George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the greatest baseball player who ever lived, died this week (Aug. 16) in 1948 of throat cancer. For the next two days his body lay “in state” at the main entrance to Yankee Stadium, also known as “The House that Ruth Built.” More than 20,000 fans showed up to pay their respects.
To most sports fans Ruth’s story is familiar. Born the son of a saloonkeeper in Baltimore, Maryland, his early years were troubled and his parents placed him in a Catholic-run orphanage to instill in him some discipline. There Ruth learned to play baseball and by his 18th birthday his baseball prowess had caught the attention of the entire city, including Jack Dunn, the owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles franchise. Dunn quickly signed Ruth to a professional contract, but because Ruth was still a teenager, Dunn had to become his legal guardian. As a result, Baltimore sportswriters dubbed Ruth “Dunn’s baby,” which, combined with his cherubic face and youth, soon was shortened to “Babe.”
Financial difficulties later forced Dunn to sell Ruth’s contract to the Boston Red Sox, where he broke in as a pitcher and led the Sox to World Series titles in 1915, 1916 and 1918. By 1919, however, Ruth’s abilities as a hitter exceeded even his pitching skills and he moved to the outfield so that he could play every day. That year, Ruth captured the major league home run title with 29 round trippers — this at a time when a dozen home runs was considered Herculean.
And then, as every baseball fan knows, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees to help cover some debts and the fortunes of both clubs changed forever. Ruth would lead the Yankees to seven World Series, winning four of them, while the Red Sox suffered an 85-year World Series drought. In Red Sox nation it was called “The curse of the Bambino” (one of Ruth’s many nicknames).
As with his baseball life, Ruth lived his personal life to the fullest. He partied with the best of them, drinking and carousing until all hours, chasing women and gorging himself at the dinner table. But he never forgot where he came from, and his charitable work and visits to hospitals, schools and orphanages touched the lives of thousands of children. Also, he never said no to an autograph request.
Today, Babe Ruth is buried in the Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorn, New York. Assuming God is both merciful and a baseball fan, it’s a safe bet that, his many transgressions notwithstanding, “The Babe” made it to — and through — the actual gates of Heaven.