Pitcher, 90, serves up memory of Ruth

April 20, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Paul Hopkins is 90 years old now, but he could live forever and that moment in the ballpark in the springtime of his life will never go away. It's September of 1927, he's just been called up from New Haven in the old Eastern League to pitch for the Washington Senators baseball team and now, in the next-to-last game of the season, he's been summoned from the bullpen for his first major league appearance.

It's against the New York Yankees.

The bases are loaded.

And Babe Ruth is coming up to bat.

"I guess it was the fourth or fifth inning," Hopkins was saying yesterday from his home in Connecticut, where he's preparing for a trip to Baltimore for ceremonies honoring The Babe. "I'd just reported to the Senators the week before, and I was feeling nervous. There were two out and the bases were loaded, and I get the call."

It was Hopkins' debut, but it was The Babe's overture to one of his greatest moments. With only a single game remaining in the '27 schedule, Ruth already had hit 58 home runs, one short of his major league record, and he was running out of time to break the mark.

And now, here came this youngster, the unknown Hopkins, the no-name who would throw six pitches to Ruth and then disappear into anonymity once more.

"I remember walking in from the bullpen," he said yesterday. "In those days, you came in all by yourself, no cart, nobody to walk in with you, and I remember how nervous I was."

He was a fast-baller, and he got a couple of them past The Babe, but missed with a few others. The count went to 3-and-2. Now Hopkins' catcher, the veteran Harold "Muddy" Ruel, trotted out to the mound.

"Kid," he told Hopkins, "The Babe's gonna look for your fastball. Throw him a slow curve, I think we can fool him with it."

And now, 68 years later, in the 90th year of his life, Paul Hopkins chuckles at the memory.

"Yeah, we fooled him," he says. "I threw that slow curve as slow as I could throw it, and we fooled him so well, he was lunging all over the place, and he only hit it in the third row in the right field bleachers."

It was Ruth's 59th home run, to tie his 1921 record, and the prelude to the next day, when he faced a fellow named Tom Zachary and hit his 60th, a mark that would not only stand the test of baseball muscularity for the next third of a century, but would become one of the signposts of athletic greatness.

In the 100th anniversary of his birth, Ruth continues to have his hold on us. In February, the Babe Ruth Museum honored him with a marvelous birthday party at his Emory Street birthplace. In Connecticut, Paul Hopkins says he still receives "quite a lot" of mail from fans, simply because they find out he served up Ruth's 59th homer and want his autograph, or picture, or some sense of touching a man who once had fleeting contact with The Babe.

And now the celebration continues here, with several events to be underwritten by the Orioles. Susan Luery's grand statue of Ruth, whose final bronze elements were poured into place yesterday at the New Arts Foundry in Hampden, will be unveiled May 16 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Paul Hopkins will be there, and so will Julia Ruth Stevens, The Babe's daughter.

There's a bullpen party at the ballpark after the unveiling. The price of a ticket (call 727-1539) also gets you seats for that night's Orioles game. There's a reception May 14 at the Babe Ruth Museum, which the old voice of the New York Yankees, Mel Allen, will attend. And there's a Monumental Babe Ruth Bash on May 15, at the Bay Cafe on Boston Street in Canton.

On April 29, the Babe Ruth Monument Fund Committee will hold a black-tie cocktail party and dance on the 15th floor of the USF&G Building, overlooking the Inner Harbor. For tickets, call (800) 963-1600.

"There was nobody quite like The Babe," Paul Hopkins was saying yesterday morning. "When I gave up that home run, I went over to the Yankee clubhouse after the game. Somebody got me the baseball, and I wanted him to sign it for me.

"Miller Huggins, the Yankee manager, saw me walk in and yelled at me, 'What are you doing here?' I told him who I was. He said, 'Don't stay in there, just go in and come out.' It was no big deal for Babe. And me, like a damn fool, I gave the ball away to the club's doctor, who kept pestering me for it."

It was Hopkins' lone touch with immortality. He hurt his arm the following year, and one year later, his baseball career was over.

He met Babe Ruth once more. It was just a passing moment for The Babe but a thrill for Hopkins, to be remembered for the next 65 years or so and recycled at times like this, times when people gather in Ruth's old hometown, where a 90-year-old man remembers his brief moment in history, and an entire community recalls a favorite son.

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