THE BABE’S FAREWELL : 50 Years Ago, an Unmatched Career Came to Unhappy End
Fifty years ago today, possibly the best of all American athletes, playing for one of the worst of all American baseball teams, announced that he was ending the greatest sports career of the 20th Century.
The Boston Braves lost 115 games in 1935, the second-worst season in baseball history. The start of that season was no bargain, either, for their fat, sore-kneed, 40-year-old outfielder, who in earlier summers and happier times had been the greatest player in the game.
For Babe Ruth, June 2, 1935, was an unhappy, bitter finale, a farewell embarrassingly inappropriate for the biggest name in sports.
He slammed doors and snarled when he left, engaging in a day of name calling. There wasn’t even a curtain call for the man many historians say saved baseball itself in the early 1920s, the man who, as the Black Sox scandal was unfolding, filled stadiums by hitting home runs in unprecedented abundance.
For the man who hit 714 home runs, who batted .342 over 22 years, who averaged 40 home runs for 17 straight seasons and who was the first batter to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 home runs in one season, it came down to this, 50 years ago today:
A sullen Ruth sat on the bench in Boston, in a game against the New York Giants. Before the game, he’d had an argument with the Braves’ owner, Emil Fuchs. Somewhere in the early innings, on the bench, he told teammates and Manager Bill McKechnie he would go on the voluntary retired list after the game.
Afterward, he summoned newspapermen from the press box and told them: “I’m sorry to tell you this, boys, but I can’t get along with Fuchs and have decided to go on the voluntary retired list. Judge Fuchs won’t let me go down to see the Normandie (a new French ocean liner). He’s a liar and a double crosser. I like the Boston players and have the highest respect for McKechnie, but I’ll never play another game as long as Fuchs is head of the club.”
Ruth, nursing an injured knee that day, had played his last game May 30 at Philadelphia. In his 8,399th and final at-bat, he struck out in the first game of a doubleheader, then withdrew because of his knee.
Although Ruth decided to quit June 2, his retirement had been in the making for some time. In 1934, after 15 seasons, Ruth, 39, left the New York Yankees.
While Ruth was on a winter baseball tour of Japan, Fuchs got permission from Yankee owner Col. Jacob Ruppert to talk to Ruth about signing with Boston for 1935.
Ruth made no secret of his desire to manage the Yankees, but when Ruppert offered him the managership of a Yankee farm club in Newark, Ruth was insulted. He signed shortly afterward with the Braves, for $35,000. Only three years before, he’d made a record $80,000 with the Yankees.
Ruth was named a Boston player-vice president. He claimed for years afterward that Fuchs had also promised him that he would eventually manage the team.
In spring training, the Braves drew record crowds of fans eager to see Ruth in the unfamiliar uniform.
On opening day in Boston, six northeastern governors were in a festive crowd of 20,000 to welcome Ruth back to Boston, where he’d started his major league career with the Red Sox in 1914. Newsreel cameras rolled. In his first National League at-bat, he singled off Carl Hubbell. He hit a home run in the fifth and wound up driving in all the runs in a 4-2 Boston victory.
After opening day, though, his average dropped below .200 and stayed there. The Braves dropped into the cellar and stayed there. Ruth’s nagging knee injury wouldn’t heal. There was one last, great day, however, a day when he jarred old echoes with some 1920s thunder.
On May 25 at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, he hit three home runs, Nos. 712, 713 and 714.
Reported the Sporting News that week: “Babe Ruth rose to the heights and poled out three home runs and a single in four times up before he departed the game in the 7th inning, amid an ovation from the 10,000 in attendance.”
In the first inning, Ruth hit a homer with one on off Red Lucas. He hit another in the third with a man on off Guy Bush. He singled in the fifth, then homered again in the seventh off Bush.
He made one mistake that day: He didn’t announce his retirement afterward.
Fate also intervened, diminishing Ruth’s last great day in baseball. On the same day, track star Jesse Owens broke three world records and tied another in Ann Arbor, Mich. And in New York, the Giants took two from Brooklyn in front of 63,943 fans, a record crowd in the National League.
After that, Ruth’s playing days dwindled quickly. On May 26, he went 0 for 4 at Cincinnati, striking out three times in a 6-3 loss. On May 28, he was 0 for 2 in a 13-4 loss to the Reds. He was 0 for 2 May 29, and 0 for 1 the following day, his finale.
If you need a 1,000-point trivia question, he was replaced in the first inning in his final game by outfielder Hal Lee, who went 1 for 4.
After telling the world what he thought of Fuchs on his final day as a player, Ruth and his wife, Claire, tossed some luggage in their car and drove to New York, where Ruth had been invited to attend a landing party for the Normandie, due in New York the next day. It was another reason Ruth quit when he did. Fuchs had refused to give him a day off to attend the party.
While the Ruths were driving to New York, McKechnie, angered at the Babe’s abrupt departure and accompanying remarks, unloaded on him in a signed statement, saying that Ruth had been “a disharmonious, disturbing influence” on the club and that the Braves would be better off without him.
Barked Fuchs at the news conference where McKechnie’s statement was distributed: “Nobody but an imbecile would act as Ruth did.”
Ruth was surprised at McKechnie’s remarks but dismissed them with a wave of the hand: “Fuchs forced him to sign that,” he said. “I never had any problem with McKechnie.”
It was an unfitting end to such a glorious career, but then, that was the Babe.
He was born George Herman Ruth in Baltimore in 1895, a fact he didn’t know until 1934, when he needed a passport to travel to Japan. Until then, he had believed that he was born in 1894, until his long lost birth certificate showed up.
Ruth’s father owned a waterfront bar in Baltimore. Ruth once told Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram: “It (the bar) was at 42 West Camden St. and I was born in an apartment over the joint.”
The bar patrons were tough men--stevedores, oyster diggers and commercial fishermen. Ruth’s boyhood years were spent following the exploits of such baseball heroes of the day as John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson, Kid Gleason and Joe Kelley.
For reasons not entirely clear today, at the age of 7, Ruth was placed in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a kind of reform school. He was homesick in his first year, and the other boys, as Ruth told the story years later, began calling him Babe.
The prefect of discipline at St. Mary’s was a tough, 6-foot 6-inch man, Brother Matthias, who had an interest in baseball. He tried to make a catcher out of Ruth but gave up after failing to find a left-handed catcher’s glove. He put Ruth in the outfield, marveled at his throwing arm, then assigned him to pitch.
Ruth studied tailoring at St. Mary’s but anyone could see by the time he was 16 how he would earn a living. He was not only knocking baseballs over fences, he was knocking them through fences. Still, he seemed to be an even better left-handed pitcher. In 1914, Baltimore scout Jack Dunn signed him, for $600, and the next year, Ruth was in the majors with the Red Sox.
Throughout most of his life, Ruth remained loyal to St. Mary’s. Frequently, it was the St. Mary’s band that played the national anthem at Yankee Stadium.
From 1915 to 1919, Ruth was one of baseball’s best pitchers with records of 18-8 and a 2.44 earned-run-average, 23-12 and 1.75, 24-13 and 2.01, 13-7 and 2.22, and 9-5 and 2.97. In 1919, his 9-5 year, he played in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching and hit 29 home runs, by far the most ever hit.
In 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, strapped for money, sold Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000. Almost immediately, he changed the character of the baseball. What had been a game of finesse became one of power. In his first two seasons, he hit 113 home runs. Everywhere, he filled stadiums.
When his playing career ended, he couldn’t possibly have desired anything more, other than a more graceful exit. But in his retirement, a void in his life grew with each passing year.
Ruth never realized his desire to manage a major league team, as had such previous Hall of Fame players as Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Mickey Cochrane and Joe Cronin. His last employment in a uniform was as a $15,000-a-year coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1938.
Not that he needed the work, of course.
According to reports when he retired as a player, Ruth earned about $15,000 a year in his retirement years from a $300,000 trust fund arranged by his friend, Christy Walsh, and his wife. In the final years of his big-money Yankee seasons, part of his salary was paid directly into a trust fund.
He was also paid by Ford Motor Company to oversee its American Legion baseball program.
In 1946, he checked into New York’s French Hospital for what he thought was a severe sinus condition. Instead, cancer was discovered. He was 53 when he died on August 16, 1948.
When the Yankees had held a special day for him at Yankee Stadium in 1947, 58,000 showed up. In a raspy, strained voice, he spoke into a public-address system that was wired into PA systems of other major league ball parks around the country.
His words were far more eloquent than the circumstances of his final day as a player.
“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “You know how bad my voice sounds; well, it feels just as bad. . . . (I’m happy to pay tribute) to this baseball game of ours, which comes up from the youth; the boys who grow up for the chance to play ball, the boys you come to see, representing themselves today in your national pastime--the only real game, I think, in the world, baseball.
“There’s been so many lovely things said about me, and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you.”