June 13, 1948-- Dying slugger Babe Ruth appeared at Yankee Stadium for the last time, to commemorate the retirement of his uniform and, not coincidentally, the 25th anniversary of the stadium. The occasion was memorialized in the first sports photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize, Nat Fein’s “The Babe Bows Out”—an iconic image that not only records an elegiac moment in the history of baseball, but is, compositionally speaking, brilliant.
With good reason, Yankee Stadium had been designated "The House That Ruth Built," since his acquisition from the Boston Red Sox immediately doubled the franchise’s attendance, enabling the team’s management to build a 62,000-seat stadium – the largest built up to that point. Ruth’s presence also inaugurated an era of dominance by a single franchise unequaled by any other professional sports club in history.
A transformative figure in baseball history, Ruth boldly made his mark with on-field achievements as outsized as his off-field appetites for food, drink and women. At the time of his retirement in 1935, his 714 career home runs were double that of the next closest batter, teammate Lou Gehrig. He turned a game characterized by "small ball" – the stolen base, bunts, moving the runner over, and low scores – into a high-scoring offensive exhibition capped by the home run. He is often credited with rescuing the game from disrepute following the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, in which several players conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series.
Just as Ruth imposed himself on the landscape of the game, he imposes himself on the composition of this photo by New York Herald Tribune photographer Nat Fein (1914-2000).
The viewer's eye sweeps in a broad left-to-right curve that follows the shape of the stadium – from the lights overlooking the upper-right-field stands to the photographers, players and league officials on the first-base line.
The only factor subverting this horizontal movement is the Babe – not just his tall 6 ft. 2-in. frame but his cap and bat, both extended straight downward, and the vertical lines of his pinstriped uniform. The line in the background is somewhat grainy, only underscoring Ruth’s dominance.
Ruth is standing at home plate. Clearly visible are the right-field stands where he poked the great majority of his epic home runs. Nearly every seat appears filled – a reminder of Ruth’s drawing power at the gate. The background of the photo further testifies to the “Sultan of Swat’s” importance by featuring several World Series banners and the small group of photographers crouched down on the right, preparing to take his picture.
One of the beauties of Fein's composition is that it allows the viewer sufficient imaginative space to fill in the rest of the scene. Current Yankees are lined up along the first-base of the field, but just out of the line of sight, the opposing team, the Cleveland Indians, are also paying tribute on the third-base sideline.
Most important, unlike the other photographers crouching for an upfront closeup shot, Fein shoots Ruth from behind. The viewer never sees his face and, in keeping with Yankee tradition, the slugger's name is not on the uniform.
But Ruth was such a dominant figure in baseball lore, and, even, in world culture (a crowning insult of charging Japanese soldiers in World War II was, "To hell with Babe Ruth!"), that people, even non-fans, required neither the face nor the name to recognize him. Equally important, Fein has caught the essence of the photo assignment: the importance of the man’s uniform.
The slugger's bat represents a particularly poignant element of this photo. In his prime, Ruth swung an unusually heavy bat for his era – 36 inches and 42 ounces – but could whip it around like a toothpick. That bat, however, is not the one in this photo.
This one, only 36 inches, borrowed on the fly from the visiting team's batting rack, belonged to future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. After a two-year battle with throat cancer, Ruth had dropped more than 60 pounds from his playing weight of 215 pounds. The boy-man had become old overnight, and he needed this bat not to clobber fastballs anymore but simply to steady his spindly legs on the way to the plate.
Since the game was played in early afternoon and the picture was black and white, photographer Nat Fein had no opportunity to use a setting sun or late-afternoon shadows to imply the slugger’s twilight. But he still manages to capture Ruth at the moment when vulnerability and majesty met – when the Sultan of Swat, head bent and shoulders sagging in exhaustion, stood to acknowledge the roar of the fans he loved.
Two months later, Babe Ruth was dead. But in his last moments in Yankee Stadium, he had revisited the field of dreams that became his field of glory. Compositionally, Nat Fein evokes how even this vastly weakened legend still managed to fill this cavernous cathedral of sports with his outsized presence.