Babe Ruth retired on this day in 1935, and Lou Gehrig died on this day in 1941. As in the batting order for the New York Yankees during the glory years of the 1920s and ’30s, the two are back-to-back in any lineup of baseball’s most coveted records and legends. But the Sultan of Swat and the Iron Horse were polar opposites in personality and playing style, this nowhere clearer than the manner in which they made their respective exits from the game.
To speak of Ruth’s retirement is misleading, given that he left baseball repeatedly and, in some ways, not at all. As his output and salary with the Yankees dropped and his personality became difficult because of it, Ruth jumped to the Boston Braves for the 1935 season. Compiling almost as many injuries as hits, he lasted only twenty-eight games. But he kept swinging at exhibition ball games across America and in Japan; then, in 1938, he agreed to a promotional/managerial role with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the rest of the season, also playing in exhibition games for them. The following year, when playing himself in the Lou Gehrig film, The Pride of the Yankees, he could still hit one home run after another out of Wrigley Field. Off the field there were challenge golf matches and charity events of every sort, even a stint as a referee on the wrestling tour, because he liked “to keep in touch with the crowds.” Mercifully, Ruth’s agent could not come to terms with agents for Colonel Zach Miller’s Wild West Show, which proposed that Ruth “travel in state in the big parade on top of a sacred elephant preceded by a calliope playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ ” descending to do a headline act of “slugging stunts.”
A much shyer man and more reluctant hero, Gehrig was not one of Ruth’s closest teammates and was sometimes a target for his boyish humor — “Gimme a steak à la Gehrig,” he is supposed to have told one waiter, “…you know, good and thick.” But Ruth was among those in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when Gehrig, in a speech often described as the most poignant moment in baseball (or sports) history, described his career-ending ALS disease as a “bad break” and called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.