If names are not correct, then language is not in accord with the truth of things. If language is not in accord with the truth of things, then affairs cannot be carried out successfully.
Naming is a privilege of reason and the province of bullies. We name to tame and to maim; to honor the great, the dead, and ourselves. Whom we name and whom we don’t (G-d) is an expression of awe, aspiration, and affection. We named home teams after scary animals (Lions, Tigers, and Bears) until high concept trumped anthropomorphism (Heat, Jazz, Soul, Wild). Some scholars attribute the decline in nicknaming to the evolutionary process that turned folk heroes into entrepreneurs. The truth is: George Herman Ruth, the namely-est guy ever, exhausted our supply of hyperbole.
He was the Babe, the Bam, the Big Bam, and the Great (and Bulby) Bambino (or Slambino); the Barnstorming Babe, the Bazoo of Bang, the Behemoth of Biff and Bust; Blunderbuss, and the Modern Beowulf. He was the Caliph and Colossus of Clout and Club, the Circuit Smasher and Goliath of Grand Slam, Homeric Herman and Herman the Great. He was the High Priest of Swat, and before that the Infant of Swategy. Also: the Kid of Crash, King of Clout/Diamonds/Swing, and, until Roger Maris, Hank Aaron, and the steroid marauders came along, the Home Run King. He was the Maharajah/Mauler of Mash, the Mauling Menace, Mauling Monarch, Mauling Mastodon, as well as the Mastodonic Mauler, Bulky Monarch, and Monarch of Swatdom; the Prince of Pounders, Rajah of Rap, Sachem of Slug, and Sultan of Swat; Terrible Titan, Whazir of Wham, Wali of Wallop, Wizard of Whack. And, not to be outdone, Damon Runyon added: “Diamond-Studded Ball-Buster.”
The priests at St. Mary’s Industrial School, the Xaverian reform school on the outskirts of Baltimore to which he was consigned at age 7, called him George. The parents who didn’t visit called him Little George. The boys incarcerated along with him called him Nigger Lips. The Red Sox called him the Big Baboon and sometimes Tarzan, a name he liked until he found out what it meant. The Yankees called him Jidge.
Julia Ruth Stevens, his sole surviving daughter, calls him Daddy. Odd as it is to hear a nonagenarian refer to a man 60 years gone as Daddy, it is also a tender reminder of the limits of hyperbole, how grandiose honorifics obscure the messy, telling details of an interior life.
To others he is a brand, an archetype, a lodestar. His shape is ingrained in our DNA. His name recognition, 96 percent, is higher than any living athlete. (His Q score, a measure of how much the people who know him like him, is 32 percent compared to 13 percent for today’s average major leaguer.) And yet, as well-known as he is, the most essential biographical fact of his life, one that demands revisiting what we thought we knew, one that Julia assumed everybody knew, remained unknown.
Julia Ruth Stevens has seen 95 baseball seasons come and go. The most recent World Series held little interest for her. Daddy’s teams weren’t in it. Yes, she heard about Albert Pujols’ Ruthian exploits in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series — three home runs that called to mind the Babe’s performances in 1926 and 1928 against the St. Louis Cardinals — but she was not overly impressed. “My mother always used to say, when one of Daddy’s records was broken, ‘Well, Lindbergh was the first one to fly the ocean, but nobody else you ever heard of seemed to get any attention.’”
She divides her time between North Conway, N.H., where she spends five months each year, and Sun City, Ariz. I met her on the screen porch of her modest New England home, where the athletic trophies belong to her son and the single photo of her father is a framed copy of an original. She wore a pale, paisley chemise dress, a strand of pearls, coral lipstick that complemented the tint of her hair, and a rock on her ring finger that was once Daddy’s tie tack. She is a lady.
Macular degeneration has robbed her of much of her vision but little of her long-term memory and none of her sense of humor. A bum hip with a titanium rod had forced the cancellation of a planned visit to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. The occasion? “Oh, anything,” she said merrily.
Of course — she is Babe Ruth’s daughter.
Babe Ruth didn’t become her father until 18 months after he married her mother, Claire, on April 17, 1929, Opening Day of the baseball season. Julia was 12 years old. She had spent the night at a girlfriend’s house and learned the news from a wet newspaper she saw on the sidewalk outside her school. “Babe Ruth Weds.”
“I said, ‘What are they talking about?’ When I got home, they could tell by my face I knew what happened. I think they said, ‘Well, you must have expected that this was going to happen.’”
The expectation was grounded in tragedy — the death that January of Ruth’s first wife, Helen Woodford. Though they had been separated for years and she, too, had formed another liaison, Ruth’s Catholic faith made divorce impossible. “She was living with a dentist,” Julia said. “She burned to death in a house fire.”
The wedding took place three months and six days later, and a half hour earlier than the time announced to reporters by Ruth’s agent, Christy Walsh. Babe and Helen’s daughter, who was living in a parochial school under an assumed name, was not told about the wedding or her mother’s death until months later.
A wedding breakfast was held at the 11-room apartment being readied for the newly blended family. The rain that had dampened the headlines also forced the cancellation of Opening Day, allowing the uninhibited celebration to continue. As one guest noted: “The 18th Amendment did not apply.”
The next day at the stadium, Babe hit a first-inning home run and blew a kiss to Claire as he crossed the plate.
Julia didn’t call him Daddy right away. “No, I continued to call him Babe,” she said. “Mother said to Dorothy, ‘You’re going to have to teach your sister to call him Daddy.’ So it was Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, and it has been ever since.”
Claire Hodgson, born Clara Mae Merritt, was the daughter of a prominent Georgia attorney who had once represented Ty Cobb. She was still a teenager when she married Frank Hodgson, a gentleman caller nearly twice her age. “My grandmother didn’t like him,” Julia said. “She went off to marry him and left her schoolbooks behind the door as if she was going to school. She and my biological father went off to get married, and then she went off to school. That afternoon, he came to pick her up and my grandmother said, ‘Frank Hodgson, I told you I never wanted to see you again around this house.’
“He said, ‘M’am, I came to pick up my wife.’
“That stopped my grandmother.”
Claire was 16 when Julia was born in 1916. “He was alright up until I was born,” she said. “I came along and he started spending his nights at the Elks club. She said, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”
She went to see a sympathetic elder, Uncle Joe, who was well disposed to her marital plight. “I think he was an uncle of mother’s husband who was very fond of mother and thought she was getting a bum break from her husband,” she said. “She said, ‘I’m going to leave Frank and go to New York. Will you give me the money to go there?’
“He gave her $100 and said, ‘Good luck.’”
Claire would later describe herself as a model and a three-or-four-line actress. Her daughter says, “Mother was a dish. She came to New York and lived with some girlfriends. Someone suggested she try Howard Chandler Christy” — the bon vivant illustrator with an eye for dishy dames. “So she went to the door with me. She was carrying me. He said, ‘Good god, don’t tell me it’s another one of mine.’
“She told him she just wanted a job. He said, ‘Well, come right in and let me take a look at you.’
“He used her as a model. She had a friend who was on the stage, and she told her, ‘They’re having a casting call tomorrow, why don’t you go and see if they can use you?’
“She went to the casting call, and they picked her for the chorus line. Some people have said she was with the Ziegfeld Follies. Mother was very petite. The Ziegfeld girls were big girls. She worked for the Shuberts in New York City. The show went to Washington, D.C., for an out-of-town run. The star of the show was Barton. He and his wife, Kitty, took her under their wing. She was so young, so innocent, probably 18. He said one day, ‘Do you like baseball?’
“She said yes, and he took her to a game. He knew Daddy. He came over and said, ‘I want to introduce you to Clara Mae Merritt.’
“She went to [calling herself] Claire after a while. Daddy said, ‘I’m having some people over. Why don’t you come over?’
“She said, ‘I have a show.’
“He said, ‘Come after the show. It’ll still be going on.’
“She said, ‘I will if I can bring my girlfriend.’
“She went to the party. After, he said, ‘May I call on you in New York?’
“She thought about it and said, ‘You may.’”
It was May 1923, a month after Ruth inaugurated Yankee Stadium with its first ever home run. His bat sold in 2004 for $1.265 million. With it he declared his intentions for the new year and the new digs — “Some ball yard,” Babe said. The previous season, the Yankees’ last as squatters in the Polo Grounds, had ended with ignominy. Ruth was suspended four times and batted .118 in the World Series. Claire Hodgson, the new woman in his life, would be widely credited with instilling discipline that no lawyer, manager, beer baron, or commissioner had been able to impose. Julia guffawed at the legal circumlocutions inserted (by hand) in Ruth’s 1922 contract, which I saw at the home of a collector in Florida.
“It is understood and agreed by and between the parties hereto that … the player shall at all times during the terms of this contract and through the years 1922, 1923 and 1924, and through the years 1925 and 1926 if this contract is renewed for such years, refrain and abstain entirely from the use of intoxicating liquors and that he shall not during the training and playing season in each year stay up later than 1 o’clock A.M. on any day without the permission and consent of the club’s manager, and it is understood and agreed that if at any time during the period of this contract, whether in the playing season or not, the player shall indulge in intoxicating liquors or be guilty of any actions of misbehavior which may render him unfit to perform the services to be performed by him hereunder, the club may cancel and terminate the contract and retain as the property of the club, any sums of money withheld from the player’s salary as above provided.”
In the margin, Ruth smartly initialed his consent: GHR.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Julia said.
Along with fiscal restraint, Claire brought “baggage” — “Her mother, two uncles, and me,” Julia said.
The intact family he had never had was completed on October 30, 1930, when he adopted Julia and Claire adopted Dorothy. “Probably he would have liked to have some kids,” Julia said. “I don’t think Mother wanted any more. Marrying him at her age in 1929, I don’t think she wanted to be tied down.”
She doesn’t remember the day she met Babe Ruth. He was for her, perhaps for all of us, a priori. “It seems like he’d always been there.”
Her son, Tom Stevens, a civil engineer visiting between contracting stints abroad, offered a gentle nudge — “He gave you a watch” — and Julia brightened. “A watch to me was something extraordinary. He loved roughhousing. Next thing I knew the crystal was broken. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you another one.’
“He was such a great guy. To adopt me! I developed a strep throat when I was 21. The doctor said, ‘She needs a blood transfusion.’ We were side by side on gurneys while he gave me a blood transfusion.”
He used her grandmother’s sewing machine to make her a bedspread for summer camp at Camp Shanewis on Crystal Lake in Barton, Vt. “It was floral, a blue background with flowers on it. He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone I made that.’”
It was the only time she ever saw him employ a needle and thread. Babe Ruth did not sew on his own buttons. Carloni, the tailor, did that.
Sometimes for breakfast he fixed one-eyed eggs. Sometimes he cooked up a batch of barbecue sauce to take along on hunting trips for barbecued venison. Her grandson, Brent, tried The Babe’s recipe once. “It didn’t taste good at all,” she said.
The domestication of the Babe was never complete, but he was a strict father with very definite ideas about how to raise a daughter. “I had to be home by midnight, or else — even after I was in my 20s,” Julia said.
Ruth’s birth date was uncertain, off by a year and a day, a fact he didn’t learn until he applied for a passport in 1934. He misspelled his mother’s maiden name in his authorized biography and couldn’t remember it when he and Claire applied for a marriage license. He said he had an older brother, John, who “died before he was any use to me.” His late sister, Mamie, said George Jr. was the oldest.
The attention granted him as firstborn dissipated in short order as Kate Ruth, a diminutive woman, gave birth to seven more children, including two sets of twins — only Babe and Mamie survived infancy. His barkeep father didn’t give him the time of day because he didn’t have the time of day to give. “His parents were first generation in this country,” his granddaughter Donna said. “He was brought up on the Baltimore waterfront with all these dying kids — they ought to make a movie about that!”
Family life was itinerant at best and violent at worst. Various accounts describe physical abuse by both parents. “Daddy used to whip him something terrible,” Mamie once said.
George Ruth operated a saloon on Camden Street from 1906 to 1912 in what is now short center field at Oriole Park. “When I wasn’t living over it I was living in it,” Ruth once said.
When the stadium was built in the neighborhood then called Pigtown, the State of Maryland hired an archeological firm to excavate the bar’s foundation. With Mamie’s help they located the family privy and a portion of the chamber pot.
Left to his own devices, George Jr. roamed the waterfront dodging truant officers, hurling stolen tomatoes through plate glass windows, chewing tobacco, dipping into his father’s till, and emptying the glasses left behind by his patrons. “In those days, they tolerated a kid in a saloon but not truancy,” Donna said.
In 1902, the State of Maryland outlawed child labor for minors 12 years of age and younger and mandated compulsory education for all children 5 to 16 years of age. That spring, a city magistrate declared him “incorrigible or vicious” and committed him to the St. Mary’s Industrial School, founded by the archbishop in 1866 to care for orphans, paupers, and others “beyond the control” of their parents.
Today’s language for unmanageable boys is a diagnostic code: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Donna believes her grandfather had ADHD, which she saw in her late brother. A conversation with a family friend, Juanita Jennings, fueled her suspicions. “She described the social life, showing up at 11 p.m. for dinner parties, the round-the-clock partying,” Donna said. “He slept a couple of hours a night, and a couple of hours was good.”
Tom Stevens’ wife, Anita, a special-education teacher, concurs. “I think they could wear women out,” Anita said of the Ruth men. “Kate must have been very tired.”
On Friday the 13th, 1902, George Ruth and his 7-year-old son boarded the Wilkens Avenue trolley and rode it to the end of the line. There was another reason beyond rambunctiousness and the newly enacted truancy laws for his incarceration at St. Mary’s. “His mother and father separated,” Julia said. “He stayed with his father until he couldn’t control him anymore and sent him off to St. Mary’s.”
That was news to Tom — as it was to curators at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. “It was never mentioned,” she said. “It must have been a blow to him to have his mother and sister go off and leave him, and his daddy put him in St. Mary’s and hardly ever came to visit him.”
She never heard him speak about his mother. As is the case so often with the unspoken, Julia assumed everybody knew. Donna, Dorothy’s daughter from her first marriage, knew. “Mamie told me they were divorced,” she said.
Neither she nor Julia knows exactly when or why Kate left. “I guess she didn’t see enough of her husband,” Julia said. “She took Mamie and went to live with her mother.”
Donna suggested another possibility. “There’s no way to know if that was her choice. When she said she was leaving, maybe the father said, ‘You can take her but not him.’”
Either way, the effect on even the most incorrigible 7-year-old boy would have been the same. Parental abandonment would be the defining biographical fact of his or any childhood. It is the lens that clarifies; the mystery that explains. “It shaped his life,” Donna said. “Heartbreaking, isn’t it?”
Viewed through this darkened filter, the first line of his as-told-to autobiography takes on a different hue: “I was a bad kid.”
Little wonder he authorized Bob Considine to write: “I think my mother hated me.”
An idealized version of family life and his arrival at St. Mary’s appeared in a 1920 first-person essay ghostwritten by the usually unsentimental Westbrook Pegler. It begins with Ruth crying himself to sleep his first night in the newly electrified dormitory. “I could see the family gathered about the table for supper and my chair empty, and I was wondering whether they missed me as much as I missed them. I looked up from my pillow in the darkness there, to see a great six-foot-six man standing over me. He said it in a whisper because he knew that one kid would be sensitive about having the others know him to be homesick …
“‘What’s the matter, Babe?’ Brother Matthias whispered.
“I don’t remember having been called Babe before that. Perhaps that’s where the name originated.”
Brother Matthias, the prefect of Discipline, was large enough that the door to his small sleeping quarters had to be rehung in order to accommodate the extra length of his bed. He commanded respect on and off the baseball field. But this is the first time he has been credited with divining the most famous of baseball nicknames. (Credit usually devolves to an unnamed teammate when Ruth joined the Baltimore Orioles and was dubbed Jack Dunn’s baby.)
“Anyway, he told me he was coach of the ball club and advised me to come out and try for a place on the team,” the United News Service feature continued. “I knew I was going to like this kindly, understanding big friend. But I couldn’t foresee, of course, that he was going to coach me along into the big leagues and make the home run champion.”
Ruth spent 12 years of his life in and out of St. Mary’s, a Victorian institution in attitude as well as architecture. For generations of Baltimore’s Catholic schoolboys, St. Mary’s was a threat. Behave, or else you’ll get sent where the Babe went when he was bad. “He did say one time that St. Mary’s was his salvation,” Julia said. “Left on his own with his father he would have ended up in jail. It was not the greatest place to be, but a good place for him.”
Punishment was corporeal, and the diet would have been familiar to Oliver Twist. Lots of gruel, and two hot dogs on Saturday, which, Donna said, could account for her grandfather’s well-documented appetite for ballpark franks. He told Julia one night over dinner that he was “never really hungry at St. Mary’s but never really full either.”
The boys called him “Nigger Lips” or “Nigger” or just plain “Nig,” a crude acknowledgement of his thick lips and wide nose. “Between his looks, and being called ‘Nigger Lips,’ none of it could have been easy,” Donna said. “He was gangly. He looked different from anyone else.”
Visits home were often brief and ended badly. Parole became infrequent and visitors were few — one Sunday a month. “I guess I’m too big and ugly for anyone to come see me,” he told his classmate Louis “Fats” Leisman, who published a pamphlet in 1956 called “I Was With Babe Ruth at St. Mary’s.”
Julia takes umbrage at that description. “He really wasn’t ugly,” she said. “I can remember when he was going to a Newspaper Guild ball or something like that he’d get all dressed up in a tux and his high silk hat, and mother and Dorothy and I would stand at the front door to say good-bye to him and he’d say, ‘Am I a handsome fella or not?’”
Mamie recalled making monthly visits with her mother. Julia said: “I don’t think Kate ever came to visit. He was allowed out to go to her funeral.”
Kate Ruth died at age 38 on August 11, 1912. She was living with her sister. No mention of her husband is made in the death notice. The official cause of death: exhaustion. Also, she had lung disease. Kate was buried on August 14 in her parents’ plot at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery on Belair Road in Baltimore. “I was summoned home from school too late to be with her,” Ruth wrote for the United News Service in 1920.
Her grave was unmarked until 2008 when it was discovered by Paul Harris, a Baltimore attorney and author whose father had played sandlot baseball with and against Ruth. “I woke up one night, and it just hit me: No one has visited her grave since 1912,” Harris told the Baltimore Sun in 2008. The Babe Ruth Museum contributed $1,200 toward a headstone. “Shame on the Babe,” Harris wrote in his account of Ruth’s early years, Babe Ruth, the Dark Side.
The Xaverian brothers attended to his soul and gave him a calling. They taught him how to make a shirt — he would always have an appreciation for a well-turned collar. According to a dissertation about St. Mary’s written by Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate Cyril Witte in 1955: ” … The classroom was of slight interest to him, but his boundless energy found release and healthy application in the shops and on the playing field. When he had completed the eighth grade he spent full time working with the maintenance crew, in the tailor shop, and in the shirt factory. In the last named, he willingly spent time doing work in excess of his quota, thereby earning a sizeable sum. Naturally competitive and impetuous he was always in some kind of mischief, rarely returning to the dormitory in the evening with a whole shirt …”
The brothers imposed order on energy, channeling its abundance into baseball. In 1909, St. Mary’s fielded 28 uniformed baseball teams; one game attracted 3,000 spectators. Ruth went missing the week before the first biggest game of his life, a contest between the good lads of Mount St. Joseph College, a private Xaverian school, and St. Mary’s inmates. He returned in time to pitch a 6-0 shutout before a crowd that included Jack Dunn, owner of the Baltimore Orioles. On September 20, 1913, the St. Mary’s Saturday Evening Star reported: “Ruth, one of the ‘stars’ star slabmen allowed but one hit, that being a two base hit. He also struck out twenty-two and issued but one pass. During that same game he hit safely four times.”
By 1913, the Brothers had begun allowing Ruth to play for local amateur and semipro teams on weekends. They also allowed him to transfer to another Xaverian institution in town where students were granted more freedom in preparation for life on the outside. That experiment lasted about two months. “He appeared in the school yard in a gray suit and a black baseball cap, head down. … He did not seem to hear the voices of the three or four hundred boys who were screaming, ‘Welcome back, Nigger Lips!’”
Leisman became an unlikely figure in the Cold War persecution of American Communists when he testified on behalf of Alger Hiss during his trial on charges of perjury stemming from his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The government discredited Leisman, saying he had “in the past used aliases, has been twice convicted, is a heavy drinker, and in general is irresponsible.” His recollections of Ruth’s life at St. Mary’s have never been disputed.
One Sunday, Ruth told Leisman — perhaps to cheer him up because he, too, had no visitors — that he hadn’t seen his father in 10 years. From the time of his mother’s death until February 27, 1914, when Jack Dunn fetched him to play for the Baltimore Orioles and became his legal guardian, Ruth received no visitors. “Obviously, Daddy never held it against his father, because as soon as he had money to buy his father a bar he did,” Julia said. “He even went and helped out.”
The only known photograph of father and son was taken at the saloon Ruth purchased for Ruth, the elder during the winter of 1915-1916. “It’s now the Goddess strip club,” Tom said.
The bar is decked out for the holidays. Christmas balls and tinsel dangle from the tin ceiling, the festive effect augmented by the reflection on the bar behind which Babe and his father stand. A gleaming punch bowl and empty glasses await the evening crowd. There is only one patron, a black waiter, a barman, and a dog perched on a wooden chair near a raw bar.
Although father and son are identically attired — striped shirts, black vests, unblemished aprons tied about their waists — accentuating the familial similarity, they stand apart. The father, grim, unsmiling, unused to being photographed unlike his burgeoning son, dominates the foreground, a lit cigar burning between the index and middle fingers of his left hand. A dead, stuffed animal, teeth bared, is mounted on the wall behind his head. The photo was sold at auction in 1998 for $14,914.
“He was not one to hold a grudge,” Julia said of Babe. “He was sorry his father died the way he did, trying to stop a fight outside the bar.”
On Saturday afternoon, August 24, 1918, Ruth beat the St. Louis Browns 3-1 at Fenway Park. While he was scattering five hits in Boston, an altercation between two of his father’s new brothers-in-law, relations of his second wife, began in the bar. That evening, George Ruth Sr. followed one of the combatants outside to the curb. Blows were exchanged; one found his left temple, causing George Ruth Sr. to hit his head against the sidewalk. He died the next day at University Hospital. An inquest exonerated his brother-in-law, ruling that he had acted in self-defense.
George Ruth Sr. was buried in Loudon Park National Cemetery, less than a mile from St. Mary’s Industrial School, beneath an impressive granite stone identifying him as “Beloved husband of Martha E.”
His father’s death severed any umbilical connection to Baltimore and the unhappy child he had been there. The racial epithets — and rumors about Ruth’s ethnicity — would follow him throughout his major league career. After the Giants swept the Yankees in the 1922 World Series, Ruth stormed into the opposing locker room and confronted the loudest of his tormenters, Johnny Rawlings. “You can call me a dick and you can call me a cocksucker,” Ruth said, according to biographer Robert Creamer. “Just don’t get personal.”
Race was a subtext in the one-month suspension handed down by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that spring after Ruth’s unsanctioned offseason barnstorming tour, which included games against Negro League teams. In 1934, he would invite Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, part owner of the New York Black Yankees, into the Yankee clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, making him the first black guest to cross that threshold. Robinson would be an honorary pallbearer at The Babe’s funeral. “Joe Louis invited him up to his training camp in the Catskills to thank him for what he did for racial relations,” Julia said.
But St. Mary’s and Brother Matthias remained recipients of his largesse. He bought “Big Matt” automobiles and raised funds to help rebuild the school when it was gutted by fire.
Today, the field on which Babe Ruth became Babe Ruth sits abandoned, its future in jeopardy, as Richard Sandomir reported last year in the New York Times. Cardinal Gibbons High School, which occupied the site after St. Mary’s closed in 1950, was shuttered at the end of the 2010 academic year. The Archdiocese allowed a group of parents and alumni to open the gym one day last winter for a charity basketball game to raise money for the children of a deceased coach. The heat was not turned on.
The only remaining evidence of The Babe is a tile mosaic hanging above the counter in the abandoned snack bar. There he stands, at home plate, in Yankee gray, his pinstriped body corkscrewed in the aftermath of contact — bat on shoulder, chin up, gazing at the flight of an unseen ball.
“I’m as proud of it as any Harvard man is proud of his school, and to get crude for a moment, I will be happy to bop anybody on the beezer who speaks ill of it,” Ruth told Considine.
Julia was 33 years old and living in New Hampshire with her first husband when her father died in August 1948. As the daily deathwatch bulletins grew grimmer, she came to New York to be with her mother, who was staying at a hotel near the hospital. “On good days, he’d sign these little cards and give them to the nurse and say, ‘Take these down and give ‘em to the kids,’” Julia said. “He was always thinking about other kids, probably because he didn’t have much of a childhood. There were always seven or eight under his window. Those were the last signatures.”
She saw him last on August 15, the day before his death. “A fella called and said, ‘I think you’d better get over here.’ I’m trying to remember if he even knew us. He had so much medicine, I don’t think so.”
He died of pneumonia secondary to nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer that was not accurately diagnosed until his autopsy. He was treated with radiation and surgery that, for a time, left him unable to swallow, necessitating a feeding tube, and was among the first Americans to receive an early form of chemotherapy — now standard treatment.
His death was an undeclared day of national mourning. So many New Yorkers wanted to pay their respects that his body was brought to Yankee Stadium to lie in state. She had never seen anything like it — nor had the Stadium. The august rotunda was prepared for him as for a head of state. Pete Sheehy, the devoted clubhouse man, scrubbed the floor on his hands and knees.
Throngs of mourners ringed the stadium, tens of thousands of people in attire suitable for an afternoon game. The line was so long the Yankees had to extend the hours of the viewing. For Julia, it brought to mind the mob that besieged Frank E. Campbell’s funeral parlor on Broadway in 1926 after the death of Rudolph Valentino, when traffic was snarled, 75 mourners were injured, and two women committed suicide.
No one died mourning The Babe. “There was no pushing or shoving,” Julia said. “It was all very quiet and sedate. Orderly.”
Julia and her first husband and her mother arrived through the press gate. She doesn’t remember much about that day. “It’s almost like I was sleepwalking through it,” she said. “It was bare. Absolutely bare. There were flowers. There was light.”
Three New York City patrolmen stood sentinel along with urns of gladiolas and a 6-foot crucifix. The open casket, positioned between pillars adorned with a jaunty Yankee top hat, lay 100 feet from home plate. It was made from African mahogany and lined with eggshell-colored velvet; a huge spray of flowers from Dorothy adorned its lower half.
“Poor Daddy, he looked so awful. I hated to think of all those people going by and seeing him like that. I didn’t like the viewing. I did look at him. Yes, I did. He looked so old, so sad.”
He was 53 years old.
Most of his personal baseball effects went directly to Cooperstown. She remembers the day officials from the Hall of Fame came calling. Claire kept them waiting while she searched the apartment for a few items to keep. “Just a minute, just a minute,” Julia remembers her mother calling. “I’ll be right there in a minute.”
Claire saved a loving cup trophy and a few bats stowed in a duffel bag in a closet. Tom remembers trying to hoist one of them as a boy. “I had to choke up almost to the trademark,” he said.
Claire would keep her title as baseball’s Most Famous Widow until her death in 1976, attending important occasions at the Stadium, including the night Roger Maris broke the Babe’s record when, Julia says, “She might have shed a tear.”
“Mother would never have given up the name of Mrs. Babe Ruth,” Julia said. “She would never have married again. She was Mrs. Babe Ruth ’til the day she died, just like Eleanor was Mrs. Lou Gehrig to the day she died.”
He will be Daddy until the day she dies, which she is not planning to do anytime soon. She made her last public appearance at Fenway Park in May, making the honorary first heave on the occasion of the Cubs’ first visit since her Daddy pitched the Red Sox to the 1918 World Championship. The Red Sox are her team. They have been very good to her — tickets are always available for The Babe’s daughter.
She also threw out the first pitch at the last game played at the old Yankee Stadium in 2009. She has no interest in visiting the new joint. It is not the House That Ruth Built.
Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy and The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, which was released in paperback last month. She is a former staff writer for the Washington Post.
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