Time was closing in. Playing golf one day Ruth said, "I feel terrible," and lay down on the grass near the 16th tee. It was apparently a mild heart attack, and a year or so later he had another. Late in 1941 he was invited to appear in Pride of the Yankees
, a movie about Gehrig. His weight was nearly 270, and he dieted strenuously in order to be down to presentable size when work on the film began early in 1942. He lost 40 pounds in a few months and became edgy and irritable. He had a minor but frightening auto accident in December that depressed him terribly, an odd thing for a man who had been in so many accidents. He caught a bad cold, and early in the new year, suffering from the cold and nervous exhaustion, he was taken from his apartment on a stretcher and sent to the hospital. But he recovered quickly and was off hunting for a few days before going to California for the movie.
During World War II he did work for the Red Cross, bought $100,000 worth of war bonds, made appropriate comments about Hitler and Mussolini and the Japanese, voted against Franklin Roosevelt and appeared frequently at benefits. In May 1946, when Jorge Pasquel was trying to build up the Mexican League by enticing American major-leaguers with offers of huge salaries, Ruth spent two weeks in Mexico City as Pasquel's guest. Now past 50, he said quite plainly that he doubted he would sign any sort of a contract with Pasquel, but he had a fine time anyway. He went to a bullfight, played golf, got sunburned.
Several months later Ruth began to complain of extreme pain over his left eye. He thought it was a sinus headache, but it hurt so much that in November he entered French Hospital in New York for a thorough examination. Not much attention was paid—he had been in and out of hospitals so often—but this time it was deadly serious. He had a malignant growth on the left side of his neck, in such a position that it nearly encircled the left carotid artery. When he was operated on, nerves had to be severed and the artery tied off, which adversely affected the left side of his head, including his larynx. Most of the cancerous growth was removed but some could not be, and he was given radiation treatment to control it.
The disease and its treatment debilitated him. He could not eat and had to be fed intravenously. After three months in French Hospital, he had lost 80 pounds. When he was discharged in February 1947, he went to Florida to rest in the sun. There he regained enough strength to play golf a few times and go fishing, but the seriousness of his condition was evident in his appearance. In March, A. B. (Happy) Chandler, the new Commissioner of Baseball (Judge Landis had died in 1944), declared that Sunday, April 27, would be Babe Ruth Day in the major leagues. Ceremonies were held in all the parks, but the most significant was in Yankee Stadium.
Ruth returned to New York in time to be at the stadium for his day. He wore his familiar camel's hair overcoat and camel's hair cap, but he was thin, his color a poor yellowish tan, his voice a disheartening croak. Almost 60,000 people were in the stadium. There was the usual plethora of speeches, including one from a 13-year-old who represented boys' baseball. Ruth spoke, too, bending forward slightly from the hips to bring his mouth close to the microphone. His speech was extemporaneous.
"Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen," he began, the awful voice sounding even harsher as it came from the loudspeakers. "You know how bad my voice sounds. Well, it feels just as bad. You know, this baseball game of ours comes up from the youth. That means the boys. And after you've been a boy, and grow up to know how to play ball, then you come to the boys you see representing themselves today in our national pastime. The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball. As a rule, some people think if you give them a football or a baseball or something like that, naturally, they're athletes right away. But you can't do that in baseball. You've got to start from way down, at the bottom, when you're six or seven years old. You can't wail until you're 15 or 16. You've got to let it grow up with you, and if you're successful and you try hard enough, you're bound to come out on top, just like these boys have come to the top now.
"There's been so many lovely things said about me, I'm glad I had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you."
He smiled and waved to the crowd and walked slowly to the Yankee dugout.
In June 1948, this time wearing his old Yankee uniform on his sadly shrunken body, he made his last appearance in Yankee Stadium. Two months later the best-known and best-remembered of America's sporting gods was dead.
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