By Father Gabe Costa
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Last week I was privileged to have dinner with Mrs. Julia Ruth Stevens on the occasion of her 98th birthday. Julia is the daughter of the late Claire Merritt Hodgson, who became Mrs. Babe Ruth in April of 1929. Julia was adopted by the Babe, and to this day she still refers to him as "daddy."
My visit with Julia had been set up by noted baseball historian Mr. William (Bill) Jenkinson. In my opinion, few -- if any on the planet -- know as much about Babe Ruth as does Jenkinson. When he introduced me to Julia, who was tended to by her daughter-in-law, Anita, I was immediately taken by the fact that Julia is the last living person who actually resided with Babe Ruth.
As I sat down at a table in a screened porch, I tried to take in the magnitude of the moment. I have been reading about Babe Ruth for more than a half a century, trying not only to analyze his baseball statistics, but to grasp his personality and understand the reasons for his continued popularity. And there I was, sitting down with a person who lived with him on Riverside Drive in New York City, residing in the same household with Babe Ruth nearly 20 years before I was born!
It was overwhelming.
Note that I was not there to conduct a formal interview for an article or a book, nor was I there to look at pictures of Claire, Dorothy -- Ruth's biological daughter who was eventually adopted by Claire -- Julia or "daddy. " I was there simply to enjoy meeting Julia and to bask in her presence.
However, I did, of course, ask her a number of questions, covering a variety of topics. I suspected that I would know most of the "answers," but it was interesting to hear these responses and observations about "daddy" from Julia herself, and how they confirmed what I had read before:
• Ruth never forgot his upbringing and the positive impact made on him by the Xaverian Brothers from St. Mary's Industrial School.
• Lou Gehrig's mother may have been the cause of the "rift" between Ruth and Gehrig. This was due to her innuendos that Claire may have neglected Dorothy and did not treat her in the same way as she treated Julia, insofar as the type of clothing worn by each girl. Dorothy would have been around 10 years old at this time, making her about five years younger than Julia. Dorothy spent much time with the Gehrigs. Dorothy's daughter, Linda – whom I also met through Jenkinson – told me that her mother had a schoolgirl crush on Gehrig.
• In 1934, Ruth did try to reconcile with Gehrig on an ocean liner which carried a contingency of major leaguers from the United States. These players were sailing on the Pacific Ocean on the way to Japan for a series of exhibition games. Babe, Claire and Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, all tried to bring about a reconciliation between the home-run sluggers. Unfortunately, Gehrig was not open to "burying the hatchet" at that time.
• On December 7, 1941, Ruth flew into a rage upon learning about the attack on Pearl Harbor and threw a number of Japanese artifacts out of the window. These gifts had been given to him when he visited Japan in 1934.
• Ruth's biggest disappointment was never being hired to become a major-league manager. On this point, there is current research which suggests that Ruth may have been a victim of racial bias because some "baseball executives" feared that Ruth would have advanced the fight to integrate the big leagues long before 1947. On this point, Claire was fiercely defensive of her husband, and was understandably angry with the dismissive rejection of her husband.
• Ruth played a lot of golf, especially during his retirement. In his autobiography, Ruth wrote, "Without (golf) I would have blown up to 300 pounds. Without it, also, I would have gone nuts." Regarding golf, Julia also related that daddy would come home after a round or two of golf and ask Claire if anyone had called, clearly expecting some major-league club to offer him a position. The call, of course, never came. In her book, "The Babe and I," Claire wrote words to the effect that once Ruth realized that he was no longer wanted, he sat down and began to cry. And when he began to cry, he began to die.
• Claire was, in some sense, the mother that Babe never really had. She insisted that Ruth be well-dressed and took care to make sure the Ruths would be financially secure in their later years.
• Ruth loved to sing. The Ruths had a piano in their apartment.
• Ruth's favorite scotch was Dewar's.
• More than anything, Ruth loved kids.
And I just listened to Julia. And I nodded and I smiled. Bill and I did not stay too long with Julia, but as we left, Bill commented that "Julia is a national treasure."
Amen to that.
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