Nat Fein was not a sports photographer. His usual assignments for the New York Herald-Tribune sent him around the big city for pictures of dogs and children and whatever oddities struck his eye—human-interest stuff. He was proud that these pictures generally needed little in the way of captioning, that the composition captured the moment. He once took a shot of a cemetery in the background, a one-way sign in the foreground. Enough said.
On June 13, 1948, the 33-year-old former copy boy from Manhattan's East Side was handed a different assignment: go to Yankee Stadium. The regular sports photographer had phoned in sick.
The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the famous ballpark in the Bronx. The New York Yankees had put together festivities that included a two-inning exhibition game between members of the 1923 team that had opened the stadium and a team of later stars. The scheduled highlight would be the retirement of Babe Ruth's pinstriped uniform, the celebrated former slugger's No. 3 never to grace another Yankee's back.
Sadness was an inescapable part of the day. The Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the Bam, the Big Bam, the Caliph of Clout, the Monster of Mash, the Wazir of Wham—the 53-year-old Babe, the greatest player in baseball history, holder of the record for most home runs in a season (60) and most in a career (714)—was dying. He had been in and out of hospitals for almost two years. The word "cancer" had never been mentioned publicly, part of a gentlemen's agreement among sportswriters, but he clearly was very sick. This would be Babe Ruth's last public moment.
Fein arrived early. Ruth was at his old locker, but Fein was shocked by what he saw. The player who had retired only 13 years earlier needed two men's help just to put on his uniform.
Fein and other photographers approached. Ruth always had been a willing subject. In the 1920s, he was one of the most photographed people on the planet, standing for pictures with whatever props or dignitaries were at hand. His broad face, with its flat nose and tiny eyes, was recognized everywhere. He posed now tying the laces on his spikes. But it was a staged shot, says David Nieves, executor and curator of the Nat Fein estate: "He was too weak at that time to tie his own shoes."
The photographers went to the field for the ceremony. The Babe, wrapped in an overcoat, eventually came to the visitors' dugout along third base, accompanied by a male nurse. The Cleveland Indians were the Yankees' opponents for the day's scheduled game, and he chatted with Indians pitching coach Mel Harder, whom he had tagged for five straight hits on a long-ago afternoon.
Various returning Yankees were announced and ran onto the field. When his name was called, Ruth shed his overcoat, picked up the nearest bat, which belonged to future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, and used it as a cane to climb the dugout steps. The crowd of 49,641 stood and applauded. Ruth walked slowly toward the plate.
Most of the photographers stood along the base lines to capture Ruth's expression as he heard the cheers. Nat Fein had other ideas. He thought, first, that the Babe's face, so drawn and different, was not the face people wanted to remember. He thought, second, that the story was that Ruth's No. 3 was being retired. The only place the No. 3 could be seen was from behind Ruth.
So that is where Fein stood.
Ruth stood two paces from home plate, slightly hunched, Feller's bat in his right hand for support, his own Yankees cap in his left hand by his side, uniform loose on his body. The stands of the big ballpark towered over him. The championship banners he had helped win hung from the facade. A band played "Auld Lang Syne."
Using the Speed Graphic camera his mother had purchased to start his career—such an extravagant piece of business she needed three cosigners for the $90 loan—Fein looked through a viewfinder that showed the scene upside-down. While most of the other photographers used flashbulbs, he used available light. And he captured arguably the most famous image in American sports history.
"The picture is from a low angle, the sweep of the entire stadium, the Babe looking out at his world, the world he once ruled," Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier says. "...It evokes our emotions without a word being said."
The Babe Bows Out, as the picture later became known, appeared on the front of the Herald-Tribune the next day, and in papers around the country after the Associated Press picked it up. Two months and three days after the photograph was taken, on August 16, 1948, George Herman Ruth died.
Nat Fein received the Pulitzer Prize for the picture in 1949. It was the first sports photo so honored. Fein's newspapering ended with the demise of the Herald-Tribune in 1966, but he took pictures until he died in 2000, at 86.