By George P. Matysek Jr. and Maria Wiering
Catholic News Service
BALTIMORE (CNS) — The baseball field where legendary slugger Babe Ruth learned to play the game is being preserved.
It took a turn of events more circuitous than the drives Ruth used to pole into the stands with astonishing regularity during his 22-year career in the major leagues.
The issue first presented itself in 2010, when Cardinal Gibbons High School was closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore as part of a school consolidation plan. Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, never went to Cardinal Gibbons, but he was a student at St. Mary’s Industrial School, which existed on the site where Cardinal Gibbons later stood.
In 2012, St. Agnes Hospital made a deal with the archdiocese to buy the 32-acre property. The hospital’s redevelopment plans included community housing, office space for the hospital, recreational activities and a community baseball field.
Last May, St. Agnes announced the field would be reoriented so that home plate would sit where it did in the days of the Babe. Expected to cost $1.5 million, Babe Ruth Field is being developed in conjunction with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which has built 14 similar "youth development parks" for at-risk youths. Construction is expected to be finished later this year.
"Not everyone in Baltimore probably realizes that Babe Ruth began at this campus. It’s a compelling story," said William Greskovich, St. Agnes’ vice president of operations and capital projects, in an interview last year with The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper. "The way we’re developing this, it sets itself up to memorialize and celebrate his history and his connection to Southwest Baltimore in that history."
He noted at the time of the property sale, "children will be able to step up to the plate and say, ‘That’s where Babe swung at the ball for the first time.’"
The news comes as baseball historians take note of the centenary of Babe Ruth’s signing of his first professional contract by the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles Feb. 14, 1914.
Before the 1914 season had ended, Ruth had made his big-league debut with the Boston Red Sox. Brought up as a pitcher, Ruth compiled an 89-46 won-lost record for Boston, and still led the American League twice in home runs while taking a semi-regular turn on the mound for the Red Sox. On the day after Christmas in1919, his contract was sold to the New York Yankees for $100,000, Ruth became a full-time outfielder, and the legend came to life as the Bambino shattered single-season and career home run marks; his 714 homers stood as the record for 39 years after his retirement.
Although the tales of his excesses run rife, "Babe Ruth was a devout Catholic," said Mike Gibbons, executive director since 1983 of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, located blocks from the stadium where the big-league Baltimore Orioles now play. The museum has among its artifacts the rosary that hung on Ruth’s deathbed as he succumbed in 1948 to complications from throat cancer.
The museum also has the marriage certificate from Ruth’s October 1914 wedding to his first wife, Helen Woodford, from a Catholic church in Ellicott City, Md. The church itself notes Ruth’s nuptials, according to Gibbons.
The couple eventually separated, and soon after Helen died in a 1929 fire, Ruth remarried and adopted his new wife’s daughter. That child — Julia Ruth Stevens, now 97 — plans to visit the museum this year, Gibbons told a Jan. 25 meeting in Arlington, Va., of the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.
A Ruth biographer, Robert W. Creamer, noted that Babe was a member of the Knights of Columbus and would sometimes attend Mass after an all-night bender. He also was generous to St. Mary’s and his mentor, Brother Matthias, the Xaverian brother who taught him how to play baseball. St. Mary’s closed in 1950, two years after Ruth died.
Gibbons noted that St. Mary’s Industrial Home was regarded as an orphanage, but Ruth was not an orphan. However, his family life was unstable. His mother was an alcoholic and his father a saloonkeeper — a combustible mix. Young George Herman Ruth was "running wild in the streets" and never went to school, Gibbons said.
When a court threatened to make the lad a ward of the state, his parents sent him to St. Mary’s, where he stayed for 12 years. He had celebrated his 19th birthday the week before he signed his first pro contract.
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Matysek is assistant managing editor and Wiering a staff writer at The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese. Contributing to this story was Mark Pattison in Arlington.
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