By Joseph Bathanti
A few days ago, I just happened to stumble upon the story, more an on-line anecdote, that on April 5, 1925, eighty-nine years ago today, the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 16-9 in an exhibition game in North Carolina and Babe Ruth collapsed “due to an ulcer.” The North Carolina connection intrigued me, so I investigated. I went straight to Robert Creamer’s biography of Ruth: Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, the Penguin edition, published in 1983. I loved this book the first time I read it, probably twenty years ago, and found a lot to admire this time around as I scanned it for allusions to the Babe in North Carolina.
What I discovered is that Ruth and the Yankees, on their way back home after spring training, were barnstorming through the south in the early spring of 1925. Ruth became ill on the train from Knoxville to Asheville and, according to Creamer, he collapsed on the train platform in Asheville on April 7 (not April 5) and was later treated by Asheville physician Charles Jordan at the Battery Park Hotel , where the Yankees were quartering. Another very interesting, but only vaguely contradictory account of what happened comes from the Asheville Tourism website.
As a boy, I tacked up over the headboard of my bed a colossal poster of Ruth. It stayed there well beyond 1976, the year I left home for North Carolina. My mother, no doubt, removed it. Its whereabouts remain unknown. I suppose, for boys born in 1953, the year of my birth, and desperate to someday play professional baseball, an obsession with Babe Ruth was not that uncommon. What started it for me, truly – in 1959, when I was in the first grade at Saints Peter and Paul School in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh where I grew up – was a movie.
I do not have fond memories of the nuns who taught me there, but I remember clearly the movies they showed us in the school basement where we also ate lunch. One of those movies was The Babe Ruth Story, made in 1948, with William Bendix (who starred in the popular TV comedy, The Life of Riley, in the 50s) as the Bambino; Claire Trevor as his wife, Claire Hodgson Ruth; and an appearance by William Frawley, who played Fred Murtz, in TV’s famous I Love Lucy series. The film was directed by Roy Del Ruth.
The Babe Ruth Story is unapologetically sentimental, saccharine, even, but gloriously so and it broke my six year old heart and galvanized in me more fiercely than ever to live my life on consecrated baseball diamonds. It might even be the first text that produced in me (the sources of influence are inscrutable) what I can only call the same yearning that writers often feel. But, back then, I had no language for such things, and I’m sure that was all for the best. I just wanted to play ball. Check out this clip of Bendix in the film, reenacting Ruth’s beyond famous called home run in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs. Now genuflect and gaze upon the actual amazing footage of that very homer – with a little jazz flourish at its conclusion.
I realize that John Goodman starred in The Babe, the most recent film about Ruth’s life, but I find myself unaffected by that version. As much as anything, I was no longer a little boy when I saw it and the so-called verities of that 1992 rendition left me merely sad. I wrote the following poem inspired by Bendix and The Babe Ruth Story.
The Babe Ruth Story
The last rites of the Catholic Church were administered on July
21, but Ruth rallied again after that. He left the hospital on the
evening of July 26 to attend the premier of The Babe Ruth Story.
He was very uncomfortable watching the film and left before it was over.
— Robert W. Creamer
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life
A hand-fed sixteen
millimeter sprayed black
and white the school cellar wall,
a nun caressing a flashlight
on the periphery of the dust-flecked film beam.
I kept at home above my bed
a poster of the real Babe Ruth.
Pinstriped, throned, with his
Yankee crown and the enormous
bat thrown slant like a scepter
at his shoulder, he looked nothing
like William Bendix, who played the Babe
like The Life of Riley –
a dear sheepish lug who with
four pounds of ashe and horsehide
then gave his life away.
Crouched in my metal chair
beneath the soft Cathode ray,
feeling on my lips the breast-
like give of the marshmallows I ate,
and on my tongue their cloying,
I was happy.
Only a good beating could make me cry.
(from This Metal, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC)
By the way, Babe Ruth, in a minor league game, hit his very first professional home run in 1914 in Fayetteville, NC.
Don’t forget: in celebration of National Poetry Month, North Carolina poet and teacher Maureen Ryan Griffin will offer an intriguing online class called Poetry Rocks.
Happy Birthday to Matthew Wimberley. His poem. “At Night,” was first published as “Elegy at Night” at the Paris-American.
broke down on a highway one hundred miles
west of Laramie. Shadows bend snow-fences
over hills toward the end of America,
through wheatgrass braided like rope
two feet high and falling in one long tide
as the wind sweeps clear of the trees.
Suppose I can say anything
to him now—infinite
unchained from life.
In the luminol dash glow
my thoughts turn the floodlights
to a tether. He’s out there just beyond
ready to disappear.
My favorite picture of him
is a mug shot. There was a night
when my parents were in love
before I was conceived
and the slow drift between them
wasn’t noticeable—he’d knocked a man out,
broke his nose. In the picture he’s young
wearing a rugby shirt, back against cinderblocks.
He’s laughing, the way a smirk
cuts at his cheeks. And his shadow
permanent on the wall
dark enough to fall asleep in.
Mathew Wimberley, from Beech Mountain, NC, is a Starworks Fellow and MFA candidate at New York University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, Narrative, Orion, Puerto Del Sol, Rattle, Verse Daily and elsewhere.