The Babe Ruth Beginning

This article was written by Al Kermisch

This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal


In this piece, Al Kermisch talks about key moments in Babe Ruth’s childhood.After Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, there was a renewed interest in Ruth and several new books on the Babe were published. At least two of them deal at some length with his early life and entry into Organized Ball. That was more than 60 years ago, and researching the pertinent facts of an obscure phase of Ruth’s youth is not made easier by passage of time. There are a few points, however, that can be cleared up without much difficulty.

For example, in the book entitled “Babe, the Legend Comes to Life,” author Robert W. Creamer speculates that Ruth played with the Bayonne Athletic Club in 1913. Closer research discloses that this player was Frank Ruth, who was still with that club the following year while the Babe was having his first fling in Organized Baseball. This is made clear by the following note which appeared in the Baltimore American on August 23, 1914: “Bayonne A. C. will play St. Elizabeth at Orangeville. Murray or Kansler will pitch while Frank Ruth, the backstop, will be at his old position.”

In the book “Babe Ruth and the American Dream,” author Ken Sobel has doubts about the popular story that Jack Dunn, owner and manager of the International League Orioles, signed Ruth in 1914 after watching him skating on the ice at St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore. Moreover, Sobel does not accept the tale that Dunn was interested in another southpaw by the name of Ford Meadows before he signed Ruth. He states that Dunn was more likely interested in a pitcher named Bill Morisette, who had attended Mt. St. Joseph’s and later pitched for Philadelphia and Detroit in the American League. Sobel further states that although the name of Meadows was mentioned in Ruth’s “The Babe Ruth Story,” the name never appears anywhere else.

In the first place, Morisette was not the pitcher that Dunn was after for the simple reason that he already was a member of the Orioles at the time. Dunn signed him out of Mt. St. Joseph’s in May 1913, and he pitched for the Orioles the rest of that season and was on Baltimore’s reserve list for 1914. Secondly, there really was a pitcher by the name of Ford Meadows who pitched for Mt. St. Joseph’s in 1914. There have been many versions of how Meadows fits into the picture, but one story I heard in Baltimore many years ago seems to have some merit. It concerns Brother Gilbert, who is often credited with the discovery of Ruth.

Brother Gilbert was Director of Athletics at Mt. St. Joseph’s at the time. He had an outstanding college baseball team. One of his new pitchers was Meadows, who had pitched for Rock Hill College in 1913. No doubt Dunn had Meadows scouted in 1913 and was interested in giving the youngster a chance with his team.

Dunn used to pick up several youngsters a year from the local ball diamonds. Among those he had corralled that way up to that time included “Home Run” Baker, “Butcher Boy” Schmidt, Fritz Maisel, George Maisel, Lefty Russell and Allan Russell.

As the story goes, Dunn approached Brother Gilbert about taking Meadows south with his club. Meadows was the only southpaw on the Mt. St. Joseph’s roster and Brother Gilbert was counting on him for the coming season. Brother Gilbert decided to divert Dunn’s attention away from Meadows by telling him about young Ruth down the road at St. Mary’s Industrial School.

Brother Gilbert had seen Ruth play several games and although he was impressed by his hitting and pitching he did not envision him as a big leaguer at that time. But he had heard his associates of the Xavieran Brotherhood rave about Ruth’s playing at St. Mary’s. So Brother Gilbert told Dunn that Ruth was really the one he wanted for his team. He told the Oriole magnate that besides being one of the speediest pitchers around, Ruth could play first base or the outfield as well as drive the ball a mile. That was apparently the way Brother Gilbert “discovered” Ruth while really saving Meadows for his own team.

In February 1914, Dunn went out to St. Mary’s, got a glimpse of Ruth as he was sliding on the ice, talked to Brother Mathais about the youngster and signed him to a contract. That Dunn, a shrewd operator, would sign a player in that manner has been doubted by many observers over the years. But there is some evidence that that’s the way it did happen.

Some years ago, during a spring training session of the Orioles, I happened to hear the late Fritz Maisel talking about the first time he had seen Ruth. Fritz was a Baltimore boy and a close friend of Dunn, who had sold him to the Yankees for a fancy price in 1913. Fritz was at home during the winter when Dunn asked him to accompany him to St. Mary’s to see Brother Mathais about Ruth. Maisel recalled that the snow was piled up several feet high the day they went out there. When they got to St. Mary’s they saw a bunch of kids sliding down a hill in the yard. One particularly big boy came sliding down the hill, knocked over three other boys, jumped up laughing, like it was all a big joke.

Brother Mathais turned to Dunn and Maisel and said: “That’s Ruth.” Maisel ended his story by saying that the next time he saw Ruth he was facing him in an American League game.

The recollections by Maisel seem to make sense for the first announcement on the signing of Ruth appeared in the Baltimore papers on Sunday, February 15, 1914. In checking the Baltimore weather for that period I find that the city had its first significant snowfall in two years on Friday, February 13, with more than six inches of snow. The next day was very cold and windy and caused some snow drifts in the outlying parts of the city. It would appear then that Dunn and Maisel went out to St. Mary’s on February 14, accounting for the “several feet of snow” in Maisel’ s reminiscence.

The article in the Baltimore American on February 17 stated that:

“George H. Ruth, southpaw, standing six feet one inch tall and weighing 180 pounds, is the latest Oriole.

He pitched for St. Mary’s Industrial School and among other feats he is credited with fanning 20 men in a game with Bill Byers’ All-Stars. Hefty William admits George made monkeys out of his boys, and while boasting him as a hurler took occasion to say that Dunn will make a mistake if he doesn’t play him at first or in the outfield. Ruth looks like Ben Houser and hits like he does, says the former Oriole catcher.”

The above article would indicate that although Dunn had never seen Ruth perform before he signed him, he probably did check on his ability, with Byers, a catcher with the Orioles for several seasons under Dunn, and perhaps with his own scout — Charles Steinmann.

The rest of the Ruth beginning is well chronicled. The Orioles trained in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1914. On March 7, after several days in camp, the Orioles were divided into two teams, called Sparrows and Buzzards. Ruth, starting at short for the Buzzards, hit a tremendous drive to right field in the second inning, scoring Ensign Cottrell ahead of him. Ruth’s drive landed in a cornfield and he circled the bases before Billy Morisette, playing right field, picked up the ball. The local fans, amazed at the power of the rookie, agreed that the ball traveled some 20 yards farther than the previous record blow for the park made by Jim Thorpe when the famous Indian athlete played for Fayetteville in the East Carolina League in 1910. That was two years prior to the Olympic Games in Stockholm, in which Thorpe won the decathlon in record time only to have his medals taken away when his professional baseball experience was discovered.

Manager Dunn did not witness Ruth’s initial homer since he did not arrive in the Oriole camp until March 10, when he brought in the main contingent of Orioles. But when Dunn saw Ruth in uniform for the first time he was tickled with him and said he thought Ruth might be valuable at some other position than pitcher. Within another week Dunn declared that Ruth was the most promising player he ever had and predicted great things for him.

Ruth got his baptism of real competition in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies on March 18. He was the second of three pitchers used by Dunn in that game, and he proved his mettle under fire at the outset.

The Baltimore American description of the game, which included an early reference to “Babe,” follows:

“Babe Ruth made his debut in the fourth and while the Quakers tied things up it was not entirely his fault. Lobert and Luderus singled after which Magee worked a free ticket. Three on and none out made things look blue for the recruit but he steadied and would have emerged with a pure record but for a bad bounce of a ball hit to Derrick.”

Ruth pitched three innings and the Orioles won 4-3. The next day Dunn called on the youngster to stop a Philly rally in the sixth inning. Philadelphia had scored four runs and had a man on second with only one out. The Babe promptly fanned Henry Matteson and George Paskert to end the frame. In the next three innings,

Ruth struck out three more, allowed no runs and two hits. After watching Ruth hold the Phils to six hits and two runs in six and two-thirds innings in two games, Pat Moran, the Philly pitching coach who as manager the next year was to lead the Phils to their first National League pennant, declared:

“Ruth is a coming $12,000 beauty. A marvel for a kid just breaking in. He has the build, the curves and can hit quite a bit himself. I predict that within the course of a few years Ruth will be one of the best southpaws in baseball.”

Six days later, on March 25, at Wilmington, N.C., Dunn gave Ruth his first starting assignment against the world champion Philadelphia Athletics. Although nicked for 13 safeties, Ruth was magnificent in the pinches and won 6-2. The Athletics paid him a big compliment after the game, stating that he was one of the best youngsters they had seen in a long time. “Ruth is a sure comer,” said Eddie Collins, the A’s star second baseman. “He has the speed and a sharp curve, and, believe me, he is steady in the pinches.”

Incidentally, it is popularly believed that Ruth showed up Frank Baker in this game by fanning him several times but this is pure fantasy since the slugging third baseman got a double and three singles. The only time he was retired he hit a long fly to right field. Once Baker drove the ball against the top of the right field fence, but it bounced back and he got only a single out of it.

After Ruth had defeated Brooklyn in another exhibition game several weeks later, Dodgers’ manager, Wilbert Robinson, joined the growing list of Ruth admirers. “He will be one of the sensations of the baseball season,” predicted Robbie. Casey Stengel played in that game for the Dodgers and had one hit in three tries against the Babe. Many years later Stengel recalled the game and remembered Ruth hitting a terrific drive over his head in right field to drive in two runs.

When Ruth made his O. B. debut on April 22 in his home town fewer than 200 fans were in the stands. Across the street at Terrapin Park, 3200 spectators, dazzled by the lure of so-called major league baseball, watched the Federal League game.

The lack of customers didn’t bother the Babe. He blanked Buffalo 6-0, giving up but six hits and collecting two hits himself.  In his first time at bat in O. B., the Babe cracked out a single to right field off the delivery off George McConnell, a tall righthander who had pitched for the Yankees the year before.

Ruth went on to a fabulous career, first as one of the outstanding pitchers in baseball and then as the game’s greatest slugger. But what ever happened to the other young lefthander in this story — Ford Meadows?

Well, for one thing, he was an outstanding college pitcher for Mt. St. Joseph’s in 1914 and 1915. After the 1915 college season, Meadows, who was known as Rube, signed with Dunn’s Richmond International League club. (After selling his stars, including Ruth, Dunn had to move his franchise out of Baltimore after the 1914 campaign.)

Meadows made an auspicious start for Richmond. In a relief role at Jersey City on June 15, he pitched two innings and struck out five of the six batters to face him. That earned him a starting assignment the next day but Dunn had to yank him after he gave up four hits and six walks in four innings. Meadows appeared in 13 games and was 0 and 2 for the season. He gave up 27 hits in 23 innings, and was forever plagued with wildness, giving up 45 bases on balls while fanning 23. He had shown enough promise, however, for the Yankees to purchase him for $5,000. Meadows joined the New York club on September 3, but Manager Bill Donovan did not use him in a championship contest. At the time Meadows joined the club, Donovan had an unusually good crop of young pitchers to look over. Among them were Dazzy Vance, George Mogridge,

Neal Brady, Allan Russell, Cliff Markle and Dan Tipple — all with good minor league credentials.

Meadows accompanied the Yankees to spring training at Macon, Georgia, in 1916. He pitched in one Regular-Yanigan game but pitched so poorly that he was returned to Dunn for more seasoning. Dunn had returned to Baltimore in 1916 after the Federal League folded. The Oriole pilot was not impressed with Meadows and suspended him until he got into better shape. Even after he reinstated him, Dunn would not trust the erratic southpaw in a game. Meadows complained to the head of the minor league association, and Secretary John Farrell contacted Dunn and told him that it was up to him to let Rube work or release him.

On June 30, 1916, in a game against Richmond at Oriole Park, Dunn finally thought he had found the proper spot to give the unhappy lefthander a chance to pitch. Two Oriole pitchers had been treated rather roughly and Dunn called on Meadows. Rube lasted only two innings and might have set a record for walks had not Dunn seen enough. Meadows had given up 11 bases on balls in the two innings when he was removed from the game. That night Dunn handed him his unconditional release.

Since Meadows did not appear in a championship major league game his name is not to be found in any of the baseball encyclopedias. However, if anyone should doubt that Meadows actually joined the Yankees, I have a copy of the contract he signed on August 26, 1915. The contract between the Base Ball Club of New York and B. B. (Ford) Meadows was approved by Ban Johnson, President of the American League on August 30, 1915. The contract, beginning on or about the 1st day of September, 1915, and ending on or about the 14th day of October, 1915, called for a total compensation for each month of the season contracted for $500.

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