Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The House that Ruth Didn't Build

A few nights ago, I got a chance to catch Ken Burns’ documentary “Baseball: 4th Inning, A National Heirloom.” In typical Burns fashion, it was well done and, along with a compelling play-by-play on the history of the game, it provided an excellent window into the lives and personalities of key players, such as Babe Ruth.

In Ruth’s case, I really first became aware of him as a boy in the 1970s when Hank Aaron was in the hunt to break his homerun record. Indeed, other than the fact that he could swing a big stick—and he made a rather tasty candy bar—I really didn’t know much about him.

Turns out that Ruth was born in Baltimore, which is not far from where I live today, and he had a very rough childhood. His father ran a local bar in town and had a difficult time parenting Ruth. It is reported that his dad beat him unmercifully because Ruth was a very rambunctious and out of control kid. When the beatings didn't work, his dad declared him to be “incorrigible” and shipped the 7-year-old Ruth to reform school.

This was a very difficult time for Ruth because his family almost never visited him. In fact, it’s reported that he told a fellow school mate that he was “too big and too ugly” for anyone to visit him. The only bright spot for him at reform school was that he discovered that he could really play baseball and, at 19-year-old, he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles. He also married shortly after this, probably because he longed for a family that he never really had, and had a daughter.

However, after he was traded to the Yankees and his fame began to grow dramatically, he moved his wife and young daughter to a farm in Massachusetts and began living an expensive apartment in one of New York City’s finest hotels. He also began living a life of self-indulgence, drinking heavily, partying constantly and frequenting prostitutes. He even took a long time mistress. He was rarely home due to the long baseball season and because he chose to “barnstorm” during the off season. Eventually, his behavior contributed to his wife’s nervous breakdown. When this happened, Ruth took a bit of a “7th inning stretch” to reflect but he soon returned to "playing" his life as usual.

I find it a bit ironic that a man who exhibited so much discipline at the plate chose to “strike out” consistently in his home. Moreover, his absence in his daughter’s life mirrored the absence of his father in his life. I wonder if his absence ever caused her to think that she was “too ugly” for him to visit. Alas, Ruth’s behavior is a cautionary tale for all fathers. Sometimes we recreate the very thing that we hate and let our pain become our children’s pain.

In 1923, the Yankees moved from the Polo Grounds to the newly built Yankee Stadium. In the first game at the new park, Ruth hit a well-timed home run and this caused the stadium to be forever dubbed “The House that Ruth Built.” I suppose that this is very accurate given the success of the Yankees franchise. But, I must admit that for me Ruth’s legacy is more of a foul ball than a homerun given what I learned about the home that he failed to build for his wife and young child.


  1. Interestingly, his childhood pain seemed to motivate him at times later in life. From the documentary:

    "1922 postseason;
    "That winter, at a baseball writers' dinner, State Senator Jimmy Walker, whose own private life would not have borne close scrutiny, lectured Ruth on the wages of dissipation. The Babe was letting down the little dirty-faced kids, Walker said. Ruth began to cry. He would do better, he promised, get back in shape, concentrate on the game again. I've had my last drink until next October, he told reporters, I'm going to my farm. I'm going to work my head off, and maybe part of my stomach, and then you watch me break that home run record."

  2. I too grew up in an abusive household and shucked between relatives and friends whoever would be willing to watch me and suffered abuse at the hands of the man who was on my birth certificate. I too started a family fairly young to achieve the love I felt I didn't get as a child.
    Difference being, I am VERY active in my children's lives and driven to break the cycle created by my abusive, alcoholic father who's not living any longer. I could have played the victim role and done the same as my supposed father and stepfather had, but, I chose to do the things I never got to do as a child and provide and give to my children the love I felt I should have had. Went to ballgames I didn't go to, show up at EVERY event the kids' have from sports, to school activities to keeping them very active in the church and showing them, that you can be male and provide for your children in more ways than just financially or absently by giving them the things they want most... Time, attention and unconditional love.


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