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Ruth's gravesite remains a phenomenon

Thousands visit resting site annually to pay homage, leave gifts for the Bambino

HAWTHORNE, N.Y. -- People have been there before you, and they've left footprints.

Babe Ruth's grave is well-manicured, but with a few inches of snow on the ground, that's not what you notice. The approach to nearly every grave at Gate of Heaven Cemetery is snowed in, blocked by frost and ice. But leading up to this one, the final resting place of baseball's greatest legend, there is a path in the snow.

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The foot traffic to Ruth's grave is steady and consistent in all seasons, and it has long been something of a baseball pilgrimage for thousands of fans around the world. There's even a bus tour that brings fans to visit Ruth once a year -- right before Opening Day -- as a rite of passage for the new season.

And in some cases, fans commune with The Babe as if he were still alive. Ruth, buried for nearly 66 years, still inspires fans to leave gifts. Sometimes, a gift is as simple as a bat or a signed baseball, or perhaps a ribbon from a local youth tournament. Last week, a reporter visited and found a cheese danish offered in tribute.

That uncommon devotion has become a conversation topic at Gate of Heaven, which also houses the resting places of actor James Cagney, baseball manager Billy Martin and dozens of other well-known people. Andrew Nagle, who works for the Archdiocese of New York, which operates the cemetery, said he's never seen anything quite like Ruth's following.

"I'm in this business for 40 years. I've worked non-sectarian cemeteries and I've worked in a famous cemetery in the Bronx called Woodlawn," he said. "There are a lot of famous people buried at Woodlawn. F.W. Woolworth. J.C. Penney. Rowland Macy. Isidor Straus, who went down with the Titanic. Herman Melville, the guy who wrote "Moby Dick." But no graves are visited like Babe Ruth's grave."

Ruth, born on Feb. 6, 1895, would probably love the company. The iconic player was celebrated for a joie de vivre approach to life, and his gravestone is located within 30 miles of the old Yankee Stadium -- "The House That Ruth Built." Lou Gehrig, Ruth's Hall of Fame teammate, lies buried a little more than a mile away at Kensico Cemetery.

Ruth's gravesite, which also houses his second wife, Claire, bears a sand-blasted image of Jesus putting an arm around a young baseball player. Cemetery employees allow visitors to leave souvenirs for Ruth, but after a respectful amount of time, everything is gathered up and disposed of.

Things got really interesting in 2003 and 2004, said Nagle, when the Yankees and Red Sox twice faced off in the American League Championship Series. At one point, a group of Boston nuns came to the cemetery bearing cookies that they'd been selling to end "The Curse of the Bambino." They left one cookie, said Nagle, but a visiting Yankees fan tried to make sure the offering disappeared.

Nagle said he's seen all manner of things left for Ruth. It's routine to see people leave hot dogs in buns, he said, and they've even seen visitors wearing old-time baseball uniforms. One time, said Nagle, something even stranger happened.

"One day, my worker came down and got me. He said, 'You're not going to believe this one,'" said Nagle. "He was over here working, not interfering with people, and a car pulled up. A guy got out, and he was wearing a cook's apron. He has a pizza in his hands, and the steam is coming out of the box. He walks up the hill, deliberately, puts the pizza down. He opens the box and then he just walks away. He got into his car and drove away. We still don't know if somebody ordered Babe a pizza or what."

You'd have to imagine that Ruth would have appreciated the gesture. The former home-run king died of throat cancer in 1948, and his body laid in state for two days at Yankee Stadium before a funeral service at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

After that, Ruth's final stop was Gate of Heaven, a cemetery perched on the edge of the Taconic State Parkway in Westchester County. More than 190,000 people have been interred there, and there are still about 60 acres of undeveloped ground for future expansion.

Ruth will undoubtedly have new neighbors soon, and they'll be silent witnesses to the legions of fans that traipse through Gate of Heaven to find a hero's grave. Amazingly, said Nagle, the flood of visitors hasn't abated in the past decade, which has seen Boston win the World Series three times.

Ruth's cosmic curse may be broken, but his allure remains. People still come from far and wide to pay their respects to The Babe, and in some cases, they act as if he's part of the family.

"It's a phenomenon," said Nagle. "At the end of the summer, a 60-year-old man and his 40-year-old son came here after traveling across the country and going stadium-to-stadium. They made their way across the country and they insisted that their trip had to include a visit to Babe Ruth's grave."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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