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The Boy Who Struck Out Babe Ruth
By Douglas Downey

"Ernest Hemingway is going to be our next-door neighbor," my mother told Mrs. Vine, the librarian. "Mr. Mellon is renting him his house while he lectures at the university."

That isn't exactly what Mr. Mellon told my father.

"You're going to have a celebrity for a neighbor," he had said. "The university called, looking for a place to put up a special guest. He's giving a seminar there and wants to stay in a house, so we'll be heading up to the lake earlier than usual this year." Mr. Mellon was in the real estate business, although in what capacity I don't remember. We lived in a big box of a house that looked as if its design had been made up by the carpenters as they went along, but the Mellon house, as befitting a real estate man's home, had real architecture. The two houses had a common driveway.

Why my mother assumed the mystery celebrity was Ernest Hemingway isn't clear. Perhaps it was because a Literary Guild flyer had recently arrived, announcing that Hemingway's latest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a forthcoming selection. She had decided not to order the book because it was about the Spanish Civil War, a subject she found confusing since she couldn't make up her mind which side deserved her sympathy. But she greatly admired A Farewell to Arms, largely, I suspect, because Helen Hayes, whom she had once met when they were both twenty, had played Catherine Barkley in the film version.

At that point in my life—I was ten—I didn't know about celebrity or Ernest Hemingway. What mattered to me was that school was out for the summer, and as the new kid on Wilbur Street, I was going to have to prove myself on the neighborhood ball field, a task that wasn't going to be easy since the local game was "two-batter workup," a version of baseball that I'd never heard of. I was pretty good at running bases but not very good at getting there, and in gym class at my old school I had always been chosen last.

Two-batter workup was designed for groups too small to form actual teams. The batting side consisted of only two players and there was only one base; when a batter failed to make it there, he became an outfielder. The pitcher then advanced to batter, the senior fielder to pitcher, and so on. (There was no need for a catcher; the batters were highly motivated to hit every pitch that came their way, not only to get on base but also to avoid having to chase the ball into the street behind home plate.) At the beginning of the game, each player's position was established by a ritual that involved grasping a bat and alternately moving one's hands from the barrel end up the shaft to the knob—the same system used by teams to decide who was to have first bats and by team captains to decide which side would choose me last. Any number could play, no assistance from bossy grown-ups was required, and everyone got to play each position.

As it turned out, I was much better at two-batter workup than I was at gym class softball, so it wasn't going to be such a bad summer after all.


The Mellons left for the lake on a Saturday morning and a few hours later a gray, chauffeur-driven Studebaker President with the Notre Dame seal on its front door pulled into our joint driveway. A man and woman got out of the car and quickly went into the house—too quickly for us to catch a glimpse of them. A few minutes later, a small Railway Express truck arrived, and two men began struggling with enormous steamer trunks.

It had to be Hemingway. Who else would have so much luggage?

At 2:00 P.M. the Studebaker returned and again pulled into the driveway. My mother dashed to the window and peered out from behind the curtains. A man stepped out of the house.

"It's not Ernest Hemingway," I remember my mother saying. "It's—oh, this is awful—it's Babe Ruth."

Although he had retired from baseball a few years earlier, Babe Ruth was still very much the absolute top of the top among sports stars (the word "superstar" mercifully hadn't yet been invented), known and beloved by every red-blooded American boy, even one who, like me, wore eyeglasses and had never in his entire life seen a big league game. The Babe was in the city to run a two-week baseball clinic sponsored by Notre Dame. He was also going to play in an exhibition game and had brought along his old Yankee uniform for the occasion.

By the time the Babe returned home at 5:30 the word was out, and every kid in St. Joseph County was assembled on Wilbur Street. When the Notre Dame Studebaker arrived, Mrs. Ruth dashed out of the house, waving her arms.

"Go home! Go home! There's nothing to see!" she shouted, and quickly escorted the Babe into the house.

Each day it was the same. The Babe would leave and return protected by his wife, and the kids couldn't get near him.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2004 issue.


DOUGLAS DOWNEY was for many years editor-in-chief of the New Standard Encyclopedia and is co-author of an arts and crafts book. His fiction has appeared in Satire, Potpourri, The Crescent Review, and Bibliophilos. During the Korean War he was editor of a daily newspaper for the troops at Inchon and was nearly drummed out of the service when one day he accidentally misreported the baseball scores that his unit received by shortwave radio.

© 2004 Douglas Downey


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