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    The Return of the Prodigal Bambino

    What Babe Ruth’s reversion to his Catholic faith can teach us about confession and redemption

    By Andrew Fowler 4/1/2021
    Babe Ruth (right) and his New York Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig (left) visit Father Edward J. Flanagan (center), founder of Boys Town, and young residents of the Nebraska school in 1927. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives/Ernest Bihler Co.

     

    George Herman “Babe” Ruth went by many nicknames and titles during his lifetime, but saint was not one of them.

    One of the most popular sports figures in history, the Babe displayed extravagance both on and off the baseball diamond. In 1925, he nearly died from a stomach illness — dubbed “The Bellyache Heard ’Round the World” — that some reports blamed on an exorbitant amount of hot dogs and soda. More likely, it was a disease he had contracted through adulterous affairs while married to Helen Woodford, leading to their eventual separation.

    The arc of the Great Bambino’s life mirrors that of many sinners who, by God’s mercy and the example of others, overcome periods of moral decadence and dissipation.

    Despite his moral failings, Ruth was also a charitable man, and was influenced by the Catholic education he received from the Xaverian Brothers in his youth. At the beginning of career, while playing for the Red Sox in 1919, he joined Pere Marquette Council 271 in South Boston. And though he struggled to practice his faith in the decades that followed, Ruth often collaborated with Knights of Columbus in charity events and barnstorming tours in the offseason. On one occasion in the late 1920s, he visited 1,000 children at a K of C New Year’s party outside Chicago.

    Toward the end of his life, the Babe reflected on his moral failings, sought reconciliation and more fully embraced the faith.

    “As far as I’m concerned, and I think as far as most kids go, once religion sinks in, it stays there — deep down,” he wrote in Guideposts magazine in 1948, the last year of his life. “The lads who get religious training, get it where it counts — in the roots. They may fail it, but it never fails them.”

    A Rotten Start

    Ruth believed he had a rotten start in life. The conditions of his upbringing were harsh. “Looking back to my youth, I honestly don’t think I knew the difference between right and wrong,” he wrote in Guideposts. “I spent much of my early boyhood living over my father’s saloon, in Baltimore — and when I wasn’t living over it, I was in it, soaking up the atmosphere. I hardly knew my parents.”

    He was a delinquent — roaming the streets, skipping school and drinking alcohol at a young age. At the age of 7, Ruth was admitted as “incorrigible” to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage run by the Xaverian Brothers. His father and mother could no longer discipline their son.

    “It was a reform school — and that’s all there is to it,” Ruth stated in 1926. “But it wasn’t a place boys were sent for punishment. They were sent there for training. The brothers did everything in their power to bring out all the good there was in a boy and give him a chance.”

    Ruth resented most authority figures during his youth. But the one figure he admired for his athleticism and religious piety was Brother Matthias, a 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound man.

    Brother Matthias introduced Ruth to baseball and trained him in the game, recognizing a natural talent in the boy. The Bambino never forgot the first time he saw the brother hit a ball — which sailed nearly 350 yards, a “tremendous knock in those days.” Ruth recalled in Guideposts, “He used to back me in a corner of the big yard at St. Mary’s and bunt a ball to me by the hour, correcting the mistakes I made with my hands and feet.”

    The Hall of Famer added: “Thanks to Brother Matthias, I was able to leave St. Mary’s in 1914 and begin my professional career with the famous Baltimore Orioles.”

    At the same time, Brother Matthias’ faith also left a lasting impression on Ruth, who recalled, “He could have been successful at anything he wanted to in life — and he chose the Church.”

    While Ruth confessed to straying from the Church after beginning his professional career, he said he never forgot the religious training he received from Brother Matthias. He “just overlooked it.”

    According to a 1931 Saturday Evening Post article titled “And Along Came Ruth,” the Babe was “to this day, downright afraid to risk offending Brother Matthias.”

    Likewise, an article from the late 1920s titled “30,000 Guineas a Year. World’s Top-Pay Athlete” suggested that “Perhaps the only trait [Ruth] retains from the days of nonage in the Catholic orphanage is his faith — he is said to be deeply religious.”

    The 61st Homer

    On Nov. 21, 1921, the Babe participated in a ceremony organized by the Knights of Columbus to welcome Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The French leader told Ruth, “I am glad that we are both members of the Knights of Columbus. … I wish we could have you introduce baseball in France.” Ruth reportedly responded with a grin, saying, “Oui, oui.”

    Marshal Foch also presented Ruth with the ceremonial first brick of a new K of C welfare center in the Big Apple. 

    The Knights of Columbus clearly believed Ruth was a worthy brother, not only for his talent on the field, but also as a man of charity, especially toward children. While Ruth dealt with demons in his personal life — which were numerous, but not widely reported by the media at the time — he still yearned to be close to God, praying “often and hard,” as he wrote in his article in Guideposts.

    “While I drifted away from the Church, I did have my own ‘altar,’ a big window of my New York apartment overlooking the city lights,” he wrote. “Often I would kneel before that window and say my prayers. I would feel quite humble then. I’d ask God to help me not make such a big fool of myself and pray that I’d measure up to what He expected of me.”

    On the field, Ruth measured up to, and then surpassed, the baseball greats who preceded him. He enjoyed tremendous success, especially during his time with the New York Yankees, when he was part of the famous “Murderers’ Row” lineup that also included Lou Gehrig. His batting skills culminated in 1927 when he hit 60 home runs in a single season, a record that held until 1961. He eventually retired in 1935 with the Boston Braves at 40 years old.

    In 1946, he received a devastating diagnosis: nasopharyngeal cancer. In December of that year, he was in the hospital about to undergo an operation when his friend Paul Carey asked him, “Don’t you think you ought to put your house in order?”

    Ruth knew what his friend meant. As he recalled, “For the first time, I realized that death might strike me out. I nodded, and Paul got up, called in a chaplain, and I made a full confession.”

    Afterward, Ruth experienced a “comforting feeling to be free from fear and worries,” adding, “I now could simply turn them over to God.” Right before the surgery, his second wife, Claire Hodgson — whom Ruth married after Woodford’s death — gave him a letter from a boy in Jersey City, which read:

    Dear Babe. Everybody in the seventh grade class is pulling and praying for you. I am enclosing a medal which if you wear will make you better. Your pal — Mike Quinlan. P.S. I know this will be your 61st homer. You’ll hit it.

    Ruth pinned the Miraculous Medal, also known as the Medal of Our Lady of Grace, on his pajamas before the surgery and vowed to wear it until his death.

    Solid Little Chapel

    In his last days, the Great Bambino wanted to impart to kids not just lessons on how to swing a bat but also the wisdom he learned from Brother Matthias during his youth. As he put it, “God had an eye out for me, just as He has for you, and He was pulling for me to make the grade.”

    Commitment to the faith and the Church’s teachings were struggles for Ruth throughout his life before making that full confession in 1946. However, he believed in giving children “the works” in religious education, saying the education he received allowed him to realize that in all of us is a “solid little chapel.”

    “It may get dusty from neglect, but the time will come when the door will be opened with much relief,” he wrote in Guideposts. “But the kids can’t take it, if we don’t give it to them.”

    The Babe eventually died from cancer on Aug. 16, 1948, nearly two years after surgery. As the baseball world grieved for their fallen hero, Henry Turner wrote a poem in memoriam titled “The 61st Homer.” Ruth, he wrote, “said his Prayers and went to sleep.”

    Ruth’s return to the faith gives us all hope that God never abandons us, even if at times we may abandon him. As the Bambino affirmed at the end of his life, “God was Boss” through it all.

    Share your Knights of Columbus story with knightline@kofc.org.

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