Babe Ruth: Becoming the Babe
To say Happy Birthday to The Babe, here’s a story about Ruth’s first season of pro ball with his hometown Baltimore Orioles. This card was a 2020 giveaway to the people who pre-ordered a set of my 1921 Orioles cards.
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Growing up neglected and wild on the rough Baltimore waterfront, George Herman Ruth’s parents packed him off to the Catholic-run orphanage called St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. Ruth bounced back and forth between home and this school until his mother passed away and his father sent him there for good. Although often referred to simply as a “reform school,” St. Mary’s was also a vocational school that taught its young wards various industrial trades such as cobbler, carpenter, and printing so they could have productive lives when released. Ruth worked in the school’s shirt factory and in fact was so proud of the skills he learned at St. Mary’s that until his death the nattily dressed slugger took pride in sewing and mending his own garments.
Finally surrounded by caring adults, Ruth thrived at the school. One of the Xavierians in particular, Brother Matthias, was able to harness the wild boy, and through the combination of a stiff hand and kindness George blossomed. It was under the tutelage of Brother Matthias that the boy learned the game of baseball.
It wasn’t long before Jack Dunn, owner of the local minor league Baltimore Orioles, got wind of the locked-up young star. Dunn heard about Ruth from the director of Mount St. Mary’s College, who offered up the tip on Ruth to deflect attention away from his own pitching ace. Dunn took the bait and sat down with the Xaverian Brothers at St. Mary’s and signed the 19-year-old to a minor league contract. There was one catch—in order to release George from St. Mary’s, Jack Dunn had to accept legal guardianship of Ruth. This legal transaction formed one part of the famous nickname.
Traveling south to Fayetteville, North Carolina, for Baltimore’s spring training, Ruth left the city of his birth for the first time. His new teammates were at the same time amused and amazed at the naive gentle giant trying to make their team. He believed anything the older players told him and was ripe pickings for pranks. Used to years of regimentation, Ruth couldn’t believe that he could eat as much as he wanted and gorge himself on anything the waiter would bring. He used his pocket money to bribe the hotel elevator operator to let him run the contraption, once coming close to losing his head when he neglected to close the safety cage.
Jack Dunn had entrusted his veteran catcher Ben Egan to look after his prized find. Egan joined the rest of the veterans in playing jokes on the big rube, but shut them down when he felt it was going too far. Because of all the care lavished on the big kid, the other players took to calling him “Dunnie’s Baby” or “Dunn’s Babe.” This was a fairly common and slightly derogatory way to describe a wet-behind-the-ears rookie at that time, and if the player was any good, he soon lost the nickname.
George made friends with the local children and from one received the use of a bicycle. When he’d finally mastered (or thought he had) the contraption, he decided to impress the other players relaxing on the porch of their hotel. Ruth raced by the hotel and after just barely avoiding an oncoming truck, crashed to the ground in a heap after hitting the curb. As the players rushed over coach Scout Steinman spoke for the whole team when he said, “If manager Dunn does not shackle that new babe of his, he’ll not be a Rube Waddell in the rough, he’ll be a Babe Ruth in the cemetery.” Sportswriter Rodger Pippen of the Baltimore News-Post happened to be a witness to the crash and wrote the story up in the next day’s dispatches. Just like that, the once derogatory moniker became the colorful nickname tacked onto the Orioles’ most promising rookie. By the time the team started intersquad games, George Herman Ruth was known as BABE RUTH.
Right from the start it was evident that “Dunnie’s Babe” was the real thing. On the mound he dominated. Ruth had a nice curve and a fastball that swung to the left of the plate, confounding right-handed batters. He had a smooth, easy motion and didn’t get rattled when there were runners on base. But it was his skill with a bat that attracted the most attention. In his first intersquad game, Ruth smashed a ball to right field that traveled so far it made the newspapers both locally and back in Baltimore. Jim Thorpe once hit a legendary home run in Fayetteville, but this homer by Ruth topped even that. In batting practice the other players began complaining that they couldn’t keep up with chasing all the baseballs Ruth hit over their heads and one even inquired whether the Orioles were going to provide cab fare for outfielders retrieving balls belted by the new kid.
The real test came when it was time to face major league teams. The Philadelphia Phillies came to town first. Philadelphia had finished second in the National League the year before and after a few innings had scored six runs off starter Smoke Klinglehoffer. With one out and a man on first in the sixth inning, Babe Ruth took the mound. He balked on his first pitch, advancing the runner to second. Ruth embarrassingly told catcher Ben Egan that he had forgotten there was a man on base. Ruth bore down and struck out the next two batters to end the inning and held the Phillies to two hits and no runs as the Orioles won 7–6. A few days later he went the distance against the best team in baseball, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Giving up 13 well-spaced hits, the rookie struck out three A’s and only slugger Home Run Baker was able to say he hit the kid well, going four for five off the lefty.
The Orioles played their way north and after arriving in Charm City played a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The newly christened “Babe Ruth” held the Dodgers hitless for a few innings and beat Brooklyn 10–6. If an unknown rookie pitching a game like that against a major league team wasn’t enough, the Babe simply astonished everyone with his hitting. His first time up he smashed a ball to right fielder Casey Stengel, who had to hustle to make the catch for an out. To be fooled by an unknown rookie like that was simply embarrassing. In the dugout Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson chewed Stengel out for almost missing the ball and not playing the kid deeper. The next time up Ruth crushed another ball, sending Stengel, who had made an adjustment and played the rookie farther back, running in vain as the ball dropped out of reach for a triple.
In the words of Casey Stengel: “We lost the game. The kid beats us pitching and he beats us batting. That’s when I first saw Ruth. I would say I was impressed.”
Just when things were looking great for Jack Dunn and his Orioles, financial tragedy struck. The Federal League, billed as a third major league, opened up a franchise right across the street from the Orioles ballpark. While Baltimore loved their Orioles, they were minor league ball. These new Federals, called the Terrapins, were supposed to be big league baseball.
The new southpaw debuted in the second game of the season and despite great weather and the media buzz surrounding the hometown boy, fewer than 200 fans watched Ruth pitch a six-hit shutout against Buffalo.
Ruth continued to win and Dunn, never known for being stingy and aware of the threat the Federals posed, doubled Ruth’s salary to $200 a month. Ruth later claimed that he turned down a $30,000 offer from the Federals, but even had the offer been valid, Dunn was still legally responsible for the big left-hander. Nonetheless he again gave the Babe a raise, this time to $300 a month. For a kid who grew up behind the walls of an orphanage and never had money of his own, this must have been staggering. As he would throughout his life, the Babe never forgot to be kind to children, and biographer Robert Creamer recounts a great story in which Ruth asked Jack Dunn to set aside six tickets one afternoon. When Ruth said they were for some friends of his, Dunn kept an eye out, thinking they were for gamblers or the usual hangers-on that latched on to young stars. A bemused Dunn watched as Ruth showed up for the game surrounded by six boys from St. Mary’s.
Going into July Dunnie’s Babe had won 14 games and lost 6 and the team looked pennant-bound. However, no matter how many games Dunn’s boys won, he couldn’t compete with the Terrapins. By July his only solution was to break up the team. In big batches he auctioned off his players, one to the Yankees, a handful to the Reds, and on July 9, catcher Ben Egan, pitcher Ernie Shore, and Babe Ruth were sold to the Boston Red Sox for $25,000. As the three men headed to Boston, Dunn’s gutted team took a nose dive in the standings. He’d have to wait five more years until finally building his Orioles dynasty.
On July 11 the Red Sox tested their new acquisition against Cleveland. Ruth pitched seven innings and got the win. A few days later he faced the Detroit Tigers and took a loss. With a pitching staff that included Smoky Joe Wood and Dutch Leonard, Ruth sat on the bench for a few weeks before being farmed out to the Providence Grays of the International League. With Baltimore out of the running, the Grays were making a pennant drive and the Babe teamed up with Carl Mays to give Providence a major league quality pitching staff.
As he had in Baltimore, the Babe attracted children like a pied piper, and stories are still told in Providence about the dozens of young fans he’d treat to ice cream and candy after Grays games.
Besides his pitching, Ruth turned heads when he unleashed his raw power at the plate. Though his average was a mediocre .231, 10 of his hits were triples, and on September 5 he was in Toronto pitching a one-hitter against the Maple Leafs when he hit a three-run blast that cleared the right field wall, the first of 715 he’d hit in professional baseball.
On the mound Ruth continued to dominate, winning eight games as the Grays took the International League championship. With a few more weeks left in the major league schedule, Boston recalled the big lefty. He started a game against the Yankees and won, then pitched three innings of the last game of the season against Washington.
Less than six months after passing through the gates of St. Mary’s, George Herman Ruth had received the best nickname in baseball history and won a combined 24 professional baseball games. He watched his salary climb from $600 a year when he signed with the Orioles all the way to $2,500 when he became a major leaguer. During his first stint in Boston he’d met the woman he’d make his wife before the year was out.
Babe Ruth had arrived.
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