George Herman “Babe” Ruth was back in the news this week. On Thursday, Jane Leavy, author of “The Big Fella,” talked about what motivated her to write a new biography about Ruth at the Light Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. On Friday, Ruth, who died in 1948, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian commendation. And today, nearly 50 years later, Russ McKay’s story provides a fresh look at a Baltimore legend.
In 1969, I had the opportunity to interview my mother’s neighbor, 80-year-old Joseph Matthew Snyder, who was the Babe’s schoolmate and friend at St. Mary’s Industrial School in southwest Baltimore.
Ruth was born on Emory Street in Pigtown on Feb. 6, 1895. His 22 major league seasons were spent with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Boston Braves. However, it was during his 15 seasons with the Yankees that his legend grew. For his career, Ruth batted .342, hit 714 home runs, had 2,213 RBIs and played on seven World Series champions. He was the sport’s most colorful star whose power changed the game and whose charisma made him a celebrity.
Joe Snyder, though, remembered a “skinny kid” who came to stay at the school for wayward and orphaned boys, where Joe had lived for years. It was 1902. Ruth was 7, and Joe was 13. The older boys lived together in a dormitory and the rest were grouped by age. There were about 100 boys to each dorm, and because of his age, Ruth was assigned to dorm No. 4 with the youngest. Joe said the boys — not all of whom were orphans, including Ruth — lived at the school until they were either adopted or became of legal age.
During the day, the boys would work six hours in one of the shops that the school operated for training purposes. Brooms and brushes were produced, stockings were manufactured and there was a laundry. St. Mary’s also had a shirt factory, and both Joe and Ruth worked there.
Organized sports were the recreational outlet. Baseball and rugby were the most popular team sports. Each of the four dorms had its own team and would play each other on Saturdays and Sundays. The school also had one baseball team that would compete against area teams that traveled to St. Mary’s. Joe’s knowledge of baseball rules and the fact that he was one of the older boys earned him the job of umpire. In those days, the umpire stood behind the pitcher to call the game. Joe recalled Ruth when he first began to play.
“Nobody wanted to pitch, they all wanted to play first base or outfield or anywhere but pitcher,” Joe said. “So they made him pitcher.” Joe said Ruth would often pitch with his socks drooping to his ankles.
“He would knock ‘em down with a pitch and say, ‘…That’s as good as a strike, ain’t it Snyder?’”
Ruth was a left-hander, and Joe said he threw three pitches — a fastball, an “in-shoot” (curveball) and an out-shoot (screwball).
“He was right wild but really threw fast,” Joe said. Ruth was wild at the plate, too, even in his early years. “He would point his bat straight up in the air, move it a little and aim it at the ball,” Joe said. “He didn’t have a big swing, but he could hit an inside, outside, high or low pitch over the fence. They would throw way outside to him, but he would lean over and put it out of there.”
Joe estimated that Ruth hit at least one home run in every game. “A few times when he was mad — he had a hot temper — or in the late innings when his team was behind, Ruth would point to the fence and hit the next pitch out there.”
Ruth would usually pitch against the traveling teams that came to St. Mary’s, and spectators would stand along the railings that bordered the field.
“I guess I shouldn’t tell you this,” Joe said, “but you know, smoking and chewing tobacco weren’t allowed at the school. The visitors would bring me some chewing tobacco. Both pitchers would use the same glove and when the visitors went in to bat, I would pick up the glove and slip some tobacco into the palm. When Ruth came to the box (mound), I would hand him the glove. He’d put his hand in there and feel the plug.”
Ruth would show the other team his appreciation. “He knew just what to do then,” Joe said. “They’d start getting hits and Ruth wouldn’t hit any more home runs that day. They thought they were bribing me, but I was giving it to Ruth. We never did get caught.”
Joe said he left St. Mary’s and went to work for the Wise Shirt Company at 504 West Fayette Street. His experience at the school prepared him well, and he soon was overseeing the sewing operations.
When Ruth left St. Mary’s in 1914, he asked Joe for a job. ”I asked him if he could sew on collars. He said, ‘Sure. You know I worked at the shirt factory at school.’
“I gave him three or four collars and some shirts and left him for about an hour. When I came back, all the collars were sewn on crooked and puckered. I told him we’d have to rip them all off and do them right. Ruth said, ‘They look OK to me.’
“He didn’t come back to work the next day. He never did come back.”
About three months later, Joe and a school friend went to a tavern that Ruth’s father had operated on Eutaw Street, the same bar in which his father was killed attempting to stop a fight. It’s a building that was demolished to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The bar was located approximately where center field is today.
Joe and his friend asked for Ruth. “Ruth came out and said, ‘Hi, boys, have a beer.’ And we talked for a while about old times.”
Joe never got to see Ruth again without a ticket. During the period between the shirt factory episode and the meeting at the bar, Ruth had been signed to play baseball by one of the spectators who had watched those weekend games at St. Mary’s. Joe knew Ruth didn’t have a future sewing shirt collars. He also wasn’t surprised that Ruth did amazing things with those stitches on a baseball.
That spectator, by the way, was fairly well known in Baltimore. Here is The New York Times‘ account:
“Word of Ruth’s talents spread, and Jack Dunn, owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles, came to watch him play. Dunn was so impressed that he became Ruth’s legal guardian in order to sign the 19-year-old. On his arrival in the clubhouse, Orioles players referred to the burly Ruth as “Jack’s newest babe,” coining one of the great nicknames in American sports history.
Ruth’s career with the Orioles was short. That summer he was acquired by the Boston Red Sox, for whom he would win his first three championships as a pitcher and an outfielder.”
The Times also reported this anecdote in its story about the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Ruth was not notably active in politics but once famously defended his salary, which at the time was more than President Herbert Hoover was paid, by saying, “What the hell has Hoover got to do with this? Anyway, I had a better year than he did.”
Russ McKay was born and raised in Baltimore and graduated from the University of Baltimore with a degree in marketing and journalism. The interview was written for a feature writing class. His career in advertising spanned 35 years and included work with the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Gold Glove Award and Brooks Robinson to promote the Collection of Champions’ line of tailored clothing. He writes and publishes two children’s websites, sillygrandpa.com and rumorofhumor.com.
Editor’s note: Orioles beat writer Rich Dubroff went to hear Leavy talk about her new book, “The Big Fella,” which he called fascinating and comprehensive. He said Leavy discussed: The many myths about Ruth, and how she has tried to dispel them; that Ruth’s family wasn’t poor, but that he was sent to St. Mary’s because his father couldn’t handle him; that his parents’ marriage was an unhappy one; and that once his father turned Ruth over to St. Mary’s, the family was limited to one Sunday visit per month. Here’s more from an interview Dubroff did with Leavy.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.