Babe Ruth’s final game, goes hitless for Braves against Phillies.
The Yankees had released baseball’s first true superstar on Feb. 5, leaving him to struggle through his final days with the Boston Braves — a franchise in such dire straits that, by season’s end, the National League had to take over the bankrupt team. After hitting three home runs in a heroic performance on May 25, Ruth had gone hitless for five straight games. He was hitting .181 on the season.
According to PhiladelphiaAthletics.org, Ruth tried to exit this midseason game against the Phillies without ceremony. The slugger who claimed to have once called his shot grounded out in the first inning. In the field, a ball dropped in front of him, got past him. Then after the third out, he left through the center field fence. The Philadelphia crowd gave him one last standing ovation.
Saturday marks the 80th anniversary of The Babe’s swan song — a song that, if not for the final cheer, would have ended on a sour note. A former moneymaker who couldn’t draw the crowds necessary to save the Braves from bankruptcy. The unbeatable batter, suddenly, an easy out.
But it’s worth remembering just how incredible Ruth’s career was compared with his peers. It’s worth remembering how much in the baseball world, and the world at large, has changed since Ruth left the game. Because the incredible thing is that he hasn’t really left at all; his legend and his numbers still loom. At the time, though, Ruth did not represent a milestone to make. He represented an unreachable peak.
The baseball world in 1935
After Ruth’s final season, his statistics looked like outliers against the list of MLB’s all-time leaders. He completed his career with 714 home runs. The closest vier for the home run crown? His teammate, Lou Gehrig … with 378. Ruth’s career slugging percentage: .690, a full 50 points above Jimmie Foxx in second place. And true to his free-swinging style, Ruth also had 1,330 strikeouts — 531 more than the next-in-line Jimmie Dykes, 574 more than everyone’s favorite baseball thumper, Rabbit Maranville.
Though, to be fair, Adam Dunn retired with 1,040 more strikeouts in 502 fewer games. There are home run kings who strike out, then there are strike out kings who hit home runs.
The great gap between Ruth and his peers upon retirement also — at least in part — reflected a much different game and level of competition. Only 16 teams played in the league at the time, and, notably, without black players. That whitewashing, and that the live-ball era was only 15 years old, contributed to the novelty of Ruth’s power.
But you have to do something right to get a candy bar named after you.
The world beyond baseball in 1935
While Ruth remains one of the most recognizable names in American sports, it’s easy to forget just how many eras have passed since his retirement. So here’s some context.
On that same day, Kelly Petillo won the Indianapolis 500 with a time of 4:42:22. The fastest race on record today? Tony Kanaan’s 2:40:03 in 2013.
Ruth’s final time afield occurred just five months after Amelia Earhart had become the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California. Today, the Honolulu International Airport handles about 20 million passengers a year.
Also 5 months old in late May 1935: tighty whities. Men’s briefs were still a new thing. Think about that. Then think about Ruth wearing them. You’re welcome.
1935 was the year of the Dust Bowl, the year of Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek,” the year that “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Clark Gable won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was the year, perhaps to Ruth’s relief, that Alcoholics Anonymous would be founded.