What better way to inaugurate the first major league baseball season of the 21st century than by featuring the one man who most people consider the greatest single baseball player of the 20th century. We have several new exhibits at the
MCI National Sports Gallery
which are certain to bring a smile on any fan's face but for this column I would like to focus on several artifacts commemorating the incomparable George Herman "Babe" Ruth.
How is it that a person who dominated the game decades before most of us were born still has such a tremendous hold on our nation's psyche? In preparation of our exhibit commemorating Ruth, I did a fair amount of reading about the man, his life and times, and I have concluded that the character of the man was as important of a factor in his continued popularity as the numbers that he posted on the baseball diamond.
Ruth certainly dominated the game of baseball during the roaring twenties, a period of time that we still consider the "Golden Age" of baseball, but he did it by the sheer force of his personality as well as his exploits on the field. Though his legendary home run totals - 714 in his career, 60 in 1927 - are no longer records, they still are the hallmark "power numbers" by which all other players are judged. Take those numbers and add them to the fact that Ruth played baseball as he lived his life, with extravagant entertainment and gusto, and you have the making of our first true sports superstar! Simply put, Ruth's life story is truly all-American - that is, he literally came from the poorest section of Baltimore as a virtual abandoned child and became the most beloved ballplayer ever.
Babe in the Sticks
Since most of the readers of this column love the vintage artifacts that commemorate our sports legends, I would like to highlight just a few of the great artifacts in our Babe Ruth collection. Let's start with Babe's early years. Thanks to Joshua Evans of Lelands we have been able to display two original photographs that I believe are perhaps the earliest known vintage photos of a young Babe while he was developing his baseball skills. In order to fully appreciate the rarity of the photos and how they fit in the "Ruth legend" let me give you a brief background of young George Herman Ruth.
George was born on February 6, 1895 in the tough waterfront section of Baltimore, Maryland. As even casual fans of Ruth are aware, he was the son of a saloonkeeper by the name of George Herman Ruth, Sr. Young George was a product of the streets to such an extent that at the age of seven his parents simply couldn't control him and, therefore, committed him to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. That school, located in the southwest region of Baltimore, was a combination orphanage and reform school run by the Catholic Order of Xaverian Brothers.
George would spend most of the next twelve years of his life at the school, with rare sojourns back into his parents' custody and was finally released in 1914 so that he could play professional baseball. In fact, the last item in Ruth's "record" at St. Mary's is a single sentence, written in the hand of one of his teachers. The note reads simply, "He is going to join the Baltimore baseball team."
The key figure in Ruth's life during that critical time period was not his mother or father, but was one Brother Matthias. Matthias was a big man who seldom raised his voice and undoubtedly changed many a young boy but he will always be known as the man who sparked young Babe and encouraged him to play baseball. His young ward proved a quick study. So natural was his talent that at the tender age of 10 he was playing with teenagers and by 12 he was on the varsity team. The photos that we have are two shots that perfectly capture the youngster's environs during this period of his life.
The "Red Sox" photo, which is my favorite, was taken in 1912 and is interesting not only because it features young Babe in uniform but it also shows that his playing position during that time was that of a catcher. You can actually see clearly from this picture where a left-handed throwing catcher, Babe Ruth, is clutching a glove fit for a right-hander! The Babe himself explains this interesting fact in his autobiography The Babe Ruth Story in which he said:
You see, I thought of myself as a pretty good catcher. Brother Matthias and others at the school tried to explain to me that left-handed catchers just did not make sense. But it was the position I liked best and the only one I claimed I could play with any skill. We had no catcher's mitt built for left handers, of course. We were lucky to have any kind of mitt. I'd used the regular catcher's mitt on my left hand, received the throw from the pitcher, take off the glove and throw it back to him left handed. When I had to throw to a base, trying to catch a runner, I'd toss the glove away, grab the ball with my left hand and heave it with everything I had.
Though the "Red Sox" photo has been published before, it is quite extraordinary! Additionally, the second photo, the one that I refer to as the "field day" photo, I believe has never been previously published nor publicly displayed. Could this be the earliest known St. Mary's baseball league photograph in existence that features Babe?
"I don't room with Babe. I room with his suitcase."
Several other Ruth artifacts deserve special mention. Once Ruth left Baltimore and eventually settled in New York City, he developed into a major personality who was considered "larger than life." Not only did he gain a reputation for hitting the long ball, even while stretching curfew rules, he became an American ambassador of good will throughout the world. Perhaps the Babe's Yankee roommate Ping Bodie summarized this aspect of Ruth's life most succinctly when he stated, "I don't room with Babe. I room with his suitcase."
Thanks to super collector John Rodgers we are featuring several other great items including the Babe's own leather suitcase and duffel bag that accompanied him on endless journeys throughout his storied career. They certainly look well traveled. One can only wonder what adventures they witnessed!
John was also generous enough to loan us several other unique and interesting items of Babe's including his hunting shotgun, personal fishing license and perhaps the most unique ballplayer contract I have ever seen. My background is in law so I must confess that I have read hundreds of contracts in my life, but I have never seen anything like the five page contract between Babe Ruth and Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the New York Yankees.
It seems that in the early 1920's, Babe's nocturnal carousing was a cause of concern to the big wigs in the New York Yankees organization. By that time, they were fully aware of Ruth's tremendous popularity and importance to the continued vitality and success of the team. Because of that, owner Ruppert was justifiably alarmed that Babe spent so much time in various watering holes around the Big Apple.
Because of that, and because Ruppert was loathe to establish a curfew for the team but another more flexible set of rules for his superstar, the Babe and the Yankees entered into what can only be considered a most unusual contract. For the key paragraph of the contract from 1922 simply states that the team will have an automatic right to levy a fine of over $9,000 (quite a tidy sum in the 1920's) if their superstar either stays out past the 1:00 a.m. curfew or becomes intoxicated during the course of the baseball season. I don't know whether the Yankees ever collected for what I imagine were several violations of the contract but I can only imagine that they were tempted to because, after all, New York City was the Babe's private playground during the heyday of the roaring twenties!
Several other items of interest deserve special mention. We have two Babe Ruth bats. One is being displayed along with Dr. Nicholas Depace's Ruth Yankee jersey and one we even invite patrons to touch! Don't worry, we own that! Other items include scorecards, a signed color print of the Babe pointing in dramatic fashion just before smacking a homer in the 1932 World Series, a rare single signed baseball in which Babe noted "Merry Christmas" and dated it on Christmas Day in 1934, and several more great artifacts.
Because of the generosity of serious collectors such as John Rodgers, Kevin Keating, Dr. Nicholas Depace and others, the
MCI National Sports Gallery
is able to showcase these tremendous Babe Ruth artifacts. Each of the items tells a special story and it is a pleasure to be able to share those treasures with our patrons. What is it about Babe Ruth that can hold our attention even today? Well, who better to answer that question than the greatest pure hitter who ever lived? In Ted Williams' recent book, Ted Williams Hit List, he is quite eloquent when talking about his "number one hitter" Babe Ruth:
Even today the name Ruth is synonymous with baseball and, especially, with hitting. He played his last major league game more than 60 years ago and you can still hear kids in schoolyards taunting their friends with, "Who do you think you are, Babe Ruth?" His name is as well known now as it was when he played. You can't say that about any other American athlete.