Saturday, February 27, 2010

No wonder Babe Ruth loved Florida...

Here was a kid raised on the unforgiving streets of Baltimore, ten years old and already labeled "incorrigible" for stealing, drinking, and gambling.

But for a preternatural talent for baseball, Ruth would have likely never have escaped those mean streets.

Instead, Babe first visited Florida in 1914 as a pitcher for the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Nearly every spring thereafter, until the final weeks of a life cut short at 53 by cancer and high living, the Babe revelled in Florida's sunny freedom.

By the time Ruth emerged as a home run-bashing star for the New York Yankees in the mid-1920's, Ruth's spring training habits were already the stuff of legend.

In St. Pete, Babe often stayed in a suite at the Hotel Dennis while his teammates bunked at a smaller, less extravagant hotel. Ruth was given the largest room, the better to host his all-night soirees. Hotel patrons were known to complain about the smell, all hours of the night, of hot dogs and kraut, Babe's favorite dish.

Babe loved to fish, often returning with a prize grouper for the hotel cook to sizzle. Ruth was a familiar sight at local golf courses as well, often squeezing in nine holes at the Belleview Biltmore course after his Yankee practice. That is, on days when Babe wasn't at either a dog track or a horse race.

Wherever Babe went in Florida, he was beseiged by fans. And never once was the Bambino known to turn down an autograph-seeker. Unlike today's cloistered, spoiled super stars, Babe actually enjoyed the interaction with fans, particularly during his morning ritual in St. Pete, where Babe stopped by the same barbershop each morning for a quick shave.

By the late-1920s, Babe was so enamored with the Sunshine State he invested $65,000--a fortune in those days--in St. Pete waterfront property.

By the mid-1930s Babe's career was done, his body ravaged by drink, smoke, and appetite. Fat and 40 in 1935, Ruth could no longer find a job in the major leagues. He wanted to manage. But the only managerial job Ruth received came from Tallahassee mayor Leonard Wesson, who offered Babe reins of the Class-D Tallahassee Capitols of the Georgia-Florida league. "What we lack in salary," Wesson wired, "we can make up for in fishing and golf." Ruth retired instead.

Ruth continued to visit Florida each spring nonetheless. In 1940 and 1941, Babe worked as a hitting instructor at a baseball camp for kids in Palatka. Fans there remember Babe rabbit hunting at night, sitting on his car's fender and blasting away the moment a rabbit became illuminated by the by the glow of his headlights.

On Feb. 5, 1948, Babe arrived in Florida for the last time, his train greeted by 150 fans at Miami's FEC station. Suffering the ravages of throat cancer, Babe retreated to the Golden Strand Hotel near the Dade-Broward line. Two days later Babe celebrated his birthday, his last, by cutting slices of cake for guests. Babe passed on the cake--the pain was too great--and drank beer instead.

Too weak for golf, or to fish, Babe appeared at a number of ceremonial events: he was handed the keys to the City of Miami Beach, placed the crown atop Dania's Tomato Queen, and was named "mayor" of National Children`s Cardiac Home at Flamingo Park.

By April, Babe returned to New York for treatments. Before he left, following a final tour of big league camps, a hopeful Ruth told reporters, "I haven't felt this well in years. You can't beat Florida sun when you're sick. I'll be back..."

It was not to be. Ruth lived long enough to appear at a day in his honor at Yankee Stadium--The House That Ruth Built--in June. But on August 16, 1948, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, 53, breathed his last.

Ruth is often credited with singlehandedly turning baseball into America's pastime. But one could argue that Ruth helped put Florida on the map as a spring destination as well. After all, thousands of fans each spring were drawn to the power and charisma of this once-incorrigible kid from Baltimore who came to love Florida as his own.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18