From Incorrigible George to Simply Babe

By Carl M. Cannon

Good morning. It’s February 6, the birthdays of Aaron Burr, Jeb Stuart, Babe Ruth, Ronald Reagan, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Tom Brokaw.

Stardom or, in Burr’s case, notoriety, were not foreordained for any of them.

Orphaned at 2, Burr originally studied to be a clergyman, not a warrior; Stuart, who was indeed a natural military man, was almost captured in 1862 before he’d made his name. Reagan’s humble beginnings in Dixon, Ill., are well-documented. Gabor’s mother and two sisters barely escaped Nazi-occupied occupied Hungary; and Brokaw flunked out of college in his first go-around, having eschewed the books in favor of “beer and coeds.”

Speaking of beer, and other spirits, George Herman Ruth was born on this day in 1895, and he spent the first seven years of life living with his family in rooms above his father’s saloon at 426 W. Camden Street in Baltimore.

In 1902, the boy was placed in St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore, which is often described as an orphanage, but which Ruth himself defined as “a training school for orphans, incorrigibles, delinquents, boys whose homes had been broken by divorce, runaways picked up on the streets of Baltimore and children of poor parents who had no other means of providing an education for them.”

So why was young George Ruth sent to St. Mary’s reform school? “I was listed as an incorrigible, and I guess I was,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I chewed tobacco when I was 7, not that I enjoyed it especially, but, from my observation around the saloon it seemed the normal thing to do.”

He was in and out of that institution until February 27, 1914. The priests and other instructors were teaching him how to be a tailor, but outside the classroom he was in training for another pastime, one denoted in a simple line on his school record: “He is going to join the Balt. baseball team.”

The young man’s exploits on the baseball diamonds of Baltimore and elsewhere are woven into the fabric of 20th century American history. As for the difficult and rejected young boy inside the famous athlete’s body, he “acted out,” as they say today, in myriad ways: drinking, carousing, and indulging himself in all manner of ways.

To say that Babe Ruth never forgot where he came from is certainly true, although imprecise. You know that Jedi mind trick that Bill Clinton and other politicians do – wherein they never forget a name or a face? Babe Ruth was the opposite. He could hardly remember the names of his good friends. But friends he made nonetheless, from the rich and famous to street urchins.

In his lyrical obituary of the Babe, New York Times reporter Murray Schumach put it this way:

“He made friends by the thousands and rarely, if ever, lost any of them. Affable, boisterous and good-natured to a fault, he was always as accessible to the newsboy on the corner as to the most dignified personage in worldly affairs. More, he could be very much at each with both.”

Much was made at the time – and, later, in movies and books – of a sick Long Island boy named Johnny Sylvester, to whom Ruth signed a baseball and promised a 1926 World Series home run if he would get better. Years later, the boy’s uncle ran into Ruth and thanked him. The Yankees star was gracious enough, but when the uncle left, he asked a sports writer, “Who the devil is Johnny Sylvester?”

As he became more and more famous, Ruth devised a stratagem for his spotty memory. If he met someone who seemed familiar to him – and that person looked, oh, under 40 years of age, the Babe would just say warmly, “Hello, kid, how are you?”

If the guy seemed older than him, Ruth would alter his greeting slightly: “Hello, doc!" he'd say. "How’s everything going?"

Recent Historiat Blog

Historiat Blog Archives