 26 players are in the “50 Club,” which celebrates those who knocked out 50 or more zingers in a single season. Ruth was not only the first to pass the half-a-hundred marker, but also the first to pass it four times.
Two of those four seasons were back-to-back: 1920-21 and 1927-28. Those couplings tallied 113 and 114 respectively. Yet, in a sense, Ruth’s four seasons were consecutive, in that they went uninterrupted by any other player’s racking up a 50 or more season. Those four Babe Ruth seasons totaled 227 home runs. His 60-homer season, in 1927, took 34 years to be passed (by one) and another 37 years to be passed again.
Dethroned? No way. No more than the next guy who flew solo across the Atlantic was able to dethrone “Lucky Lindy” among aviation heroes and in the hearts of the American people.
The “jovial Giant” stood 6-foot-2, averaging 225 pounds. He boasted an unbridled appetite, which produced a ballooning body too big for his spindly legs, as he circled the bases with his mincing, pigeon-toed steps.
The pumped-up attendance that he generated enabled the Yankees to quit boarding at the Polo Grounds and to build their own Yankees Stadium, rightly dubbed “the house that Ruth built.” In the first game played there, the first home run hit was by none other than Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth was still a phenomenon and, more importantly, (pardon me) a “fanomenon.” People still poured into the parks hoping to see The Babe hit one. He was a kingpin drawing card.
If only he had quit after his colossal day in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. On May 25, Babe Ruth enjoyed what has been called his “last hurrah.” In that one game, the aging and tired legend pounded out home runs number 712, 713, and 714. Yes, three homeruns in one game. The first went into the lower stands of right field; the second dented a spot in the middle stands; and that third ball sailed over the 86-foot high right-field stands and out of the park. Pitcher Guy Bush said of this homer, “I never saw a ball hit so hard before or since.”
After that game, his wife urged him to quit right there and then. His friends did likewise and even a number of his teammates. “End on this incredible high note!” they insisted. But, no, the Babe said he had given his word to the owner and harbored hopes of being a full manager as Braves owner Mr. Fuchs had lured him into believing in order to capitalize on the Babe’s box-office appeal.
It turned out to be a “lure” all right. Like the kind an expert fly fisher twists on the end of his casting line. Babe found out that Fuchs had no intention of making him pilot of the team. So after their final argument about it, Babe Ruth hung up his glove. He cleared out his locker. And as of June 6, 1935, a mere 78 years ago today, Babe Ruth left baseball for good. Or, in his case, for GREAT!
But wait: Let’s airbrush out those last Boston games played under the treacherous sneer of a villainous owner. Let’s instead back up five days to that Saturday in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, let’s watch the trajectory of those two homers gliding into the grandstands and the Ruthian launch of that final ball in its stratospheric flight out of all sight and sound, through time and the twilight zone and into our warm hearts, as we remember The Babe.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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