Seventy years ago this week, Yankee legend Babe Ruth, the most famous and beloved athlete the world has ever seen, succumbed to the ravages of throat cancer. He died on the 9th floor of the red-bricked Memorial Hospital on East 68th Street, now the Pediatric Day Hospital of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. George Herman Ruth was just 53-years-old.
It seems fitting that a cancer center for kids now sits on the site where the Babe breathed his last. A very imperfect man who majored in excess on almost every level, Ruth nevertheless endeared himself to his legions of fans because he always saw himself as a young boy of Baltimore, always scrapping, climbing and dreaming.
Said a friend of the late Yankee, “The Babe was free from guile and deceit of any kind. He had implicit faith in the whole world, and he looked out on that world with the grace and solemn wonder of a child.”
To be sure, Babe Ruth was a paradox of a person – a gentle giant, a carousing, complex character who often found pleasure in the simplest of pursuits. He loved to smile and make people happy, especially children. He never turned them down – and because of that, they never turned away from him - even till the end, when hundreds of them packed the lobby of Memorial Hospital to keep a vigil for their dying hero.
The man who grew up to become known as the “Sultan of Swat” spent his most formative years in an institution run by the Xaverian brothers, St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. There he was raised primarily by Brothers Matthias and Gilbert, two baseball-loving Catholic prelates who became accessible heroes to the declared “incorrigible” youngster.
In the brothers of St. Mary’s, George found a responsible and noble representation of the sacred. He also developed an enormous spirit of compassion, especially for children. In his later years, when he would visit sick kids in hospitals, the Babe would be ministering out of his own deficits. He had a keen understanding of what it was like to be poor and in search of love and acceptance.
Decades later, Simon and Garfunkel would sing with nostalgic whim of another Yankee when they called out, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”
Ironically, in the seven decades since Babe Ruth’s death, we might be wise to ask the same of the orphaned boy of Baltimore.
“Where have you gone, Babe Ruth?”
Of course, the era of Ruth is long gone. In many ways, his was another world, a unique time in American history that will never come again. But we are in desperate need of what the Babe possessed – kindness, gentleness, humility – and a heart for children, our most vulnerable and valuable assets.
People had faith in the Babe because they also had faith in the institutions that produced him.
I was thinking this week about the stunning revelation of the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by Catholic clergy over the last 70 years in Pennsylvania. It was yet another sickening and heartbreaking chapter in a long and sordid story of supposedly Godly men viciously violating their ecclesiastical vows.
Babe Ruth was the product of a Catholic education that came at the hands of good men who sacrificially surrendered themselves in the service of others. This latest scandal is the antithesis of that philosophy. Our heart should break for every child whose trust was violated and for every family whose lives have been turned upside down by these despicable acts.
Just days before his death, the Babe penned a heartfelt essay, and predictably, his focus was on children.
“The lads who get religious training, get it where it counts – in the roots,” he wrote. “They may fail it, but it never fails them.”
So it goes with the many scandals that currently engulf not only the Catholic Church but many once-trusted institutions. It is possible for good to triumph over evil, for strong character to not become a casualty in this current crisis.
We live in an era hungry for heroes – even imperfect ones like George Herman Ruth. It’s good to remember, though, that heroes don’t have to make history or headlines. Tens of millions of them walk thru the door of simple homes each night, haggard and hungry from a long day of work. Though not enshrined in any formal Hall of Fame, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, coaches, teachers, and yes, even pastors, are modern-day heroes.
Three days following his death, on August 19, 1948, with close to 6,000 people packed inside and seventy-five thousand waiting outside in the rain at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ruth was laid to rest. Inside his closed casket, in his now still, cold left hand, the same hand that enabled him to ascend to baseball royalty as well as struggle with all the sins of a fallen world, was placed a baseball with a three-word inscription: Safe at Home.
It should be the prayer and wish of every one that every child be afford such safety and security.