Babe Ruth: Made in Canada?

Babe Ruth: Made in Canada?


The American icon was built with plenty of Canadian parts

by David Giddens, CBC Sports
 

Editor's note: This is part of CBC Sports' series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome, auto racing's Villeneuve family and looked back at the Richard Riot.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

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Among the many mind-bending provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement is the concept of "country of origin.” The ingredients might come from worlds away, but if we assemble the finished product here, there’s wiggle room to call it Canadian.

If NAFTA applied to sports — and maybe it should — then you could make a convincing case that the greatest baseball player of all time was Canadian.

Sure, Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore, and he played his most famous years for the New York Yankees. But who taught him how to play baseball? Who was the biggest influence in his life? Where did he hit his first professional home run? Where did he crush what's believed to be his longest homer?

Lawyer up, America. Under our (admittedly loose) interpretation of NAFTA rules, Babe Ruth is a hoser, through and through.

 
 

Living as we do in an age where fame is meticulously cultivated on social media, it's hard to grasp how famous Babe Ruth was. We just don’t have a frame of reference for that kind of popularity and influence anymore. Babe was famous the old-fashioned way. He earned it. 

Babe Ruth, seen here arriving at the annual roller skating party at Steeplechase Park on Coney Island in 1939 with actress Nancy Carroll, can be considered the first modern sports celebrity. 
 (Associated Press) Babe Ruth, seen here arriving at the annual roller skating party at Steeplechase Park on Coney Island in 1939 with actress Nancy Carroll, can be considered the first modern sports celebrity. (Associated Press)

Ruth didn’t just excel at his sport — he changed the entire footprint of baseball. Thousands of extra seats needed to be installed at the ballparks he played in, to give his fans a chance to squeeze in and see the legend at work. LeBron James is a big deal, but we don’t expand basketball arenas for his sake alone.

Ruth also changed the game he played. Until he came along, baseball was a game of singles and doubles and base stealing. Most players scored runs by grinding their way to first and hoping to hustle home, base by base, over the next few outs. Ty Cobb was a legend mostly because he stole bases like a fiend. Home runs just were not a big part of baseball.

And then Babe Ruth happened. Nobody had seen anything like it. Even as a teenager, he walloped the daylights out of baseballs. Opponents and fans would stand and scratch their heads, astonished by what Babe did to decent pitches.

How famous was Babe Ruth? He more or less established the autograph industry. People were desperate for anything they could use to prove they had spent a moment in the great one’s presence. Babe, for all his carousing, was generous to a fault, but he couldn’t keep giving away everything he touched to souvenir hunters, so he started writing his name on paper for the fans’ sake. There was never much call for that sort of thing before Babe Ruth.

According to the Bambino himself, his rise to fame and fortune all began when he was around 10 years old, when he came to the attention of another giant — a towering Canadian Christian brother who taught Babe Ruth everything he knew about baseball.

 
 

Martine Leo Boutlier was born a bruiser in Lingan, Nova Scotia, on July 11, 1872. He grew to 6-foot-4, packed on 240 pounds of Cape Breton muscle and decided to join the Xavier brotherhood.

Autographs weren't a big thing until everyone decided they wanted Babe's signature. (Fox Photos/Getty Images) Autographs weren't a big thing until everyone decided they wanted Babe's signature. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Not a priest, not ordained, but working within the framework of robust Catholicism, he took the name Brother Matthias and got the job of running the recreation program at St .Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore.

Baltimore was a hard town, and St. Mary’s was where the city's hardest kids were sent when they became too much of a handful. By the age of eight, a young troublemaker named George Herman Ruth had already earned this one-word assessment:  "incorrigible."

On Friday the 13th of June 1902, little George did his first stint in lockup at St Mary’s. He was one of the youngest of the school’s 800 inmates. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he never could stop himself from doing whatever he wanted to do. "Poor impulse control" is what modern experts might call it.

By 1904, when he was 10, pretty much everyone had given up on the little scrapper, and George's parents signed him over to St. Mary’s on a permanent basis. That was his home until 1914.

For a kid with an insatiable yen for doing as he pleased, the strictures of life at reform school were surprisingly agreeable to George. And the main reason he was OK with juvie was Brother Matthias, who Ruth would later call "the greatest man I've ever known."

A legendary ladies' man, Ruth curiously liked to say his first wife, not pictured here, was Canadian. (Manhattan Antiques Shows Inc./Associated Press) A legendary ladies' man, Ruth curiously liked to say his first wife, not pictured here, was Canadian. (Manhattan Antiques Shows Inc./Associated Press)

Matthias’s job was to keep the lads playing nice during their daily outdoor hours. Robert Creamer, who wrote the definitive Ruth bio "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life" describes the moment lightning was caught in a bottle.

George was in the yard at St. Mary’s, watching with awe as Brother Matthias hit fungoes — those little one-armed fly balls you see Little League coaches hit to their players. But Brother Matthias was such a monster that, with just the one arm, he was cranking skyrockets.

George was transfixed. It was love at first hit.

“I think I was born as a hitter the first day I ever saw him hit a baseball,” he'd say later.

George joined every game he could, and excelled from the outset. Brother Matthias saw the talent and put in countless hours over the next several years working on George's game, including hitting him many of those fungoes. Matthias taught him the style of baseball that he himself grew up playing in Cape Breton. In later years, Ruth readily acknowledged that “I could hit the first time I picked up a bat… but Brother Matthias made me a fielder.

The boys of St. Mary’s loved baseball. They played eight months a year. Under Brother Matthias’s eyes, George became the best player at the school. He was a lefty catcher for the early years, and then a southpaw pitcher. St. Mary’s would play other schools, and George would always be the star.

 
 

The difference between the major leagues and the minors was less pronounced in 1914. There were no TV or radio broadcasts. There were only 16 big league teams. Owners of minor outfits made money in two ways — they got the gate, and they developed players and sold them to the bigs.

Ruth would rise to big-league stardom with Boston, but not before a memorable visit to Toronto as a minor leaguer. (Associated Press) Ruth would rise to big-league stardom with Boston, but not before a memorable visit to Toronto as a minor leaguer. (Associated Press)

Back then, the Baltimore Orioles were a minor league team, run by Jack Dunn. Like everybody else in Baltimore’s baseball community, Dunn had heard about the young George Ruth, and so in February 1914, when Ruth was 19, Dunn met the Xavieran brothers and laid out $600 to sign Ruth to a pro contract.

George became "Babe" within weeks of joining the Orioles. The 19-year-old rookie, with his childlike love of the game, stood out from his grizzled teammates, who were mostly on the downward slope of their careers.  With his boyish mug, they couldn’t resist calling him "Jack Dunn’s babe" and, as sports nicknames do, it stuck.

Babe looked good in spring training, and the Orioles made a nice profit on their $600 investment when Quebec City-born Boston Red Sox owner Joe Lannin snapped him up for $25,000.

Ruth won his first pitching start in the majors. But after his very next game, the Sox, who also owned the minor league Providence Grays, shuttled him back to the minors in order to give the Grays a stronger chance to make the playoffs. That brought Ruth’s team into direct competition with the Toronto (baseball) Maple Leafs.

 

It's now September 1914, and the baseball star is about to go supernova. But first, still relatively unknown, Babe Ruth and his Providence Grays have to hop a ferry to away games in Montreal and Toronto. Lake Ontario was not kind to them. The entire team got thoroughly seasick.

The First World War had just broken out and Canada was pulled in as part of the British Empire (the United States would sit out the first few years). Perhaps that’s why there were not many fans at the Toronto game.

Babe Ruth took the pitcher’s mound at Hanlan's Point Stadium on the Toronto Islands and gave up one hit in the first inning. That was all she wrote for Toronto's batters, who were flummoxed by “the Grays' youthful southside phenom,” as the Toronto Star described him that day.

Then the sixth inning rolls around. Two out, two runners on base. Young Babe steps into the batter’s box and takes a couple of practice cuts with his enormous bat — an intimidating 42 ounces. Toronto pitcher Ellis Johnson delivers. The Bambino hauls off and swings.

Crack! A legend is born.

The ball sails over the right fielder and continues over the fence. It's Babe Ruth’s first professional homer in the regular season. Some legends say it splashed into Toronto Harbour. Others have it still orbiting Hanlan’s Point. In hindsight, it's the opening chapter in the biggest story baseball will ever know.

At that time, though, it's just a booming homer from a new guy on the American team. The Toronto Maple Leafs are getting skunked, 9-0. You can understand why the moment wasn’t exactly celebrated in ole Hogtown at the time.

Nobody knows what became of Ruth’s first official pro home run ball. It might have been tossed back into play. Some kids might have grabbed it and used it in their own games. Or it might still be slowly decomposing under the murky footings of Billy Bishop Airport. More than 700 pro home runs later, that Canadian blast would always be Babe’s beginning.

A pair of humble plaques are all that's left to indicate the site of Ruth's historic blast at Hanlan's Point Stadium on the Toronto Islands. A pair of humble plaques are all that's left to indicate the site of Ruth's historic blast at Hanlan's Point Stadium on the Toronto Islands.

Ruth was notoriously slippery about the details of his personal life. Something about Canada seemed to agree with him, though, on an intriguing psychological level. He spent years telling people all sorts of odd fibs about his supposed Canadian connections.

A month after he hit his first homer, he married a waitress named Helen Woodford. He told everyone she was from Halifax. She was not. She was a Bostonian, but for some reason he liked the idea of being married to a Nova Scotian. He also said they married in Montreal. Actually, they got hitched in Ellicott City, Maryland

And what about the story of the Babe's longest home run? That is also a Canadian affair.

"Longest homer ever" may be disputable, but the event in question was certainly a 1926 exhibition match between Guybourg and Beaurivage at old Parc Guybourg on the corner of Saint-Antoine and Crescent in Montreal.

The number that keeps being repeated about Ruth’s drive that day is 600 feet, which takes some swallowing, considering that 500 feet is a stretch for even today's jacked-up players  Still, the one in Montreal might have been Ruth’s longest ball ever.

At least six American cities also claim to be the official site of Ruth’s longest ball, but one fact never questioned about that Montreal game is that the day ended because Babe knocked all the balls out of the park.

Fans wanted a show, so Babe launched three dozen balls over the fence and into the St. Lawrence River. The Cornell Sun reported at the time that “Babe Ruth, the 'king of clout,' stopped a perfectly good ball game here when, knocking 36 balls out of the grounds, he forced the game to be called shortly after the start of the ninth inning because the management had no more spheres."

 

By the time he was 25 years old, Babe Ruth was the all-time Home Run King. For 11 seasons, he led the majors in homers. Though some of his records have been broken, Ruth’s legend has burned for a century without hint of dimming.

For reasons we may never understand, Babe fabricated Canadian connections his whole life. The Saint Lawrence River is the watery grave for dozens of his hits. A Canadian taught him the game. Toronto saw his first pro homer.

There will always be a throne for Babe Ruth in the baseball pantheon. Canadians can take a bow.

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