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A Hero from Pigtown

Although it’s only September, the women wear fur collars and hats. Men wear suits and ties, fedoras instead of straw skimmers. In the front left sits a large woman in a dark wool coat: Kate Smith. Probably unknown today, she was a popular singer in her time, best known for God Bless America, a song that buoyed American spirit in World War II. “God bless American/Land that I love . . .”

Right behind Smith sits an attractive woman in a coat with a fur collar and hat trimmed in matching fur. She’s frowning, her eyes on the game, a group of men ringed behind her.

But the focus of the photo is a dark-haired man with a cigar stuck between his teeth: George Herman Ruth—Babe, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swing. The man who played baseball for the New York Yankees from 1920-1934, leading home runs batted in for twelve years and winning seven World Series, making both him and the Yankees an unbeatable franchise.

In this photo, taken at the 1936 World Series, he sits beside his fur-clad wife but can watch neither her nor the game for the autograph seekers surrounding him. A hero.

An unlikely hero. Born in Pigtown in Baltimore, where his father ran a saloon, Ruth grew up in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a Catholic reform school and orphanage—the type of institution we no longer have. By the time he turned seven, Ruth had been labeled incorrigible for drinking beer and running the streets; as a result, he lived in the home until he turned nineteen. To prepare him to earn a living, the brothers taught him carpentry and shirt making. And Brother Matthias Boutlier, the school’s disciplinarian and an athlete, taught him to play baseball. Ruth bought him a brand new Cadillac in 1926 and another one after Boutlier wrecked the first one.

Ruth left St. Mary’s to become the greatest baseball player of all time, but he didn’t leave his rough ways behind. He drank too much, ate too much, womanized openly even though he married twice, the second time for twenty years, until his death. Famous for brawling, even with hecklers and Yankee managers, he sometimes got suspended for bad behavior before the last suspension had been served. In his early years, his best years, his tall figure was slim and muscular. As time passed, his excesses added fifty or sixty pounds to his large frame, a gut hanging over his belt as he ran the basses. He remained a powerhouse until he retired at forty. He made it known that he wanted to manage a team, but who would have a man who had so little control over his own behavior? No one.

Yet he remained a hero to the American people. Why? Because he bought Cadillacs for his old mentor. He visited children in hospitals and orphanages, often with no publicity. A lifelong Catholic, he raised money for St. Mary’s. Back then, Americans could forgive a great many weaknesses as long as a man took his work seriously and remembered where he came from.

In the photo, he signs autographs, fans surrounding him, smiling, reaching. Both Babe and those around him resonate with good will and well being. Odd in a decade still suffering the effects of the Depression. Although the country had taken a turn for the better, it would fall into what some called the second Great Depression the following year. But in 1936, the economy seemed to be improving and Babe was in the park.

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