Original publish date: August 24, 2015
All through the summer of 1946, the mighty Babe Ruth had a severe pain over his left eye that would not go away. At first he thought it was a sinus infection, then a toothache. Whatever it was, it wasn’t getting any better. It eventually caused so much pain that Ruth admitted himself to a New York hospital on November 26. By then the entire left side of his face was swollen, his left eye closed shut, and he couldn’t eat solid food. Doctors removed three bad teeth, then pumped the Bambino full of penicillin and other drugs. By Christmas, Ruth was still in pain and back in the hospital.
Babe Ruth had cancer but the doctors never told him. They had discovered a malignant growth wrapped like a vine around a major artery in the left side of his neck. In the operation that followed, nerves were cut and the artery tied off. Not all of the cancer could be removed. Babe’s wife Claire said she was eventually told, but Babe remained in the dark until the very end. The surgery was on January 5, 1947. In the month that followed, Babe remained confined to the hospital in a state of near constant pain and depression. His hair began to fall out and he lost a lot of weight (estimated at between 80 to 128 pounds). It seemed that the Babe was just waiting to die.
Thousands of telegrams poured in every week from former teammates , sports luminaries (Connie Mack and Jack Dempsey among them), and average everyday fans. Claire read as many of letters as she could out loud to the Babe. On February 6 he celebrated his 52nd birthday in the hospital with Claire, Julia, and their dog, Pal. On February 15, Ruth left the hospital and wept unashamedly as he saw the throngs of admirers gathered outside as he was led to a waiting car. His natty camel’s hair overcoat and matching cap couldn’t hide the fact that Babe Ruth was a shadow of his former self.
Although weak and sickly, Ruth instinctively knew that he was back in the public eye. Extremely conscious of his debt to the “kids of America,” to whose loyal support he attributed his success, Ruth decided to apply himself to child welfare programs after his discharge from the hospital. He was engaged by the Ford Motor Company as a consultant in connection with its participation in the American Legion junior baseball program. In May, 1947, he established and made the first contribution to the Babe Ruth Foundation. Inc., an organization whose name soon became synonymous with youth baseball.
The ravages of his illness left little of Ruth’s once robust physique. The Babe now appeared gaunt, bent and vulnerable. His once resonant voice reduced to only a rasping whisper. The Mighty Ruth continued to astound his physicians by tackling his new job with all his old-time vigor. “They call me a consultant,” said Ruth, “but I want to tell you that I plan to work hard at this job-just as hard as my health permits. The possibilities are unlimited and I won’t be happy until we have every boy in America between the ages of 6 and 16 wearing a glove and swinging a bat.” He logged more then 50,000 miles in support of the program, appearing on diamonds all over the USA in front of thousands of youths.
Treatment with an experimental drug beginning in late June improved Ruth’s health tremendously. Throughout that summer of 1947 Ruth became the official ambassador of the American Legion baseball program. One of his stops while on the “American Legion Goodwill Tour” that summer was at the original Victory Field home of the Indianapolis Indians on 16th Street. Ruth appeared at the August 5, 1947 American Legion Junior All-Star game. The Sultan of Swat appeared on the field, shook hands with players and coaches and posed with local youngsters. He signed autographs for the fans and each All-Star player received an autographed baseball from Ruth. Two of the players in that game were future big leaguers Don Zimmer and Jim Frey representing the Robert E. Bentley Post # 50 out of Cincinnati.
The Indianapolis news reported: “Ruth thrilled the crowd when he was introduced during the intermission between the Legion game and the Indianapolis Indians’ game with Milwaukee. Ruth sat through the Legion game and several innings of the Indians game, but his ill health began to take its toll and he had to leave. Earlier in the day, he conducted an hour-long press conference, a pair of radio broadcasts and attended a luncheon in his honor. Once a hefty 278 pounds, Ruth’s weight had dropped to 193. He was coming off an illness that almost cost him his life and had just undergone a blood transfusion three days prior.”
The news spoke to one of the kids after the game about meeting the Babe, “His voice was deep and raspy, he coughed quite a bit, but it was the thrill of a lifetime.” said the unnamed player. The young athlete was surprised to see the once robust Ruth in such failing health, but impressed that he would spend time with them. Babe Ruth breezed through Indianapolis like an aging movie star unveiling their star on the Hollywood walk-of-fame. He was gone as fast as he came. It would be nearly 40 years after Ruth’s visit before my dad, Robert E. Hunter Arsenal Tech class of 1954, sat beside me at old Victory Field and dreamily stated, “You know I was here when Babe Ruth came through in 1947. I was selling peanuts here in the grandstands.” Strangely, he could rattle off the names of all those Pittsburgh Pirates minor league players on that team but couldn’t recall much about the Babe’s visit that day.
Ford renewed Ruth’s contract in early 1948, “not only because he was an inspiration to every American boy but because of the excellent results of his efforts last season.” The ex-slugger’s salary was not revealed but Ford announced that it “ranks him high on the list of baseball’s top money-earners.” As long as his strength permitted, Ruth continued to make appearances on behalf of the Junior Baseball program. It was to be only a momentary reprieve. At his last appearance in June 1948, before 16,000 youngsters in St. Louis, he was too weak to wave a bat for photographers.
The remaining piece of the tumor was growing, and soon morphine was the only thing that could stop the discomfort. Babe still tried to live his normal life of golf outings and devouring steaks, but now the drives fell far short off the tee and the meat had to be served chopped up for him. Soon even biting down on the white of an egg caused excruciating pain for the once mighty “Sultan of Swat.” Despite the pain, Babe wrote in the closing of his autobiography “The Babe Ruth Story” that hopeful summer of 1947: “I’ve got to stick around a long, long time. For above everything else, I want to be a part of and help the development of the greatest game God ever saw fit to let men invent-Baseball.”
Ruth bravely attended the Dodgers-Yankees World Series that fall and in December dressed up as Santa Claus to entertain young polio victims. Babe may not have known or wanted to believe it, but his own time was growing short. On July 26, the Ruth’s went to the New York City premiere of “The Babe Ruth Story”, but as his daughter Julia Ruth Stevens recalled, “he was so sick and so medicated that I’m not even sure he knew where he was.”
Babe and Claire left shortly after the picture started and checked into Memorial Hospital for the last time. Babe Ruth struggled to answer letters and meet with visitors right up until August 15, 1948, barely a year after he graced the diamond of Victory Field in Indianapolis. Babe Ruth died in his sleep at 8:01 p.m. on the evening of on Aug. 16,1948. His last conscious act was to autograph a copy of his autobiography for one of his nurses. It was only after the great man’s death that the newspapers announced the cause of death as “throat cancer”.
A long line of mourners encircled Yankee Stadium to pay their respects as Ruth’s body lay in state. During the next two-days, more than 100,000 passed his open casket inside the ballpark. They were men, women, and children of all races and ages; from uniformed Little Leaguers to old men in derby hats. The crowd of worshipful mourners rivaled only the display of grief for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Vendors sold hot dogs and photographs of the Babe to those waiting their turn in line. As crass as that might sound, the Babe would have loved it.