During the Babe Ruth Story the biographical film released in 1948, Babe Ruth, portrayed by William Bendix, visited a sickly bedridden boy, “Johnny”, and promised him a home run in the afternoon’s World Series game. Sure enough, Babe later smacked that homer, and as Johnny listened on the radio at home, his spirits immediately uplifted, to the great joy of his parents. The relationship between Babe Ruth and children, strong throughout his career, evidently even carried a healing property.
While the accuracy of this story has been debated through the years, it is perhaps the ultimate Babe Ruth story that sealed his status as an American hero, particularly to children. Like many heroes of youth, Ruth’s legend has only grown through the years. Could it be too good to be true? The cynic in us asks if the legend coincides with reality.
A look at Ruth’s relationship with children starts with his own childhood. At the age of seven, the “incorrigible” child was committed to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. Looking back later in life, the Babe himself said “I was listed as incorrigible, and I guess I was. Looking back on my boyhood, I honestly don’t remember being aware of the difference between right and wrong.”1
Looking at this decision with the hindsight of the current day, committing a child to an institution would be seen as a desperate act, and may be thought to be more harmful than helpful. How did the sevenyear old child feel after being placed in a residential school? It wouldn’t be a reach to think that the young Babe may have had feelings of abandonment and resentment. He was in and out of St. Mary’s until he was 18.
Something happened at St. Mary’s though that changed young George Ruth’s life for the better. He was introduced to a six foot, six inch hulking figure named Martin Boutilier, a teacher better known as Brother Matthias. “It was at St. Mary’s that I met and learned to love the greatest man I’ve ever known. He was the father I needed. He taught me to read and write, and the difference between right and wrong.”2 Brother Matthias provided the structure, guidance, and mentorship that seemingly was lacking during his childhood.
Perhaps as a result of his experience with Brother Matthias, there are numerous documented stories of the Babe making himself accessible to children throughout his playing career. In his biography of Ruth, Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt wrote of Babe’s affinity for children, especially those of “lesser privilege”, saying “Babe had been one of these, and knew the great emptiness of their lives. To those children he gave freely and casually, without self-consciousness or patronage. He gave them his friendship”.3 His daughter Julia recalled “Daddy genuinely loved children and tried never to turn down requests for him to visit kids in hospitals and orphanages, or help charitable causes for children.”4 Famed sportswriter Fred Leib reflected “Whenever I left the ballpark late, I could see Ruth at the exit with dozens of boys surrounding him, asking for his autographs…”5
Julia was an adopted daughter Ruth, as she was daughter to his wife Claire, whom he married in 1930. Babe and his first wife Helen adopted a daughter, Dorothy, in 1921 (in her book “My Dad, the Babe”, Dorothy later claimed that she was Babe’s biological daughter born from an extramarital relationship). Julia was quite fond of her adoptive father, writing “Daddy was the light of my life. I loved him very much.”6 Julia has written two “family album” type of books expressing affection for her father, including many photos of the Babe with children in numerous settings. It is notable that the man who was placed in a residential school by his parents for much of his childhood adopted both of his children. Parenthood was an intentional choice.
After his career, Babe’s connection with children continued, and was perhaps the most significant connection to the game he loved during retirement. He volunteered his name and efforts to American Legion Baseball and the New York City Police Athletic league.
In death, Babe was eulogized as a champion and hero to children. The UPI reported that Babe died while “several hundred youngsters” waited outside the hospital. His New York Times obituary was titled “Babe Ruth, Baseball’s Great Star and Idol of Children, Had a Career Both Dramatic and Bizarre”.7
Babe Ruth loved children, and was clearly loved by children of the day. That was a long time ago though; is he relevant to children today?
Babe Ruth is not a household name to today’s youth. Back in his time, baseball was IT, with other sports and entertainment either not developed enough or accessible to most folks. Today, baseball competes with other sports and entertainment options for the affection and patronizing of children.
While many may not recognize Ruth, he is still relevant.
Would Babe Ruth be considered a hero to youth today? Under today’s scrutiny of celebrity all access Ruth’s thirst for excess would be well documented, and likely widely condemned. His visiting hospitals would be captured by film or smartphone and shared frequently, and perhaps his efforts with children would be speculated to have ulterior motives. The times and the media coverage (or lack thereof) of his day allowed the Ruth legend to grow without tainting. By all indications, Ruth’s thirst for excess was real, and his love of children was real. He was able to compartmentalize, and keep the worlds separate. Children always looked up to the Babe, and were encouraged to do so by their parents (who were likely huge Ruth fans as well) and writers of the day.
If he were alive and playing baseball today, Babe Ruth may be cast aside by media and adults, seen as a caricature and dismissed. The times he did play in however allowed Babe to exist in both adult and children’s worlds, and develop a real connection to kids. In this day and age, it is much more difficult to have access your favorite celebrity than it was in the days of the Babe. The times allowed Babe to connect with kids, who saw his humanity, and loved him.
Kids always see the humanity in folks. We stop seeing the humanity in others as we get older. If we all retained a bit more of our childhood, the world just might be bit better place.
Hoyt, Waite. Babe Ruth. New York: Dell, 1948
Leib, Fred. Baseball as I Have Known It. New York: Tempo, 1977.
Ruth, Babe and Considine, Bob. The Babe Ruth Story. New York: Penguin Books, 1948.
Schumach, Murray. “Babe Ruth, Baseball’s Great Star and Idol of Children, Had a Career Both Dramatic and Bizzare”, The New York Times, August 17, 1948.
Stevens, Julia Ruth and Beim, George. Babe Ruth: A Daughter’s Portrait. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1998.
1 Babe Ruth and Bob Considine, The Babe Ruth Story (New York: Penguin Books, 1948), 2.
2 Babe Ruth and Bob Considine, The Babe Ruth Story (New York: Penguin Books, 1948), 3.
3 Waite Hoyt, Babe Ruth (New York: Dell, 1948), 14.
4 Julia Ruth Stevens and George Beim, Babe Ruth: A Daughter’s Portrait (Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1998), 119.
5 Fred Leib, Baseball as I Have Known It (New York: Tempo, 1977), 182.
6 Julia Ruth Stevens and George Beim, Babe Ruth: A Daughter’s Portrait (Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1998), 58.
7 Murray Schumach. “Babe Ruth, Baseball’s Great Star and Idol of Children, Had a Career Both Dramatic and Bizzare”, The New York Times, August 17, 1948.