Friday, August 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Babe Ruth's roots in Baltimore

A Babe Ruth statue outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Ruth made his pro debut with the Orioles.
A Babe Ruth statue outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Ruth made his pro debut with the Orioles.
A Babe Ruth statue outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Ruth made his pro debut with the Orioles. Gallery: Babe Ruth's roots in Baltimore

BALTIMORE - If Babe Ruth were to walk into what was his father's bar, Ruth's Cafe on Eutaw Street, he'd never recognize it. Based on his legendary habits, he'd likely enjoy his visit - Ruth's Cafe is now a gentlemen's club called the Goddess - but he wouldn't recognize it.

In the 98 years since Ruth bought the building for his father, George Sr., walls have been knocked down, and the tin ceiling has been removed and a dancer's pole installed.

In this 100th anniversary month of Ruth's entry into professional baseball, the Goddess is one of several Baltimore-area locations connected to the Sultan of Swat that can still be found. Some go largely unnoticed, such as the church where he was married; others are more obvious, such as the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

"We are one of the most profound buildings in the baseball world, outside of ballparks and the Hall of Fame," said Michael Gibbons, executive director of the birthplace museum. "This building is very important to baseball. The birthplace is a mecca for baseball fans."

The museum (baberuthmuseum.org) has big plans for this year; it's working on funding an exhibit and film on the commemoration of 1914 and is considering tours of some Ruth sites.

George Herman Ruth Jr. was born on Feb. 6, 1895, in the home of his maternal grandfather. A few days later, he and his mother, Kate, returned to the family home, where he would spend the first four years of his life. The Ruths then moved to a rowhouse where he lived for three years before being sent off to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, an orphanage/boarding school/reformatory. His contact with his family after that was infrequent.

On Feb. 14, 1914, Jack Dunn, owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles, came to St. Mary's and signed Ruth to his first professional contract. He started that season with the Orioles - making his pro debut as a pitcher in a spring-training exhibition game against the Phillies - then in July was sold to the American League's Boston Red Sox. He played in five games for Boston before being sent down to the Providence Grays, the team's minor league club in the International League. But by 1915, he was back in Boston, on his way to greatness.

So what is left of Ruth's early days? Plenty. You just need to know where to look.

Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum

The rowhouse at 216 Emory St. is where Ruth was born in a second-floor bedroom. The house belonged to his mother's father, Pius Schamberger, an upholsterer. After decades of neglect, it was renovated from 1969-72 into a shrine to Ruth, and opened in 1974.

The room where Ruth came into the world has been furnished with period pieces: a large bed, a washstand, a dresser, a sewing machine, and a fireplace. The furniture was selected by Babe's sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, who helped re-create the room.

The birthplace holds numerous treasures. There's a photo of Ruth as a toddler at a big family gathering. There is a display case that contains a copy of Ruth's 1910-era hymnal from St. Mary's (in it, he signed his name - probably the oldest Ruth autograph extant - and wrote "world's worse singer, world's best pitcher.") Also on display is an old catcher's mitt attributed to his St. Mary's days.

 

Babe's first house

There's a long, white two-story building at the intersection of Font Hill and Frederick Avenues, now boarded up and forgotten. Its last life was as a church. But in 1895, it recently has been determined, this was where the Ruth family lived with George Sr.'s brother John.

 

The second home

This one's exact location has also only recently been confirmed. George Sr. had a tavern at 339 South Woodyear St., a block-long street that's in pretty dismal shape. The family lived above the tavern from 1897 to 1901. While living here, Babe was deemed incorrigible and shipped off to reform school. He was 7.

 

St. Mary's

Ruth's home from 1902 to 1914, this is where he learned tailoring and where he became a ballplayer.

"We like to think of it as baseball's hallowed ground because that's where baseball's greatest player learned to play the game," Gibbons said.

Much of the facility (3225 Wilkens Ave.) burned down in 1919 - Ruth helped raise funds for reconstruction - and St. Mary's closed in 1950. From the early 1960s it was Cardinal Gibbons High School, later the Cardinal Gibbons School, but it closed in 2010. Part of the campus will be redeveloped, but the Fine Arts Building, where Ruth was educated, and the baseball field are safe.

The layout of the diamond has been reversed over time. Home plate now is in what would have been deepest center field in Babe's day, and where he batted is at the opposite end, near the Fine Arts Building.

 

St. Paul's Catholic Church

Ruth and Helen Woodford met in Boston during the 1914 season, and he brought her back to Baltimore to get married. For reasons not entirely clear - perhaps there was a shorter waiting period - they traveled the nine miles to Ellicott City, Md., to tie the knot.

"They would have had to take the streetcar out," said Gloria Baer, an office assistant at St. Paul's Catholic Church (3755 Saint Paul St.), where the ceremony was held. "That was the only way to get here."

The church has been remodeled twice since the October 1914 wedding, but the stained-glass windows, altar, and several of the statues are original. In the vestibule is a showcase with a copy of Babe and Helen's marriage certificate.

 

The Goddess

Babe Ruth bought his father a tavern with his 1915 World Series check, or so the story goes.

Current owner George Kritikos is giving the Goddess (38 S. Eutaw St.) a major interior makeover to go with a completed exterior renovation. Kritikos has numerous Ruth photos on display, including a copy of a famous shot showing the two spiffy-looking Georges (father and son) behind the bar.

There is one other bit of Ruth history tied to the building. On Aug. 24, 1918, there was an altercation out front. Ruth's father was involved and fell or was knocked down and hit his head. He died of the injuries.

 

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

One Ruth site that's just a memory lies about 20 paces into short center field at the ballpark, on the shortstop side of the field. This was the location of another of George Ruth Sr.'s taverns. Newlywed Babe lived there after the 1914 season. When the ballpark was being built in the early 1990s, architectural preservationists were called in. They knew where the building had been. They consulted with Babe's sister, who told them where the privies were located in relation to the house, and were able to recover some relics.

"Bottles, dishes, nothing profound," Gibbons said. "But you could tell there was a restaurant or a tavern there at one time."

 

Babe's goodbye

Ruth's career took him from Boston to New York when the Yankees bought him in 1919. He became America's hero, and his Baltimore roots were generally forgotten.

"After he signs with the Orioles and goes on his way, after that first season, 1914, he brought Helen home and married her," Gibbons said. "In 1915, '16, '17 and '18, he was here. But then the old man died in 1918. His sister had married, his mother had died, so there really was no reason for him to come back."

 


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William Hageman CHICAGO TRIBUNE
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