“Oh, it was great,” said Julia Ruth Stevens describing her life growing up with the man called the greatest baseball player in history, the Babe, George Herman Ruth.
She was only in grade school when her mother, a widow, met and married Babe Ruth, a widower himself, in 1929. He was then at the peak of his career, two years after he had hit the 60 home runs and the season before his signing the $80,000-a-year contract that made him the highest paid athlete in the world.
Glancing around her Pleasant St., Conway, home which houses the largest collection of Babe Ruth memorabilia outside the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Mrs. Stevens recalled Babe Ruth, the man, the husband and father, a side seldom recorded by sports reporters who chose rather to write about his alleged drinking and eating excesses. “Than simply wasn’t true,” said Mrs. Stevens. “He was a good family man, and a great father, and very strict, I might add. Until I was married I had to be home every night by 11 p.m.”
Her parents entertained often at home, and all the baseball greats of the era were frequent guests. Her favorites included Lefty Gomez, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, Charlie Ruffing, and George Pipgras, as well as other team members who helped the Yankees win seven American League pennants and 5 World Series during Ruth’s 11-year stint (1923-1934), with the New York City organization. An avid follower who still roots for the Yankees (even though her husband is a Red Sox fan) Mrs. Stevens admits she’ll pull for Boston to finish second or even first if her own team is destined for last place. Of the younger players, she likes Mark Fidrych, Detroit’s voracious pitcher, the best. “He’s a drawing card,” she explained. “This is good for baseball. When Daddy used to play, it didn’t matter how their own club was doing, the fans would turn out to see the Yankees and Daddy play, even if he struck out. And remember, only Micky Mantle struck out more often.”
Ruth, she said, exuded supreme confidence of the same kind she sees in professional tennis player, Jimmy Connors. She regrets she won’t be around to watch him at the Volvo Tennis Tournament in North Conway this summer, but that’s Old Timer’s Week at the Hall of Fame, and “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’ve been back every year since 1948.”
The only drawback to living in a VIP family that Mrs. Stevens could name was that at times she didn’t feel like her own person, she was in the wings while the spotlight focused on center stage. “That wasn’t true of my mother,” she said. “She was a person.” The woman who always signed herself Mrs. Babe Ruth spent the last 25 years of her life making sure that no one forgot her husband. Present at all the awards ceremonies and festivities, Claire Ruth was instrumental in starting the Babe Ruth League in 1951 and worked tirelessly for the American Cancer Society to help stop the disease that claimed her husband in 1948 and finally herself, last October .
“I can’t say he died of a broken heart,” she added, “but I’ve read how extreme hurt and disappointment can bring on an illness. Daddy always wanted to get back into baseball, but they never asked him. . . I think if he had a job in baseball, he would have lived longer.”
After his retirement from the Yankees at age 40, Ruth concentrated his energies on his other loves - bowling, fishing, hunting, and golf - and it was the latter that first brought him and his family to Mt. Washington Valley. New York City entrepreneur and North Conway benefactor, Harvey Gibson, had invited him to play in a golf tournament at the nine-hole North Conway Country Club.
During their stay, Mrs. Stevens met the man she would marry the following year, and that secured a tie between the Ruths and Gibson’s home town. “Every summer after that, they would come and stay for a week to 10 days,” she said. Ruth was especially fond of the area and would spend every day playing golf at either the North Conway club, Wentworth Hall in Jackson, the Mt. Washington Hotel golf course, or the one in Poland Springs, Maine. Traveling sometimes with her adopted sister, Dorothy, five years younger than herself - Babe had no children of his own - the Ruths stayed mostly at the Eastern Slope Inn. On two occasions, Mrs. Stevens remembered how her parents visited her in the winter at the inn she and her first husband operated, the Cranmore Mountain Lodge in Kearsarge. “But Daddy wasn’t a skier,” she said, “and they didn’t stay long.”
Pictures, drawings, plaques, even a needlepoint portrait that was a particular favorite of her father’s line the walls of a trophy room in her home. Each has its own story, and each is perhaps more accurate that the Ruth biographies that line almost an entire shelf in her book case. Only one, “The Life That Ruth Built,” by Marshall Smelser, she feels, portrays her father correctly. Even the movie,”The Babe Ruth Story,” (1948) that starred William Bendix and Claire Trevor missed the mark. “They all tried to create an image that wasn’t real,” she said. “They talk about the time he supposedly went out on the town and then hit three home runs the next day. That just didn’t happen, I was there. And more important, so was my mother. She was as strict with him as he was with me. No, he was a warm, wonderful father.” Spoken like a true daughter. And one who still surrounds herself with the memories of the man who was voted at the sport’s 100th anniversary in 1969, “Baseball’s Greatest Player Ever.”