The Hospital That Babe Ruth Helped Build

Julia Ruth Stevens & Babe Ruth
Julia Ruth Stevens (center) with Babe Ruth (photo courtesy of
They called it the House that Ruth Built. The fabled nickname for old Yankee Stadium honored the baseball immortal who remains larger than life in American culture: the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.

But there is another house the Babe helped to build. He did it not with his bat but with his heart, not with his towering home runs but with a soaring spirit of generosity toward children - especially those in need.

You can find the modern incarnation of that house right here in St. Petersburg, where Ruth spent many a spring training with the franchise he forged into a dynasty, the New York Yankees.

And you might be surprised at its identity: All Children's Hospital.

The story of how Ruth lent a hand in cementing the foundation of All Children's - then called the American Legion Crippled Children's Hospital - is worth knowing now for many reasons.

With another spring training in Florida giving way to a new baseball campaign, what better time to recall a little-known chapter of local baseball history that helped a small St. Petersburg hospital create a bold history of its own?

With hopeful fans turning their attention to the 2013 season for the Tampa Bay Rays, and a newly signed sponsorship relationship now linking the Rays and All Children's, what better time to reflect on the man who first linked big-league baseball with the lives of young patients here?

And who better to tell us about the giving side of the Babe than the one living person who knew him better than any other - his 96-year-old daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens?

Reached by phone at her part-time home in Phoenix, Julia spoke with a voice filled with vitality and enthusiasm as she talked about the baseball's original home run king - a person she still calls "Daddy."

"He was a wonderful, wonderful man," she says. "I loved him - and to this day, I think about him all the time and I miss him. I think of how wonderful he was with children and how much he loved them. I believe that was because of his upbringing and not having a family to be there for him." 

Unable to handle their rambunctious son, Ruth's parents placed him in St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore at only 7. He remained a ward of the strict reform school for much of his youth. Yet it was there that he developed a gift for baseball, starting on his pathway to mythic baseball stature -always reaching out to kids along the way as if to ease painful memories of his own childhood.

"One thing about Daddy: He never refused an autograph," Julia adds. "After the game was over, there was always a bunch of kids waiting for him to sign their autograph books. He'd stop and do it, and he would have stood there forever - until mother would chime in and say, 'Well, Dear, don't forget we have guests coming for dinner so we'd better get home.' "

But the Babe did more than use his hand to sign his name for starry-eyed kids and just as many adults. He handed over a hefty amount of cash to help the fledgling American Legion hospital . A page of the St. Petersburg Times from March 29, 1928 laid out the details - only six months after Ruth hit his record-breaking 60th home run as the cornerstone of the "Murderer's Row" lineup and arguably the best baseball team ever assembled, the 1927 World Champion Yankees.

"Babe Ruth to Help Kiddies: Sultan of Swat to Aid In Making Crippled Children's Hospital A Success," proclaimed the headline.

The article described how Ruth, despite being a national hero, never lost touch with a childhood that had its share of poverty and pain. "To show his sympathy for other children who are starting life out under a handicap," the story said, "he made the first donation in the campaign now being staged here to raise funds for the continuance of the work at the Crippled Children's hospital."

Ruth's cash donation to the American Legion post involved with the hospital was called "liberal" in the account, which also included this quote from the Bambino himself:

"It's fine during the baseball season to see the youngsters on the bleachers and in the grandstand on a Saturday afternoon and their applause is one of the greatest inspirations the ball players have. But the one thing that gets under the skin is the kiddies in the hospitals like those in your local institutions who can't enjoy sports themselves and seldom get out to see a ball game.

"I really feel it more of a privilege than a duty to do what little I can to help keep up the good work that is being done here by the Legion and the citizens of St. Petersburg for the (crippled) and underprivileged children of Florida."

Ruth also announced his intention to visit children in the hospital in hopes of lifting their spirits, something he made part of his regular routine around the country - well before it became a common practice by other ballplayers of his generation. But his most public gesture on behalf of the future All Children's Hospital was to participate in a 1932 charity golf showdown staged at the Pasadena country club in nearby Gulfport.

The match paired the two famous Babes of the era in a best-ball competition: Babe Ruth vs. female golf and overall sporting great Babe Didrikson. Onlookers in the gallery were reportedly abuzz at the sight of Ruth and Didrikson trying to outdrive one another, with the female Babe ultimately establishing her dominance on the fairway.

Julia has heard about the event but doesn't recall any of the details. Still, she has vivid memories from her many visits from New York to St. Petersburg as a child. "I'd come down whenever the Yankees trained," she says. "I remember the green benches on Central Avenue and the Don CeSar on the beach."

She was a little girl when Ruth married her mother, Claire, then legally adopted Julia. "My own father died when I was very young," she says, "so as far as I was concerned, Daddy was just Daddy - the only father I ever knew." She recollects how her father always rented a home or apartment in St. Petersburg for himself and the family, which included half-sister Dorothy. One spot was the old Jungle Hotel, adjacent to the Jungle golf course that was a favorite spot of the Babe. Another was the Rolyat Hotel in Gulfport (now located on the grounds of Stetson University College of Law).

"Daddy always brought his own cook down," Julia says. "She was a Finnish woman and a very good cook." While her father worked out with the team at then-named Miller Huggins Field by Crescent Lake, the sisters often attended Mrs. Akins Open Air School to keep up with their classes. "I loved it," she remembers. "We used to study outdoors and do our lessons, so we wouldn't fall behind with our education."

Julia's father staged some of his famous holdouts while staying in St. Petersburg over the winter. He signed his biggest contract ever in St. Petersburg, a two-year deal worth $80,000 annually, after negotiating for two weeks with then-Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert at the Princess Martha Hotel.

According to an account in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, Ruth was anxious to get to the Jungle golf course and seemed lukewarm about the offer when he relayed it to his wife.  She had a far different reaction. "Eighty-thousand a year!" Julia's mom was said to have yelled. "Get yourself back in the car and go right back downtown before the Colonel changes his mind!" He reportedly got back in his car, headed back down Fifth Avenue North to downtown and signed the deal.

Such golden-era stories about the Babe in St. Petersburg abound. After finally retiring, he and his family stayed at a winter home on Treasure Island, allowing him to continue his passion for golf with an easy drive to his favorite courses.

"If it hadn't been for golf, I don't know what Daddy would have done after he could not get a manager job when he was released from the Yankees," Julia says. "He wanted so much to manage a team. But Judge (Kenesaw Mountain) Landis said, 'You can't let that guy manage a team. He can't even manage himself.' Well, of course that was not true. By the time that Daddy was released from the Yankees, believe me, there was no wildness in him left. My mother tamed him down."

Julia remains unwaveringly proud of her father and his mighty accomplishments, such as his 714 home run total that stood as the standard for many decades, and his achievements as a pitcher before being switched to outfield.

"He would have made the Hall of Fame just as well as a pitcher," she says. "I hope nobody ever forgets what he accomplished and that his name will go down in history for those things - not, as one magazine wrote about him, that he was a woman-chaser and a drunkard and this and that. Believe me, he couldn't have done what he did on the baseball field if he had been what they called him."

In fact, the Ruth family contends that the widely held view of the Babe as wild and reckless was exaggerated by the media at the time and later became entrenched in lore by Hollywood portrayals. That has led great-grandson Brent Stevens, 35, to create a Web site: dedicated to celebrating the Babe's on-the-field feats and many charitable endeavors away from the game. The site, which went live in 2006, is a treasure trove of all things Babe Ruth: photos, interviews, history, and recollections from Ruth descendants and baseball experts.

"The more I heard about my great-grandfather, the more I realized how special he was not just as a baseball player but as a person," Stevens says. "And I remember seeing the movie 'The Babe' as a kid, and there were a lot of parts of that movie that were really upsetting to me. I just didn't feel like it was an honest portrayal. I later got into the Web industry and I had this vision of an on-line museum for the Babe. And it was really solidified when my sister came home from school one day all upset."

He and his parents asked what was wrong, and she explained that she was upset by what she'd read in a history book about Ruth. "It said he broke records as a player but was also an alcoholic and womanizer," Stevens says. "And I just never felt like that was a fair representation, and it really motivated me to move forward in doing this site - to tell more of a holistic view of the Babe, not only as a player but as a person."

That human side has been championed in St. Petersburg by the Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth, run by Ruth experts Tim Reid and Bob Ward, who have several projects in the works to honor the legend locally. And it has been well chronicled by respected baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, author of "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs."

"When you research Babe Ruth, which is something I've done for 34 years on almost a daily basis, this is something you see over and over again," he says. "There's no hyperbole. The man's flaws and limitations I think are well-known, but I don't think I've ever become aware of a more caring, decent, kind person than Babe Ruth."

His nature was never more apparent than with children, including those in a little St. Petersburg hospital that would continue to grow and flourish - with a helping hand from one of the game's all-time greats - into a burgeoning modern institution. Count it as one more home run on the Babe's list.

Today, All Children's affiliation with Johns Hopkins Medicine brings the Babe Ruth story full circle, entwining the city of his humble beginnings, Baltimore.

Told of what has become of the American Legion hospital her father aided, Julia paused at the thought and then spoke: "Oh, that's wonderful. I'm so glad to hear it. Daddy would be very happy about that."

After all, it's the other house Ruth helped build. And somewhere inside All Children's, the heart of the Great Bambino still beats strong.

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