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George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr: Baseball Star and Early Participant in a Cancer Clinical Trial

      George Herman Ruth Jr (1895-1948)—popularly known as “Babe,” “The Sultan of Swat,” or “The Bambino”—is considered by many baseball fans to have been the greatest player of all time. Ruth was born in Baltimore, MD, to German-American parents who worked long hours in saloons and had little time for their increasingly wild son. At the age of 7 years, Ruth was sent to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, an orphanage and reformatory, where his custody was signed over to the Catholic missionaries who operated the institution. At St. Mary's, the boy was taught baseball by Brother Matthias, who also served as a stabilizing influence in young Ruth's chaotic life.
      In 1914, 19-year-old George Ruth was signed to a contract by the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles as the team owner's “newest ‘babe,’” a nickname that stuck with Ruth for the rest of his career. Later that same year, his contract was sold to the Boston Red Sox, for whom he proved to be an exceptional left-handed pitcher and played on 3 winning World Series teams. By 1918, Ruth's hitting skills had become too valuable to allow him to continue to be used solely as a pitcher, and he began to play outfield in most games. After the 1919 season, in a move bitterly regretted by Boston sports fans ever since, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee traded Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000, an enormous sum at the time.
      Ruth is best known today for his dominance of baseball during his years as a Yankee, as well as his flamboyant personality and reckless lifestyle. In Ruth's first season in New York (1920), he hit 54 home runs—more than any other entire team except the Philadelphia Phillies, who played in an exceptionally small ballpark—and batted .376 with a mammoth .847 slugging percentage. The latter set a record that stood for 81 years. His power hitting transformed the game, heralding the “live-ball era” in which the possibility of home runs and high scores drew large crowds. Increased gate receipts contributed to the 1923 debut of a new Yankee Stadium, nicknamed The House That Ruth Built. In 1927, Ruth was the first to hit 60 home runs in a single season, and he finished his career with 714 home runs—a record finally broken 47 years later by Henry Aaron—as well as 2217 runs batted in (2nd all-time to Aaron) and a lifetime batting average of .342 (currently 10th all time). Ruth's heavy drinking and smoking, public appearances with politicians and movie stars, series of mistresses (including one with whom he fathered a child), extensive charity work, and immense appetites fueled his legend and celebrity.
      Babe Ruth's contribution to cancer chemotherapy research is much less well recognized than his baseball accomplishments. In late 1946, Ruth developed hoarseness and persistent left retro-orbital pain, which was eventually diagnosed as a nasopharyngeal carcinoma with extensive regional lymph node metastases compressing the external carotid artery and causing Horner syndrome. Despite surgery and radiotherapy, the tumor persisted, and Ruth became cachectic as a result of dysphagia.
      In early 1947, Ruth participated in one of the very first clinical trials of an anticancer drug: Teropterin (pteroyltriglutamic acid), a folate analogue developed by Lederle Laboratories, which was a precursor of methotrexate, a drug still used in cancer chemotherapy. Ruth was treated daily for 6 weeks by Dr Richard Lewisohn (1875-1961) at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He reportedly did not want to know which drug he was receiving or why (he was never told that he had cancer) and did not sign a consent form. Remarkably, Ruth had a dramatic clinical response with regression of adenopathy and symptomatic improvement, and his case was presented (anonymously) at a research conference in St Louis in September 1947. The Wall Street Journal and Time reported the following week that scientists were on the verge of a “cure for cancer,” but the drug was quickly discarded in favor of a more potent agent, aminopterin. Unfortunately, Ruth's cancer recurred, and despite additional radiotherapy, he died of pneumonia and metastatic cancer at Memorial Hospital in New York City in August 1948, at the age of 53 years.
      Babe Ruth has been honored philatelically dozens of times by many countries, including 3 times by the United States: in 1983 (Scott No. 2046), 1998 (Scott No. 3184a), and 2000 (Scott No. 3408h).