I can’t let a baseball season go by without telling of my connection to Babe Ruth. No, I didn’t actually know him . . . never met him . . . never saw him play. But in a round-about way I really did have a connection to the Sultan of Swat.
In 1969, I was working for Uncle Sam at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and while editing the post newspaper during the week, I would do little “stringer” jobs for the wire services covering sports here and there. But I wanted more. I wanted to write for a magazine, preferably Sports Illustrated. They already had one Kentucky boy writing for them, Billy Reed, so why not one more?
Then one day I heard a story about Babe Ruth once playing baseball in Fayetteville, the town that sits just outside the main gate at Fort Bragg.
Why would Babe Ruth ever play a baseball game in Fayetteville? I aimed to find out, and when I do, Sports Illustrated here I come.
Indeed, not only did the Babe play a baseball game in Fayetteville,N.C., but it was where he hit his first ever home run as a pro player, albeit an exhibition game. The city has a historical marker, erected in 1952, on the spot where it happened on a cool March day in 1914. And my connection to it all was tracking down a gentleman who happened to be a 12-year-old bat boy when Ruth hit the ball so far that when I was there in 1969 they were still talking about the ball that cleared the right field fence, hit the old Fairground race track and didn’t stop until it rolled into a pond.
“He hit it well over 400 feet,” Maurice Fleishman, the ba tboy, told me some 45 years ago.
I read all the local stuff about Ruth’s visit to Fayetteville I could get my hands on, and Fleishman, who owned a clothing store, was a wealth of information, too. In my mid-twenties I was a sports junkie, baseball in particular, but I had never heard or read this stuff I found. My new connection to the Babe was going to be my ticket to a big time magazine.
The Ruth legend began where the old Baltimore Orioles of the International League invited the 19-year-old youngster, then attending St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, to a tryout.
“The Orioles decided to do their spring training for the first time in the South,” Fleishman told me. “Before they had always trained in Baltimore’s Fifth Regiment Armory and on the Johns Hopkin College diamond if weather permitted, but then in 1914 they decided to come to Fayetteville for three weeks.”
During that first practice the Orioles were divided into two teams, the Buzzards and Sparrows. And when the Buzzards took the field there was Ruth now with a $600 contract at shortstop even though he was left handed.
He led his team to a 15-9 victory with seven R.B.I.’s and his first home run as a play-for-pay baseball player.
Fayetteville also lays claim as where Ruth acquired the nickname Babe.
“He was so much younger than the rest of the ballplayers on the Orioles,” Fleishman said. “He had a baby face and after practice at night he would get on the freight elevator down at the hotel and run it up and down like a kid would do for excitement, so some of the roughnecks hung the name on him.”
Fleishman admitted that he or anyone else in Fayetteville envisioned the impact that Babe Ruth would have on baseball and its future. But why should they? After all, here was a kid who spoke only waterfront English, and before he was 10 was gulping down whiskey in his fathers saloon.
From a slick-fielding left handed shortstop, to an outstanding pitcher, to the greatest hitting outfielders in the history of baseball, George Herman Ruth had overcome all of the odds against him.
Although Babe had departed Fayetteville many years before, the old fans still kept up with him, and believe it or not, one of them was Fleishman, who by then was a young adult.
Twenty-one years after his first home run, Babe Ruth returned to Fayetteville, this time with the old Boston Braves. The entire city turned out. It mattered little that the opponent was local State College. What did matter was that Babe had returned to where it had all started.
“They had to call the game in the seventh inning,” recalled Fleishman. “They ran out of baseballs. Every time Babe would catch one, or get his hands on one, he would throw it in the crowd.”
Fleishman had a long lasting phone relationship with Babe.
“I called Babe at the Rony Plaza in Miami three days before he passed away,” he said in tone of reverence. “He answered the phone and I felt terrible about it, not realizing how ill he was. It was about 9 o’clock and he had just gone to bed. He could hardly talk due to the condition of his speaking voice.”
Fleishman had called to invite Babe to Fayetteville to throw out a ceremonial pitch.
“I apologized, and Babe said to give all of his old friends his best regards. Said he wasn’t feeling well and his doctor advised him not to participate in any activities.”
Three days later on August 16, 1948, Babe Ruth was dead at the age of 53.
He had earned more than $1 million as a baseball player, but perhaps the highest tribute paid to him during his career was the $80,000 salary he received in 1930 and 1931 – – despite the Depression.
What magazine wouldn’t want this story I thought. I mailed it to Sports Illustrated in New York and waited and waited. Finally an envelope arrived at my Fort Bragg home.
“You are right in saying that our readers are unfamiliar with the material, but the need to cover current sports events has severely limited the amount of space that we can devote to history,” the letter said. “Sorry.”
Next came a rejection from Sports Magazine, which at the time was on par with Sports Illustrated.
I didn’t give up, and finally Sports Quarterly, a New York publication sent me an acceptance letter. Babe had finally been my ticket into the paid status of publishing something – – – anything. What they offered me was a weeks pay of what I was making as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I had arrived, and was so excited I returned a letter the same day, even driving it to the post office myself.
The very next day, wouldn’t you know it, a letter arrived from Reese Publications offering me twice what Sports Quarterly did. The letter said we could possibly negotiate if their offer wasn’t enough.
I stuck with my first agreement. It was very satisfying to now know there was not one, but two, publications willing to pay me for something I had written. It was also satisfying when I saw the printed copy of Sports Quarterly, and they promoted my Babe story on the top half of the cover of the magazine.
In a round-about way Babe was my ticket after all. Writing about the Babe’s beginning led to my beginning. Indeed, me and the Babe were connected.
There’s no excuse. Get up, get out, and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com.