Word had gotten around that Babe was back, the home run king of the American League had returned. Those who heard came to see him; some even took the trolley from Frederick to Thurmont and then switched to the Emmitsburg Railroad to make the rest of the journey to Emmitsburg. So when George Herman Ruth walked onto Echo Field at Mount St. Mary’s College on May 7, 1921, a crowd was there to greet him.
The Babe Discovered
It was far larger than the one that had greeted him when he made his first appearance on the field in 1913.
At that time, Ruth was a young man of 18 years who was playing baseball with the team from St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys of Baltimore. The school was a reformatory and orphanage. Ruth had been there since he was seven years old because his parents couldn’t care for him.
Brother Matthias Boutlier, the Head of Discipline at St. Mary’s Industrial School, introduced Ruth to the game of baseball, which he quickly took to. The team made the trip to Mount St. Mary’s in 1913 to play a commencement day game against the Mount St. Mary’s freshman baseball team as an opener to the alumni game that featured college alumni playing against the varsity team.
The odds looked good for the alumni to win in 1913. They had Joe Engel, a pitcher for the Washington Senators, on the mound for them. He was able to play in the game since Sunday baseball wasn’t allowed in Washington D.C. at the time and so he was off work.
Engel had once been something special in his own right. When he had attended the Mount, he had lettered in track, baseball, basketball and football. He also pitched a perfect game while on the Mount baseball team. He pitched in the Major League from 1912 until 1920. Once he was sent to the Minor League, Engel would show himself to be an excellent scout. He eventually became known as one of the greatest scouts and baseball promoter in the history of the game.
It could be argued that that talent first began to show itself in Engel in 1913. He was among the crowd who watched Ruth, who stood 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighed 170 pounds, strike out 18 of the 20 batters he faced.
“The St. Mary’s pitcher caught Engel’s eye, partly because of his fastball and partly because of his haircut. Ruth—he was the pitcher, of course—no longer wore his hair cropped short but instead was wearing it in the most mature hair style, that he, Engel, had ever seen on a school kid,” Henry Thomas wrote in Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train. The haircut apparently was tightly clipped on the sides and “roached” or waved over his forehead. According to Thomas it was “in the mode highly favored by bartenders and other cool cats of the day.”
Engel said later of his first impression of Ruth, “He really could wheel that ball in there, and remember, I was used to seeing Walter Johnson throw. This kid was a great natural pitcher. He had everything.”
Then once the game had ended, Ruth cleaned himself up and joined the band to play the bass drum.
That evening on a train to Baltimore, Engel ran into Jack Dunn, the owner and manager of the Baltimore Orioles, which was a Minor League team that had no connection to the current Major League team with the same name. Engel knew Dunn professionally and the two began to talk during the ride. When Dunn heard that Engel had been playing in his alma mater’s alumni game, he asked if anyone on the college’s team showed promise. Engel began talking about the young pitcher he had seen who could also play the drums.
“He’s got real stuff,” Engel told Dunn.
It was the first time Ruth’s name was mentioned professionally, according to Tom Meany a writer who has written extensively about Babe Ruth.
Dunn made a note of the name, but he didn’t immediately act on it. That came later when another person with a keen eye for baseball praised Ruth’s ability.
“Then Dunn heard the same name from Brother Gilbert when he went to scout a possible pitcher at St. Joseph’s. Brother Gilbert, wanting to keep his own player in school and pitching for St. Joseph’s, began to extol the natural talent of a kid named Ruth over at St. Mary’s. Dunn decided it was time to see for himself,” wrote Wilborn Hampton in Babe Ruth: A Twentieth-Century Life.
Dunn went to St. Mary’s Industrial School and watched Ruth pitch during a workout for half an hour and signed him to a contract for $250 a month on February 14, 1914.
By July, Ruth had made the jump to the Boston Red Sox to play in the Major League. He got his first victory pitching during his major league debut on July 11. He was sent back to the Minor League for awhile and returned as a starter the following year. That season his record was 18-8 and his batting average was .315. The Red Sox won that year’s World Series and though Ruth played in it, he grounded out during his only time at bat.
By 1918, the Red Sox began to recognize Ruth’s ability as a hitter. They began using him less as a pitcher and more as a hitter. That year, he led the American League in home runs and the following year, he would set his first single-season home run record (29 home runs).
Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in December 1919. During the 1920 season, Ruth hit 54 home runs with a .376 batting average, again setting records. His .847 slugging average would stand for more than 80 years.
This was the legend that returned to Mount St. Mary’s. Discovered as a teenage pitcher here, he was now returning as the home run king.
The King Returns
It was big news for Frederick County. Although The Frederick Post didn’t routinely report on Emmitsburg news, it included a paragraph in its May 7 edition noting: “’Babe’ Ruth, the home run king of the American League, spent last night at Mt. St. Mary’s College. He passed through Frederick by auto about 8:30 o’clock yesterday evening. He will return to Frederick early this morning making the return trip by automobile. He will pass through Frederick again between 8 and 8:30 o’clock.”
When Ruth had arrived at Mount St. Mary’s College on Friday evening, he visited the faculty and met them. Then visited a study hall to meet with students there and talk with them. It was there that the students convinced him to spend the night and give a demonstration of the talent that had made him a legend the next morning.
The good-natured Ruth relented and word spread quickly that Ruth would be giving a hitting demonstration the next morning. And so, when Ruth stepped onto Echo Field the next morning, a crowd had gathered to see the man who was on his way to becoming a baseball icon.
“Time after time mighty shouts went up as the Terror of Twirlers sent the white pellet first over the tennis courts in right field and then over the bank in left. For nearly an hour, the King of Swat stood up to the plate and golfed the horsehide to all corners of the lot. He slammed them anywhere and everywhere. Slow ones, fast ones, it made no difference to the ‘Bam,’ he hit them all right on the old nose,” The Mountaineer reported.
Mike Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum, said, “He hit monstrous flies and let people catch them. He also let the pitcher strike him out, which the crowd loved.”
Ruth stopped only because he needed to get on the road to be elsewhere, but he was besieged by fans who wanted a picture with him or signed balls and bats and “one guy presented a tattoo needle to stamp a little remembrance on for keeps,” according to The Mountaineer.
Ruth left Emmitsburg and drove to Washington where he played in a game against the Senators where he hit his eighth home run of the season.
The 1921 baseball season was a good year for Ruth. He hit 59 home runs, batted .378 and had a slugging average of .846 and led the Yankees to their first league championship.