FAYETTEVILLE — In 1914, George Herman Ruth arrived in Fayetteville as an oversized street urchin who’d never seen much outside of his father’s saloon or the school for wayward boys, where he’d learned to hit a baseball to the moon.
He stepped off the train as a 19-year-old kid, green as a Granny Smith apple, plucked off the streets of Baltimore to pitch for the Orioles at spring training – his first-ever job.
Cut loose in the South, he ate like a wild animal on the Orioles’ tab. He rode up and down in the elevator at the Hotel Lafayette. He played pickup basketball with some kids from Fayetteville High. His teammates slapped him with a nickname that stuck for life: Babe.
Then, on March 7, Babe Ruth came to bat at the Fairgrounds on Gillespie Street, stared down a fastball and knocked it into a cornfield. By the time the right-fielder found it, Ruth had walked around all four bases – his first professional home run.
The people of Fayetteville saw it first. They knew Babe Ruth before he grew to be a power-hitting idol standing at the top of baseball’s Mount Olympus, commanding a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover, gorging himself on hot dogs, bourbon and life.
So on March 7, a century later, they’ll gather at the spot of the Babe’s first big bash.
They’ll plant a new highway sign at the corner of Southern Avenue, the site of the old Fairgrounds, where only a few tall oaks and sycamores might qualify as witnesses to history.
And on March 8, a Saturday afternoon, they’ll play two ceremonial baseball games by 1864 rules: Bare-handed. No gloves. Curly mustache not required.
Quoth the Babe, in his autobiography: “I got to some bigger places than Fayetteville after that, but darned few as exciting.”
A trip back to 1914
There’s not much left on that corner, beyond the Babe Ruth sign. The corner that launched the Sultan of Swat is now home to the state Division of Highways, right across from the Azel Food Mart, which accepts food stamps and sells Marlboros for $4.69 a pack.
I used to work at the Fayetteville Observer, about a mile away. Met my wife, Amber, there – a hometown girl. I’d pass the spot of Babe Ruth’s home run every morning on the way to read arrest warrants in the magistrate’s office. You can drift pretty far from your newspaper job thinking about Babe Ruth in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, hitting more home runs than any player in history by the time he reached 26 – my age at the time.
So I went back to that corner Wednesday and looked at it again, imagining the city 100 years ago, before it built Fort Bragg, long before it got famous for the sinful Rick’s Lounge, where Babe Ruth would have gladly spent a week’s pay.
The picture of 1914 Fayetteville got clearer in the public library, where I looked up the March 11 edition of the then-weekly paper. A lot of big news got better play than Ruth’s homer that week. Mr. and Mrs. John A. Gilmer entertained a few friends at their home in Bellesmeade, including Mssrs. Edgar and Charles Snow. They dined on tomato jelly, lettuce, celery, wafers, sandwiches and coffee.
Near that item, I spotted an ad for Q.K. Nimocks, my wife’s great-grandfather, who had recently opened a law practice with the telephone number 229.
Ruth’s home run got no mention in the Observer. The game itself earned a paragraph on Page 5, where it was noted that the Orioles split into two sides, the Buzzards and the Yannigans, and that “the boys showed up well.”
The Baltimore Sun, by the way, listed the teams as the Buzzards and the Sparrows. It led the story with Ruth’s home run, described it as the longest hit anybody in Fayetteville had ever seen, and included a box score with Ruth batting 2-for-3 on the day. The correspondent added this sad detail:
“Smoke Klingelhoefer was hit on the head during the game, but would not quit.”
It gets even more confusing if you read Robert Creamer’s book “Babe,” which describes the first game as Buzzards v. Sparrows and a second game as Yannigans v. Regulars, but let’s drop it and move on.
‘There goes Babe Ruth’
On my way out, the excellent Fayetteville librarian Arletha Campbell noted that Gillespie Street was a black neighborhood at the time and that the Orioles would have walked to the field past the school where the novelist and short-story writer Charles Chesnutt taught. Glancing at his biography, I think Chesnutt would have been in Cleveland in 1914, but it is still tempting to imagine his brief encounter with the Bambino.
“There goes Babe Ruth walking by,” said Campbell, helping me imagine. “But who knew who Babe Ruth was?”
For me, the best part of this story is Ruth’s return to Fayetteville in 1935, his last year as a major leaguer, when he was fat and slow thanks to two decades of hard living, reduced to playing for the lowly Boston Braves.
There is no marker for this occasion, when the Braves played an exhibition game against N.C. State College, but it is folklore in the Nimocks household. Q.K. Nimocks had been elected mayor by then, perhaps buoyed by his newspaper ad, and he proclaimed it “Babe Ruth Day” in Fayetteville.
The game got called when the city ran out of baseballs, but not before Olney Ray “Lefty” Freeman struck out the Babe. Freeman died last year at age 98, and my colleague Tim Stevens eulogized him with this old quote from 1977:
“He was slowed down a lot by then. He was overweight, and you could tell he didn’t have many more years in the big leagues ahead of him. But he was Babe Ruth. There was only one. And still had the most perfect swing I’ve ever seen. When he got hold of a baseball the way he wanted to, it looked like an aspirin when it went out of the park.”
That’s what I’ll think of whenever I’m back in Fayetteville: the ghost of Babe Ruth, his ball disappearing like a stone down a well.