An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.—Timothy 2:5
BABE RUTH’S MEMORIAL, ST. MARY’S INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL FOR DEPENDENT BOYS
In 1921 Xaverian Brother Paul told a dying Cardinal James Gibbons that a group of Catholic citizens intended to build a cathedral in Baltimore in his honor. Gibbons declined the proposal, asking instead that the Knights of Columbus “approve a general appeal to your members to join in a national testimonial to Babe Ruth.”
St. Mary’s Industrial School, operated by the Xavierian’s, had burned to the ground twenty-five months earlier. In a letter to the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus, Gibbons urged that St. Mary’s be replaced by the “Ruth School for Dependent and Wayward Boys.”
A 1919 fire had displaced 903 delinquent and orphaned boys. According to Westminster, Maryland’s Democratic Advocate, “the [school’s] brothers …boys and employees…saved nothing but what they were wearing.” While no student-internees, brothers or employees were injured, the fire took the lives of two firemen and injured another thirty-six (seven seriously).
BABE RUTH—A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
Babe Ruth was St. Mary’s most famous graduate, having matriculated there when he was just seven years old. Besides basic academics, he was trained to be a tailor. His baseball exploits at St. Mary’s are well known, along with his baseball mentoring by Brother Matthias which is legendary stuff.
Ruth’s major league career began with the Boston Red Sox. When he joined the New York Yankees in 1919, he would become the first highly paid professional athlete. The Yankees paid him $30,000 ($430,000 in current dollars). Most of his fellow players had to return to (or seek) other employment at season’s end to make ends meet. Ruth’s lucrative contract permitted him to train, tour the country playing baseball against amateur teams, play the ponies in Havana and golf during the off-season.
By the end of the 1920s, according to Marshall Smelser in his book, The Life That Babe Ruth Built, “[Ruth] was rated in polls as the most famous American behind only Washington and Lincoln.” According to Smelser “the Babe” supported St. Mary’s throughout his life:
He visited regularly, brought their band to play at ballparks where he barnstormed, and supported the school financially. One reason he brought the band on road trips around the Northeast [was] an attempt to raise money to replace the main school building [after the fire].
BABE RUTH, BASEBALL, ST. MARY’S AND THE KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS
Catholic Historian David Campmier relates that baseball was played widely at Catholic schools of the day. Montville explains, “Baseball played a role in the moral and social development of Catholic youth, teaching them both discipline and skills.”
Cardinal Gibbons realized the fund-raising power using Ruth’s name to rebuild St. Mary’s. So did the Knights.
In February of 1921 the Knights of Columbus announced plans to relay a Babe Ruth baseball from Baltimore to San Francisco. (Babe Ruth had joined the Knights in 1919, shortly after leaving the Red Sox.)
The nation’s newspapers reported that Ruth wanted to address the supreme council of the Knights at their August meeting in San Francisco “to follow up the recent appeal of Cardinal Gibbons for K. of C. support for his alma mater.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t do so because the confab was to be held during the baseball season. According to the Catholic Bulletin Ruth was “scheduled to be puncturing the right-field fence at the polo grounds.” It would be two years later—1923—that the newly constructed “original” Yankee Stadium would open to the public.
BABE RUTH’S BASEBALL SPEECH TO THE KNIGHTS; A 3000 MILE HOME RUN
The Bulletin went on to explain that the Knights had “hit upon …the next best thing.” A specially constructed baseball would be made and within its center would be placed “a brief speech written in Ruth’s handwriting that he would like to make to the Knights.” As a brief side note, Michael O’Loughlin relates that Montville in his book,The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, had observed that “one of the legacies of the left-handed Ruth’s Catholic education was his handwriting, which was always neat and precise.”
According to the Knights plan, Ruth would then hit the ball. Once caught it would be relayed across the nation (like the Olympic Torch) being handed off to thousands of Knight members. “It was estimated 150,000 men and boys could relay the ball [across] the three thousand miles”, according to the Bulletin article. Accommodations could be made “by obliging locomotive crewmen who would catch and carry the ball” across the mountains and deserts and “the ball would probably make stops at different cities to be relayed to… the mayors,” added the Bulletin.
THE BEST LAID PLANS…AND THE BABE’S HOME RUN RECORD
Unfortunately, nothing ever came of the idea. The Knights international confab in San Francisco was attended by 20,000. William McGinley, supreme secretary (and KC founder) proudly proclaimed the Knights membership had grown with 87,660 new members bringing total membership to a record 758,155. The delegates were also told their organization would spend $2.5 million on hospitalization for disabled WWI veterans. No mention of St. Mary’s was made.
While the Knights were meeting in San Francisco the nation’s newspapers lamented that Ruth was running one home run behind his previous year’s total of 54. By August 5th the previous year he had batted 39 out of the park—having been at bat 332 times. Still, he had pretty good stats over the three-day confab—at bat nine times, four hits, one home run and three runs batted-in. By the season’s end Ruth in fact surpassed his previous year’s record by knocking 59 out of the park—a record he would beat in 1927 with 60.
RUTH’S CATHOLIC IDENTITY
St. Mary’s was rebuilt without KC help and continued to operate as St. Mary’s. The rebuilt school continued operations until 1950 when it shut down. Portions of the school were demolished but two buildings remained and were reopened in 1962 as Cardinal Gibbons High School. In 2010 the school was closed due to declining enrollment.
In her Temple University religion class paper entitled Babe Ruth: Religious Icon, Rebecca Alpert opines that “[Ruth] had a strong and very public Catholic identity…[and found in it] a set of allegiances..[and] rules to follow…and rituals to observe .”
For sure Babe Ruth wasn’t the best Catholic. His appetites for food, booze and women are legendary. Montville suggests he “was a good Sunday Catholic,” meaning Sunday Mass, confession and a hefty contribution.
Ruth was diagnosed with cancer in 1946 and underwent several surgeries and painful treatments. He died in 1948 at the age of 53. His funeral Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Frances Spellman at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Six thousand invitees attended the Mass while another 75,000 waited outside in the rain. He is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery about 30 miles from New York City.