The Red Sox open their 2014 season Monday in Baltimore, hometown of Babe Ruth, who just 100 years ago this spring left that city’s St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, his home for a dozen years, to launch his pro career.
By July of 1914, the 19-year-old Ruth was here in Boston, trimmed in Red Sox flannels, the first sentence of his fortune and legacy about to be written. In fact, so minimal was Ruth’s profile upon his arrival at the Fens, after a brief initial stay with the Sox he spent much of the remaining summer pitching in Providence for the Grays of the International League.
“THREE NEW MEN FOR THE RED SOX’’ declared the headline in the Boston Daily Globe on July 10, 1914, the day after Sox ownership purchased Ruth and two teammates from the minor league Baltimore Orioles. “Pitchers Ruth and Shore, catcher Egan from Baltimore.’’
Two days later, the Globe ran a photo of the new acquisitions, capturing them as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the Sox dugout at the still new Fenway Park. Left to right, the caption simply read: “Pitcher George Ruth, catcher Ben Egan, pitcher Ernest Shore.” The shortest of the bunch, the 6-foot-2-inch George Ruth, stood with hands on hips, not a trace of a smile on his face.
A new baseball season is upon us and it is always a time of wonderment, with weather finally warming, hopes freshly unfurled, pennants and playoffs begging in a warm and distant summer’s breeze. Even in these times of total media saturation, we never truly know what the new season will bring, who will be the stars and who will vanish in a cloud of basepath dust.
It is that delicious and seductive unknown that always brings us back to the rickety, paint-chipped grandstand seats. It is why we return, remembering player names of Opening Days gone by, conjuring the chill, the ballpark smells good and bad, remembering our fathers’ laments and joys. The game is wired within us, embedded, for all we’ve known and how it all connects to the treasures we hope to discover.
The Orioles couldn’t have known what they had in Ruth when they wrapped up their 1914 spring training in Fayetteville, N.C. Financial concerns ultimately forced them to sell Ruth to the Red Sox (sadly, history would soon repeat). But had Orioles owner Jack Dunn truly known the cultural behemoth he had in the fireballing, free-swinging southpaw, he never would have bundled Ruth into the $25,000 gift basket to Boston.
“Ruth in American lore,’’ mused Richard Johnson, curator of Boston’s Sports Museum, “is the real-life person who most approximates a fictional character. In other words, if he didn’t exist, it would be impossible for a writer to conjure up his multi dimensions . . . his humanity, his blend of bad boy and warm soul. He was a mensch at heart, without an ounce of artifice.’’
Johnson is in the midst of constructing a new Sports Museum exhibit: “The Babe in Boston,’’ for display at the museum’s TD Garden headquarters. It will chronicle Ruth’s years with the Sox (1914-19), as well has his brief run with the Braves and his numerous other Hub-related activities — including his bond drive efforts during World War II that had him back at Fenway shaking hands with Ted Williams and golfing with Ty Cobb at Charles River Country Club.
“Cobb hated Ruth,’’ noted Johnson. “Ruth changed the focus of the game from singles and going spikes high into third base — Cobb’s specialty — to hitting home runs.’’
Johnson intends for the exhibit to be ready on or around July 11, which would be 100 years to the day that Ruth made his big league debut with the Sox. He arrived that morning by train from Baltimore and pitched that afternoon against the Cleveland Naps. Legend has it that Ruth only some three months later married the waitress (16-year-old Helen Woodford) who served him breakfast at Landers Coffee Shop after he disembarked the train in Back Bay Station.
“So much was captured in the teardrop of that day,’’ said Johnson. “Just that train ride alone from Baltimore to Boston and then to pitch at Fenway. It would be like the Beatles leaving the Cavern Club in Liverpool, arriving in London, and going straight to play at Royal Albert Hall.’’
Ruth’s everlasting reach and mystique is such that on Thursday it led New Jersey auctioneer Ken Goldin to set up on the fourth floor of the Hyatt Hotel at the edge of Boston’s Chinatown to solicit Bambino-related items for a couple of large auctions Goldin will stage this summer. The first of the auctions (“Babe Ruth’s 100th anniversary’’) will be live and held — no surprise — July 11 in Baltimore, with the Yankees there to play the Orioles. For more information, visit www.goldinauctions.com.
Goldin and his crew made Boston one of a half-dozen stops, looking to acquire Ruthian goods for consignment. By late in the afternoon, the most interesting piece brought to the Hyatt was a copy of the iconic photo “The Babe Bows Out,” signed by its photographer, Nat Fein. The photo, with an ailing Ruth at home plate in Yankee Stadium, was taken June 13, 1948. Ruth succumbed to cancer two months later at age 53. Fein’s picture, shot from behind Ruth as he stood, shoulders stooped, a bat as his cane, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
The distant sons of George Ruth’s Red Sox return to Fenway on Friday, to begin anew baseball in the Back Bay. We don’t know what’s in store. Nor did we know a century ago when the devilish-but-good-hearted bad boy from St. Mary’s Industrial showed up here with a twinkle in his eye, magic in his arm and bat, a voracious appetite for life and for long ball.
Here’s to another season, to seeing how the innings unfold, to the wonder of finding out, and keeping in mind this is where it all started for the greatest name the game has ever known. Despite what they may think in the Bronx, you know the Babe would drink to that.