Why you should care
Because every subsequent star, hero or legend will always be “the Babe Ruth of” something else.
One hundred years ago today, the son of a Baltimore saloonkeeper took the field for the very first time in a game that he would come to dominate as no other professional athlete has ever dominated a sport.
It had been just two weeks since another 19-year-old, Gavrilo Princip, had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and sent the world to war when the young George Herman “Babe” Ruth made his major-league baseball debut pitching for the Boston Red Sox on July 11, 1914.
This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth…
— Harry Hooper, Red Sox teammate
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound teenager, who only four months before had been living at a reformatory called St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, arrived in Boston’s Back Bay station that morning. Over his first Beantown breakfast at Landers coffee shop, Ruth met a pretty 16-year-old waitress named Helen Woodford, who would become his first girlfriend, and later his first wife. A few hours after breakfast, he would hold the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians) to five hits over six innings, and pick up his first major league victory.
Not a bad day. And Ruth would only get better over an unprecedented 22-year big league career in which he would slug 714 home runs at the plate and win 94 games on the mound.
“Sometimes I still can’t believe what I saw,” Ruth’s Boston teammate Harry Hooper once observed. “This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over — a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since.”
Today, in honor of Ruth’s baseball centenary, OZY presents a side you don’t often see of the colorful slugger. The legend and lore that is the Bambino is typically showcased in unforgettable black-and-white images and film. But several color photographs of the icon were taken at public appearances later in his life, including the memorable images captured by photographer Ralph Morse in June 1948 at the ceremony in Yankee Stadium to retire Ruth’s No. 3 jersey.
Most people have seen the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-wining image of Ruth’s farewell snapped by Nat Fein, but Morse’s arresting yet unpublished color photos taken for LIFE magazine show a different Ruth that day. A somber, reflective man, whose grayish face hints at the advanced throat cancer that would kill him two months later.
Ruth’s Yankee teammate Mark Koenig once remarked that the Babe “had such a beautiful swing, he even looked good striking out.” In Morse’s photos, despite his haggard and frail appearance, Babe Ruth was still a larger-than-life presence, even when he knew he was returning to the clubhouse for the final time.