The little boy and the man get on the Wilkens Avenue trolley on the morning of June 13, 1902. It is a Friday. They are off on a trip of great dimensions. Details are important but do not seem to be available. There is so much we want to know. There is so much we never will.
Is it really morning?
Or maybe early afternoon?
Probably not night.
The man and the boy take seats in the second row. Or maybe they are all the way in the back. The boy is on the outside so he can see the streets of Baltimore pass. Or maybe he is on the inside. Maybe he is looking at his shoes.
The jangle of nickels and pennies rolling through the conductor's coin box is background noise. Wasn't the coin box always background noise on a trolley? The ding-ding of the bell is heard when the trolley makes a stop. What is the weather? The Baltimore Sun predicted showers and cooler. Is it raining right now? Cool enough for a jacket? Don't know. Can't be sure.
The man is sad or resolute or perhaps secretly happy. The boy is . . . does he even know where he is going? Is the packed little suitcase on the seat next to him a clue? Or is there no suitcase? He is dressed in the best clothes that he owns. Or are there no best clothes? The conversation is quiet, short sentences, the man's mind lost somewhere in the business of the moment. Or perhaps there is no conversation, not a word. Or perhaps there are laughs, the man talking and talking, joking, to take the edge away.
Imagination tries to build atop slim facts. The man is 31 years old. That is birth certificate truth. His wife is 28 years old. That is another birth certificate truth. Their first son, the boy, as recorded in the Office of the Registrar of Vital Statistics, Baltimore City, by midwife Minnie Graf, is seven years, three months, seven days old, except . . . except he will believe for most of his years that his birthday is one year and one day earlier.
Why is that?
The urge is to sketch in the rest of the picture, make judgments, add colors and emotions and maybe a passing billboard or two. Can it be resisted? The mother has kissed the boy good-bye at the front door of 426 West Camden Street, a tear rolling down her cheek. Or she has said nothing. Or she was relieved. Or maybe she wasn't even there. The boy is sad, crying. Or he is mute, defiant. Or he is clueless and confident, always confident.
The biggest mysteries in the life of George Herman Ruth -– and some researchers say Herman is his true middle name, handed down from his father, and some say it is his confirmation name — are front-loaded and frustrating. The topographic representations of most famous lives feature well-defined peaks of public achievement, brightly lit and easily seen, but a fog often settles over the personal life below. The fog here covers everything.
Behind that moon face with those small eyes, that ﬂat nose, those big lips that will be captured in any instantly recognizable portrait in a blue New York Yankees cap, the boy will forever hide. He is only a shape, glimpsed here, glimpsed there, lost again. No one has found that boy at the beginning of it all, touched him, gotten to know him. No one ever will. If the right questions ever were asked, the answers never were given. Time has finished the job. There is no one to talk to now. No one is around.
He will become the Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the Big Bam, baseball royalty, the greatest home run hitter of his time or any time, a character as interesting as Einstein or Edison or Elvis or any other twentieth-century innovator or inventor, but he will never fill in the early blanks. Want to grow up to be Babe Ruth? He will never explain how to start.
The trolley ride with his father on that June day of 1902 will always be a bewilderment. The boy will say as a man only that he was "a bad kid." Not much more than that. He was seven years old. He was an only son. He was taken to that trolley because he was a seven-year-old bad kid? How bad could he have been? "Incorrigible" was a word that was used.
There are no stories of a mother, none — good or bad or madhouse crazy. There is one picture of her, a grainy shot, pulled from a group photo of a family reunion, her famous child in her lap. Her hair is up. Her high collar is buttoned. She is not smiling.
There are few stories of a father. He was a lightning-rod salesman and then the owner of a succession of taverns. He had an anger that coursed through him. Or so it seemed. The one famous picture of father and son, later in life, shows a beefy man, striped shirt, necktie, vest of a waiter. He has a cigar in his left hand, stands behind his bar. Christmas decorations hang from the ceiling. He would like to pour you a beer.
The environment can be stitched together from history books and memoirs of local writers, but it is a broad picture of turn-of-the-century Baltimore and a bad neighborhood and working-class woes. Stevedores, sailors, wagons, horses, the many-layered bustle of business–these are the backdrop in an area of alleys and cramped brick houses near the docks on the wrong side of Pratt Street, the downtown dividing line for class and economics.
The general neighborhood, which included the house of George Herman's maternal grandmother at 216 Emory Street, where he was born, was called Pigtown. He is a boy from Pigtown. The name comes from the great herds of pigs, hundreds of pigs, that are run through the streets on a regular basis from the nearby stockyard to the nearby slaughterhouse. Residents, it is said, would open their basement windows and reach out and try to grab a passing, squealing potential Sunday dinner.
The specifics of family life are elusive. The father ran assorted taverns in the area, nine in one count, one after another, so the family moved often. The mother was pregnant much of the time, had eight children, including two sets of twins. Six of the children died early. She herself was dead of "exhaustion," the word on her death certificate, at age 39. The certificate also said she was a widow.
The meager bits of information scrawled on forms and in ledgers by bored civil servants are pen-and-ink riddles as much as facts. The father was supposed to be Lutheran, the mother Catholic. They were married in a Baptist church. The boy supposedly was baptized Catholic, but 11 years later was baptized Catholic again. The word "convert" was written on the side of the official certificate. Why was that? Any mistakes made then are codified now, preserved as Paleolithic truth when found by armchair archaeologists.
The most spare anecdotes or one-liners are repeated with each succeeding retelling of the larger tale, gathering weight each time. They are repeated here. The grown-up boy supposedly told Chicago Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame that his father took him to the basement and beat him with a horsewhip. Another story mentioned a billiard cue. Another said his mother beat on him in frustration.
The image that clicks into place is an embattled household on the perforated edge of poverty. Alcohol fuels discord and noise. Volatility is the one constant of every day, the smallest situations ticking, ready to explode. Love and quiet are luxuries that can't be afforded. Bills are always due. Frustrations sit in a pile that never will get smaller, life turned into existence. An unpleasant existence at that. The birth date for little George — if it is right — indicates that he was born seven months after his mother and father were married. What about that fact? Did his parents know? Was that why they were married in the first place?
Is any of this right?
A sister survived. Mary, called Mamie, was five years younger than little George. Or maybe six. She would live to be 91 years old, dying in 1992, but was of little help. She developed a mostly romanticized version of childhood, as many people do. Her parents were "in the restaurant business." Her brother was "a very big boy for his age, very good-hearted to everyone he met. He would get very angry at times, but it was soon forgotten."
She did say, "Mother was not a very well person." She didn't elaborate on what sense of "well" she meant. Physical or mental? Or both? Didn't say. At times she was at variance with things her brother said. He said he had an older brother, John, who died in a street fight. She said there was no older brother; George was the oldest. He also said their mother was a mix of Irish and English. Mamie said this was nonsense; their mother was German.
Research seems to back Mamie's side. The mother, maiden name Katie Schaumberger, was the daughter of Pius and Anna Schaumberger. They both were born in Germany; then Katie was born in Maryland. The other side of the family also goes back eventually to Germany. George Ruth Sr.'s parents both were born in Maryland. There is dispute about where his grandparents were born, either in Germany or Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Dutch country. Pick one. If Bucks County is the choice, the great-great-grandparents were from Germany.
Added to the confusion are a couple of other names, "Erhardt" and "Gerhardt." These were names mentioned mostly by the boy, the son, in later years. He tried to explain, more than once, that Ruth was his real name, not Erhardt or Gerhardt. Who exactly thought his real name was Erhardt or Gerhardt was never explained. Someone — perhaps a bunch of someones — must have thought so. Why else would he explain?
In his autobiography, The Babe Ruth Story, ghostwritten for him just before his death, he takes care of all of this childhood material in just five paragraphs, less than 300 words. One sentence, "I hardly knew my parents," pretty much wraps up his genealogy. Another sentence, "I had a rotten start and it took me a long time to get my bearings," pretty much wraps up his early childhood.
He will never say much more. The reporters of his time never pressed, never tried to squeeze out the smallest details, the darkest secrets, the way they do now in a tell-all time of celebrity. They never fanned across his beginnings and interviewed neighbors and boyhood chums, teachers, and shopkeepers. That wasn't the style. Neither his father nor his mother told a single story, not one. There are no first smiles, first steps, first confrontations with a curveball. There are no tales of mischief or honor. No school paper has been preserved, a star pasted at the top.
The boy who became famous was born and existed for his formative first seven years in the wide margins between very few words. He learned his first lessons about love, life, survival. He learned about keeping secrets. He was one of the forgotten children, the same then as now, kids who are born into hard circumstance and either figure out what to do or don't. He was left alone with his questions, had to find his own answers.
He still is alone. The man who grew out of the boy very much decided to leave the boy back there. What happened? The man would never say, so the boy is seen only in outline. There he is, living in the apartment above the father's tavern. There he is, running down the street with a pack of kids, throwing something at some merchant directing a horse-drawn cart. There he is . . . where is he?
The docks of Baltimore grow darker and more threatening as they are seen from farther and farther away. Images from movies intrude: drunken sailors and longshoreman louts walking the cobblestone streets, hard women in doorways bidding them hello. Baltimore was the sixth-largest city in the country, a major port, calling itself "the Liverpool of America." Images of Liverpool join the picture. Giant schooners sit with wooden masts. An everyday covering of soot and smoke touches all objects. A drizzle always seems to be falling, a lonely streetlight losing the battle with the blackness of the alleys.
The fog settles over everything and will not leave.
Maybe the man reads a newspaper. Maybe an earlier passenger left it on the trolley. Maybe the man brought it with him to pass the time. Maybe there is no newspaper, but it is put there to establish situation and circumstance, a use of dramatic license. Maybe the man reads. Maybe he talks. Small talk.
"Orioles won yesterday," he says to the boy. "Beat the Tigers, 9—3 in Detroit."
The 1902 Orioles are in sixth place in the eight-team American League. The glories of the nineteenth-century world championships won by John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Wee Willie Keeler, and Steve Brodie are pretty much gone. Only catcher Wilbert Robinson is around from those days, 39 years old now. He went 1-for-4 in Detroit, a double. The Chicago White Sox are in first place, a game and a half in front of the Philadelphia A's. There is no American League team in New York.
"How about this?" the man says. "‘In a baseball game between the city team from Charlottesville and the Christian Science reading room, a ground ball took a bad hop and struck Charlottesville shortstop W. Reade Jarman in the throat. He picked up the ball, threw to first to nip the runner, then grabbed his throat and fell to the ground. He was dead three minutes later.'
"Can you believe it?" the man says.
He turns from the sports page to the front. Two sergeants testified before Congress yesterday that they did, while serving in the Philippines in 1900, hold suspected "insurgents'" heads under water in order to extract information....A group of striking workers ﬁred upon a coal train in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania....There is another big strike in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Police ﬁred upon a crowd....A corn shortage is reported at the exchange in Philadelphia....And a genuine "Porto Rican Panama" hat can be had for $2 (a $5 value) at the Hat Box in the American Building.
The man mentions the "insurgents" perhaps, but not the bargain hat. Or the hat and not the "insurgents." Or neither.
There probably is no newspaper. The boy would never become a reader. Never would read an entire book in his life, not even the two he supposedly wrote. The man is probably not much of a reader either.
Probably no newspaper.
Excerpted from The Big Bam by Leigh Montville Copyright © 2006 by Leigh Montville. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.