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PERSPECTIVE

Babe Ruth's Philadelphia story burnished his incomparable baseball career

A wooden sculpture of Babe Ruth at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

STARS AND STRIPES

By FRANK FITZPATRICK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: July 12, 2019

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — No matter how many decades pass, how many of his records are broken, how many unseemly details we learn about the man, Babe Ruth seems destined to be remembered forever.

Ruth’s groundbreaking power ignited the home run obsession that now, a century later, dominates baseball. His staggering and sometimes sordid life was the basis of a 2019 biography that became a PEN America Literary Award finalist. And two months after one of his Yankees jerseys was auctioned for $4.4 million, another, without pinstripes or the iconic number 3, sold for $5.64 million, a record for a single item of sports memorabilia.

He was a comet, flashing brightly across the American skies, trailing artifacts and stories wherever he traveled, including the Philadelphia area.

The enduring baseball legend played 171 American League games here, spent nearly that many nights here seeking earthy pleasures, attended countless dinners, banquets and memorials here.

He was in Philadelphia as a teenaged Red Sox rookie in 1914 and a year later when Boston met the Phillies in the World Series. He was back during World War I when he signed on with Chester’s Sun Shipbuilding Co. as a means, some suggested, of avoiding military service. He hit his longest home run here, donned the uniform of a Catholic parish’s team here, cheated death on a dark highway here, played his final game here.

He’d most often arrive by train at North Philadelphia Station, then either catch a taxi or, surrounded by adoring neighborhood youngsters, walk to Shibe Park. He stayed in Center City hotels, first the Aldridge and later the Ben Franklin. He preferred room service to restaurants, brunettes to blondes and, even though the bulk of his career took place during Prohibition, never had trouble finding beer and whiskey.

Here are a few of Ruth’s more memorable visits to this area, four incidents in the span of a 15 years that perhaps better than any statistic provide insights into the legend.

The first event, had his car skidded a little further or overturned somewhere else, might have forever changed baseball and American culture.

It happened midway through the 25-year-old’s first New York season, in Darlington, a tiny Delaware County community adjacent to the village that has lent its name to today’s ubiquitous convenience stores, Wawa.

Ruth was in the process of making his myth. The statistics he’d compile that season were, then and now, breathtaking - 54 homers, 158 runs, 136 RBIs, a .376 batting average, an .847 slugging percentage.

On the afternoon of July 6, his Yankees routed the Senators, 17-0, in Washington. Ruth had a pair of singles, the resulting two RBIs, his 70th and 71st through 75 games.

The Yanks were off the following day and, as he sometimes did, the outfielder got permission from manager Miller Huggins to drive back to New York. Sometime early that evening, Ruth, his wife of six years, Helen; teammates Frank Gleich and Fred Hoffman; and coach Charlie O’Neil piled into the Babe’s new $10,000 Packard. That winter, the one-time Baltimore urchin had signed a two-year contract for a total of $41,000. But with endorsements and other outside income, he would earn an estimated $60,000 in 1920.

As with many Americans, Prohibition, then in its infancy, mattered little to Ruth. He and his party stopped in Baltimore for some illegal refreshments. Sometime after midnight, they headed north.

With no I-95, they journeyed on mostly rural U.S. 1. It was a rainy night and the well-lubricated Ruth apparently was in a hurry, traveling at what State Police would characterize as “a fair rate of speed.”

Near 3 a.m., the big Packard rounded the second of two sharp, hilly curves in Delaware County, 6 miles west of Media. The road there was rain-soaked and paved with bricks and the auto spun out of control.

The large touring car flipped onto its roof, and without striking a tree or anything else, slid to a stop on the south side of the highway. Ruth, his left knee cut badly, cleared himself, then helped his wife and friends.

Almost miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, though Ruth briefly believed the motionless O’Leary, who’d been asleep in the backseat, might be dead.

"Speak to me, Charley," one biography quotes Ruth as saying. "Speak to me."

“What the hell happened?” O’Leary said, opening his eyes. “And where’s my hat?”

After determining that everyone was safe, they walked a few hundred yards west until they spotted a Revolutionary-Era farmhouse in a stand of Chestnut trees. It was the summer residence of Coates Coleman, a Wayne businessman who owned the news and tobacco shop in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station. He answered Ruth’s knock.

“From what my grandfather told me,” Coleman’s late grandson, also named Coates, told the Inquirer in 1997, “Ruth had a half a snoot-full.”

The man at the door was disheveled, smelled of liquor and was obviously disoriented. Coleman didn’t know him and must have been wary. The morning’s Philadelphia papers were filled with accounts of a Sharon Hill man shot to death by “highwaymen” not far north of there.

"We've had an accident out on the road, and I've got to get to New York," Ruth told him, "for a baseball game."

With that, Coleman recognized the visitor. His wife awoke and began tending to the group’s injuries.

"They looked ready for the hospital," she told The Inquirer.

State Police at Media were summoned to the accident scene, but their report disappeared long ago. Pierson’s Garage in Media also was contacted to tow the damaged car.

"Sell it if you want to," Ruth allegedly told a Pierson's employee. "I'll get another one when I arrive in New York."

Though he was limping, Ruth refused the offer of a ride to the Wawa train station, only about a mile from the house. Shortly before dawn he and his traveling party departed.

They caught the 5:34 a.m. train to Philadelphia, where Ruth called Huggins to inform him of the accident and to assure him he’d be ready to play against Detroit the next afternoon.

He made it, going 1 for 4 with an RBI in the second-place Yankees' 4-3 loss to the Tigers at the Polo Grounds, just across the Harlem River from where a new ballpark, Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth built, was rising.

Today Ascension of Our Lord is one of inner-city Philadelphia’s many abandoned Catholic parishes. In 2017, according to the Inquirer, its cathedral-like church was used by the addicted legions who haunt the neighborhood as a place to sleep and shoot-up.

But in 1923, Ascension was a vibrant working-class parish. Business was so good, in fact, that a new, larger and grander church was being constructed at F and Westmoreland Streets that year.

Its pastor, Father William Casey, concerned that neighborhood children didn’t have enough wholesome pastimes, had a baseball field built at I and Tioga Streets. But, according to details found in the Archdiocesan archives at St. Charles Seminary, despite Ascension’s crowded school and packed Sunday Masses, he couldn’t find the money to repay the construction loan.

Fortunately for Casey, he also served as the Philadelphia Athletics chaplain. And that gave him a fund-raising idea. Checking the A’s 1923 schedule, he saw that the two-time defending American League-champion Yankees, with Ruth, their sensational 28-year-old slugger, were due in town for an early September series.

Knowing Ruth had been raised a Catholic and had a soft spot for kids, Casey approached him when the Yankees were here in July. Would he be willing to play in an exhibition game for charity?

"Is it going to help the kids, Father?" Ruth asked.

Assured that it would, he agreed.

Casey scheduled a game between Ascension’s team and one from Lit Brothers department store for Sept. 4. Its 6 p.m. start time was something of a risk.

That afternoon’s Yanks-A’s game wouldn’t begin until 3:15. A rain delay or unusually long game and Casey’s benefit would be jeopardized. Boger Field, as the ballpark was named, had no lights and the September days were growing shorter.

But the gods were with Casey. Not only was the weather perfect, but Yankees pitcher Sad Sam Jones no-hit Philadelphia, the 2-0 win consuming less than 90 minutes.

Afterward, Ruth, still in uniform, hustled out of the North Philadelphia stadium and into a car outside the players’ entrance. At the church rectory, he changed into a pin-striped uniform Casey had specially made for him.

Ruth was then hitting .390 and had an AL-leading 32 homers. His charity appearance had been ballyhooed for weeks from Ascension’s pulpit, in fliers and newspapers. When he reached the field, now Scanlon Playground, an estimated 10,000 people were waiting, a crowd the Inquirer termed the largest ever to witness a non-major-league game in the city.

Men and boys in shirtsleeves and hats as well as many women filled the makeshift grandstands around home plate or the hillside between left field and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. Everywhere Ruth looked, there were people, including some who watched from the lofty windows of nearby factories.

Ascension’s manager was Bill Ferguson, later a successful basketball coach at St. Joseph's University. He asked Ruth where he would like to play and, unsurprisingly, the Yankees star chose first base.

When Ruth, batting cleanup, led off the second inning against Lit Bros. pitcher Lefty Gransbach, the game was stopped. Casey and several Ascension players presented him with a diamond stick pin at home-plate.

The Yankees star popped up in his first at-bat. Two innings later, he clubbed a Gransbach pitch far beyond the right-field wall. Ground rules mandated any ball hit there was a double.

"It may have been the longest double ever hit," Dutchie Doyle, the late Northeast Philadelphia sports historian, said in 1990.

Ruth grounded out to second his next time up, and, in his fourth and final at-bat, in the eighth, his sky-high pop-up was dropped. Ruth wound up at second. And after catcher Charlie White walked, the two baserunners, with their team trailing 2-0, attempted a double steal.

When the throw to second bounced away, Ruth kept running, eventually sliding home – or as the Inquirer described it, “hurling his bulk over the glad gum” – with Ascension's only run in a 2-1 loss.

Possibly injuring himself in a meaningless exhibition apparently wasn’t a concern for Ruth. He’d dived in vain earlier for a line drive, swung the bat ferociously and ran the bases with abandon.

As the night wore on, the interaction between Ruth and the large crowd intensified. During the eighth inning, he heaved baseballs to a large group of youngsters. Afterward, he signed several dozen balls, which Casey sold for $5 apiece.

There were no reports on how much money was raised in the next day’s papers, which, understandably, were focused on Ruth’s participation. And Philadelphia sportswriters cut him no slack. The headline in the Evening Bulletin read, “Ruth’s Bat Fails Ascension Club."

Ruth loved coming to Philadelphia, if for no other reason than how well he hit at Shibe Park. In 171 games there, he batted .378, had an OPS of 1.225, drove in 175 runs and hit more homers (68) than in any other visiting ballpark.

Though 35 in 1930, he remained extremely productive, hitting .359 that season with 49 homers and 156 RBIs.

In 1930, the A’s were a formidable foe for his Yankees. Connie Mack’s club would win a second of three straight pennants and a second straight World Series. They’d split the four games in that May series in North Philadelphia, but A’s pitchers couldn’t contain Ruth, who hit six home runs in the series.

On May 22, New York took both games of a doubleheader, 10-1 and 20-13. Ruth was in the midst of a long-distance power surge. The day before, he’d hit a 505-foot homer. And two days later, back in New York, he’d come closer than anyone had – or would for another 25 years – to hitting one out of Yankee Stadium, his mammoth homer clipping the famous gingerbread façade atop the Bronx ballpark.

In Game 1 that Thursday afternoon in Philadelphia, Ruth came to bat in the third inning against A’s righthander Howard Ehmke. He connected with a fastball and the crowd of 24,000 inhaled. The ball not only cleared the right field wall, but a sidewalk on 20th Street, the street itself, another sidewalk, the two-story rowhomes, the connecting backyards and the homes on parallel Opal Street.

Sportswriters left the ballpark to measure the blast. They estimated it traveled at 548 feet, a distance subsequent researchers have confirmed. It was, of all the 714 major-league home runs Ruth hit, the longest.

Like the Shibe Park spectators who witnessed it, Ruth never forgot that home run. Years later, when he was terminally ill and visiting Philadelphia, the great sportswriter Red Smith asked him for his greatest memory of the city.

Smith, using “naught word” instead of “bleep” as a substitute for Ruth’s bawdier words, recorded his response:

“‘The (naught-word) day I hit that (naught-word) ball onto that (naught-word) street over there, (naught-word) Opal Street'

“The Babe didn’t have the greatest vocabulary and could barely remember his own teammates’ names,” Smith added. “There probably weren’t 500 people in Philadelphia who knew where Opal Street was. But Ruth did.”

By Memorial Day 1935 the greatest hero baseball had ever produced was a bitterly disappointed 40-year-old.

Almost unimaginably, he’d been released by New York that spring. His dream of managing the club – a dream Yankees management never shared – was shattered. But instead of retiring, he signed with the lowly Boston Braves.

Little more than a gate attraction, Ruth was out of shape, couldn’t run and was riddled with health problems. Yet somehow, five days earlier in Pittsburgh, he’d briefly recaptured the magic, hitting three home runs, one of which was the first ball ever hit out of Forbes Field.

Before traveling to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Ruth, who couldn’t hide from time or reality, had hinted that this road trip, due to end at the Baker Bowl on May 30, might be his last.

That possibility lured 18,000 fans – a spectacular crowd by the standards of the 1930 Phillies, who averaged 3,883 fans a game — to the ballpark at Broad and Lehigh. In a way, on Ruth’s first trip to Philadelphia as a National Leaguer, some Philadelphians were getting the opportunity to say hello and goodbye to the legend.

But the man those 18,000 spectators came to see had so little left he barely made it through one of the day’s scheduled 18 innings.

Ruth started in left field in Game 1. Despite going hitless in the Braves’ previous five games, he was batting third. In the first inning, Phillies rookie starter Jim Bivin got him to ground out weakly to first base.

In the bottom of the first, the virtually immobile Ruth misplayed a flyball from the Phils’ Lou Chiozza and it bounced past him for a triple.

That was enough. When the inning ended, Ruth didn’t head to the dugout. He stuffed his glove into his pocket and turned toward the center field clubhouse. He was done.

The fans, wanting to give him a proper farewell if this were indeed his last visit here, stood and cheered as he made his way across the green grass. Then, with no acknowledgement or fanfare, Ruth and his unparalleled career disappeared into the afternoon shadows.

©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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