Iconic Imagery: Uncovering the intricate details of Nat Fein’s legendary ‘Babe Ruth Bows Out’ photo

Silver gelatin photograph by Nat Fein of Babe Ruth emerging from the dugout, 1948; printed in the 1980s

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George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr., also known as the “Sultan of Swat” or “The Great Bambino,” was a legendary baseball player who had a tremendous impact on the sport. Many consider him to be the most influential and important player in the history of baseball.

Babe Ruth had a profound impact on baseball, transforming the game itself. As the star player for the New York Yankees, he not only represented the team but also symbolized the spirit of baseball, American sports culture, and the heritage of New York. In the iconic photograph “Babe Bows Out” taken by Nat Fein, we see the beloved athlete and entertainer captured in an image that has become synonymous with his greatness and larger-than-life persona.

The Babe Ruth magnum opus by Nat Fein

Nat Fein began his career at the New York Herald Tribune as a copyboy in 1932. After some time, he decided to invest in a camera, which led him to become a press photographer for the newspaper. This partnership lasted for an impressive 33 years. While working at the Tribune, Fein had not been assigned to cover the day when the New York Yankees would retire Babe Ruth’s number three jersey. It was a significant occasion as it marked the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium and the retirement of “The Great Bambino’s” number. Unfortunately, the regular sports photographer for the Tribune fell ill that day. Consequently, on June 13, 1948, Nat Fein was given the opportunity to capture what many believed could be Babe Ruth’s final public appearance.

During the stadium’s commemoration, the atmosphere was filled with excitement as the crowd enthusiastically cheered and applauded, all attention focused on Babe Ruth. Known for his powerful swing, a remarkable record of 714 career home runs, and his role in ushering in the live-ball era, Babe Ruth had significantly transformed America’s favorite pastime, baseball. This event marked his final farewell at Yankees stadium that was affectionately known as “the house that Ruth built.” While other press photographers aimed to capture a portrait of this legendary American baseball hero wearing his uniform one last time, Nat Fein had a different idea. He sought to capture the iconic number on Babe Ruth’s jersey.

Nat Fein explained that all the photographers were positioned at the front, but he wanted a different perspective and decided to see how Babe Ruth looked from the back. He thought that since number three was retired, it signified the end of Babe Ruth’s era, hence the phrase “The Babe bows out…”

The final photograph evokes a strong sense of emotion, bidding farewell to the greatest baseball player of all time. Surrounded by a seemingly endless crowd of spectators and accompanied by current Yankees players, Babe Ruth takes his leave on the very stage where his legendary legacy was formed. At the time the picture was taken in 1948, Ruth had not played for the Yankees in over ten years. His health had been declining, evident in his frail appearance with thin legs and a gaunt face. However, instead of emphasizing the effects of time and illness, Nat Fein’s photograph captures the silhouette of this towering figure in baseball history. With his classic number three jersey prominently displayed, the image serves as a testament to the monumental influence Babe Ruth had on both the game of baseball and the city of New York.

The photograph goes beyond representing a sports hero; it portrays a man who was larger than life. Babe Ruth’s challenging childhood, marked by frequent stays in orphanages and hospitals, his advocacy for black baseball players during a time of racial inequality, his dedication to volunteering for children afflicted with Polio, and his imposing physical stature all contribute to the empathy felt in his farewell photograph. This poetic image resonates with a profound human and empathetic quality, forging a connection between the viewer and an unwavering American hero.

The significance of the photo

“Babe Bows Out” holds a significant place in the history of sports photography, as it became the first-ever sports photograph to receive the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Its recognition solidified the importance of photography as a powerful medium of storytelling. This iconic image is widely regarded as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential photographs of all time and is proudly displayed in both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institute.

In this photograph, Babe Ruth stands as a symbol of resilience, refusing to surrender to sickness or ill health. It serves as a tribute to the beloved hometown hero, immortalizing him as the strong and imposing figure that continues to be revered and discussed even after a century has passed. Babe Ruth’s enduring fame extends far beyond the realm of baseball, encompassing New York City and the global sports community. Nat Fein’s masterpiece, “Babe Bows Out,” stands as one of the most remarkable images in the lore of baseball, capturing the essence of a true legend.

Nat Fein wins Pulitzer Winner for Babe Ruth’s Final Bow photo

Nat Fein, the talented photographer who was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for capturing a deeply moving image in the world of sports, passed away on Tuesday. The photograph, taken from behind, depicts a frail Babe Ruth receiving his last tribute at Yankee Stadium in June 1948. Nat Fein was 86 years old at the time of his death and resided in Tappan, New York. He breathed his last at Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, New Jersey.

During his thirty years working for The New York Herald Tribune, Mr. Fein, who humbly referred to himself as a “human-interest photographer,” captured numerous snapshots that depicted the essence of life in New York City. Armed with a hefty Speed Graphic camera, he skillfully photographed a variety of subjects, including slumbering circus elephants, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia conducting the Sanitation Department orchestra, and the heartwarming moment when Dr. Albert Schweitzer knelt down to shake hands with a young girl. 

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, June 13, 1948, Nat Fein found himself at Yankee Stadium. It was a significant occasion as the stadium celebrated its silver anniversary season. Despite his battle with terminal throat cancer, Babe Ruth made a poignant appearance at home plate, donning his former uniform. Nat Fein was there to capture this memorable moment.

In an unpublished memoir, Nat Fein recounted the moments he spent with Babe Ruth in the dressing room. He vividly remembered how Babe Ruth sat beside his old locker, which proudly displayed the number three. Nat Fein took the opportunity to capture a photograph in that meaningful setting. During their time together, Babe Ruth took out his belt to demonstrate the significant weight loss he had experienced due to his illness. Nat Fein felt compelled to photograph this moment, but he was advised that Babe Ruth was already exerting all his energy to make it to the upcoming ceremony. Considering his frail condition, they wanted to minimize any disruptions and distractions in the dressing room, as the focus was on the impending ceremony that was to take place outside.

As the ceremony progressed, Babe Ruth made his way to home plate. The story of the day revolved around the retirement of his iconic number three uniform. With the band playing the nostalgic tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” Nat Fein aimed to capture an image that showcased the significance of the number three. Walking around behind Babe Ruth, he observed his figure, with his slender legs in contrast to his once robust physique, and the prominent display of the number three on his jersey. With the music still resonating, Nat Fein took the photograph from behind, capturing this poignant moment and immortalizing it through his lens.

The photograph of Babe Ruth leaning on a borrowed bat from star pitcher Bob Feller, who was playing for the Cleveland Indians against the Yankees that day, was featured on the front page of The Herald Tribune. Nat Fein, the photographer, sent a copy of the photo to Babe Ruth, requesting his autograph. Unfortunately, Ruth never responded to the request. Tragically, on August 16, 1948, at the age of 53, Babe Ruth passed away.

Looking back at the photograph that earned him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for news photography in 1949, Nat Fein shared his thoughts. He admitted, “I didn’t think it was a great shot,” but he recognized that he had successfully captured the essence and emotion of that significant moment. Despite his initial doubts, Fein acknowledged that the photograph conveyed the true essence of the occasion, evoking a genuine feeling that resonated with viewers.

Nathaniel Fein, born in Manhattan, began his journey in journalism by working as a copyboy for The Herald Tribune in the early 1930s. In 1939, he transitioned into the role of a staff photographer for the newspaper. During World War II, Fein served as a photographer in the Army Air Forces. After the war, he returned to The Herald Tribune and continued his career there until the unfortunate closure of the newspaper in 1966. 

Mr. Fein’s impressive photography was featured in the renowned “Family of Man” exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Additionally, a compilation of his photographs titled “Nat Fein’s Animals” was published by Gilbert Press in the same year. These accomplishments further solidified his reputation as a skilled and recognized photographer.

Mr. Fein is survived by his son, David, who resides in Tappan, New York.

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