Sunday, June 13, 2010

June 13, 1948: Babe says goodbye

NEW YORK - Where once he stood tall, waving his bat as easily as if it were a toothpick, he now slumped over, using his bat as a cane to support his weight. Where once he filled his jersey to its max - first with a perfect athlete's body, later with the extra layers of fat from years of overindulgence - he now stood frail, his jersey seemingly hanging off him as it would a hanger.

The Babe Ruth that appeared at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948, bore little resemblance to the one who first stepped through its doors 25 years earlier, the man who helped make the stadium, and the team that played there, an American icon. But one thing was instantly recognizeable despite the ravages of age and cancer: the pinstriped jersey with the number 3 on the back.

Ruth was only months away from death when he returned to Yankee Stadium for the final time that day. He was there as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the stadium. The Yankees started the day with an old-timer's exhibition, with the stars from the 1923 Yankees team - the first one to win the World Series - playing the current Yankees team. But the fans weren't there to see the old-timer's game; they came to see Ruth, to give one more standing ovation to the icon of their franchise.

The fans sang "Auld Lang Syne" as one. Ruth's number was retired and place alongside the number 4 of Lou Gehrig in the pantheon of Yankee greats. The old slugger himself even spoke a few words, surprising people with how frail and broken his voice had become. Everybody knew Ruth was dying; many didn't know exactly how close he was.

The day was bittersweet for Ruth. While he enjoyed seeing his old teammates, he also broke down, knowing it was likely the last time he'd gather with them. He had trouble getting to home plate that day, and when he got there, he took off his cap and looked toward right field, "Ruthville." The photo of him looking toward his old stomping ground won the Pulitzer Prize.

That day was one of Ruth's final public appearances. He appeared one more time, in July to attend the premier of the movie based on his life. He died on August 16, at the far too young age of 53.

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