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Column | Babe Ruth: From shirt maker to medal of freedom winner

To hear Babe Ruth tell his story, he was the best shirt maker that the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys ever had. Ruth’s parents, very poor, petitioned the Baltimore courts to proclaim him incorrigible which qualified him to attend St. Mary’s. Little George, as Ruth was called, had been a petty thief and a beer drinker since he was a six-year-old.

St. Mary’s was a reform school, as they were called in the old days, and the boys had daily tasks. Ruth’s assignment was in the tailor’s shop where he learned how to sew. The Babe took to his responsibilities with impressive diligence. Later in his life, Ruth said that once in a rare while a pitcher might fool him with a curve ball, but no one could deceive him about a shirt’s quality.

The other skill that Ruth mastered while at St. Mary’s during the early 1900s was how to hit a baseball, a talent that paid off handsomely. Ruth said that he considered himself a born hitter, but he dazzled at pitching too. By 1914, Ruth was with the Boston Red Sox, dominating on the mound. In six years, Ruth posted an 89-46 record with 105 complete games, and a 2.19 average annual ERA. Then, the Red Sox sold Ruth to the New York Yankees where he pitched a little, 5-0 during five seasons, but slugged a lot during his 15 seasons with the Bronx Bombers: .349 BA, .711 slugging, 655 HRs, 1,978 RBIs.

Ruth’s 22-year career had dozens of highlights that include his participation in seven World Series championships, his 1927 record-breaking 60 homers, his 1932 World Series home run, that he called, as legend has it, against the Chicago Cubs, and his 1936 induction into the first Hall of Fame class.

When Chicago Herald-Tribune sportswriter John Carmichael asked Ruth what his greatest baseball moment was, the Bambino never hesitated - his called homer. Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, a grizzled, no-nonsense veteran, hotly disputes that Ruth pointed his finger to a distant outfield fence. Root said that every National League player knew that if Ruth tried to showboat him, the next pitch would be in his ear.

But Ruth insisted, and said that doubters could check with Cubs’ catcher Gabby Hartnett. If Root grooved one, Ruth told Hartnett: “I’ll hit it over the fence again.” Ruth had hit a three-run shot in the first inning. Reflecting on the improbable homer prediction, Ruth told Carmichael: “Gosh, that was a great feeling. Yes sir, you can feel it in your hands when you really lay wood on one.”

Despite his stellar baseball career, Ruth would most likely treasure his posthumously awarded Medal of Freedom above all else. More than his titanic homers and his pitching skills that in at least one season exceeded Walter Johnson’s, Ruth was famous for his spontaneous trips to children’s hospitals, orphanages, helping down-and-out Americans get through the Great Depression, his readiness to autograph anything put before him, and his willingness to play alongside blacks, unusual during the era.

Last month, President Donald Trump gave the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award to Ruth’s grandson Tom Stevens who accepted it on behalf of the family. Ruth would have gotten a good belly laugh out of being part of the same 2018 recipient class as another American icon, Elvis.

Stevens posed the question of the day when he asked, “What the heck took so long?” President Trump said that once he realized Ruth had never been honored, he moved quickly to right the oversight.

Other baseball Medal of Freedom honorees include Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson. Not that Ruth would ever say it, but on the field, his star shone brighter than all others.