When most of us think of Babe Ruth, if we think of him at all, we think of the booze-liking, pussy-loving, dinger-slamming manchild with the Mr. Incredible physique (massive upper body perched atop those incongruously skinny, even dainty little legs). But after all these years, and all the stories that have accrued around the guy, it's sometimes easy to forget just how phenomenal a ballplayer Ruth really was. In fact, the numbers he put up over the course of his career aren't just impressive; they're gaudy.
We all know about the 714 home runs. But 2,200 RBIs? Nearly 2,900 hits, 5,800 total bases and a .690 career slugging percentage (the highest career SLG in history)?
A .342 lifetime batting average, fer chrissake?
Most players would kill to own one of those stats. But almost 80 years after hanging up his cleats, Ruth remains firmly in the top 10 in just about every single significant career hitting statistic; he's in the top 5 in more than a few of them; and in the top 1 in several. The man was a beast on the diamond and a Hall of Fame party animal off of it.
But in the late 1940s, when he was dying of cancer, Babe Ruth was barely a shadow of his former, formidable self. The crowds still adored him, and the House That He Built still stood — but he wasn't long for this world, and it showed. In June 1948, when the Yankees retired his famous No. 3, LIFE photographer Ralph Morse made some color photographs of Ruth that carry a poignancy and immediacy that black and white shots simply couldn't have managed. Black and white photos of the dying man might have felt elegiac; Morse's photos feel almost clinical — and that stark vibe, in a weird way, adds a poignancy that black and white pictures would probably have lacked.
One doesn't have to be a Yankees fan to care about Babe Ruth. Hell, I can't stand the Bombers. But pretty much any baseball fan would be hard-pressed to look at the photo above, and the rest of the pictures Morse made of Ruth, and not feel that something utterly singular and irreplaceable went out of the game — and the world of American sports, in general — when that guy died 65 years ago, on Aug 16, 1948.
We won't see his like again — in color or in black and white — and that, if I may be so bold, just sucks.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.
Photo Credit: Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images