Monday, November 25, 2013

Babe Ruth: Sudbury, Massachusetts

Inside the Smoke Shop (courtesy Maynard Historical Society)
The space is currently two stores. Click on photos to enlarge.
Sudbury in the early 20th century was a quiet rural community twenty-five miles west of Boston. Babe Ruth and his wife spent at least two winters there: 1917-18 (while with Red Sox) and 1922-23 (while with Yankees). 

From a book "Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox" by Allan Wood: "Babe and Helen Ruth spent the winter of 1917-18 at their farmhouse in Sudbury, MA. They often took a horse and buggy into the nearby town of Maynard, where Helen would shop for groceries or clothes, while Babe would buy cigars and play pool at the Maynard Smoke Shop, which was owned by Frank and Joe Sheridan. The owners' younger brother, 19-year old Ralph Sheridan, had followed the Red Sox since 1908, and he recognized Ruth the first time he walked into the store."

It makes sense that the Ruths shopped in Maynard. Sudbury was a quiet farming town of 1,100 people, whereas the population of Maynard was close to 7,000. Maynard had grocery stores, band concerts, dance halls, pool halls, bowling alleys, bars, a Woolworth's and daily trains to and from Boston. Sudbury had vegetable farms (including greenhouse farms serving the Boston market) and chickens.

Outside the Smoke Shop (courtesy Maynard Historical Society)

To the end of his days, Sheridan was known to greet people with "Shake the hand of a man who shook the hand of Babe Ruth." For those familiar with the sweet science, it's a take on "Shake the hand of a man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan."

The Maynard Historical Society has a tape of an interview with Sheridan, made in 1994 when he was 96 years old. The interview can be listened to online from the MHS website as Podcasts. The last one mentions Ruth at 22 and 30 minutes. The Smoke Shop was the east end of the 100 Main Street building, where Classic Hair Design and Legends Comix and Games are now.

Why was the young Red Sox pitcher living in Sudbury? Firstly, this was not the Dutton Road farmhouse that Babe bought in 1922, when he was already a star for the Yankees. Rather, the story goes that a couple of his teammates with the Red Sox had invited him to visit Sudbury, where they would rent cabins near Willis Pond to fish and hunt. For the winter of 1917-1918, Ruth (22 years old at the time) rented a modest waterfront cabin (since burned down) near the end of Butler Road. Maynard was the closest place to go shopping and also to drink, play pool and otherwise carouse.

This story is not complete without a connection to the legend of Babe Ruth's piano. Again, Ralph Sheridan's reminisces, as recounted by Allan Wood: "Several times that winter, Ruth invited young men and kids from the area out to his house. Ralph Sheridan worked in a nearby woolen mill and on the weekends, he and some friends, all teenagers, would walk from Maynard, about one mile, across Willis Pond to Ruth's farm. Babe and Helen were often out playing in the snow when Sheridan and his friends came by."

In a letter, Sheridan recalled that he and his friends and Ruth would play outside. When they got cold, Helen invited everyone into the cottage and served them hot cocoa and cookies. "Mrs. Ruth would play the old battered piano and we would all sing along, including the Babe. He loved kids and always liked to have them around. And, always when we would leave, he would say, 'Come over again and bring the gang.' We were thrilled to be with him."

So how did that upright piano supposedly end up in Willis Pond? As one version of the story goes, a daytime gathering at the house got overcrowded - the cottage being only 20x50 feet - so Ruth and others pushed the piano down the hill and out onto the ice. There, they continued the party complete with singing and dancing while Helen played the piano. When it was time to move the piano back it was too heavy to push up the hill. So, the Babe simply left the instrument on the ice, where it eventually sank to the bottom.

Kevin Kennedy, a resident of Sudbury, has been searching for the piano for many years. Teams of expert divers have been in the pond more than once. In 2010, a group of divers pulled out pieces of wood, possibly white oak, that piano expert David Sanderson of Sanderson Piano in Littleton believed could be the veneer of an old upright piano. The divers also believed they had located the piano's harp beneath the murky waters. But as of November 2013 there is no additional news.

Where Babe lived off-season
1914-15     Baltimore, with his father, after Babe and Helen married in October 1914
1915-16     Baltimore
1916-17     ??
1917-18     Sudbury, in cabin on Butler Road, waterfront on Willis Pond
1918-19     Sudbury?? No mention in various biographies
1919-20     Sudbury?? No mention in various biographies. Traded to Yankees 1/5/1020
1920-21     The Ansonia Hotel, Manhattan, New York
1921-22     The Ansonia Hotel, Manhattan, New York
1922-23     Sudbury, 558 Dutton Road = "Home Plate Farm"
1923+        The Ruths owned the Sudbury house until 1926, but Babe may have been spending
                   most of his time in NY, only occasionally visiting his wife and daughter
                   in Massachusetts.

Babe (center) and his father (right) at his Dad's saloon in Baltimore, taken
 December 1915. His father died August 1918 (Internet photo download)

What Babe was paid by the Red Sox
The amounts below are base salary and equivalents in 2013 dollars. Players who had a good season were sometimes paid bonuses. Play-off teams got play-off income. And players or all-star teams sometimes did post-season exhibition games for money. All told, a star could perhaps double base salary. One reason salaries were modest is that there was no television or radio advertising income for the owners. Today's top-paid baseball players make on the order of $20,000,000 plus $1,000,000 from endorsements.   

1914         1,300                  30,000
1915         3,500                  80,000
1916         3,500                  75,000
1917         5,000                  91,000
1918         7,000                108,000
1919       10,000                135,000
1920       20,000 (Yankees)


Lore of Babe Ruth drinking and/or otherwise carousing in Maynard is just that [see newer info at end]. A few neighboring town waterholes - such as the Dudley Chateau in Wayland - claim to have been speakeasies frequented by Ruth back in the day. The timing would have been in the early 1920s - after national Prohibition was in effect. What is missing from this story is confirmation of sites within Maynard that were serving booze back then. The two oldest bars extant - The Pleasant Cafe and Stretch's Tavern (now Morey's) - both postdate the end of Prohibition.

Babe Ruth could have been buying in Maynard and drinking at his Sudbury estate just two miles away. When he bought the farmhouse in 1922 it included a simple cabin on Willis Pond, about half a mile from the house. Babe and his friends could head out there for an evening of drinking, cardplaying and whatnot without disturbing his wife and daughter at the farmhouse. His name for the cabin was "Ihatetoquitit."
A quote often attributed to Babe Ruth, but in fact the work of current-day comic writer Jack Handey: "Sometimes when I reflect on all the beer I drink, I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn't drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. I think, 'It is better to drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.'" 

On the other hand, this one appears to be true Ruth: "I learned early to drink beer, wine and whiskey. And I think I was about five when I first chewed tobacco."

Babe may or may not have been drinking heavily during his Red Sox years; a time when the sale of alcohol was still legal in Massachusetts, albeit banned in many individual towns. In Ralph Sheridan's reminisces about visiting Ruth's cabin on Willis Pond he said he never saw Ruth drink, nor saw any alcohol in the house. Babe Ruth spent mid-1914 through 1919 with the Red Sox, initially as a pitcher, but by the end pitching less and putting in more time as an outfielder. He was sold to the Yankees before the start of the 1920 season. He was 25 years old.

Contract Morals Clause
After two years of Ruth's successes and shenanigans in New York, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the Yankees, attempted to curtail Babe's drinking and partying. Thus an addendum to the contract signed in late 1922:  "It is understood and agreed by and between the parties hereto that the regulation set forth shall be construed to mean among other things, that the player shall at all times during the term of this contract [$52,000/year] and throughout the years 1922, 1923 and 1924, and the years 1925 and 1926 if this contract is renewed for such years, refrain and abstain entirely from the use of intoxicating liquors and that he shall not during the training and playing season in each year stay up later than 1 o'clock a.m. on any day without the permission and consent of the Club's manager..."

Babe Ruth and admirers (Internet download)
This appears to have been the first morals clause for a professional athlete. Ruppert may have hoped that the Sultan of Swat would also curtail his compulsive womanizing, but did not try to get that into the contract. Supposedly, at the time of that meeting the Babe told Ruppert: "I'll promise to go easier on drinking and to get to bed earlier, but not for you, fifty thousand dollars or two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars will I give up women. They're too much fun."

While a Yankee, Ruth and his wife made one more stab at reconciling. He bought the farmhouse at 558 Dutton Road, in Sudbury, after the 1922 season, and Babe took up the public image of a gentleman farmer living the good, clean life in the country with his wife and their adopted daughter. He called the estate "Home Plate Farm"

Babe was in residence the winter of 1922-23. After that, his wife continued to reside in Sudbury or elsewhere in the Boston area, but Babe was mostly in New York. They formalized their separation (not a divorce) in 1925 and she sold the house in 1926.  

As a postscript, the Dutton Road house and barn, situated on two acres, recently sold for a bit under $1.3 million, while in 2012 a Yankees baseball jersey worn by The Bambino in 1920 sold for $4.4 million.

Evidence for drinking in Maynard
After the articles appeared in the Beacon-Villager I had a phone conversation with Bob Merriam, Maynard High School Class of 1962. Bob told stories about how his grandparents, Niilo and Saimi Hirvonen, knew firsthand about Babe Ruth drinking in Maynard. 

According to Bob, during the time when Ruth was still with the Red Sox (and liquor was still legal), Babe would show up at Bughouse Corner* with a big roll of cash in his pocket, slap it on the bar, and tell the bartender "Everyone drinks on Babe Ruth." Not only was he buying, but he insisted that everyone stay until the bar closed, because he liked being around lots of people. 
Ruth in 1918 (photo from Library of Congress collection)

This would have been circa 1917-1918, and Ruth would have been in his early 20's at the time. He and his wife were living off-season in a modest rented house in Sudbury - not to be confused with the large house and farm he bought in Sudbury in 1922, when already a Yankee.  

Bughouse Corner* was a small bar on the corner of Waltham and Parker, in front of Parker Street Hall (the Finnish Workingmen's Socialist Society), where the brick apartment building is now. It was a popular but low-key drinking haunt for workers coming off shift at the woolen mill.

More than one night, Babe Ruth was too drunk to drive the two miles back to Sudbury, where his wife was home alone in the remote cabin on Willis Pond. Instead, Niilo - himself being a drinking man -  saw no problem in bringing Babe back to his place, where Ruth would sleep it off on the living room floor. 

As Bob Merriam told it, "When I was growing up, my grandfather was proud that he had known Babe Ruth, but my grandmother had nothing kind to say. The way she told it, 'That man would wake up in the night and go outside and pee off the porch instead of using the bathroom.'"

When Bob asked his grandfather if this was true, the diplomatic answer was "Your grandmother has a good memory."      

Another story about the Babe and urination is not as well documented, but as the story goes, he was an avid golfer, at times played the Stowaway Golf Course (in neighboring Stow), and when he did, had on occasion stepped into the woods to relieve himself. Players joke that they may be wetting the same spot honored by Ruth 90 years ago.

*"Bughouse" was turn-of-the-century slang for an insane asylum. Likewise, "Bughouse Corner" was a slang term for street corner locations in cities were orators and prophets of doom would stand on overturned soap boxes and lecture whoever was walking by on their pet topic. How the bar came by its name is anyone's guess.


In 1914, the same year Babe Ruth was traded to the Red Sox, Fred "Brick" Wilder, former Maynard High School baseball star, was signed by the Red Sox as a catcher and assigned to a minor league team in Buffalo. He was called to The Show at the tail end of the 1915 season, but did not play, and was in Providence for 1916. Wilder was in spring training with the Sox in 1917 - which would have had him catching for Babe Ruth and the other pitchers - but injured his throwing arm. Wilder never made it into a Red Sox game. He was among the many players in the Red Sox organization who were either drafted or volunteered for military service during World War I, in his case into the U.S. Army. After the war he had an eight year career in the minors out west (first base/outfield), retired from the sport, married, and returned to Maynard, where he lived until his death in 1967. 

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