Sunday, February 6, 2011

February 6, 1895: Reform school legend

BALTIMORE - There is no more truly American story in sports. It's the story of a young man born into nothing, abandonded by his family, who through the force of incredible talent and tremendous personality became the most famous person in America. The man has been dead for 62 years, but he is still one of the most famous athletes in America, still sits head and shoulders above anybody else who has played his game.

When George Herman Ruth Jr. was born in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore on February 6, 1895 - just around the corner from present-day Camden Yards - it seemed extremely unlikely that he would grow to become the most famous man in America. His father ran a succession of saloons - including one that stood in what is now Camden Yards' center field - and sold lightning rods to help the family scrape by. He was always getting into fights with bar patrons. His mother, standing only 4 foot 10, was always sick, as were his siblings; of seven kids born to the Ruths, only two lived past infancy.

Ruth was only 7 years old when his father sent him to live at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a reform school and orphanage. The senior Ruth was essentially giving his son away, not wanting to deal with him any more. From then on, Ruth only saw his family on special occasions, and those occasions became more and more rare as the years went by.

Ruth's mother died of tuberculosis when he was 17. His father died in a bar fight a few years later. It's possible Ruth wasn't too affected by his parents' death. In his own autobiography, he got facts about them wrong. He was a lost soul, a boy with no past and no future.

But Ruth got lucky. Of all the deadend reform schools and orphanages that Ruth could have lived in as a child, he lived in the one operated by a Catholic missionary who was obsessed with baseball. Brother Matthias Boutlier got Ruth started on the game as a productive way to occupy his time. Boutlier became the father figure Ruth never had, teaching the young boy to read and write all while helping him improve in baseball.

And boy did he improve. Ruth took to the game naturally, first as a hitter and then later, as he matured, as a pitcher. He was a natural, completely overshadowing the boys at the school, even those much older than him.

In 1913, when Ruth was 18, he pitched for St. Mary's in a game against Mount St. Mary's College. Former Mount St. Mary's student Joe Engel, then a pitcher for the Washington Senators, was impressed with Ruth and contacted Jack Dunn, the owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Dunn arranged for a personal tryout on February 14, 1914, and, when he saw Ruth perform, signed him on the spot for $250. Because Ruth was 19 (the age of majority at the time was 25) and father had signed away custody when Ruth went to St. Mary's, Dunn had to become Ruth's legal guardian, as well. Other players on the Orioles began calling Ruth "Jack's newest babe." And thus, George Herman Ruth, Jr., became Babe Ruth.

Ruth didn't play for the Orioles for long. Dunn offered him to the Philadelphia Athletics, but they declined. So, too, did the Cincinnati Reds, who chose to sign two different Baltimore players instead. Finally, the Boston Red Sox took a flyer on the raw 19-year-old kid, purchasing his contract for an unknown sum.

Ruth pitched in four games for the Red Sox in 1914, then moved to the starting rotation in 1915. The Red Sox eventually won three World Series in four years with Ruth in the rotation, but it wasn't until he moved to the outfield - and to the Yankees - when his legend grew. But when it started to grow, it didn't stop, and by the early 1920s, Ruth was the greatest and most famous athlete in America. You could argue that he hasn't lost that title since.

Kate and George Ruth gave up on their oldest child at a young age. It's unknown if they were haunted by the decision, or heartbroken, or relieved. But it's likely, even probable, that doing so saved his life. It's certain that without his time at St. Mary's, George Herman Ruth, Jr., would never have become Babe Ruth, and the American sports world would look much different than it does today.

Ruth (top row, far left) at St. Mary's

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