Babe Ruth was diagnosed of Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma
In 1946, he began experiencing severe pain over his left eye. In November 1946, a visit to French Hospital in New York revealed Ruth had a malignant tumor in his neck that had encircled his left carotid artery. He received post-operative radiation therapy. Before leaving the hospital in February 1947, he lost approximately 80 pounds (36 kg).
Around this time, developments in chemotherapy offered some hope. Teropterin, a folic acid derivative, was developed by Dr. Brian Hutchings of the Lederle Laboratories. It had been shown to cause significant remissions in children with leukemia. Ruth was administered this new drug in June 1947. He was suffering from headaches, hoarseness and had difficulty swallowing. He agreed to use this new medicine but did not want to know any details about it. All the while he was receiving this experimental medication, he did not know it was for cancer. On June 29, 1947, he began receiving injections and he responded with dramatic improvement. He gained over 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and had resolution of his headaches. On September 6, 1947, his case was presented anonymously at the 4th Annual Internal cancer Research Congress in St. Louis. Teropterin ended up being a precursor for methotrexate, a now commonly used chemotherapeutic agent.
Babe Ruth’s number 3 was retired by the New York Yankees in 1948.
It is now known that Ruth suffered from nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPCA), a relatively rare tumor located in the back of the nose near the eustachian tube. Contemporary management for NPCA includes concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
On April 27, 1947, the Yankees held a ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Despite his health problems, Ruth was able to attend “Babe Ruth Day”. Ruth spoke to a capacity crowd of 58,339, including many American Legion youth baseball players. Although lacking a specific memorable comment like Gehrig’s “Luckiest man” speech, Ruth spoke from the heart, of his enthusiasm for the game of baseball and in support of the youth playing the game. (Babe Ruth speaking at Yankee Stadium)
Later, Ruth started the Babe Ruth Foundation, a charity for disadvantaged children. Another Babe Ruth Day held at Yankee Stadium in September 1947 helped to raise money for this charity.
Nat Fein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Ruth at Yankee Stadium, June 13, 1948. This was his last public appearance before his death two months later.
After the cancer returned, Ruth attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the opening of Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948. He was reunited with old teammates from the 1923 Yankee team and posed for photographs. The photo of Ruth taken from behind, using a bat as a cane, standing apart from the other players, and facing “Ruthville” (right field) became one of baseball’s most famous and widely circulated photographs. The photo won the Pulitzer Prize.
The grave of Babe Ruth
Shortly after he attended the Yankee Stadium anniversary event, Ruth was back in the hospital. He received hundreds of well-wishing letters and messages. This included a phone call from President Harry Truman. Claire helped him respond to the letters.
On July 26, 1948, Ruth attended the premiere of the film The Babe Ruth Story, a biopic about his own life. William Bendix portrayed Ruth. Shortly thereafter, Ruth returned to the hospital for the final time. He was barely able to speak. Ruth’s condition gradually became worse, and in his last days, scores of reporters and photographers hovered around the hospital. Only a few visitors were allowed to see him, one of whom was National League president and future Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick. “Ruth was so thin it was unbelievable. He had been such a big man and his arms were just skinny little bones, and his face was so haggard,” Frick said years later.
On August 16, the day after Frick’s visit, Babe Ruth died at age 53 due to pneumonia. An autopsy showed the cancer Ruth died from began in the nose and mouth and spread widely throughout his body from there. His body lay in repose in Yankee Stadium. His funeral was two days later at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Ruth was then buried in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York. At his death, the New York Times called Babe Ruth, “a figure unprecedented in American life. A born showman off the field and a marvelous performer on it, he had an amazing flair for doing the spectacular at the most dramatic moment.”