Originally created 08/16/98

Fans, players all cried during Ruth's last days



The crowd arrived early, a throng so large it spilled out of Yankee Stadium and onto the adjacent streets. The people lined up side-by-side, four and five abreast, winding around the ballpark just as they had so many times before for big games.

This time was different, though. There was no buzz of anticipation, none of the customary pregame excitement so familiar at the Stadium. There was only silence and the soft shuffling of feet as the people moved slowly into the building to pay their last respects.

Babe Ruth was dead.

Fifty years ago today, Ruth's fight for life ended in Manhattan's Memorial Hospital, now known as Sloan Kettering. His body was ravaged by cancer, his once huge frame left gaunt by the disease. He was 53.

For two days, mourners filed by his coffin in a steady stream that began early in the morning and stretched until midnight. When it ended, 77,000 people had come to say farewell to an American hero, a baseball player lying in state like a president, in the ballpark he defined.

FOR TWO YEARS, Ruth had been in and out of hospitals, battling the disease, progressively deteriorating.

His trouble started with a persistent pain over his left eye, dismissed at first as a sinus headache. But this headache wouldn't go away. The nagging pain caused Ruth to be admitted to New York's French Hospital in November 1946. Doctors decided the problem was a nerve in his neck.

On Jan. 6, 1947, the Babe underwent surgery. Surgeons found a malignant tumor on the left side of his neck. They removed as much of the growth as they could but the cancer had spread and it was just a matter of time.

Ruth lost 80 pounds after the surgery and said there were times he thought he would die right there in the hospital. He was in constant pain and only doses of morphine provided any relief for the man who once had been the centerpiece of baseball.

Shocked by Ruth's condition, baseball decided to honor him on April 27 that year. Every major league ballpark held a salute to the ailing slugger. Ruth, weak and frail, was driven to Yankee Stadium for the ceremonies and helped onto the field.

He wore a cap over his thinning, white hair and a camel's hair coat that hung loosely on his once powerful body. As the ceremonies began, he slowly moved over to umpires Bill Summers and Bill McGowan, the only ones still active from his era.

A WEEK LATER, Summers recalled the moment.

"He whispers to me, `There's only a few of us left, right, kid?"' he said.

Summers said he nodded and looked away. His glance caught infielder Frank Crosetti, the last of Ruth's teammates who was still active. "Tears are streaming down both his cheeks," the umpire said.

Ruth's voice was all but gone, but he spoke to the crowd in a hoarse whisper. "You know how bad my voice sounds," he said. "Well, it feels just as bad. There's been so many lovely things said about me. I'm glad I had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you."

This was 20 years after Ruth had been the toast of baseball, a hulking slugger on pipestem thin legs who set a record with 60 home runs in a season. He was perhaps the most compelling and captivating character in the Golden Age of Sports, the age of Dempsey and Grange, Tilden and Rockne.

He hit a record 714 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .341. "I could have hit .600," he once said, "but I would have had to hit singles. The people were paying for me to hit home runs."

So he hit home runs. And with them came a flip side -- 1,330 strikeouts.

Ruth once said, "I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."

To that end, he partied hard, flaunting his excesses. He was a wine, women and song guy, with plenty of each. He often ordered hotel bellboys to fill bathtubs full of beer -- no liquor, just beer -- for post-game parties.

And now he was dying.

Everybody knew it, even the Babe. That was why in the summer of 1947, he agreed to be treated with some new experimental drugs. Miraculously, he rallied. Many of his symptoms disappeared. His voice improved. It seemed this giant of a man with an endless lust for life had dodged a high, hard one.

THE COMEBACK, however, was only temporary.

Soon, Ruth's condition began declining again. By June 1948, it was obvious that he did not have much time left. The Yankees celebrated the Stadium's silver anniversary June 13 and retired Ruth's No. 3 that day.

Old teammates gathered again, just as they had a year earlier. This time, the farewells would be permanent. Ruth was helped into his old uniform and came on the field, a broken man, hunched over, leaning on a bat for support. It was a poignant moment as the Babe, his voice husky, spoke with tears streaming down his face.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he rasped, "I just want to say one thing. I am proud I hit the first home run here against Boston in 1923. It is marvelous to see these 13 or 14 players who were my teammates going back 25 years. I'm telling you, it makes me proud and happy to be here. Thank you."

Ruth was helped from the field to the dressing room. As he rested there, old pal and teammate Joe Dugan joined him. Dugan asked how Ruth was doing.

"Joe, I'm gone," he replied. "I'm gone, Joe."

Both men cried.

ELEVEN DAYS LATER, on June 24, Ruth was admitted to Memorial Hospital, presumably for observation and rest.

Time was running out.

On July 21, he received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. On Aug. 11, he was placed on the critical list. On Aug. 15, Ford Frick, a longtime friend and then president of the National League, came to see him.

In his seminal biography of Ruth, Robert Creamer gives Frick's account of the visit.

"It was a terrible moment. Ruth was so thin, it was unbelievable. He had been such a big man, and his arms were just skinny little bones and his face was so haggard."

The next day, Babe Ruth died.

After laying in state at Yankee Stadium for two days, Ruth's body was moved to St. Patrick's Cathedral for the funeral on Aug. 20.

On a rainy, hot summer's day, the streets around the chapel were choked with 75,000 people. Inside the church, pallbearers prepared to carry the mahogany coffin to the hearse for the 30-mile trip through Manhattan, into The Bronx, past Yankee Stadium one last time, to Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.

Two of the mourners were old Ruth teammates, Dugan and Waite Hoyt.

As he lifted the casket, Dugan, suffering in the heat, whispered to Hoyt, "I'd give a hundred bucks for an ice cold beer."

Hoyt smiled and glanced at the coffin.

"So would the Babe," he said.