Babe Ruth was born George Herman Ruth, Jr. on February 6, 1895, in the home of his maternal grandparents at 216 Emory Street in the Pigtown section of Baltimore, Maryland – a working class section of the city with recent immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy plus African Americans.
Ruth’s parents were George Herman Ruth, Sr. (1871-1918) and Katherine Schamberger, both of whom had German American ancestry but born in Maryland. His parents had eight children, but only George and his younger sister Mamie lived beyond infancy. Ruth’s paternal grandfather was from Prussia, and his paternal grandmother was from Hanover. His maternal grandfather was Pius Schamberger, an immigrant from Germany.
George Ruth, Sr. worked a series of jobs that included “lightning rod salesman and streetcar operator before becoming a counterman in a family-owned combination grocery and saloon on Frederick Street.” George, Jr. was only a toddler when his family moved to 339 South Goodyear Street near the rail yards and was six years old when his father moved his family to an apartment above a saloon at 426 West Camden Street.
This environment was not good for young George because at the age of seven, he was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage on June 13, 1902, and spent most of the next twelve years there. His record upon entrance was marked “incorrigible.” “As an adult, Babe Ruth suggested that not only had he been running the streets and rarely attending school, he was drinking beer when his father was not looking. Some accounts say that, after a violent incident at his father’s saloon, the city authorities decided this environment was unsuitable for a small child.”
Ruth received an education at St. Mary’s and also learned work skills and helped to operate the school. This was expected of all the “inmates” once they were twelve years old. “Ruth became a shirtmaker, and was also proficient as a carpenter. He would adjust his own shirt collars, rather than having a tailor do it, even during his well-paid baseball career. The boys, aged 5 to 21, did most [of] the work around the facility, from cooking to shoemaking, and renovated St. Mary’s in 1912. The food was simple, and the Xaverian Brothers who ran the school insisted on strict discipline; corporal punishment was common. Ruth’s nickname there was `Niggerlip’, as he had large facial features and was darker than most boys at the all-white reformatory.”
Ruth was allowed to live with his family at times. He was also placed at a supervised residence called St. James’s Home that had work in the community; however, he was “always returned to St. Mary’s.” His family rarely visited him. He was twelve years old when his mother passed away and was allowed to attend the funeral.
There are uncertainties of how Ruth began playing baseball at St. Mary’s. One account says that he was placed at St. Mary’s because he “repeatedly” broke windows with his “long hits while playing street ball.” Another account says “he was told to join a team on his first day at St. Mary’s.” At any rate, Ruth came under the guidance of the school’s athletic director, Brother Herman, and became a catcher who also played
third base and shortstop. He was left-handed and was forced to wear right-handed gloves.
Brother Matthias Boutlier, a native of Nova Scotia and the Prefect of Discipline at St. Mary’s, encouraged Ruth in his pursuits. Brother Matthias was a strong and fair man who earned the respect of the boys. “For the rest of his life, Ruth would praise Brother Matthias, and his running and hitting styles closely resembled his teacher’s. Ruth stated, `I think I was born as a hitter the first day I ever saw him hit a baseball.’ The older man became a mentor and a role model to George.” Even though Brother Matthias was “in charge of making boys behave” and “Ruth was one of the great natural misbehavers of all time,” something about the big man “struck a spark of response” in the soul of “the young hellraiser from the waterfront.”
Ruth carried the influence from St. Mary’s with him in other ways. He was a Catholic for his entire life and sometimes attended Mass even though he had been out partying all night; he was also a “well-known member of the Knights of Columbus. “He would visit orphanages, schools, and hospitals throughout his life, often avoiding publicity. He was generous to St. Mary’s as he became famous and rich, donating money and his presence at fundraisers, and spending $5,000 to buy Brother Matthias a Cadillac in 1926 – subsequently replacing it when it was destroyed in an accident.”
Apparently, Ruth’s baseball career got a jump start at St. Mary’s as boys from the school “played baseball with organized leagues at different levels of proficiency.” Ruth “steadily climbed the ladder of success” as he played an estimated 200 games each year. Even though he was left-handed, he played all positions on the field at one time or another but “gained stardom as a pitcher. According to Brother Matthias, Ruth was standing to one side laughing at the bumbling pitching efforts of fellow students, and Matthias told him to go in and see if he could do better. After becoming the best pitcher at St. Mary’s, in 1913, when Ruth was 18, he was allowed to leave the premises to play weekend games on teams drawn from the community. He was mentioned in several newspaper articles, for both his pitching prowess and ability to hit long home runs.”
Ruth became a Major League baseball player, and his career spanned 22 seasons (1914-1935). He was nicknamed “The Bambino” and “The Sultan of Swat.” He “began his MLB career as a stellar left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, but achieved his greatest fame as a slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees. Ruth established many MLB batting (and some pitching) records, including career home runs (714), runs batted in (RBIs) (2,213), bases on balls (2,062), slugging percentage (.690); and on-base plus slugging (OPS) (1.164); the latter two still stand today. Ruth is regarded as one of the greatest sports heroes in American culture and is considered by many to be the greatest baseball play of all time. He was one of the first five inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.”
Ruth began his MLB career in the minor league for the Baltimore Orioles in 1914 but was sold to the Red Sox. He had a reputation by 1916 of being “an outstanding pitcher who sometimes hit long home runs….” He won 23 games in a season as a pitcher twice and was on three World Series championship teams with Boston; however, he wanted to play every day and was moved to the outfield. In 1919 he broke the Major League single-season home run record.
For whatever reason, Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees where he helped the Yankees win seven American League (AL) championships and four World Series championships. Boston went into a “championship drought” that was popularized as the “Curse of the Bambino.”
Ruth’s “big swing led to escalating home run totals that not only drew fans to the ballpark and boosted the sport’s popularity but also helped usher in the live-ball era of baseball, in which it evolved from a low-scoring game of strategy to a sport where the home run was a major factor. As part of the Yankees’ vaunted `Murderer’s Row’ lineup of 1927, Ruth hit 60 home runs, extending his MLB single-season record. He retired in 1935 after a short stint with the Boston Braves. During his career, Ruth led the AL in home runs during a season twelve times.”
Babe Ruth was a “larger-than-life figure” during the “Roaring Twenties” due to his “legendary power and charismatic personality.” He drew “intense press and public attention for his baseball exploits and off-field penchants for drinking and womanizing. His often reckless lifestyle was tempered by his willingness to do good by visiting children at hospitals and orphanages….”
The “Great Bambino” was not allowed to work in baseball after his retirement; this was probably caused by his “poor behavior during parts of his playing career.” He did however make “many public appearances, especially in support of American efforts in World War II.
Ruth met a Boston coffee shop waitress named Helen Woodford, and they were married on October 17, 1914. They adopted a daughter, Dorothy, in 1921, but they separated around 1925 – apparently because of his infidelities. They appeared together during the 1926 World Series. “Helen died in a fire in Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1929, in a house owned by Edward Kinder, a dentist with whom she had been living as `Mrs. Kinder’. In her book, My Dad, the Babe, Dorothy claimed that she was Ruth’s biological child by a girlfriend named Juanita Jennings. She died in 1989.” Ruth married actress and model Claire Merritt Hodgson (1897-1976) on April 17, 1929, and adopted her daughter Julia.
In 1946 Ruth began having severe pain over his left eye and also had difficulty swallowing. He entered French Hospital in New York for tests in November 1946. The tests revealed that he had an inoperable malignant tumor at the base of his skull and in his neck. Because of his name and fame, Ruth had access to experimental treatments. He was one of the first patients to receive drugs and radiation treatment at the same time. He later received some hope from chemotherapy but was never told that he had cancer because his family was afraid he might harm himself. He was in and out of the hospital in New York for the next couple of years.
By 1947 Ruth was unable to assist with the writing of his autobiography, The Babe Ruth Story. He did attend a book-signing party in New York and went to California to watch his story filmed.
Ruth was “gaunt and hollowed out” on June 5, 1948, when he went to the library at Yale University to donate a manuscript of The Babe Ruth Story. A week later on June 13, he went to Yankee Stadium for the 25th anniversary celebration of “The House that Ruth Built.” Because of his loss of so much weight and his difficulty in walking, he used a bat as a cane when his and his teammates from 1923 were introduced. He made one final trip on behalf of American Legion Baseball before going back to Memorial Hospital.
Allowed to leave the hospital for short trips, Ruth made a final trip to Baltimore and also attended the premiere of the film The Babe Ruth Story on June 26, 1948. By this time he could barely speak, and his condition gradually worsened. He had few visitors and one of them described him as being “just skinny little bones” with a “haggard” face.
“Thousands of New Yorkers, including many children, stood vigil outside the hospital in Ruth’s final days.” He died in his sleep at 8:01 p.m. on August 16, 1948, at the age of 53. His casket was taken to Yankee Stadium for two days, and 77,000 people filed past to pay tribute to him. A crowd estimated to be about 75,000 stood outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral during his funeral." He was buried on a hillside in Section 25 at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York, next to his second wife, Claire.
Ruth’s number 3 uniform was retired by the Yankees, and he is one of five Yankees players or managers to have a granite monument within the stadium. His grandfather’s home at 216 Emory Street in Baltimore is now the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum. It was restored and opened to the public in 1973 by the non-profit Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation. Inc. Exhibits for the museum were selected with the help of Ruth’s widow Claire, his two daughters, Dorothy and Julia, and his sister, Mamie. The most familiar reminder of the great baseball player is probably the Babe Ruth candy bar.