50 years ago, nation lost 1 of a kind with Ruth's death

August 16, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Almost make believe, except he was authentic, magnetic, entertaining, exploding with vitality and colorfully animated without knowing it. Yes, and susceptible to all the weaknesses of humankind while endowed with overpowering skills that set him apart as baseball's most accomplished player of all time.

His presence had an almost mythical yet mystical impact on America that no other athlete, before or since, has been able to command. A combination of ability, personality and boisterous charm that drew crowds until his dying day and, yes, even beyond, because 6,600 mourners attended his funeral and another 75,000 were standing in the streets under an oppressive summer sky that was dripping rain, while paying silent tribute as the cortege made its way from New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Babe Ruth died 50 years ago today, at 8: 01 p.m., age 53, after a consoling visit from a priest and making peace with his maker. He had been a convert to Catholicism while attending Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School. The cause of his death was cancer, but, only weeks before, he looked up at a visitor, the esteemed Connie Mack, and said, "Mr. Mack, I think the termites got me."

A child of God. Playful. Laughing. Clowning. Uninhibited. Unsophisticated. Riding a merry-go-round through a life that seemed almost a nonstop trip to fantasy land. He was Babe Ruth. No rags-to-riches story born of fiction or fact ever compared to his. Though lacking formal education, he had an intellect that caused psychologists at Columbia University to say his IQ, although not as high as his batting average, put him in the top 10 percent of Americans. His aptitude was exceptional and the way he signed his name carried a grace within the simplicity of his penmanship.

More books, movies and documentaries have been produced about his life than about any other athlete in history. The Baltimore Orioles of the International League signed him without ever seeing him play, basing their interest and trust on merely what they had heard.

"He's the big kid sliding on the ice," the Orioles were told when they visited St. Mary's in early February 1914. They signed him to a contract for $600 for the season and sent him off to spring training in Fayetteville, N.C. In his pocket was the princely sum of 11 cents. He had never been on a train, visited a restaurant, stayed in a hotel or ridden an elevator.

He was George Herman Ruth, German on both sides of his family. For the better part of his life, he thought he was a year older than he was, having been born in 1895.

Had the Orioles not found Ruth at St. Mary's, where his parents took him at age 7 to be placed in the care of the Xaverian Brothers, it's likely he would have been lost to professional baseball, since scouting was not the sophisticated business it became.

The trade he learned in school was that of a shirtmaker, but because he could throw a ball with power and precision, the Orioles decided to give him a pitching trial.

He was naive, unexposed to the wonders of the world that awaited as he left the protection and discipline of St. Mary's and stepped into a baseball environment.

Veteran players in his first training camp wondered who he was, and the answer they got was he's one of "Dunnie's babes," meaning a protege of team owner-manager-general manager Jack Dunn. Forever after he was Babe Ruth.

We've conjectured that the reason he had trouble remembering proper names was because in an orphanage with 800 other boys, nicknames were the true term of recognition. Like Reds, Fats, Rubber Belly, Funny Ears, Stinky, Big Nose, Mickey, Harp, Scotty and Heinie.

Ruth was popular with teammates, rival players, sportswriters and even people who didn't know a baseball from a cantaloupe. They found him to be a study, something astonishing. A type they had never seen before. Also accommodating and effusive.

The Babe was so spontaneous there was no way to even guess what he might do next -- be it with bat in hand or expressing himself in conversation.

He once attended a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria to help a charitable undertaking, and a record amount of money was raised, mainly because Ruth was there.

When it was over, Mrs. John Jacob Astor, the sponsor, thanked him profusely. Ruth was uncomfortable with this shower of gratitude. Finally, he said, "Oh, s---, lady, I'd do it for anybody."

In Baltimore, where the saga of Ruth began, he was exclusively a pitcher, and Dunn, the owner-general manager-manager, was so against it he had to sell Ruth to the Boston Red Sox halfway through his rookie season of 1914 because of competition put upon him in Baltimore by the rival Federal League.

The next year, his second season in baseball, as a rookie with Boston, he went 18-8 as a pitcher. When he came home to Baltimore that fall, he played in a game for a community team in Irvington against Catonsville. Consider the chance he was taking. A possible injury in what was almost a pickup game and he might never have played again.

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