By Robert Dvorchak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A.T. Marucci, a student at Brownsville High School, sensed something extraordinary in the air as he caught a ride to Forbes Field for a chance to see a legend three-quarters of a century ago.
The driver, teacher George Zoretic, was saying that dusk was fast descending on the career of Babe Ruth. Not only was the Sultan of Swat struggling at the plate, reports had surfaced that his retirement was imminent because he would never be installed, as promised, as manager of the Boston Braves.
"You may be seeing history," Marucci was told. "It may be his last game."
It wasn't the last game. That would come five days later. But it was the last hurrah of a slugger on his last legs who did something that can only be described as Ruthian.
Summoning up the sublime for the last time, Ruth hit the final three home runs of his career on May 25, 1935, with No. 714 clearing the 86-foot high stands in right field for the first time in a game.
Paul Warhola, brother of artist Andy Warhol, was selling newspapers in the stands that day. He said Ruth called the shot before he launched it.
"There were a bunch of guys where the gamblers sat on the first base side, and you could hear a voice from the stands saying, 'Hey Babe, hit one over the roof!' He heard it and pointed his bat out that way. Sure enough, it cleared everything," said Warhola, now 87. "I'll tell you, that is one of my special memories."
It was a day that time stood still.
Ruth, 40, was hitting about 100 points lower than his weight of 250 pounds and was a shell of his former self.
History notes that Ruth wanted to quit as early as May 12. Braves owner Emil Fuchs lured Ruth back to Boston with a promise of making him manager. But Bill McKechnie, the skipper who had led the Pirates to a championship in 1925, wasn't going anywhere. Ruth, who had parted ways with the Yankees, only agreed to hang on so he could play in every National League park.
He wasn't much of a draw that chilly Saturday, however, as the Braves concluded a three-game set with the Pirates. Only 10,000 were in attendance, including a 15-year-old from Brownsville who paid 35 cents for a bleacher seat.
"It was far from a sellout," said Marucci, now 90 and living in Oakland, Md. "For as many people who claimed they were at that game, it would have been the equivalent of three sellouts at Old Forbes."
But all eyes were on Ruth as he took up his familiar batting stance with one out and a runner aboard in the first inning. Having broken his bat during batting practice, Ruth had fresh lumber for a game played five years before Forbes Field had light standards.
Against Red Lucas, who retired only one batter that day, Ruth lofted a towering fly to right that cleared the screen and landed in the seats.
The ball was retrieved by 20-year-old Emmett Cavanagh of McKeesport, whose family sold the ball for $172,500 at auction at the 2008 All-Star Game.
In the third inning, Ruth had the first of his three plate appearances against Guy Bush. A pitcher with the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series, Bush had plunked Ruth with a pitch. He also was one of the bench jockeys who heckled Ruth before, as the legend goes, he pointed to the stands and hit a called-shot homer in the Series.
Facing Bush again must have energized The Babe. He homered to the second tier of the right-field stands, but no one knows what happened to the ball that became No. 713 on Ruth's home run list.
Then in the fifth, Ruth singled to drive in a run.
Writing for the Pittsburgh Press, baseball writer Volney Walsh contradicted the notion that Ruth had lost his ability to run.
"Just to show there's life in the old legs yet, he raced from first to third on a single with a great thundering sprint, slid into the bag and was ruled safe," Walsh wrote in his account.
And for good measure, he added, "Not only at bat did the Great Man shine, but he turned in three catches in right field, one of which was a beauty."
As Ruth came to bat in the seventh, the fans stirred and urged him to clear the roof that had been built in 1925. As Warhola described it, Ruth acknowledged the cheers and pointed his bat out to right field.
The count was three balls and a strike when Rush offered up a breaking ball. After the sharp crack of the bat, followed by a nanosecond of the crowd rising to its feet, bedlam erupted. Disbelieving fans followed the trajectory as the ball soared out of the park.
"The way he smacked it, you knew it was gone," said Warhola. "The crowd just roared."
From his seat behind his typewriter, Walsh noted that "Pirate players stood in their tracks to watch the flight of the ball."
In his book "Babe: The Legend Comes To Life," Robert W. Creamer quoted Bush as saying: "I never saw a ball hit so hard before or since. He was fat and old, but he still had that great swing. Even when he missed, you could hear the bat go swish."
At Forbes Field, the only way to the visiting clubhouse was through the Pirates dugout. Having finished his day's work, Ruth touched home while doffing his cap and headed to the showers. He paused to relish the moment, plopping down at one end of the bench next to Pirates rookie Mace Brown.
"He said, 'Boy, that last one felt good,' " Brown told Tom Foreman of The Associated Press in 1995.
Estimates put the distance that No. 714 traveled at 550 to 600 feet, but there is no way of knowing. Oakland resident Henry "Wiggy" DeOrio donated the ball he retrieved to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
In that one last glorious afternoon, Ruth had belted three of the six home runs he collected that season, and six of the 12 runs he had driven in.