The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (4 page)

BOOK: The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth
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The average St. Mary’s resident tried a number of jobs before settling into one that seemed to suit him. The one that seemed to suit Nigger Lips was the tailor shop. He became accomplished at sewing shirts, eventually working in the High City Tailor Shop, which manufactured the best clothes. He would, when he made big money, always have an eye and appreciation for a well-made shirt.

His education at the school would be best expressed in his handwriting, always a Catholic school priority. He would write with his right hand, not his natural left, in an elegant script that was fashioned by assorted whacks on his wrist by a brother’s wooden ruler.

Only one fight ever has been mentioned, a slug-out with a newly arrived bully, but there must have been numerous discipline situations. An active boy, a loud boy, pleasant-natured as he might have been, would have been fodder for the disciplinary system.

“They took us into a room that had straps lined up against a wall,” Jimmie Reese, a friend and teammate of Ruth’s with the Yankees and a visitor to St. Mary’s years later, said. “They said ‘These are the straps we used on Babe Ruth.’”

Again, there is much that is missing about these years. A lot of time passed. Christmases, birthdays, colds, fevers, high points, low points, school events, report cards. What happened? Did he get any presents? Did he sing any carols? Blow out any candles? Ever get an A for anything?

In 1904, two years after he was first enrolled in the school, a massive fire swept through downtown on February 7, the Great Fire of Baltimore. In 31 hours, it destroyed 70 blocks of the city, 1,526 buildings, and put 35,000 people out of work. All of this happened within four or five streets from Pigtown, where the Ruth family lived. Was he at home when it happened, nine or ten years old, terrified, wondering if the conflagration would come his way? Did everyone run to the water? Did everyone run to the fire to help? If he was at school, which was located on one of the highest points around the city, the fire certainly was visible. Was he sitting out there wondering what was happening with his mother, father, and sister? Where was he? Was he scared? Did he care? What happened?

The fog is in the way.

His mother died when he was 17 years old. Was he at home? Was he at school? Did he go to the funeral? Did he stand at the grave at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery? Did he cry?

The fog is in the way.

He was another boy in the overcrowded system, anonymous and wounded, trying to overcome hard beginnings. He was Nigger Lips. He was ticketed to move along with Fats and Skinny and Congo Kirby and Loads and all the rest, off to find anonymous places in a society filled with anonymous places.

Except, of course, he found baseball.

The fog began to lift.

 

One version: he played baseball the first day he arrived at St. Mary’s. Brother Herman, in charge of athletics, was putting together a game. He spotted a sad-eyed new arrival at the edge of the playground. He called the boy to the group.

“What do you play?”

“Huh?”

“What position do you play? Or don’t you care?”

“I don’t know. I ain’t played.”

Brother Herman threw him a catcher’s mitt, not knowing the boy was left-handed. The boy put the left-handed mitt on the wrong hand, but was ready to go. A career was born.

Another version:

“The Babe told me that his father had no one to help him in the tavern, which made it very difficult to keep an eye on him,” Fats Leisman wrote. “So, like any other boy, he took advantage of this opportunity and would often go out into the streets of South Baltimore and play ball.

“During these ball-playing episodes every now and then he and his teammates would break a window. There were so many complaints coming from the neighbors regarding this situation, and many other mischievous acts, that the Babe’s father decided to place him in St. Mary’s Industrial School.”

The truth: probably less melodramatic than either version.

The figure who drew Nigger Lips to the game—or at least kept him there—was 30-year-old Brother Matthias Boutlier, a charismatic character from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He was the Prefect of Discipline, lord over all behavior, punisher of miscreants, a giant of a man, maybe as tall as 6-foot-6, weighing as much as 300 pounds. He was so large that the door to his tiny room had to be hung on the outside of the jamb rather than the inside to accommodate his bed.

He talked and the toughest kids listened. He walked and they watched to see what he would do next. He hit a baseball and their jaws dropped.

“What I think every boy who was at St. Mary’s at the time will remember are the Saturday evenings after supper whenever the news got around that Brother Matthias would be hitting baseballs,” Brother Thomas More Page, a onetime resident at St. Mary’s, remembered in the book by Brother Gilbert and Harry Rothgerber. “Then, every boy in the school from all the five yards would gather in the upper yard, over 500 of us, awaiting the occasion. He would stand at the bottom of the steps and, with what seemed like an effortless motion, hit a ball with the fungo bat in his right hand only, while up and up the ball seemed to soar, almost out of sight, and then when it came down there was a mad scramble for it. We knew the end was coming to this extraordinary exhibition when he hit one ball after the other in rapid succession, and the balls kept falling down like snowflakes over the entire yard.”

Who could resist the majesty of that performance? Certainly not the new arrival from Pigtown. He would talk for all of his days about the greatness of Brother Matthias, talk about his strength, talk about the balls he hit, talk the same way people would talk about…Babe Ruth.

Here was the birth of the swing that would change baseball. Fungoes are hit with a different, upward motion from the downward chop that was considered the strategic basic of the game. Here was a grand magic trick that made people ooh and aah, not applaud politely. Wouldn’t it be great to do that?

Brother Matthias was an accessible hero. The new arrival soon followed the big, tough man almost as a course of nature. The brother ran, it was noticed, with a short, pigeon-toed stride. The new arrival soon ran with a short, pigeon-toed stride. The brother swung the bat in a great, upward arc. The new arrival soon swung the bat in a great, upward arc. The baseballs—when the new arrival was not so new anymore, as he grew bigger and stronger and more proficient—followed the same wondrous course.

Nigger Lips had found the perfect inspiration. He also had found the perfect place to learn and develop. Or perhaps fate had intervened. If he had been a millionaire’s son and wanted to be a baseball player, if he had been willing to sacrifice anything toward that goal, he couldn’t have gone to a better place than St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. He was in a veritable baseball academy. Brother John Fidelis, describing the importance of sports at the school, once said that “playing activities is an eighth sacrament.” Baseball was the basic liturgical part of that sacrament.

In 1909, for example, 28 uniformed teams played baseball at the school. Other sports were offered—football, soccer, basketball, wrestling, swimming, and boxing among them—but baseball was the winner. There were three times as many baseball teams as basketball teams, five times as many as football. Baseball, in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, had become a national obsession. Teams from different floors in the dorms played against each other at St. Mary’s, teams from the different shops, from different classes, and from different age levels played against each other. An elite league had teams named after the Red Sox and other major league teams that played against each other. An all-star team from the school played against high schools and colleges.

A true baseball feeder system existed, a ladder to be climbed on merit. Equipment was not a problem, as it might have been with low-income families in domestic surroundings. The boys even manufactured a low-grade brand of baseball in the shops. Instruction was not a problem. Many of the brothers were young men and still played side by side with the kids. Other brothers, like Brother Matthias, simply coached.

The weak part of learning the game always has been the need for other people. Who will throw pitches to the young batter? Who will track down the baseballs he hits? How will enough people be found, nine on each side, to play a true game? None of these problems existed here. The number of available baseball players was almost inexhaustible. There always was someone at least to play catch or pokenans, the two-man schoolyard game between pitcher and batter.

In a Baltimore climate far milder than the northern cities on the Eastern Seaboard, the season ran for at least ten months. Games could be played into November and December, and be back again in March. Spectators from Violetville and surrounding areas would visit and watch the biggest games, as many as 3,000 spectators in the crowd. There was an importance to baseball that pumped through the school. How do you separate yourself from the rest of the collected urchins, give yourself status, hear some cheers? Baseball was one of the ways, maybe the best way.

For Nigger Lips, baseball was an everyday pleasure. He once said he played over 200 games a year at St. Mary’s. He played two and three games a day. He played all the positions, including third base and short, which a left-hander seldom plays. He caught a lot with that wrong-handed glove. When he joked one day about Congo Kirby’s pitching, he was asked if he thought he could do better. He pitched. He could do better.

His talent and his size had him playing with kids older than himself. He eventually played with other teams, teams outside the school. He reached a point, somewhere in his teens, where he played more baseball, practiced more baseball, than a professional. He would return to the dorm most days with the shirt torn off his back after an afternoon of baseball and wrestling and running around.

By the fall of 1913, when he was 18 years old (and thought he was 19), he was the absolute king of all of St. Mary’s baseball. He was a schoolyard star.

“Ruth, one of the Stars star slabmen, allowed but one hit, that being a two-base hit,” the
St. Mary’s Evening Star
, the school paper, reported on a normal day, September 30, 1913. “He also struck out 22 and issued but one pass. During the game he hit safely four times.”

A catcher for nearby St. Joseph’s College named Jack Morgan saw Ruth play and pressured his coach to take a look at this kid. St. Joseph’s also was a Xaverian institution, and the coach was Brother Gilbert Cairns. He was reluctant to make the trip, thought it a waste of time, but went to please his catcher. The good brother couldn’t believe what he saw.

“Clad in a baseball uniform that was a trifle small for him, there strode up to the plate the most graceful of big men that I have ever seen,” he wrote in a 1928 series for the
Boston Globe.
“There was an ease in his manner and a confidence in his gait. With a slight manifestation of nervousness the opposing pitcher turned his back to home plate and waved his outfielders back. He need not have done so; they were already on their way.”

The right fielder moved so far back that he left the playing field, crossed a path, and stood in the next field, where another game was taking place. The players in that game stopped playing and stood to watch the events on the first diamond. Nobody seemed to consider this unusual.

The pitcher, finally assured that all was in place, went into his windup and delivered a low curveball. Ruth swung, hard as a person could swing. The ball jumped off his bat, flew out of the field and over the repositioned right fielder’s head, caromed off a concrete wall on the side, and went well into the other field. This was a home run, the first of three on the day.

“No baseball acumen was necessary to recognize in Ruth a batter of remarkable promise,” Brother Gilbert said. “A 14-year-old boy could have sensed as much.”

The doors of St. Mary’s were about to open for Nigger Lips. There were places he could go.

 

The effects of the school on the boy who became famous cannot be overstated. He always would be a child in many ways, a locked-in adolescent forever, stepping out of some weird isolation into a world of pleasures that had been just rumors, whispered after the brothers had turned out the lights. He would be naive and gullible, sometimes navigating through society as if it were a jungle in some far-off land. There were languages, nuances, that he never would understand.

At the same time, there were other languages that he knew quite well. Professional baseball—with its physical, competitive, king-of-the-mountain daily existence, with everything accomplished in the rough company of rough men—would be an extension of the life he always had lived. He was well trained for carrying a lunch box and a thermos every day, for the demands of manual labor. He knew how rough men talked and acted, knew how to draw their praise, knew how to confront their anger, knew how to react to overbearing bosses, knew very well how to survive. He never would be shy. He very well knew the basic world of work that he entered.

His wants and longings while at St. Mary’s would drive much of his future behavior. A degree in psychology wouldn’t be needed to see that fact. If you never have had enough of anything and everything as a child, how much is needed to fill the hole? Is there ever enough of whatever it might be—food, clothes, love, fun—to make up for all that you have missed? The trail for all of the excesses and successes in the future would be traced back neatly to the big school on the other side of Caton Avenue from Violetville.

Ruth always would speak well of the place. He would stay friendly with many of the brothers. He would buy Brother Matthias a Cadillac for $5,000 in a famous gesture in 1926, then replace it when the car was demolished after it stalled on a railroad track and was hit by a freight train. He would reappear at the school in the following years to participate in exhibitions and fund-raising drives. The story of his troubled beginnings would be served often—along with the starch-filled meals—at orphanages around the country as a bowlful of hope for the residents. He never would argue with it. Indeed, he would appear at many of these places in his travels, walk their corridors as an orphan king of orphan kids.

BOOK: The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth
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