Popular Science

No one told Babe Ruth he had cancer, but his death changed the way we fight it

The Great Bambino’s treatment came at a major turning point in medicine.

George Herman Ruth was sick. It had all started with a deep, searing pain behind his left eye. Now, he could hardly swallow. And the pain seemed to be seeping down his body, like an invisible weight tugging at his hips and legs. Soon, he’d have to use his bat as a cane.

But he was no ordinary patient. He was the Babe, the greatest baseball player who had ever lived. And his medical team at what is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, just a short train ride south from Yankee Stadium, intended to treat him as such.

While it seems possible that no one ever told Ruth himself, the baseball legend had terminal cancer. A tumor had grown from behind his nose to the base of his skull and was working its way into his neck. Treatment would be harrowing, but his doctors were determined the Sultan of Swat would get better. Though their effort to save him was ultimately unsuccessful, the record-setting Ruth became a cancer pioneer in the process.

Babe Ruth

The Babe says goodbye. 1948.

Nat Fein/The New York Times/Redux

At the time of Ruth’s birth on February 6, 1895, cancer, once a rarity, was suddenly everywhere. “He lived at a time when cancer rates were increasing markedly,” says Dr. Otis, Chief Medical Officer for . These days, Brawley says, we know what to attribute that to: smoking and air pollution. At the time, however, no one actually knew what caused cancer, let alone how to cure it.

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