He was the greatest ballplayer of them all, the towering Sultan of Swat. But by 1948, Babe Ruth had been out of the game for more than a decade and was struggling with terminal cancer. So when the beloved Bambino stood before a massive crowd on June 13 to help celebrate the silver anniversary of Yankee Stadium—known to all in attendance as the House That Ruth Built—and to retire his No. 3, it was clear this was a final public goodbye.
Nat Fein of the New York Herald Tribune was one of dozens of photographers staked out along the first-base line. But as the sound of “Auld Lang Syne” filled the stadium, Fein “got a feeling” and walked behind Ruth, where he saw the proud ballplayer leaning on a bat, his thin legs hinting at the toll the disease had wreaked on his body. From that spot, Fein captured the almost mythic role that athletes play in our lives—even at their weakest, they loom large. Two months later Ruth was dead, and Fein went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his picture. It was the first one awarded to a sports photographer, giving critical legitimacy to a form other than hard-news reportage.