NEW HAVEN 200: Babe Ruth meets future President George H.W. Bush in 1948 at Yale Field
It's 100 years of American history in one iconic image. The past and the future shaking hands, dying hero greeting future world leader, smack in the middle of the century in which both achieved greatness.
And it happened on a Saturday afternoon in West Haven.
Babe Ruth, ravaged by cancer, was near the end of his life when he arrived to present a copy of his autobiography to the Yale library on June 5, 1948. The ceremony would take place prior to a Yale baseball game. George H.W. Bush, captain of the Elis, would accept on behalf of the university.
The Babe was quite familiar with New Haven and Yale Field. He'd played exhibition games in the city numerous times over the years, dating back to his salad days pitching for the Red Sox.
At Hamden's Weiss Park in 1928, packs of children mobbed Ruth and his Yankees' teammates throughout the game. When the Yankees returned the following year, officials moved the game to Yale's brand new ballpark on Derby Avenue to avoid a similar scene.
Ruth was impressed by Yale Field.
"These Yale boys should play great ball," the Babe told the Register. "For they have this field. This is the best ballpark I've ever seen, bar none in the majors, and I've been to a lot of them."
He'd driven up from New York the day before, lunched at Mory's, and spent the night in New Haven. A capacity crowd of 12,000 was anticipated. Rain that morning cut attendance in half. But the dark clouds, as if on cue, drifted out and was replaced by a glistening sun shortly before Ruth appeared. A car drove him onto the field, pausing in front of bleachers packed with children, many from the Hamden Pee-Wee league.
Ruth exited the vehicle, standing near enough for the kids to reach out and touch him. He looked frail and weak. The children noticed. One boy's shout of "How're you feeling, Babe?" was noted by Register sports editor Charlie Kellogg.
Raymond Peach, then 11, was among the hundreds of Hamden youths who took the trolley in for the event.
"We were overwhelmed," said Peach, a retired banker and longtime North Haven resident. "We had never seen him play, but we knew Babe Ruth was the king. It was a big day for us, the kids."
Mayor William Celentano presented Ruth with a certificate proclaiming his lifetime membership in the sandlot baseball leagues of New Haven. A special public address system had been installed for the day, but it was of little help. Ruth, suffering from a rare cancer of the throat, apologized to the crowd for his raspy voice. It all came across as a gravely whisper.
"I have been to New Haven many times over the years, but this one is the best," Ruth said, drawing an ovation from the crowd. "I am proud and happy to present 'The Babe Ruth Story.'
"It has a lot of fun and a lot of laughs and a lot of crying too. I hope that whoever gets a chance to read it will get something of the pleasure out of it which I got in doing it. If it isn't good, I know you will appreciate I was trying to do the best I could."
The Babe then flashed his old smile.
"You know," he said. "In a story you can't put everything in, so I left a few things out."
He then stepped back and handed the bulky manuscript to Bush, the Bulldogs lanky first baseman. Forty years later, he would be elected 41st President of the United States. But in 1948, he was a better known around New Haven as "Poppy."
Yale finished runner-up to California in the first College World Series a year earlier. A few weeks after Ruth's appearance, the Bulldogs would make a return trip, losing again in the championship game, this time to the University of Southern California.
"He was dying," Bush recalled years later. "He was hoarse and could hardly talk. He kind of croaked when they set up the mike by the pitcher's mound. It was tragic. He was hollow. His whole great shape was gaunt and hollowed out."
Six years ago, Peach said he had the opportunity to meet George and Barbara Bush at Mory's for a Yale event.
"I told him that I had attended that game at Yale Field," Peach said. "And George Bush said 'Oh, we were so excited, it was a great day for us.' I said 'Mr. President, it was a tremendous day for us because not only did we see Babe Ruth, we got to watch a Yale baseball game."
When the brief ceremony was finished, the Babe donned a cream-colored ascot cap and took a seat along the first base line. He watched a few innings before returning home to New York.
It turned out to be one of Ruth's final public appearances. He attended a 25th anniversary celebration at Yankee Stadium a week later, and in July he made it to the premiere of the movie based on his book.
On Aug. 16, Ruth, hospitalized for most of the summer, died. He was 53.