Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 6)

Published February 16, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter Six

Babe Ruth: Gentleman Farmer

Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Cambridge faced a dilemma. They had lingered over lunch and drinks during a beautiful early summer afternoon at the Wayside Inn, and arrived back at the Wayside Inn Station of the Massachusetts Central Railway just in time to see the last train for Boston disappear around the bend.

There was nothing to do but start walking. The Allens headed back down Dutton Road, hoping that someone on the State Road (Route 20) would give them a ride to Boston.

As luck would have it, help was not long in coming. An expensive Packard touring car stopped and the well-dressed driver motioned them aboard. On the way into town, Mr. Allen was impressed with the flair with which the driver handled the automobile and inquired if he drove professionally.

“No,” was the reply. “I play baseball.”

The identity of the mysterious stranger was revealed the following morning when the Allens recognized him in a picture in the morning paper. He was Babe Ruth, star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

Ruth discovered Sudbury not long after he joined the Red Sox as a hitting pitcher in the spring of 1914. Several veteran Red Sox players, including his catcher, Chet Thomas, rented or owned camps in the Pine Lakes area where they could fish, hunt and party without being disturbed. By 1919, Ruth was using a camp on Willis Lake owned by sports enthusiast Larry Joyce. He continued to come to Sudbury even after he was traded to Jacob Ruppert’s New York Yankees that winter.

In 1922, Ruth purchased the Sylvester Perry Farm on Dutton Road along with a camp located on Willis Lake across from what is now the end of Harness Lane. He moved his wife, Helen, and adopted daughter, Dorothy, there soon after. He dubbed the farm “Home Plate.”

Ruth took a hit when the property was assessed. Sylvester Perry was not popular in town and the assessors had taken out their frustrations on him by over-assessing his property. The over-valuation was passed on to the new owner.

Ruth’s purchase of the Perry place was the direct result of a horrific 1922 season during which the Bambino’s weight went up and his batting average went down in direct proportion. To quiet the often vocal New York press, he held a post-season dinner at the New York Elks Club where he told the writers he was giving up hard liquor for a year and spending the winter shoveling snow and chopping wood on his Massachusetts farm. He would then go to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for pre-season workouts so as to be ready to set a new home-run record in 1923.

Helen Ruth was a good baseball wife who put up with her husband’s frequent New York parties, but some believe that she engineered the move to Sudbury as part of a reconciliation. She remembered the town fondly from the days when the Babe was a young member of the Red Sox and obviously hoped that the farm’s remote location would help slow down the steady stream of writers and hangers-on that plagued him constantly in New York.

The ploy worked. While the New York press carped about Ruth spending the winter in snow and seclusion in Massachusetts, the “Bambino” took on the role of gentleman farmer, rebuilding a chicken house and ordering 1,000 hens, most of which died soon after they arrived. A horse, a cow, a yearling heifer, 90 fowls, including several turkeys, and a couple of pigs came with the property. In all, he spent roughly $26,000, about half of his 1922 salary.

Ruth resolved to chop all the wood that was burned in the furnace himself, but soon fell far short of that goal. He would haul out the axe when reporters and photographers showed up but it was generally one of the neighborhood boys who finished the job.

“I used to chop wood for him,” the late Mert Haskell, who grew up on the farm next to Ruth’s, told Warren Russo of the Sudbury Town Crier. “I’d do all the work and he’d sit there and drink beer and talk to me.”

When Ruth got ready to head South for the 1923 season, he told the Hartford (Connecticut) Times, that he was a changed man, both mentally and physically:

“When I came down from frozen little Sudbury, Massachusetts, I left two things behind: the old limousine with the brass-buttoned, gold braided atmosphere it created last season and, get this, TWENTY ONE pounds of flesh [from 235 to 214],” he crowed.

“And now it seems that everybody is more interested in my stomach than my home runs. Even up there in that little Massachusetts town youngsters would ask about my weight and the day I left, the garage owner waited three hours for me to come by. When I did, he pulled out a tape measure and asked me to stand still while a wager was being decided.

“The measurement was two inches less than he had wagered, and so it cost him $20. I learned afterward that the fellow who won had visited my farm every day to see if I was actually chopping wood and working hard. I proved my reduced weight pretty well to the experts up there in Sudbury.”

Try as he might to take on sophistication, Ruth continued to be a rube at heart. He drove nails and spikes into the house’s plastered walls to hang up baseball souvenirs and delighted in taking advantage of any sort of bargain, even if it was something that he never would use. He never forgot his early years as an orphan and hosted two or three picnics a year for local orphanages complete with games and lots of prizes including a bat, a ball or a glove for each child.

Ruth was popular with the neighborhood boys, often joining them at Stearns’ Mill near his home to tell stories and play catch. Ruth had a black farm hand/chauffeur named Baily who did most of the chores. Alvin Noyes remembered watching them getting their Model T Ford farm truck stuck up to the hubs in a wet meadow near the mill.

“Ruth got an axe from the barn and cut some brush,” said Noyes. “We finally got the truck out, but he left the axe.

“George Wilson spent a lot of time at the mill. He told everybody, including Ruth, that he used to catch for the Medford Nine. He squatted down and said ‘Put her there, Babe.’ Babe threw it and I never saw anybody throw a ball that hard. George fell right over backwards into the brook.”

If the whole Sudbury venture was an attempt by Helen Ruth to live a normal life with her husband and child far from the hurly-burly of New York City, the victory was a hollow one. Ruth was a born and bred city boy and, despite his love for hunting and fishing, a city boy he would remain.

Helen Ruth was both a Catholic and a Democrat, two traits that didn’t endear her to some Sudbury residents at the time. Some thought she was afraid of her husband, and Forrest Bradshaw, who ran the store where the Ruths got most of their meat, described her to Ruth biographer Marshall Smelser as “a girl that seemed to be lost.”

Mrs. Ruth was never seen driving the family Packard. Baily, her chauffeur, drove her wherever she needed to go and tended to most of the shopping. Ruth often bought his own meat at Bradshaw’s, selecting the best cuts for himself and then ordering two or three pounds of hamburger for the rest of the family. He didn’t like to wait his turn and would rush in and say he was in a hurry. Other customers generally didn’t mind waiting so they could tell the folks back home that they had run into the Babe while shopping.

The Ruths became customers at Bradshaw’s early in the Babe’s tenure in Sudbury. Not long after he moved in, a blizzard made travel by automobile impossible and the family was marooned for several days. Finally, Ruth and Baily were forced to hitch up a borrowed one-horse pung and make a foraging expedition to South Sudbury. The Boston Sunday Globe of January 14, 1923, picks up the story:

The Babe Nearly Cleaned
Out South Sudbury Grocer

Special Dispatch to The Globe

SOUTH SUDBURY, Jan. 13–Babe Ruth drove up to Selectman Forrest Bradshaw’s general store here this morning in a one-horse pung, jumped through a snowdrift, stomped in through the door and announced that he had got to buy some grub.

Mrs. Babe trailed behind with her shopping list.

“Care if I help myself and pile the stuff here on the counter?” asked the hulking Bambino.

“Go as far as y’ like,” chuckled First Sergt Charlie Spiller, commander of the Sudbury Legion post and head floor walker of Mr. Bradshaw’s store.

And believe Charlie, the Babe went about as far as they ever do go. He spied a box of fancy crackers and he spied a slab of cheese. He helped himself to a jar of marmalade. He filled a basket with oranges and he found a jar of peanut butter. He nailed a package of chipped beef and he seized a slab of bacon. Meanwhile, the missus was ordering such plebeian things as potatoes, carrots and beefsteaks.

“We ran all out and I’m going to stock up before another storm comes,” explained the Babe. “I’m not coming poking out by pung again.”

Sleighing is too slow for the big boy. And before he got through, he had piled upon the counter a mountain of groceries that added up to nigh $25–whereupon, the heavy hitter unslung his trusty fountain pen and signed George H. Ruth to one of those fancy checks of his, adorned with the face of the home run king.

They piled the stuff into the sleigh. The Babe climbed up in the seat beside his chauffeur and they headed back for that old-fashioned farm house of his, tucked away on a back road so deep in the snow that Babe Ruth’s 12-cylinder roadster is stumped at last.

One horse power gets further than any motor monster in the Sudbury drifts this winter.

Ruth later complained that Baily spent too much money for groceries and had standing orders at Bradshaw’s and Hunt’s that the chauffeur could not exceed a certain ceiling. He was also concerned that Baily was too attentive to Mrs. Ruth.

Ruth had a fishing shack on a small pond that was part of the “Home Plate” property where he held parties for writers, ballplayers and hangers-on. When Mrs. Ruth was around, the occasions were reasonably quiet. The camp on Willis Lake, which Ruth dubbed “Ihatetoquitit”, was reserved for occasions that might cause a disturbance as it was out of earshot to all but the most sharp-eared neighbors. On one occasion, Ruth was said to have thrown an upright piano off the porch of his camp and into Willis Lake. Whether or not the instrument was ever recovered is not recorded.

Ruth sold his beloved “Home Plate” after divorcing Helen in 1926. The buyer was Herb Atkinson, founder of Sudbury Laboratories and, later, the Sudbury Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.