Two days before Thanksgiving 1946, Babe Ruth went to New York’s French Hospital, complaining of headaches.1 Initially, doctors diagnosed a sinus condition but in January determined that he needed surgery and he underwent a “serious” procedure.2 News stories at the time were vague about the pain’s cause; the hospital said only, “One of the main arteries on the left side of the neck was ligated. Post-operative condition satisfactory.”3 The truth was that Ruth had cancer, a tumor on a carotid artery, and surgery was able to remove only part of it.4
For weeks, Americans fretted over him. In late January The Sporting News devoted two pages to fans’ concern, describing their letters and gifts, and reporting that droves made pilgrimages to the hospital.5 During his stay, which ended February 15, he received 26,835 letters and telegrams.6
On February 3, Baseball Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler visited the star and was stunned at Ruth’s deterioration. The New York Times reported both men wept during the meeting, adding that Chandler said, “Babe, you are Mr. Baseball. I’m going to say a little prayer for you … and may you get well soon.”7 For Ruth’s part, he was unable to respond: “Ruth, thinned by his long hospital siege, turned his head slightly and wept. He pointed to his toothpick arms, but was too choked up to speak.”8
A number of Ruth’s supporters, including Chicago’s Emory Perry, called on Chandler and suggested that Opening Day in every ballpark be declared “Babe Ruth Day” on an annual basis, with proceeds going to a planned Babe Ruth Foundation.9
Not long after Ruth’s discharge, Chandler announced that major-league baseball would honor him: “All Americans … have been concerned … over the illness of one of baseball’s most beloved figures. … In order that (everyone) might have an opportunity to unite in a … prayer for his early recovery, Sunday, April 27, has been designated as ‘Babe Ruth Day.’”10
The Sporting News noted that the festivities represented only the second time in history that every major-league city simultaneously honored a single player; the first player was Harry Wright, whom baseball honored in April 1896 after Wright died the previous October.11 The intention for the Wright event was to raise funds for a gravesite monument; however, Chandler said that the Ruth festivities were meant merely to honor him and were not an event to raise money.12
The plan was that the center of the day’s activities would be, fittingly, Yankee Stadium, and that other clubs would hold “appropriate ceremonies.”13 Roughly two weeks after Chandler’s announcement, George M. Trautman, president of National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, announced that every minor-league team with a game on April 27 would also celebrate Ruth.14 As it turned out, Japan also honored him that day, in ceremonies in Tokyo and Osaka.15
That Sunday afternoon brought pleasant weather to New York, with temperatures in the mid-60s at the time of the ceremony. The park was full, as 58,339 fans turned out, by far the Yankees’ largest attendance in the young season. (While they drew larger crowds later that year, the total was roughly 20,000 higher than Opening Day’s 39,344, previously the team’s biggest 1947 crowd.) In every major-league ballpark hosting a game that day, the attendance was the high-water mark on the season to that point, save in Brooklyn.
Although Chandler had said the event was not intended to raise money, Ruth nonetheless received lavish gifts. Ford Motor Company gave him a $5,000 Lincoln, the Yankees gave him “a check to help tide him over (during) the illness he hadn’t licked yet,” and baseball announced it would create a foundation in Ruth’s name to promote youth programs.16
The 10-minute ceremony, which featured a half-dozen speakers, was heavy on talk of Ruth’s devotion to youth, beginning with the invocation by Cardinal Francis Spellman, who had originally said he would be unable to attend but came after Ruth asked him. After blessing Ruth, Spellman praised him as “a manly leader of youths in America.” When Chandler stood to speak, the crowd booed him, largely because he’d suspended Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for the season because Durocher had allegedly associated with known gamblers. Chandler concluded his remarks by saying, “[T]he spirit of Babe Ruth … will be with us as we build a new generation capable of protecting our heritage as a free people.”
To introduce Ruth, the Yankees tapped a “freckled 13-year-old” Legion ballplayer named Larry Cutler, who said, in part, “From all of us kids, Babe, it’s swell to have you back.”17 Cutler later played baseball at City College of New York before spending three season in the minors with the White Sox and Pirates organizations.18 He was an all-star twice, in 1955 with Dubuque in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, and again with Dubuque in 1957 in the Midwest League.19
When Ruth stood to speak, his weakness was evident: it took two friends to support him on his walk to the microphone.20 The crowd greeted him “with such thunder from their throats as the home run king had never heard in his moments of greatest glory.”21 Speaking in a hoarse whisper, Ruth thanked them and devoted the majority of his ad-libbed remarks to talking about the importance of youth beginning to play the sport at an early age if they were going to master it.22 Then, helped off the field, he went beneath the stands to recover from his effort, having “a few trying moments” before settling into a box beside the Yankees dugout to watch the game.23
The contest, which the New York Daily News described as “an afterthought” in the context of the day, matched the 7-3 Yankees with the 3-4 Washington Senators, two teams on opposite tracks.24 The Yankees were about to begin a run of six pennants in seven years, while the Senators were in the second of six consecutive years of sub-.500 ball.
Almost as if the players were reluctant to upstage the sport’s greatest hero, the game itself was a quiet one, with the Yankees the only team to make much noise until the eighth. Through the seventh, the Senators managed only three hits and two walks off Yankees starter Spud Chandler, while New York threatened to break through against Washington’s Sid Hudson several times but failed.25 With two on and two out in the first, Charlie Keller hit a fly to deep center but Stan Spence ran it down. Again in the third, New York put two on, but Hudson closed them out on two infield popouts; they loaded the bases in the fourth with two outs, but again failed as Bobby Brown “rapped” to first.26 After a one-out walk to Joe DiMaggio in the fifth, Tommy Henrich hit a ball to the wall in right, but it fell short and Buddy Lewis caught it.
Chandler finally broke in eighth. Hudson led off with a pop that dropped into right, advanced to second on Joe Grace‘s sacrifice, then scored the game’s only run on a “a half-hit one bagger” in short left-center by Lewis. The Yankees managed but one more single, in the eighth, as Hudson advanced his season’s record to 2-0 with the 1-0 shutout; his line: no runs, eight hits, three walks, six strikeouts. Chandler gave up only the one run, on seven hits and three walks, and fanned four, falling to 1-2.
Ruth was not there for the end: He had left after the seventh.27 He made one more visit to the Stadium, roughly 14 months later, when he came for a second ceremony, the retirement of his iconic number 3 jersey.28 He died on August 16, 1948.
1 Nation’s Fans Root for Ruth After Surgery,” The Sporting News, January 15, 1947: 6.
4 Robert Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 418.
5 Dan Daniel, “Nation’s Cheers Speed Ruth’s Recovery,” The Sporting News, January 29, 1947: 5.
6 Bob Considine, “Hank Gets Secret of Homer-Hitting from Babe,” The Sporting News, March 5, 1947: 4.
7 “Chandler Calls On Ruth, Both Break Into Tears,” New York Times, February 4, 1947: 27.
9 Jane Leavy, The Big Fella (New York: Harper, 2018), 444.
10 “Chandler Sets Date to Honor Babe Ruth,” New York Times, March 9, 1947: S1.
11 “Ruth First to Be Given Day by All Majors in 51 Years,” The Sporting News, March 26, 1947: 2.
13 “Chandler Sets Date.”
14 “Minors Observe Same ‘Ruth Day,’” New York Daily News, March 22, 1947: 18.
15 “Japan’s Fans Honor Ruth,” New York Times, April 28, 1947: 29.
16 Hy Turkin, “Ruth Whispers His Gratitude to Cheering Fans,” New York Daily News, April 28, 1947: 3. Unless noted otherwise, details of the Babe Ruth Day festivities come from this story.
17 Dan Daniel, “58,339 Cheer Homer King in Yank Stadium Ceremony,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1947: 5.
18 “Cutler Half of DP Pair,” City College Observation Post, April 13, 1954: 4. See also Cutler’s page on Baseball Reference.
19 Jamie Selko, Minor League All-Star Teams 1922-1962 (Jefferson North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007), 426, 458.
20 Shirley Povich, “Babe’s Shoulders Squared by Thunderous Reception,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1947: 5.
21 Hy Turkin, “Ruth Whispers Thanks, Fans Roar Affection,” New York Daily News, April 28, 1947: C3.
23 Louis Effrat, “58,339 Acclaim Babe Ruth in Rare Tribute at Stadium,” New York Times, April 28, 1947: 1.
25 Game details come from Baseball Reference as well as Joe Trimble; “Yanks Fail the Babe, Bowing to Nats, 1-0,” New York Daily News April 28,1947: C17.
27 Daniel, “58,339 Cheer Homer King.”