The Babe Ruth Baseball

The Babe Ruth Baseball

The Babe Ruth Baseball

My father was born and raised in Pennington, New Jersey, and he lived there from 1923-1943.  As a kid, he was a big fan of horses and baseball.

His mother was originally from Boston, where he spent his summers and went to Red Sox games at Fenway Park. His father, my grandfather, was a tough New Jersey native who owned ponies and had vague connections to the New York Yankees.

Dad’s baseball mitt was one of those flat, pocket-less, dried leather things that looked like it had been left out in the field or stepped on too many times.  It was squashed, brown, moldy, a starfish-like relic… more of a ball-stop than a catching aid. It’s hard to say if its condition was from use or neglect.

During one baseball season in the late 1920’s, his father announced that they were going together to an upcoming ballgame at Yankee Stadium.

Too quickly, or too close to the game, he reneged on their plans and “Uncle Gus” ended up with Dad’s ticket. Since Dad was missing out on the game, his father promised to bring home as recompense a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.  At the time, Ruth was a Yankee and probably baseball’s biggest attraction.

The morning after the missed game, Dad’s father handed him the promised baseball, signed by Ruth. It was a beautiful  “Official American League” ball, with tight red and blue stitching. The autograph was a bold, clear flourish in black pen ink… the real deal.  Over time, the ball leather aged to the color of light honey and the stitches to magenta and cyan.

The ball accompanied my dad into his adulthood, and by the time he was a father himself (with 9 kids, a “team in process”), it was displayed modestly with some books and an elephant bell in the shadows of a closed, windowed, shelf in the family’s living room. It was taken for granted, ignored, really just gathering dust like the books around it.  His children can’t remember or admit to any early discussions about the ball.

Fast-forwarding to the late 1950’s, neighborhood kids played pick-up baseball games in a vacant, dirt and grass lot across the street from the family home in Virginia. As a centerfield “fence”, tall boxwood hedges turned lost baseballs into heavy, leather-peeling lumps.  Right field was lined with dense thorn bushes. Balls hit long to right were rarely retrieved. Paved Tyler Street paralleled the third base line and a chunk of left field.  Home “plate” was a stick across a dirt dent between two large pine trees. Too frequently, the players were short a baseball when they gathered for games after school or on most summer days. On one weekday afternoon in 1959, the kids were all jabbering and smacking small fists into their baseball mitts, but nobody had brought a ball to the field. No ball. No game.

Home sick from school and noticing this development from his second story bedroom window across the street, nine year old brother Philip descended to the family’s living room bookshelf, took the Ruth ball, went back upstairs, and threw it out his window into the front yard grass… to be “found”.

I “discovered” it, raised it triumphantly to our gang of 10, 11, and 12-year-old players, and then we all started a game of catch on Tyler street, between our house and the field. Only one boy, Charlie Fletcher, seemed impressed by the ball and its autograph. The rest of us just wanted to play ball. As usual, the 10 year olds were weak fielders in the street.

The Ruth ball took a beating even before it was used in the field that day. The signature was really scuffed.  In fact, as hard as it is to acknowledge this now, it was scuffed off, though you might have been able to identify it with a magnifying glass if you knew what you were looking for…. or if you even cared.

We don’t remember how and when the ball was returned to Dad, but we do remember that he was more sad than angry.  Maybe he was reminded of Uncle Gus, the missed game, the “settlement”, the trophy ball, its link to a famous Yankee and his own childhood, his father. He put the Ruth ball into his dresser sock drawer, and it stayed there in the dark for forty-one years.  It was sometimes mentioned carefully at family dinners, but dessert never included absolution.

We hoped to make up for our decision as kids in 1959, so Philip and I bought a baseball signed by all of the living major league sluggers who had hit more than five hundred career home runs.  Dad was at least a Red Sox fan, and Ted Williams was one of the signers. We also bought a blank, modern American League baseball and added only our own autographs to the new ball.

We gave both balls to Dad in 2000 on his 77th birthday. He went to his bedroom, retrieved the Ruth ball from his dresser, returned, and gave it to Philip. Phil had started everything, after all. Then he gave me the ball that Philip and I had both signed and he presented the 500 home run ball to Benji, my son, his 13 year-old grandson.

This photo captured the transfer of memories, baseballs, and responsibilities across three generations. Benji was grateful and understandably cautious. My dad, who passed three years later, confirmed perfectly and typically in his expression that almost all had been forgiven, well before the picture was snapped.

The story was always about this man, and not the ball. He handled much with grace, and we learned that from him.

I recently asked Phil for a chance to photograph the ball.  He e-mailed back that the ball sitting on his shelf at home since 2000 was not the Ruth ball, after all, and he now doesn’t know where it is.

Dad would have said “Yikes!” (or worse)…at this news.

I would say that his sons still tend to learn lessons the hard way.

 

 

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