Like the man whose life it honored, Babe Ruth’s funeral was gigantic. “The Babe is no longer breathing, but the fans will always talk about him,” wrote Hy Hurwitz in the Boston Globe upon the Babe’s passing in 1948. “Talk about him because of his run-in, suspension and fine by the late Miller Huggins, only half of Ruth’s size, but a man who made it possible for Ruth to realize manhood. Talk about him because he never turned down an autograph request or a trip to a hospital to visit a sick patient.”
George Herman “Babe” Ruth died on August 16, 1948. 6,000 mourned at Ruth’s funeral in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps New York City’s most famous religious site, within a Ruthian home run of Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch in midtown Manhattan. Ignoring the rain, another 75,000 lined the streets in St. Patrick’s environs. Newspapers recounted Cardinal Spellman’s prayer: “May the Divine Spirit that inspired Babe Ruth to overcome hardships and win the crucial game of life animate many generations of American youth to learn from the example of his struggles and successes loyally to play their positions on all American teams, and may his generous-hearted soul through the mercy of God, the final scoring of his own good deeds and the prayers of his faithful friends, rest in everlasting peace. Amen.”
Hardships began in Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown, where the father of the future slugger owned a bar. Ruth, apparently, was incorrigible at a terribly young age, so his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, an institution serving problem children. He was nine years old or thereabouts. Versions vary regarding the impetus for Ruth’s enrollment in St. Mary’s. Ruth biographer Robert W. Creamer wrote, “Another story, the origins of which are vague, says that one day during a brawl in the Ruth saloon a shot was fired. No one was hurt, but an indignant neighbor got in touch with city authorities, declaring that the saloon was not a fit place to raise a child. As a result either the city insisted or the parents themselves decided that the increasingly wayward boy should be removed from his unwholesome environment.”
Ruth left St. Mary’s when he was 20 years old, after a scout discovered his ability to smash baseballs over the fences. He played in the major leagues from 1914 to 1935, amassing devotion from fans enthralled by his achievements, including the stunning season record of 60 home runs in 1927; it stood until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs. Ruth’s death reignited that wonder, as is common with the passing of a legend. “It had to come sometime, of course,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times. “But Babe Ruth seemingly had acquired a cloak of immortality as if he were a demigod who had sprung from Zeus. He was not an ordinary mortal even in life. Now in death he will assume still more grandiose proportions as an almost legendary figure.”
Ruth’s impact on the game cannot be measured by his statistics alone, though they are legendary. Career numbers include:
- .690 slugging percentage
- .342 batting average
- 714 home runs
Further, as a pitcher for the Red Sox before he became a power hitter, Ruth held the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961. Immeasurably, Ruth injected excitement into a game scarred by the 1919 Black Sox scandal. When he swatted American League pitching for round-tripper after round-tripper, fans delighted.
Ruth’s skill with a bat turned baseball toward a new era. The New York Herald Tribune eulogized, “His slugging prowess inspired imitators and the emphasis shifted from the tight tricks of the sacrifice, the squeeze, the stolen base, the playing for one run, to the long hit which would clean the bases, the one big inning. It worked on every ball club in the country, but nobody could do it like the Babe, who began it.”
Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days before the funeral at St. Patrick’s. It was an opportunity to pay respects in the baseball shrine nicknamed “The House That Ruth Built.” Thousands came. “Aside from a few public officials, such as City Council President Vincent Impellitteri and Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, these were the kind of people who might have sat in the stands to watch the Babe hit one of his tremendous homers, or strike out with gusto,” wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times. “The enormous line that waited patiently outside the Stadium, might have been mistaken for the bleacher line. There were few limousines in the vicinity. These people had come by elevated and subway, apparently straight from work. Many men were in shirtsleeves.”
On August 20th, the day of Ruth’s funeral, the New York Yankees defeated the Washington Senators decisively—the score was 8-1. Yankee icon Joe DiMaggio attended Ruth’s funeral while the team prepared in Washington for a game against the Senators. Quoted by Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune, DiMaggio said, “The Babe must have been more than just a great ball player to have so many people think so much of him.”
Attending the funeral left a small window of time for travel to Washington, though. Fortunately, DiMaggio had the help of legendary bar owner Toots Shortchanged and CBS Chairman William Paley. “Shortchanged yelled at Paley, who was driving on Madison Avenue in his limousine. Paley got out and turned the car over to DiMaggio so that he was able to get to LaGuardia Airport,” wrote Rennie.
DiMaggio also got a boost from his flight crew. Rennie added, “American Air Lines held flight 307 for ten minutes.”
Entering the game in the third inning, DiMaggio went one-for-four with no runs scored and no RBI.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 21, 2015.