The plight of the African-American experience in America has been tightly intertwined with and displayed through the lens of the national pastime. Whether it be the fight to break through the ranks or continuing to raise the profile of both heroes and the game itself, it is impossible to tell the tale of Major League Baseball without including the story of its exclusion of African-Americans along the way.

Black History Month is upon us, and with spring training primed to get started later in the month, it is the perfect time to take a look back at the rich history of the intersection of the sport and the culture. The story of blacks in baseball is a triumphant one that remains relevant and unforgettable to this day.

 

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Moses ‘Fleetwood’ Walker: The first black player in baseball history

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Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947, but Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, was the first African-American professional baseball player. In fact, Walker and his brother, Weldy, were the impetus for the color line to be drawn in 1884, which Robinson then broke in ’47.

 

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1947: Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier

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The most egregious case of collusion in the history of sports was Major League Baseball’s “gentlemen’s agreement” among owners to exclude players of African descent from the game. Although some lighter-skinned Hispanic and Pacific Islander players could pass into the game during the early 1900s, the hard-line drawn against African-Americans stood firm and was staunchly upheld by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis throughout his 23-year reign over the game. In the second year of his successor, Happy Chandler’s, tenure though, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Negro Leaguer and former UCLA star Jackie Robinson to a contract. The following spring, on April 15, Robinson made an indelible mark in history when he suited up in an MLB game and changed the course of everything that would follow.

 

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1947: Larry Doby integrates the American League

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Robinson was not on his own for long. The Cleveland Indians followed suit by becoming the first AL team to integrate its ranks when they signed outfielder Larry Doby. The Indians were owned by Bill Veeck, who pushed for integration as early as 1942 but was blocked by Landis. On July 3, Veeck purchased Doby’s rights from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, and two days later he made his MLB debut. Doby would go on to become the first African-American player to lead a league in home runs when he connected for 32 in 1952, in addition to becoming a seven-time All-Star.

 

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1948: Satchel finally makes his way to the majors

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Leroy “Satchel” Paige was the greatest pitcher the Negro Leagues ever saw and is regarded as perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, regardless of league. The stories of his feats on the mound are legendary, but due to the color barrier, Paige’s best form never graced an MLB mound. However, the ageless wonder did finally get the chance to suit up in the majors in 1948 when he had his “rookie” year for the Cleveland Indians — at 41 years old. Over six seasons spent mostly as a reliever, he converted 33 saves and held a 3.29 ERA before playing his final game at age 58 in 1965.

 

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1949: First black pitcher and batter face off

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1949 became the first time that a black pitcher faced a black batter in a major league game. Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers faced off against Hank Thompson of the New York Giants on July 8. Thompson hit leadoff for the Giants, and Newcombe recorded the out by inducing a pop-up to third base.

 

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1951: Monte Irvin’s star carries over

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Irvin was one of the final stars of the final years of the Negro Leagues, and his star turn continued into the majors as well. Irvin finished third in MVP voting in 1951, leading the NL with 121 RBIs. He made his All-Star debut the following year before guiding the New York Giants to the 1954 World Series title alongside outfield mate and fellow Negro League alumnus Willie Mays.

 

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1954: “The Catch”

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Speaking of Mays and the 1954 World Series, Game 1 was host to one of the most — if not the most — iconic plays in baseball history. In the eighth inning with two runners on, on a dead sprint chasing a deep drive by the Indians’ Vic Wertz, Mays made a seemingly impossible grab with his back turned to the infield. In the process, he not only robbed Wertz of a hit that would have pulled Cleveland ahead, but he also unleashed a laser-fast throw back into the infield that froze the runners on base. It was an incredibly comprehensive display of the amazing athleticism that keeps Mays on the shortlist of greatest defenders of all time.

 

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1955: Campanella wins his third MVP

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A year after Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, a second future Hall of Famer joined him in Brooklyn. Roy Campanella was regarded as one of the finest catchers ever, as his three NL MVP Awards in the 1950s pay credit to. “Campy” picked up the honor in 1951 (making him the first black MVP winner), 1953, and 1955. He led the Dodgers to the 1955 World Series title and made eight straight All-Star appearances starting in 1949. He also became one of the first African-American athletes to appear in a national advertising campaign, which he did for Gillette shaving razors.

 

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1956: The first Cy Young winner

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The Dodgers boasted many of the great African-American talents in the early days of integration, and their ace Don Newcombe stood head and shoulders above many pitchers of the time. In 1956, Newcombe won the inaugural Cy Young Award when he led baseball with 27 wins on the season. He had already become the first black pitcher to reach 20 victories in a year when he did so in 1951.

 

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1959: MVP (times two) for Mr. Cub

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While his sunny disposition amid some perennially tough times has become legendary, Ernie Banks was better known in his time for his potent bat. After winning the 1958 NL MVP, Banks followed up with an encore MVP season a year later. In the process, he became the first black player to win consecutive MVP honors. Over the course of the two-year run, the legendary shortstop totaled a .308 average, .605 slugging percentage, 92 home runs, and 272 RBI.

 

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1959: Integration is finally complete

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Unwilling to fall behind the increased talent of integrated rosters, many MLB teams quickly adopted African-American players throughout the 1950s. However, there were a handful of teams that were still slow to integrate. The Detroit Tigers became the final American League team to integrate when Ozzie Virgil Jr. joined the club in June 1958. When Pumpsie Green suited up for the Boston Red Sox in July 1959, every MLB team had finally boasted an African-American player from its ranks — over 12 years after Robinson’s debut.

 

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1962: The first black player is the first black Hall of Famer

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While Robinson’s most noted career event was breaking the color barrier, his place in history was affirmed by far more than just being the first to have his name written on a lineup card. Robinson was named baseball’s first Rookie of the Year recipient and stolen base leader in 1947. He became the league’s first African-American MVP and batting champion in 1949. Along with Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby, he was among the first four black MLB All-Star selections in 1949 and the first black player to appear in a World Series, which he did in six of his 10 seasons. For all of this and more, Robinson appropriately became the first African-American to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

 

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1962: Buck becomes the first black coach

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While he would go on to greater fame a few decades later when he provided a stunning oral history of Negro League baseball for Ken Burns’ famous documentary on the sport, Buck O’Neil made a notable impact of his own on MLB as well. In 1962, he became the first African-American coach in the league’s history when he joined the staff of the Chicago Cubs.

 

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1966: The first black umpire

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After a career that spanned several professional leagues along the way, including the Southwestern League when in 1951 he became the first African-American to umpire a predominantly white league, Emmett Ashford got the call to the big show. On April 12, 1966, Ashford became the first black MLB umpire and quickly became one of the most respected — and eccentric — umps of all time.

 

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1966: The first (and only) black Triple Crown

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Freshly jettisoned from Cincinnati, where he hit 324 home runs and was named 1961 MVP for the Reds, Frank Robinson put on a show in his first year with the Baltimore Orioles. His .316 batting average, 49 home runs, and 122 RBIs made him the first African-American hitter to complete the Triple Crown. His effort also helped push the Orioles to a World Series sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

 

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1968: Gibson dominates the summer of ’68

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There are few seasons that compare to the one Bob Gibson had in 1968 for the St. Louis Cardinals. The intimidating hurler posted a 1.12 ERA en route to winning the National League MVP and Cy Young. It was the lowest ERA for a starting pitcher since Dutch Leonard’s 0.96 54 years earlier and remains by far the best mark of the “live ball” era, which began in 1920. Gibson also set a World Series record with 17 strikeouts in Game 1 against the Detroit Tigers the same year.

 

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1969: Flood fights for freedom

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Although he was one of the most brilliant center fielders of his time, as his seven Gold Glove Awards attest, Curt Flood made his most enduring impact off the field. Along with labor lawyer Marvin Miller, Flood’s refusal to accept a trade following the 1969 season set into motion the repeal of the game’s reserve clause, which eventually ushered free agency and the 10/5 veteran trade restriction rule into play. While the outcome resulted in Flood being blackballed from the game after 1971, he changed the course of baseball in a major way.

 

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1971: A black diamond in Pittsburgh

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Just a few years after integration, the Dodgers got close to fielding a completely black team when in 1954 in a game against the Boston Braves, five of their starting nine were African-Americans. The Pirates rounded out the diamond in 1971. When Al Oliver, Rennie Stennett, Jackie Hernandez, Dave Cash, Manny Sanguillen, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Dock Ellis took the field together, it marked the first time that a major league lineup consisted entirely of players of African descent.

 

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1971: Danny Goodwin tops the draft twice

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In 1971, the Chicago White Sox made history when they took high school catcher Danny Goodwin with the first pick in the amateur draft. It made the Peoria, Ill. native the first black player ever taken with the top overall pick. Goodwin also holds the distinction of being the second African-American player ever taken No. 1 as well, as the California Angels used the top pick on him again in 1975 after his distinguished career at Southern University.

 

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There have been few athletes coveted as much as Dave Winfield in 1973. The San Diego Padres selected him fourth in the MLB Draft. He was also taken in the NFL, NBA, and ABA drafts. He went on to a Hall of Fame career on the diamond — after never playing a minor league game — and remains one of three athletes ever to be drafted by four separate professional leagues.

 

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1973: Hank hammers his way to the home run crown

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The career home run record of Babe Ruth had long stood as one of the most immortal and revered marks in all of sports. Then, on April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron passed the legendary Yankee as the most prolific home run hitter in the game’s history with the 715 th of his career. It capped a season of incredible stress for Aaron, who received a stream of racist death threats as he stood on the precipice of passing Ruth. Aaron went on to push the record to 755 before his retirement in 1976.

 

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1975: Frank Robinson makes history off the field as well

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Always an advocate for change and equality, Frank Robinson made his desire to manage no secret in the later stages of his career. In 1975, the Cleveland Indians gave him his wish, naming him player-manager of his new club. Robinson managed over 2,100 games in a managerial career spent with the Indians, Giants, Orioles, and Nationals. After his on-field career ended, he moved to the front office of Major League Baseball, where he served as vice president of on-field operations for 10 years. Later, he served as senior VP of major league operations and as honorary president of the American League. Robinson passed away earlier this month.

 

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1977: The first black general manager

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Bill Lucas first joined the Braves organization in 1965 after his six-year minor league career ended. By 1977, with the club amid a rebuilding stage under new owner Ted Turner, Lucas found himself in the crosshairs of history. In September 1976, he was promoted from director of the Braves’ farm system to the big club’s general manager, making him the first African-American to hold the title. Just under 30 years later, Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox became the first black GM to win a World Series.

 

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1986: The Bonds legacy takes off

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Since Barry Bonds made his debut in 1986, no father and son duo has accomplished more than the Bonds, who combined for a whopping career 220.1 win shares in their respective careers. While seven-time MVP Barry did much of the heavy lifting, Bobby was no slouch himself, hitting 332 homers and stealing 461 bases. Combined, the Bonds hit 1,094 homers and made 17 All-Star teams.

 

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1992: Cito Gaston carries the Blue Jays to the top, twice

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In 1992, Cito Gaston became the first African-American manager to win a World Series title when he led the Toronto Blue Jays to the franchise’s first championship. A year later he doubled up on the feat by winning a second consecutive championship. Gaston won 894 games over two stints with the Blue Jays.

 

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1991: Rickey runs into the record book

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Never short for words or time spent on the base paths, Rickey Henderson ran his way into immortality in 1991. With a swipe of third base, he broke Lou Brock’s MLB record for stolen bases in a career with his 939 th. When it was all said and done, he finished his career with 1,406 steals — over 50 percent more than Brock’s previous record.

 

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1994: Tony Gwynn flirts with .400

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The loss of the 1994 season to a labor lockout (and eventual strike) stings for several reasons, as it was on course to potentially produce many historic outcomes. Among those sat Tony Gwynn’s pursuit of .400, a mark that had not been bested since Ted Williams’ .406 season in 1941. When the season was called off on Aug. 11, it ended his bid to meet the historic hit rate. However, Gwynn’s .394 mark in ’94 remains the highest average by an African-American batter ever, with the next closest season being another of Gwynn’s from 1997 when he hit .372.

 

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2007: Robinson reaches immortality yet again

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On April 15, 2004, 57 years to the day Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major League Baseball officially observed the date in his honor. It has continued to mark not only the accomplishments of Robinson but also the legacy that followed in his wake. Although his No. 42 was officially retired by the game in 1997 to mark the 50th anniversary of his debut, Robinson’s number is reactivated every April 15 and worn across the backs of every player in the game.

 

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2012: MLB’s first black owner

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When the Los Angeles Dodgers went up for sale, a notable L.A. legend joined the Guggenheim group and Stan Kasten in vying to acquire the club: Magic Johnson. In March 2012, history surrounded the Dodgers yet again when the group’s record $2 billion winning bid made Johnson the first black owner in MLB history.

 

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2016: Griffey resets the standard for Cooperstown

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Few players in history have been as beloved as Ken Griffey Jr. was throughout his career. He became a crossover star in the 1990s, hitting 630 home runs by the time he hung up his cleats in 2010. When his day came to be elected to Cooperstown, Junior was selected via historic acclaim. Griffey appeared on 99.3 percent of ballots, which was the highest percentage in Hall of Fame history until this year when Mariano Rivera received 100 percent of the votes.

 

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2020: Overdue Recognition for Negro Leagues

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In an effort to rectify the injustices of segregation, in 2020 the MLB made the proclamation that the Negro Leagues between 1920 to 1948 would be designated as “major league status”. Because of this, the Negro League statistics and records would be given parallel designation in the MLB history books and change how history is noted in the time range. The move will bring some of the greatest players of all-time that –missed the opportunity to compete in the MLB— such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Buck Leonard, into the MLB record books in significant fashion. It will also increase the total career numbers of legends such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, who competed in both leagues.

Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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To this day, Babe Ruth is one of the most-famous baseball players in the world. If you ask a random person to name five baseball players, there’s a good chance that Ruth will get mentioned. You could make the argument for him being the greatest player ever. He was maybe the first true celebrity the sport birthed. The life of one George Herman Ruth wasn’t always glorious, but a look back at his career is full of iconic moments and incredible accomplishments.

 

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Ruth signs with the (minor league) Baltimore Orioles

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George Herman Ruth had a troubled childhood. In fact, he spent much of his youth at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a reform school and orphanage. Ruth often found himself in trouble, but he also found an outlet in baseball, a sport he excelled at. Oftentimes he was only allowed to leave the premises of St. Mary’s to play baseball. In 1914, the Baltimore Orioles of the International League signed him to a deal. This is where he first earned the nickname “Babe.”

 

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Babe signs with the Red Sox

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Ruth’s time with the Orioles was short-lived, as the team had basically no money. Babe played a few exhibition games but had his contract sold to the Boston Red Sox in July of 1914.

 

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Ruth pitches his first game for Boston

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As you likely know, Ruth began his career as a pitcher. Babe made his debut on July 11, 1914 against the Cleveland Naps. The Red Sox, and Ruth, won the game 4-3. However, his first season with the Red Sox he was barely used, which is fair given he was an inexperienced teenager.

 

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Winning the ERA title and a World Series

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By 1916, Ruth had become one of the best pitchers in the league. The Red Sox won two 1-0 games that Ruth started and finished, including a 13-inning shutout. Overall, Ruth had nine shutouts in 1916 while posting a 1.75 ERA. Both led the league, and the nine shutouts was a record for lefties until 1978. Oh, and the Red Sox won the World Series.

 

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Ruth pitches and hits

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The first few seasons of his career Ruth rarely got to hit, as he was primarily pitching. That changed in the 1918 season, which was impacted by World War I. Ruth really wanted to bat more, and Boston’s new, inexperienced manager Ed Barrow decided to give him a shot. Babe hit a home run in four-straight games at one point and finished with a .300 batting average and 11 home runs. Oh, and he also went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA as a pitcher.

 

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The Babe sets a new home run record

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In 1919, Ruth was still pitching a bit, but had primarily become an outfielder and a hitter. Babe quickly broke the American League record for home runs in a season, as the record was only 16 at the time. When Ruth started hitting home runs, he was really rewriting record books. By the end of the season, Ruth had piled up 29 home runs, which beat the Major League record of 27, which had been set in a ballpark with right field only 215 feet from home plate.

 

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Ruth moves to the Yankees (you may have heard about this)

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It’s one of the most-famous moments in baseball history. The reasoning for it is debated to this day. All we know is the Boston Red Sox sold the contract of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. The Curse of the Bambino was born.

 

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The first 50-homer season

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Ruth was a huge star attraction by the time he signed with the Yankees, and his star only rose in New York. Bear in mind that Ruth had just set the record for home runs in a season with 29. In his first season as a Yankee, Ruth hit 54 home runs. This was a massive uptick in the home run record, and Ruth would go on to become by far the most-prolific power hitter of his generation.

 

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Ruth sets the career home run mark

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Speaking of Ruth’s power prowess. In early 1921, the Babe hit the 139th homer of his career. Not a big deal, right? Except, this set a new record for career home runs. Prior to the arrival of Ruth, the record for home runs in a career belonged to Roger Connor, who hit 138. There were many more home runs to come for the Babe.

 

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Ruth gets suspended

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The Yankees made it to the 1921 World Series, but fell short against the New York Giants. After the season, Ruth and two of his teammates decided to go on a barnstorming tour for some cash. However, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, had a rule in place that did not allow World Series participants to tour like that. Ruth and his teammates were suspended and fined their World Series checks. The rule would be changed in 1922. Later, during the 1922 season, Ruth would be suspended again, this time for going in the stands to confront a heckler.

 

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The House that Ruth Built

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After the 1922 season, the Yankees lease at the Polo Grounds was over. The owners were looking for their own stadium, and they would indeed build one in the Bronx, completing Yankee Stadium in time for the 1923 season. Ruth would hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium, and it became known as “the House that Ruth Built,” in part because of the popularity of the Babe boosting the Yankees’ profits. Indeed, the park was built with Ruth in mind, as the right field was shallower and the sun was not in Ruth’s eyes in the outfield.

 

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Babe wins his only MVP, and then his only batting title

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It’s crazy to think that Ruth only won a single MVP, but it’s true. That win came in 1923, the first year of Yankee Stadium. Babe hit .393 with 41 homers and 45 doubles, and the Yankees won the American League by 17 games. The next season, Ruth hit .378, which won him the batting title.

 

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Ruth is hospitalized

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While he was an elite baseball player, Ruth was not necessarily in the greatest of shape all the time. In 1925, the Babe had some health issues. He first felt ill in Hot Springs, Arkansas during the offseason, but during spring training he collapsed and had to be put on a train back to New York. There were even reports that he had died. Later he would collapse again and have to be hospitalized once more. The exact cause of Ruth’s health issues at the time are unknown. Sportswriter W.O. McGeehan claimed it was from eating hot dogs and drinking soda during the game. This was, of course, a time when the media would often product athletes. It is known that Ruth was a heavy drinker, and some have speculated that played a role in Ruth’s hospitalization. The truth remain unclear.

 

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Murderers’ Row and 60 homers

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To this day, there are those that consider the 1927 New York Yankees the greatest team of all-time. Led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the team known as Murderers’ Row won 110 games, then an American League record, and won the pennant by 19 games. The Yankees would win the World Series in a sweep as well. As for Ruth, he also made history by hitting 60 home runs, a record that would stand for many years.

 

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The Babe calls his shot

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In 1929, the Yankees introduced uniform numbers, bestowing three on Ruth because he batted third. A few years later, in 1932, the Yankees and Cubs squared off in the World Series. It was a heated series, but it also gave us a famed moment. In Game 3, the first at Wrigley Field, the score was tied 4-4 when Ruth came up to the plate. Some say that Ruth gestured toward center field, indicating he planned to hit the ball there. Others say he didn’t really call his shot. All we know for sure is that Ruth absolutely mashed a home run to center field to give the Yankees the lead. New York would win the series.

 

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Ruth pitches one last time

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In 1933, Ruth took part in the first-ever All-Star Game, even though he was starting to fade from his peak. In the final game of the season, Ruth pitched against the Red Sox. Granted, it was a publicity stunt, but Ruth still pitched a complete game and got a win. It was the last time he would ever pitch.

 

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The last season with the Yankees

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By 1934, Ruth wasn’t really capable of fielding or running, and even took a pay cut for the Yankees. While he was no longer athletic enough for some of the aspects of baseball, he could still hit to a degree. Ruth batted .288 and hit 22 home runs. Not bad numbers, but definitely a significant step down for the Babe.

 

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Ruth joins the Boston Braves

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Ruth really wanted to become a manager. After the 1934 season, realizing his playing days were effectively over, he tried to get a job managing the Yankees. He was almost made the manager of the farm team, the Newark Bears, but the Yankees’ owner decided against it at the last second. Left with nothing to do, Ruth would sign on to play for the Boston Braves. Mostly a publicity stunt for a struggling team, Ruth only played in 28 games and hit .181 with six homers.

 

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Ruth retires, briefly coaches, then leaves baseball

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Ruth hung up the clears after the 1935 season with the Braves. The Babe still wanted to manage, and the Cleveland job came open, but he was not seriously considered. Eventually, Ruth was given a job as the first-base coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938. However, Ruth was told he would not be considered as the next manager of the team, and after the season Dodgers player Leo Durocher was hired as the new manager. Ruth stepped down as first-base coach and never was involved in baseball again.

 

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The inaugural Hall of Fame class

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In 1936, Cooperstown inducted its first-ever Hall of Fame class. The five members were all legends. Joining Ruth in the 1936 class were Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner.

 

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The Babe visits Yankee Stadium one last time

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Ruth first developed cancer in 1946, and it would become a recurring issue for the rest of his life. On June 13, 1948 Ruth made a public appearance at Yankee Stadium to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the House that Ruth Built. He had lost a considerable amount of weight and used a cane as a bat. A photo taken by Nat Fein of Ruth on the field that day won a Pulitzer Prize.

 

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Babe Ruth passes away

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In July of 1948, Ruth entered Memorial Hospital in New York, and he would spend most of the rest of his life there. Babe left a couple times, one to pay a visit to Baltimore, one to see the premiere of “The Babe Ruth Story.” A few weeks later, August 16, 1948, Ruth would die in his sleep. He was only 53.

 

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The legacy of the Great Bambino

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In his short life, Ruth basically changed the game of baseball. His power hitting was revolutionary. After breaking the career home run record of 138, Ruth would finish with 714 total home runs. That record would stand for many years. Ruth is still third on the career homer list. His career slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ are all still the best in baseball history. And that’s with him beginning his career as an above-average pitcher! The Babe was the most-famous baseball player in the world for decades. He may still be.

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