An ailing Babe Ruth thanking crowd during Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium in 1947
Ralph Morse—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
August 16, 2018

When Babe Ruth was honored in 1947 with a special day for “fans, players and the management of the game … to unite in a salute and join in a prayer for his early recovery,” as MLB commissioner Happy Chandler put it, the baseball legend was dying of cancer and hadn’t played professionally since 1935.

Still, his grip on baseball was firm enough that nearly 60,000 people turned out for Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium in New York City, and countless more around the country. The day was dedicated to appreciating the man whose name remains synonymous with his sport to this day. Addressing the crowd, Ruth spoke of what made baseball special — the fact that it took serious training to develop the necessary skills, for one — and expressed his gratitude for the event.

“There’s been so many lovely things said about me,” Ruth told the crowd. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to thank everybody.”

But Ruth couldn’t hide that he was sick. His voice sounded bad and it felt bad too, he admitted.

“He wasn’t the Babe Ruth everyone remembers,” photographer Ralph Morse would tell LIFE.com of that day. “He put a brave face on it, but he was ravaged.”

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When he died on Aug. 16, 1948, just a little more than a year after that Babe Ruth Day and a few months after his farewell to Yankee Stadium, TIME’s obituary noted how surprising it was that Ruth was even able to make it to that celebration of his life, months after “sports editors everywhere prepared obituaries.” As the remembrance explained, that stamina shouldn’t have been surprising:

He was unforgettable, even when he struck out. His swing whirled him around until his slender legs were twisted beneath him. And the times when his big bat did connect were baseball’s biggest moments. The spell lasted until the Babe had trotted around the base paths, taking mincing steps on his small feet, tipping his cap to the mighty, reverent roar from the stands.

Sportwriters knocked themselves out thinking up new names and superlatives for him: The Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, The Colossus of Clout. He didn’t need all that; he was color itself—a fellow built on heroic, swaggering lines, an enormous head on a barrel of a body.

In the golden ’20s, the years of the big names—the years of Dempsey, Tilden and Bobby Jones—Babe Ruth was the biggest draw of them all. With his big bat, he put baseball back on its feet and back in the hearts of the fans after the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal.

He began his big-league career as a crack southpaw pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. But he was also a slugger without peer, and when he clouted most of his record 714 home runs, he wore a New York Yankee uniform, played the outfield. Son of a Baltimore saloonkeeper, he was brought up in a Baltimore school for delinquents, and he never quite grew up. In his first years in baseball, he scoffed at training rules, took his drinks where he found them, abused umpires, once chased up into the stands after an abusive fan.

His emotions were always out on the surface, which was one reason all the fans thought they knew and understood him. Even when the late Jimmy Walker gave him a talking-to before a banquet, the Babe gulped, and with enormous tears rolling down his enormous face, promised the kids of America he would reform. He tried to. But nothing could stop him from living handsomely.

He made more than $2,000,000 and spent most of it. He once confessed: “I lost $35,000 on one horse race alone.” Ban Johnson, late president of the American League once said with asperity but accuracy: “Ruth has the mind of a 15-year-old boy.” The Babe couldn’t even remember the names of his teammates. He greeted everybody, old or young, with his famed welcome: “Hello kid.”

Read the rest of the obituary here in the TIME Vault

Maybe that feeling of intimacy was why so many people had trouble believing he was really gone. “Newspaper switchboards lit up within minutes after the radio bulletin, and were jammed for hours,” TIME reported the following week. “At Memorial Hospital five extra operators were put on, to repeat over & over that Ruth had died.”

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