Baltimore's Babe He didn't identify with his hometown

April 16, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Like most sons, even favorite ones, Babe Ruth probably didn't go home as often as he should have. There was that time during the 1915 season when Ruth's Boston Red Sox were playing in Washington. Since baseball then was not played on the Sabbath, the 20-year-old Ruth asked his manager on Sunday if he could leave the team overnight to visit his family up the road in Baltimore.

The next afternoon, according to Kal Wagenheim in "Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend": ". . . Ruth was out on the field, just a few feet feet away from manager [Bill] Carrigan, when the Babe's father, sitting in a box near the bench, yelled out, 'Nice goin', George: you're down here and never come to see us!' "

You won't see that scene in "The Babe," the new movie about Ruth that opens tomorrow; there's precious little about Baltimore in it. Nor will you learn that at the end of that season, after the Red Sox had won the World Series, George Herman Ruth came back to play in an exhibition game at St. Mary's Industrial School, which he had entered as an incorrigible delinquent at age 7 and had left in March 1914 a confident 19-year-old superstar-to-be.

On Oct. 24, according to a story in The Morning Sun, more than 8,000 fans packed the grounds of the Southwest Baltimore school to watch the hometown lad strike out 14 batters in pitching the St. Mary's All-Stars to a 12-2 victory over the Albrecht Athletic Club.

" . . [T]he boys were cheering constantly the work of Babe upon the mound," the account says. And: "It was easy to be seen that in their eyes Babe is the greatest hero in the world."

Baltimore and The Babe.

He went on to greater things after leaving the city, and he didn't linger -- either in the film or real life. Maybe it wasn't a life-long love affair. But it was an awfully pleasant acquaintanceship.

We're hearing a lot these days about Babe Ruth. There's the eerily ironic placement of the Orioles' new stadium smack in the middle of his old West Baltimore neighborhood. The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum and Baseball Center, only a few blocks away at 216 Emory St., expects more than 70,000 visitors this year, up from 40,000 in 1991. "Even young kids who come in here know about him -- that he hit 714 home runs in his career and 60 in 1927," says Michael Gibbons, executive director of the museum.

Two biographies -- Mr. Wagenheim's and Robert W. Creamer's "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life" -- were just reissued in paperback. Those books, along with the release of "The Babe," with John Goodman starring as Babe Ruth, have prompted a new examination of both the ballplayer and the legend.

It's understandable that those in Baltimore should claim the Babe's ties to the city. He was born here in February 1895 and ran the narrow streets of West Baltimore by the harbor until his exasperated parents, feeling they could not control him, placed him under the watchful care of the Xaverian Brothers at St. Mary's.

He got his professional start with the minor league Baltimore Orioles in 1914. Fittingly, the site of his dad's old saloon, in the 400 block of West Conway Street, just happens to be part of center field in the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Still, from the first time Babe Ruth played in organized baseball -- he pitched a 6-0 shutout for the Orioles on April 22, 1914 -- Baltimore has had to share him with a nation eager for an original, a larger-than-life sports hero. He made his mark elsewhere, first as a superb left-handed pitcher and slugger with the Red Sox, and then as the most famous home run hitter of all time while with the New York Yankees. After his father died following a street fight in downtown Baltimore in August 1918, Ruth's visits to his native city diminished greatly. (His mother had died when he was 13).

It wasn't a case of hostility toward his hometown, as in the case of, say, Thomas Wolfe and Asheville, N.C. "From things I read and things I derived, Ruth had an affection for St. Mary's but not either an affection or disaffection for Baltimore," says Mr. Creamer, whose 1974 biography of Ruth is considered by many to be the best. "Baltimore was simply a part of his past. He was a very surface-y man. He had a tremendous number of friends, but very few close friends."

"I think with Babe and Baltimore, it was 'out of sight, out of mind,' " Mr. Gibbons says.

"He would come back from time to time for exhibition games with the Orioles at Oriole Park, or to see his sister, Mamie. But Mamie told methat often when he wanted to see her, he would send for her to come to his house in New York. And he would come down sometimes to go hunting with friends on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere."

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