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100 years ago, Boston welcomed Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth in his Red Sox uniform. He played for Boston from 1914-19, before he was sold in the off-season to the New York Yankees.

Library of Congress

Babe Ruth in his Red Sox uniform. He played for Boston from 1914-19, before he was sold in the off-season to the New York Yankees.

On the morning of July 11, 1914, a baby-faced teenager stepped off an overnight train from Baltimore to start a new job in a new city. An urban symphony of clomping horses, screeching streetcars, and purring automobiles serenaded the newcomer as he passed through the enormous archways of Back Bay Station. Five hours after his arrival in Boston, the husky 19-year-old slipped into his uniform and began toiling in his new workplace, Fenway Park.

None of the 11,087 fans inside Boston’s glittering new ballpark who saw Red Sox pitcher George Herman Ruth Jr. earn the win against the Cleveland Naps on that Saturday afternoon could have known that the rookie southpaw would become such a baseball legend that 100 years later he is still instantly recognizable by just his nickname: “the Babe.” While Ruth struck out and flied to right at the plate, the Boston Globe reported that he was “a natural ballplayer” who “shaped up like a good batsman.” That scouting report turned out to be an understatement of Ruthian proportions.

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Although a century has passed since his Major League debut, Ruth (1895-1948) remains baseball’s most famous icon. “It has been 79 years since Babe Ruth played his last game, and we’re still talking about him,” says Ed Sherman, author of the new book “Babe Ruth’s Called Shot: The Myth and Mystery of Baseball’s Greatest Home Run” (Lyons Press). “Ruth’s greatness and aura have transcended time. His feats were so staggering they morphed him into a mythic, Paul Bunyan-type figure. We still talk about him because he always has been the standard for excellence in sports.”

Even in New England, the region he supposedly cursed for 86 long years, the Bambino is revered, and although many of his slugging records have been eclipsed, some of the places where he lived and played in Boston and beyond still endure.

Ruth may have gained his greatest fame in New York, but Boston formed the bookends to his career. While most fans recall that Ruth first played for the Red Sox and helped them to three World Series titles, few remember that the Sultan of Swat ended his career in the Hub as well. Discarded by the New York Yankees, Ruth signed with the National League’s Boston Braves in 1935 and played a handful of home games at Braves Field before retiring at 40. It might be easy to imagine the Babe taking the mound and roaming the outfield at timeless Fenway, but more creativity is required to envision him playing at the defunct home of the Braves, which was incorporated into Boston University’s Nickerson Field. Some vestiges of Braves Field’s grandstand remain along with the original exterior wall, and a plaque behind the former ticket office on Harry Agganis Way, now home to a child-care center and campus police, commemorates the ballpark.

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Little more than a home-run shot away, a more literal haunt of the Babe’s can be found on Boston University’s campus. Myles Standish Hall in Kenmore Square was once the stylish Myles Standish Hotel, where Ruth stayed as a member of the Yankees. The Babe frequented room 818 because he enjoyed its vista over the city, and his ghost is said to still lurk in the Beacon Street dormitory.

Ruth wove himself into the fabric of Boston during his time in the city. He ice- skated at the Boston Arena (now Matthews Arena) and soaked in the sun at Revere Beach’s midway. He married a 16-year-old waitress from South Boston, Helen Woodford, whom he met at a Copley Square coffee shop, and rented an apartment at the Hotel Eaton, now luxury condominiums on Emerson Street in Southie.

“We had the blessing of the Babe and the curse of nothing,” says Richard Johnson, curator of Boston’s Sports Museum. “He was just a regular guy here. He was true to his roots and by all accounts remained very close to the Boston area.”

As much as he enjoyed Boston, though, the Babe also relished the winter solitude of Sudbury’s Willis Pond, where he rented a waterfront cottage amid the towering pines and spent his days chopping firewood, ice fishing, hunting, and playing hockey with the neighborhood kids. “Every time he came to the cabin, word spread like wildfire throughout the town,” says Sudbury Historical Society curator Lee Swanson. “Folks would knock on his door and bring a refreshment or two.”

It was at one of these impromptu parties, according to town folklore, that the overflowing revelers spilled out onto frozen Willis Pond. The Babe pushed his upright piano onto the ice as well, but unable to haul it back up the hillside to his cottage, it remained there until meeting a watery demise. For more than a decade, Sudbury resident Kevin Kennedy has spearheaded a search for the sunken instrument. The quest for definitive proof continues, but scuba divers have recovered a thin, delicate piece of wood, believed to be the piano’s veneer, from the pond’s murky bottom.

That find is now stored for safekeeping in a lightproof case at the Sudbury Historical Society along with other Ruthian relics such as a bistro chair frame and 100 pounds of bricks excavated around the foundation of the Babe’s Lake Shore Drive cabin, which burned down in 1960, and the old Post Office window where Ruth once collected his mail.

Even after the Red Sox sold Ruth to New York, pastoral Sudbury continued to lure the Babe. Although the only thing he had experience raising was hell, Ruth in 1922 purchased a 155-acre farmstead that he christened “Home Plate Farm.” Not surprisingly, the Yankee slugger was not cut out to be a Yankee farmer, and he sold the property in 1926.

Suburbia eventually swallowed Sudbury, and million-dollar homes have sprouted in Ruth’s old pasturelands, including those on Babe Ruth Drive, but his five-bedroom farmhouse still stands on Dutton Road and sold for $1.22 million last year. Some superstitious Sox fans believe that Home Plate Farm held the key for breaking the supposed “Curse of the Bambino.” During a September 2004 game at Fenway, a Manny Ramirez foul ball hit Red Sox fan Lee Gavin, knocking out two of his teeth. Gavin, by wild coincidence, lived in Ruth’s old farmhouse. The incident appeared to be a blood sacrifice to a baseball god when weeks later the Red Sox captured their first championship since the Babe donned pinstripes. (Watertown residents point to an alternate theory: the October 2004 demolition of a Quincy Street house where Ruth’s estranged wife perished in a 1929 fire.)

As a member of the Red Sox and minor league Providence Grays, Ruth barnstormed New England, playing exhibitions in each of the region’s six states. Like Fenway Park, a handful of places remain that can boast that “Ruth Played Here,” including Worcester’s Fitton Field and Goodall Park in Sanford, Maine, a classic wooden bandbox where Ruth hit a three-run homer in his last game with the Red Sox.

Even in retirement, the Babe returned to New England to golf and hunt, and the avid outdoorsman was a regular at L. L. Bean’s factory in Freeport, Maine. Among his favorite retreats was the Cranmore Mountain Lodge in North Conway, N.H., which was owned by his daughter Julia Ruth Stevens and her husband in the 1940s. The lodge’s current owner, Frederique Procyk, says longtime neighbors still remember the Hall of Famer visiting their neck of the woods.

Snapshots of the Babe at play in the White Mountains are sprinkled throughout the bed-and-breakfast, and the game room includes a card table Ruth used in his Manhattan apartment. It’s easy to envision the Babe tickling the keys of the piano or relaxing by the fireplace in the wood-paneled parlor with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other before heading upstairs to Room 2, the slugger’s favorite. Now the “Babe Ruth Room,” it features the furnishings used by the Babe himself when he crossed its creaky wooden floors and looked into the mirror to shave in the old-fashioned sink. The light that pours through the windows illuminates autographed photographs of the Babe on the walls and Ruth biographies resting on a bedside table.

The spirit of the Babe seems to permeate the room, and Procyk says that it does indeed house a resident ghost. Mediums have determined, however, that the apparition is not that of the Bambino. Curses.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com. Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.
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