MCT March 2010
As spring training gets underway in Florida and Arizona, baseball fans across the country celebrate the annual reawakening of their sport. The players shake off the winter rust and prepare for the season in rituals that span generations of baseball teams and fans.
One of the best players of all those generations, George Herman Ruth, Jr., attended his first spring training in 1914 after signing with the Baltimore Orioles. The 19-year-old youngster had just left St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage in Baltimore run by the Catholic Xaverian Brothers. Ruth’s parents had committed their seven-year-old son to St. Mary’s in 1902 after convincing a magistrate that the boy was “incorrigible.” This child of the mean streets of Baltimore—“I was a bad kid,” he said later—was in and out of St. Mary’s until joining the Orioles.
The Orioles were then a minor-league club in the International League, one step below the majors. The team owner, Jack Dunn, had heard about the young left-handed pitcher and power hitter from Brother Gilbert, a Xaverian who taught and coached baseball at Baltimore’s Mount St. Joseph’s College. After watching Ruth play, Dunn offered him a contract, and the kid left St. Mary’s on February 27, 1914.
As expected of a raw teenager just freed from a structured institution, Ruth’s inaugural two months with the Orioles was a series of adventurous firsts. In his first suit of clothes, he enjoyed his first train trip to Fayetteville, North Carolina, for his first spring training. On the way south, George ordered his first meal from a menu and actually had seconds for the first time. Used to the spare St. Mary’s rations, Ruth loosed the enormous appetite that became one of his defining traits. At the team’s spring training hotel, another player told him, “Order anything you want, kid. The club pays our feed bills.
Ruth eagerly dug in. “I was on my third stack of wheat cakes and ham, and hadn’t even come up for air, when I realized some of the other fellows were watching me,” Ruth admitted later. “A guy’s got to be strong to play ball,” George responded to the amazed onlookers.
Ruth hit his first professional home run on March 7. In an intrasquad game at Wilmington’s Cape Fear Fairgrounds, George hit a ball over right fielder Billy Morrisette’s head. Ruth had crossed home by the time Morrisette picked it up from an adjacent field.
On March 14, Ruth made the cut and became a member of his first professional team. Two days later, Roger Pippen, a Baltimore Sun reporter, quoted Dunn’s first public praise of George: “Ruth has all the earmarks of a good ball player. He hits like a fiend and seems to be at home in any position despite the fact he is a left-hander. He is a whale with the willow.” (Reporters and players then used all kinds of tree references for bats.)
Privately, Dunn offered more specific praise. “This fellow Ruth,” he wrote Brother Gilbert in Baltimore, “is the greatest young ball player who ever reported to a training camp.
On March 18, Ruth made his first pitching appearance against a professional team. In relief, he gave up two runs in an exhibition game against the National League Philadelphia Phillies. Two days later, Ruth held the Phillies scoreless for the last four innings.
His nickname Babe first surfaced in mid-March, and there are numerous variations of the story of how he got this moniker. A common thread, however, was Dunn’s habit of signing young players, with Ruth then being the latest and the most childlike in demeanor. Someone said, “Well, look at Dunnie’s newest babe.” Brother Gilbert, an expert on Ruth’s youth, added that Orioles employee Scout Steinman called Ruth a babe in the presence of reporter Pippen, who referred to “Babe” Ruth the next day in his column. In his two autobiographies, Ruth also credited Steinman as the source.
He made his first start on March 25 against the world champion Philadelphia Athletics. Ruth won 6-2, giving up 13 hits in nine innings. He struck out Frank “Home Run” Baker twice. [Baker had led the American League in 1913 with 12 home runs, quite a feat in the dead ball era. Ruth changed all that when he hit 11 in 1918, 29 in 1919, and 54 in 1920.]
The Orioles left camp in late March but continued to play exhibition games through the International League’s opening day on April 21. During spring training and nonleague games, Ruth pitched against six major-league teams. He won against the Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers, split two games against the Athletics, and lost to the Yankees and Giants. In a scant few weeks, George “Lefty” Ruth ceased being a sandlot player and became Babe Ruth, a solid professional.
Ruth made his first league start in the season’s second game against the Buffalo Bisons in Baltimore. He threw a six-hit shutout and won 6-0. Babe had two singles in four at-bats. The Orioles left town on May 5 for Ruth’s first road trip. In 29 days, they played from Newark to Toronto.
The trip helped the teenager adapt to a professional athlete’s life, especially sleeping on trains, living out of a suitcase, and dealing with fans. While superficially acting as an adult, young Ruth remained a kid in many ways. Biographer Robert Creamer told a revealing story about the man-child.
The Orioles stayed at a Manhattan hotel when playing in Newark or Jersey City. One night outfielder George Twombly saw Ruth sitting on the street curb next to a lamppost.
“What are you doing?” Twombly asked Babe.
“I’m waiting for a girl.”
“I don’t know,” Ruth said. “I’m just waiting. The boys at the reform school said if you’re in New York and you want a woman, all you have to do is wait for a streetwalker to come along.”
“You better get in the hotel,” warned a startled Twombly. “You better not let Dunnie catch you out here waiting for a streetwalker.”
Dunn sold Ruth to the Red Sox midway through the 1914 season. Babe soon became the best left-handed pitcher in baseball before Boston sold him to the Yankees in January 1920.