Ruth’s Childhood

Ruth’s Childhood

It’s 1895. In this year, the x-ray form of radiation is discovered. Alfred Nobel creates his last will and testament that will establish and fund the “Nobel Prize” upon his death the following year. Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave and author, and Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist, die. J. Edgar Hoover (who will become FBI Director), Bud Abbott and Buster Keaton (both actors) are born. And, on Wednesday, February 6, 1895, so is a baby boy born to working-class parents in a brick row house in Baltimore, MD.This baby boy is George Herman Ruth, Jr., who will later become known as “Babe” Ruth – one of the greatest professional athletes of all time. The house is at 216 Emory Street, which will later become the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum – a shrine to this baseball great.

George Jr. was the son of George Herman, a saloon keeper of German descent, and Kate, a mother with an Irish and German background. George Sr. and Kate had a total of eight children, although only George Jr. and his sister, Mamie, survived childhood. The Ruths were hardworking people. George Sr. was employed as a bartender at a local tavern and Kate also worked there. The hours were long and the work was hard. It did not leave much time for the family and raising the children.

And, George Jr. was considered to be an “incorrigible” kid, making it even harder for his time-strapped parents to properly raise their son. By age 7, George Jr. was running around the streets of the neighborhood, called “Ridgely’s Delight”, between the docks of the central harbor and the terminals of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. It was in these streets that young, George Jr., got himself into constant trouble, picking up some of his behavior from the dockyard workers. He was said to throw tomatoes at police officers. He was said to roughhouse and get into some minor fights. He was said to be caught chewing tobacco and occasionally drinking. In general, he was a child, lacking the supervision and discipline from adults, who didn’t know better.

But at age 7, that all changed. Recognizing that they did not have the time, or maybe also the ability, to control their trouble-making son, his parents made a difficult decision. They determined that George Jr. needed a stricter environment and more direction. They sought that from the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, also in Baltimore, where they sent George Jr. in 1902.

Although only a few miles away from the row house where George Jr. was born and the neighborhood in which he roamed, St. Mary’s School was a world apart from his former surroundings. The school was run by Xaverian Brothers- a brotherhood of lay men who take religious vows, but are not ordained.  It was part orphanage, part trade school and, even, part reform school. The rules were strict and the Brothers enforced discipline. They also taught vocations to their students and encouraged participation in sports.

It was only discovered more recently, that Babe actually suffered from ADHD (attention deficit disorder), which contributed to Babe’s wild, hyperactive nature – both in childhood and at times as an adult. It is also believed that Babe’s ADHD was a factor in his excellent baseball skills. ADHD generally limits one’s focus; however, when the mind is completely engaged in a particular subject or skill, ADHD can actually enhance that skill. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Mozart are some other significant figures whose ADHD actually increased their level of ability in their field of expertise.

Being sent away to St. Mary’s by his parents would ultimately have a significant impact on Babe’s future personality. And, in this very different setting, George Jr.’s life began to dramatically change. It was where Babe was introduced to two of the most important influences in his life: his mentor, Brother Mathias, and his key to greatness, baseball.

Brother Mathias was one of the brothers at St. Mary’s who quickly took a liking to George. Brother Mathias was one of the school’s disciplinarians, yet he was the closest thing to a father figure for George while he living at St. Mary’s.

Brother Mathias was stern, but kind. Most importantly, he was George Jr.’s primary source for attention and confidence while growing up in the orphanage.

St. Mary’s had multiple Baseball leagues, broken out by age groups, and George Jr. was instantly drawn to the game. Several of the monks, including Brother Gilbert, taught Babe the finer points of baseball, although Brother Mathias was his first and favorite instructor of the game. In Julia Ruth Stevens’ words: “I think a lot of Babe’s good coordination came from when he lived at St. Mary’s and played baseball with Brother Mathias. He took a great interest in Daddy and Daddy loved Brother Mathias. He was the one that introduced Babe to Baseball and showed him what the game was all about. Daddy did, he really did love Brother Mathias.”

To hear a little bit more about the special relationship Babe had with Brother Mathias, please visit Julia Ruth Stevens’ interview in the Audio Interviews section.

Babe later attributed his good fielding abilities to Mathias, who worked frequently with him, playing catch and hitting lobs and fungoes to George. The two of them worked for hours at a time, honing Babe’s skills. Mathias can also be attributed with turning George into a pitcher. It was said that, one day, George was teasing his team’s pitcher, when this pitcher was having a bad day at the mound. Brother Mathias responded by putting George into the game as a reliever for the teammate that he had just been taunting. George went in and pitched a great game. After that, he quickly became a regular pitcher.

It was as a pitcher, that George was first discovered by a professional baseball team in 1914. Jack Dunn was owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles, and was considered by many to be a good scout for promising potential Major League players. He had heard through the grapevine about an 18-year-old by the name of George Ruth, who was part of a traveling team for St. Mary’s Industrial, and was a dominant pitcher in his league. After George was scouted by the Orioles, it wasn’t long before Ruth was signed to play.

In order for Ruth to play with the team, however, Jack Dunn needed to sign for him and become his legal guardian (at the time it was required for a minor to have a legal guardian until the age of 21). And so, George became a Baltimore Oriole, with Jack Dunn as his trustee.

Given that Ruth had spent most of his formative years – from age 7 to age 18 — behind the protective walls of St. Mary’s, it was at first overwhelming for George to suddenly be on the outside in the real world. As such and as the youngest member of the Orioles team, he tended to tag-along with his new guardian Dunn. Legend has it that, when Babe walked to the pitcher’s mound for the first time in Spring Training, with Dunn at his side, one of his new teammates shouted “Look at Dunnie and his new babe.” Yet, however it actually happened, George quickly became known to the other Orioles as “Jack’s babe” and, ultimately, the nickname stuck. George became most popularly known as Babe Ruth.

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