The Town Where Ruth Became the 'Babe'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some larger-than-life legends begin in some out-of-the-way places.
By Sean Braswell
It was George Herman Ruth Jr.’s first trip out of Maryland. At age 19, and weighing just 160 pounds, the left-hander had been discovered by Jack Dunn, the manager and owner of the then–minor league Baltimore Orioles, at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. In March 1914, three weeks after signing with the team, the son of a saloonkeeper was headed to Florida for spring training. On the way there, the team stopped in Fayetteville, a sleepy town in south-central North Carolina, where the legend of Babe Ruth really begins.
Like many rookies, Ruth was subject to some good old-fashioned ribbing and pranks from his older teammates. On the overnight train to Fayetteville, Ruth was told that the mesh hammock next to his Pullman sleeping compartment was for pitchers to rest their arms while they slept, and the unsuspecting teenager obliged, only to wake up the next morning with a sore arm from sleeping in such a contorted position because he “wanted to act like a pro.” (The hammock’s intended purpose was to store clothing.)
The ball Ruth hit landed in a cornfield.…
The visit to Fayetteville was the work of a local merchant and friend of Dunn’s who had persuaded the Orioles’ owner to break up the team’s trip to Florida with a stopover in North Carolina. The team arrived on March 3, but wet weather kept them indoors for several days. Among other things, they practiced at a local armory and played an exhibition basketball game against Fayetteville’s high school team.
Rain or shine, the young Ruth was on cloud nine. His very first train ride was soon followed by a stay at his first hotel, the old Lafayette Hotel on Hay Street, where he would devour a triple breakfast order each morning and make the most of being outside the walls of St. Mary’s, where he’d spent the better part of 12 years. “His newfound freedom gave him boundless, adolescent energy,” says Michael Gibbons, former executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. “Fellow Orioles would watch from their hotel porch chairs as Ruth rode back and forth on his bicycle, or from the hotel lobby as he rode the elevator up and down, up and down.”
The rain finally let up on March 7, and Ruth and the Orioles walked a mile from their hotel to the Cape Fear Fairgrounds ballpark on Gillespie Street, where they split into two teams to play a seven-inning intersquad exhibition game before a crowd of about 200 locals. Ruth had largely flown under the radar of Baltimore sports reporters, who considered him nothing more than a promising pitching prospect and had largely ignored him in their early dispatches that spring. That would all change in Fayetteville.
Ruth played shortstop and pitched in the intersquad game, but the most memorable moment came when he stepped to the plate in the final inning. As the opening sentence of The Baltimore Sun story put it the following day: “George Ruth, a pitcher Jack Dunn picked off the lots of Baltimore, is credited by Fayetteville fans with making the longest hit ever seen in their park.”
Olympian Jim Thorpe, who played baseball in the Eastern Carolina League as a young man, once hit a ball so far to right field in Fayetteville that locals had marked the spot. According to witnesses, Ruth’s gargantuan blast landed 60 feet past Thorpe’s, or as The Sun put it: “The first day that Ruth was permitted to hit in Fayetteville, the purpose of that marker was permanently destroyed.”
The ball Ruth hit landed in a cornfield well beyond the ballpark. Before the right fielder had even retrieved the ball, Ruth had circled the bases and returned to the bench, reportedly remarking, “Boy, he threw that pitch where I was swinging.” Using a tape measure, Rodger H. Pippen, a reporter for the Baltimore News-Post, estimated the blast had traveled more than 400 feet — an astonishing figure that prompted his skeptical editor to respond, “How many inches are there to a foot in North Carolina ballparks?” In 1952, the city installed a historic state marker close to where the ball landed, in commemoration of the record-shattering blast.
By the time the Orioles left Fayetteville, Ruth had endeared himself to his teammates, who started referring to him as “Jack Dunn’s baby” — later shortened to just “Babe.” In addition to his new nickname, Ruth had earned a new reputation as well. “That first home run established that Ruth, though a good pitcher, might have even more promise as an extraordinary power hitter,” notes Gibbons. “It was the first time fans, coaches and players beyond those walls at St. Mary’s were introduced to his ultimate gift, the best home run stroke in the history of the game.”
Four months later, Ruth would make his major league debut pitching for the Boston Red Sox, and go on to dominate baseball as no other professional athlete has ever dominated a sport — an illustrious career that started in a small corner of North Carolina. As Ruth himself once reflected in The Saturday Evening Post after his playing days had ended, “I got to some bigger places than Fayetteville, but darn few as exciting.”