George Herman "Babe" Ruth was, in pretty much everyone's opinion, the most popular and beloved baseball player of all time.
Ruth played 22 years in the major leagues, hitting 714 home runs, winning seven World Series, and becoming baseball's greatest legend. But by 1936, the Babe was retired at age 41. He was an inhabitant of that strange twilight, the twilight for men who had accomplished all they can early in life.
The Babe's final years, although dotted with happy moments, were mainly a lonely time.
Waiting for the call that never came
Ruth wanted desperately to become a manager; unfortunately, no one was interested. He was offered a minor league job managing a Yankee farm team in Newark, but he turned it down: "I'm a big leaguer!" According to his wife, Claire, the Babe never stopped waiting and watching and hoping for the phone to ring with a call for that managing offer he wanted so badly.
Filling the time
A wealthy man with no financial worries, Ruth spent the final 13 years of his life basically filling in the hours, with no goal or purpose to speak of. And so he fished. His daughter Dorothy (at left, as a child) fondly remembers her dad going off for 3 or 4 days on a "fishing expedition," but catching nothing. Stopping at some market on the way home, he bought a batch of fish; upon arriving home, he slapped the fish on their kitchen counter as if he were an ace fisherman.
Ruth enjoyed hunting as well, and his daughter remembers him waking her up early in the morning and cooking her a special egg-and-toast creation before he left with his hunting rifle.
He bowled too, and was a good, if not great, bowler, with a 177 average. Ruth would check into a local bowling alley at 1 p.m. and leave promptly at 5 p.m. He bowled alone, preferring not to keep score, but instead liked adding up the "total pins" he had knocked down. ("I knocked down 7,000 pins in five weeks.")
Ruth was also an avid golfer -- "I played 365 rounds of golf last year. Thank God for whoever invented golf. I'd be dead without it."
At left, Babe Ruth with former NY Gov. Al Smith at the Biltmore Hotel and Country Club in Coral Gables, FL (1930). Photo from the Florida Memory Project at the State Archives of Florida.
He enjoyed listening to the radio, especially tuning into his beloved The Lone Ranger. Ruth, along with millions of other Americans, listened to Orson Welles' legendary War of the Worlds broadcast and bought into it. "Hide under the bed!" he yelled to his wife and daughters as he nervously looked out the curtains of their Riverside Drive apartment.
He liked his booze, drinking his beloved highballs among other alcoholic treats. He still followed baseball, of course, and had a lifetime free pass to ballgames.
Appreciating the ladies
A notorious ladies' man, Babe Ruth never got women out of his mind.
After spending a day golfing with his pal Buzzie Bavasi at the all-male St. Andrews Golf Club, Ruth told him, "Buzzie, thanks for a wonderful day, you have a great golf club here, but it's not for me. No broads."
The Ruths traveled often to foreign countries; after visiting the island of Bali, Ruth remarked that he didn't like the Balinese women: "They're too dark and their breasts are too big."
Coping with sad times
Anyone, even in the most secure of circumstances, will be faced with some sadness, and Babe Ruth was no exception.
Claire's brother Eugene, who had been gassed in World War I and had never been healthy since, jumped from the Ruths' 15th story window to his death after a battle with severe depression. Ruth rushed home from his vacation in Florida to take care of all the funeral arrangements.
In 1938, Ruth's daughter Julia was in medical trouble with strep throat. Her father rushed to the hospital and donated blood to help.
The same year, Ruth was hired for his last official baseball job, as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Babe was mostly looked on as a "gate attraction" and a curiosity. He still harbored a secret hope to be hired as the manager of the team, but when the season ended the job went to Leo Durocher (whom Ruth hated) instead. Ruth left the Dodgers bitterly disappointed.
At left, Babe Ruth in uniform for the Dodgers.
Probably bored and frustrated, Ruth swallowed his pride and asked Yankee management about the long ago offer to manage the minor league Newark club. But no, it was too late, and the offer was no longer available.
Soon after the end of the war, Ruth began getting severe headaches and pains in his neck, and went to the hospital for observation. According to daughter Dorothy, the headaches were so severe "he threatened to kill himself."
Ruth was diagnosed with throat cancer, although he was not told of the diagnosis. Sadly, he was never to be out of pain for the final 21 months of his life.
He dictated a "sugar-coated" version of his life to author Bob Considine, and his official memoir The Babe Ruth Story was published. (Of course, it omits the countless hookers and numerous affairs of the previous 25 years.) At an autograph-signing reception for the book, Ernest Hemingway stood in line to meet the Babe and get his signature.
Babe Ruth made his final appearance at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1948.
His old number 3 uniform hung limply on his body, now ravaged by cancer. Ruth croaked out a hoarse, raspy speech of gratitude to the packed house and shuffled off. The crowd of 58,339 gave him a standing ovation.
Bob Feller, the Cleveland pitcher that day, remembers letting Ruth use his bat to lean on like a cane.
Ruth spent his last days in the hospital. He received the new treatment, chemotherapy, and various other experimental treatments. Gifts and mail flooded in from all quarters. Toward the end, Ruth pinned a medal he received in the mail on his pajamas.
When famed manager Connie Mack came to visit, Ruth told him, "The termites have got me, Mr. Mack."
One nebulous, but interesting, hospital visitor was a "tall, striking redhead" named Loretta. She claimed she had been Ruth's girlfriend for the previous 10 years. Knowing the Babe, she was probably telling the truth.
On August 16, 1948, Ruth said his prayers and passed away quietly in his sleep.
The Ruth family grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Hawthorne, NY). Photo by Wikimedia user Anthony 22.