Because they simply were unable to handle their oldest son, in 1902, Ruth's father, mother, and a Justice of the Peace filed the form that legally labeled the seven-year-old George Ruth Jr. "incorrigible and vicious...beyond the control" of his parents.
He was committed to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys and legally removed from his parents' care, becoming a ward of the Xaverian Brothers who operated the school. On Friday, June 13, George Ruth Sr. took his tearful son by the hand and delivered him to St. Mary's.
The youngster begged to return home with his father and probably vowed by all he knew as holy to mend his ways. His tears had no effect; his rowdiness and truancy had cost him, and he entered St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys.
George Ruth Jr. would spend most of his next 12 years inside the walls of St. Mary's. When he left for good, it would be because he had signed a professional baseball contract.
St. Mary's, located a few miles outside downtown Baltimore, consisted of six gray buildings on several acres with a large open space that fit two ballfields, the Big Yard and the Little Yard. Although it was surrounded by a wooden fence, and the boys there called themselves "inmates," it was less a prison than some have said. (St. Mary's did become a true reformatory in the 1930s.)
Some of the more than 800 students, like George, had been committed there by the courts for minor offenses.The remainder of the student population was comprised of some who were true delinquents, others who were orphans (this is how the "Orphaned Ruth" myth came about), and still others who were actually boarders whose attendance was paid for by their parents.
The Brothers of the Order of St. Francis Xavier who ran the school, however, made no distinction. To the Brothers they were all the same: boys without families. All were there to benefit from the discipline, activity, education, and training made available.
The Brothers were strict, but they were fair. Punishment was seldom corporal. The usual penalty for bad behavior by any of the boys was the withholding of some privilege. One of the most effective punishments (as Ruth would find out later) was being forbidden from taking part in the ballgames. Desertions from the school were actually quite rare. The boys were expected to stay there until they turned 21.
The core mission of the Xaverian Brothers was (and still is) working with disadvantaged youth, usually in cities. What they taught the wild young Ruth changed him forever. The Brothers operated with a simple premise: idleness breeds trouble. So the boys were kept busy on a rigorous schedule that seldom varied. School, training, prayer, work, and play were all parts of the minute-by-minute daily routine.
Babe Ruth biographer Marshall Smelser's description of a typical day there: "Up at six to wash and dress for Mass and breakfast...Classes -- academic or vocational -- from breakfast until 10 in the morning. Recess from 10 to 10:30. School or work from 10:30 to 11:30. Dinner and free time from 11:30 to 1:30. School again until 3:15, after which [time] there was a class in Catholic doctrine, required of Catholics only.
From then until supper at six the boys played, the small boys in the Little Yard, and the boys of fifteen or older in the Big Yard." After supper the boys were supposed to read in bed from 7:30 until lights out 45 minutes later.
The Brother who stood largest in the young Ruth's life (and in the sight of everyone there) was Brother Matthias. Matthias was well-equipped for his duties as prefect of discipline and assistant to Brother Herman, director of athletics. A 6' 6" pear-shaped giant who weighed around 250 pounds, Brother Matthias was quietly stolid, but his commanding physical presence was enough to quell schoolyard mutinies without saying a word.
Brother Matthias became teacher, mentor, coach, and friend to the young truant. This bond, forged early on, stayed with Babe Ruth his entire life -- even after baseball fame arrived. In 1947, when he was writing his autobiography with Bob Considine, Ruth said, "It was at St. Mary's that I met and learned to love the greatest man I've ever known. His name was Brother Matthias. He was the father I needed. He taught me to read and write -- and he taught me the difference between right and wrong."
George Ruth would be an "inmate" of St. Mary's for seven and a half of the next dozen years. He was released to his parents on several occasions. However, regular school still wasn't to his liking, and before long he'd be carted back to the Brothers by the truant officers. For 10 years the young Ruth could visit his family only for the holidays; nearly every weekend, though, his mother and sister Mamie came to visit him.
Then, around 1910, his mother died. From that point until he left the school to become a baseball player, he never had another visitor. He felt the snub keenly. "I guess I'm too ugly," he told a friend, in a totally unRuthian display of self-deprecation.
Learning a Trade
Each boy under the supervision of the Xaverian Brothers was allowed to choose a trade. From a long list that included printer, shoemaker, electrician, carpenter, florist, and launderer, Ruth elected to learn how to sew shirts. Most of the shirts were made for the boys at the school to wear; some were sold to outside vendors. Each boy was paid a small amount for the shirts he made. Ruth routinely spent all his at the candy store and spread his sweet earnings among the smaller kids.
George's concern for the young lads at the school was heartfelt and natural. On chilly days in the yard, he was seen blowing on the hands of cold youngsters to warm them. Throughout his life, Ruth never outgrew his love for children, perhaps because he never really outgrew being a kid himself.
Young George had certain innate abilities. For example, with his natural superiority in hand-eye coordination, the youngster was a superb shirtmaker. According to Smelser, he "claimed he could sew a shirt in less than a quarter of an hour," which prompted the biographer to suggest: "If he had stayed with his trade, he could have made as much as $20 a week." Before long $20 would be the tip Babe Ruth left for breakfast.
More than a talented shirtmaker, young George Ruth Jr. soon discovered another skill he possessed. Continue to the next page for George's early encounters with baseball.
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