Sure, sure. Every Baltimorean knows the Babe played for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. But every Baltimorean also knows Baltimore is Babe Ruth’s town.
When you have a few hours, take a tour of the Bambino’s birthplace, tour the Yard or take a gander at the strip club that used to be his father’s bar.
Then get outta town to see the place where Babe Ruth’s talent was nurtured and the place where he married his first wife.
In a tiny rowhouse on a narrow street in West Baltimore, he was born to a bartender and his wife. And the house where Babe Ruth made his first appearance belonged to his grandparents. Soon after Kate Ruth gave birth to her son, she went home to live in the Connolly Street apartment over the bar her husband George Sr., ran.
“He doesn’t spend a lot of time here (at the birthplace),” noted Shawn Herne, chief curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. But Ruth certainly spent time in his grandparents’ house. And he often came back to Baltimore throughout his life, Herne said.
That bar and apartment are gone — They’re under centerfield behind second base at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. George Herman Ruth’s birthplace, the rented home of his grandfather Pius Schamberger, an upholsterer, remains as a memorial to the Sultan of Swat.
Schamberger, Ruth’s maternal grandfather, came from Germany after the Civil War and settled in this neighborhood then filled with German immigrants.
The house he rented had only four rooms — hardly enough space for all the museum’s exhibits on Ruth. Four adjacent rowhouses have been converted into the museum. The family house has been preserved, decorated as the Babe’s little sister Mamie remembers it. The rest of the space is devoted to his feats as a baseball player, as well as his public and private life. (You can tell when you are in the original house by the wooden floor; the rest of the museum is carpeted.)
This is where New York and Boston fans — and anyone else who loves the Sultan of Swat — queue up to see Ruth’s bat and balls, the little room where he made his first grand entrance. There are photos and plenty of memorabilia to recall those first days of this great ball player.
But it’s only the first stop in Baltimore for the Babe Ruth fan.
St. Mary’s Industrial School baseball diamond
Babe Ruth spent much of his youth at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, way out in the wilds of Catonsville. It was so far from the family home that his parents rarely (if ever) came to see their young son. The school Babe attended, on the corner of Caton and Wilkens Avenues burned down in 1919. Although the school was rebuilt, closed in the 1950s and operated at Cardinal Gibbons High School since 1962, it stands vacant again. Now owned by St. Agnes Hospital across the street, its future is undecided.
It was here, of course, that Xaverian Brothers Matthias and Gilbert took the “incorrigible” youngster under their wing and taught him to tailor and to play baseball. It was here that Jack Dunn signed him for the Orioles in 1914. “That’s where he gets his name,” said Greg Schwalenberg, curator of the museum. Dunn signed custody papers for Ruth, since he was under age 21, and from then on Ruth was known as “Dunn’s Baby.”
The new owners of the old school, St. Agnes Hospital, along with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, are planning to preserve the field. The Catholic Review has reported plans for new construction at the site, including a reorientation of the current baseball diamond so home plate is where it was in Ruth’s day.
The baseball field where the Babe played is still visible from Caton Avenue.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Babe Ruth never played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards — he had retired 77 years before it opened in 2002. But his legacy is remembered here. A larger than life statue stands in the plaza near the ticket office — never mind that the sculptor put the glove on the wrong hand. And the location of his father’s bar out near center field is mentioned during the great tour offered a couple of times a day at Oriole Park.
Ruth’s father later operated another bar at 36 S. Eutaw Street. The Babe bought it for his father after the 1915 World Series. He died there three years later when he hit his head on the curb as he tried to break up a fight. The bar is still there — although it’s now a strip club called The Goddess.
St. Paul’s Catholic Church
One other place in the Baltimore area remembers the Bambino. Babe married a young waitress named Helen Woodford of Boston. With no blood test or waiting periods, Maryland then was a good place to elope. So Babe and Helen left Baltimore, got off the train in Ellicott City and made their way to the little church that overlooks the mill town’s historic stone buildings.
St. Paul’s Catholic Church exhibits a copy of the marriage certificate in a case in the narthex. It is dated October 17, 1914, (with an error scratched out) and signed by the pastor who performed the marriage ceremony, Fr. Thomas Dolan.
Plenty of couples have stood at the very place Babe and Helen stood, observed Jerry Harlowe, a parishioner and amateur historian for the parish. The couple would have gotten off at the train station barely a block from the church and found themselves in front of the altar: the 19-year-old baseball player and his 17-year-old sweetheart.
The church has undergone a number of renovations over the years — changes required after the Second Vatican Council and expansion of the church to meet a growing congregation. The original altar still dominates the sanctuary. The pews, which seat 200, have been in the church since it was built in 1838.
Who was here that Saturday? “Nobody knows,” Harlowe said. The marriage certificate lists Maria Dolan and Margaret Powers as witnesses. As the story goes, he said, “They got off at the train station, got married, went back to Baltimore and had a party at his father’s bar.”
The marriage didn’t last, though the couple never divorced. Helen died tragically in a fire. Ruth went to her funeral and then married his second wife Claire.
But those are stories for another city. Baltimoreans will always remember remember that baseball’s greatest player came into the world right here.
© 2013 Text. Mary K. Tilghman. Photo of Oriole Park by Gina Truitt
Reprinted on the Babe’s 120th birthday, 2015