Michael O’Brien: Babe Ruth honored his Catholic roots in 1927 Utah orphanage visit

Though he strayed from his faith, the baseball legend insisted his faith never left him. “Once religion sinks in,” he said, “it stays there — deep down.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune) In this photo taken from the sports page of the Jan. 30, 1927, edition of The Tribune, Babe Ruth is shown posing with the boys and girls on the steps of what was then the St. Ann's Orphanage demonstrating how to grip a bat "when set to crack 'em a mile." The boy at front is Tony Renovich, captain of the previous year's team, who was given the bat. Ruth left an autographed ball to be given to the team's home-run champion the upcoming season. The orphanage later became a parochial school.

Spring training is the perfect time to pitch my nominee for best story about George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Almost a century ago, the baseball legend visited the St. Ann’s orphanage in present-day South Salt Lake. It was a heartfelt tribute to Ruth’s similar formative years in a Catholic school for boys.

Ruth — who died 75 years ago this August — arrived in Utah’s capital in late January 1927 on a promotional and goodwill tour. The owner of Main Street’s Pantages Theater brought the Babe to town as part of a weeklong vaudeville show.

The Pantages — later the Utah Theater — featured other celebrities like Abbott and Costello and Will Rogers, and then showed first-run movies before Salt Lake City razed the historic structure in 2022.

In 1927, the Great Bambino was in his prime as an athlete and a national celebrity. A few years earlier, he hit a season record 59 home runs for the New York Yankees. Right after his Utah tour, Ruth went to California to make a movie with silent film star Anna Q. Nilsson.

Ruth shared the Utah stage with singers and acrobats. News reports called his appearance a “big hit.” Ruth talked about his life, batted a few balls and brought some kids up onstage for autographs. The crowd loved it.

Ruth stayed busy offstage, too. He greeted large crowds at the rail station, met with newsboys, talked with amateur baseball officials, wrote a column, and appeared on KSL radio. Former Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bill Oram gave all the details in a July 2011 commemoration.

The highlight of Ruth’s Utah trip, however, was his visit with the St. Ann’s children. Silver mine magnate and U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns, Utah’s best-known Catholic at the time, along with his wife, Jennie Judge Kearns, had the orphanage built in 1899. Catholic priests and nuns operated it.

Ruth went to the orphanage unannounced on a school day, surprised the orphans in class and gave them a talk. A Jan. 29, 1927, Tribune news report said the future Hall of Famer then “cavorted on the lawn with the hero worshippers for almost half an hour.”

“It was,” the story said, “a big day at the orphanage.”

A Tribune photo showed delighted girls and boys on the orphanage front steps watching a grinning Ruth demonstrate his batting swing. “There’s Babe with the bat,” the caption stated. “He’s showing the boys and girls at St. Ann’s just how he holds the bat when set to crack ‘em a mile.”

That season, Ruth belted 60 home runs, a record that stood for more than three decades.

‘The greatest man I have ever known’

(AP) In this undated file photo, New York Yankees' Babe Ruth hits a home run.

Ruth often visited orphanages. The slugger explained why in a letter published in Norman Vincent Peale’s Guideposts magazine just after Ruth died in 1948. Ruth’s longtime friend — my great uncle Paul Carey — helped the Babe write that letter.

Carey married my grandmother Florence Duffy’s sister Kathryn in 1921. He was a World War II naval officer and his family owned the fleet of Cadillacs that served New York City’s Grand Central Station. Carey sat by Ruth’s deathbed, administered his will, and served as a trustee of the Babe Ruth Foundation.

Cancer afflicted Ruth in the last few years of his life. Before one serious surgery to treat the disease, Carey told the slugger, “They’re going to operate in the morning, Babe. Don’t you think you ought to put your house in order?” Ruth called for a Catholic priest and later penned the poignant letter first published after his death.

Ruth grew up in a tavern, skipped school, ran unsupervised on the wild Baltimore waterfront and got into a lot of trouble. His parents gave up on him. His 1948 letter bemoaned his “harum-scarum youth” and said he had “a rotten start in life.”

“It took me a long time to get my bearings,” he explained. “…St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, where I was finally taken, has been called an orphanage and a reform school. It was, in fact, a training school for orphans, incorrigibles, delinquents and runaways picked up on the streets of the city.

“I was listed as an incorrigible. I guess I was. Perhaps I would always have been but for Brother Matthias, the greatest man I have ever known.” Ruth’s mentor, Matthias Boutlier, a Xaverian brother and teacher at St. Mary’s, was respected for his strength and fairness. Brother Matthias noticed his natural talent and introduced Ruth to baseball.

It was an unlikely but remarkable relationship.

“Matthias was in charge of making boys behave and Ruth was one of the great natural misbehavers of all time,” Ruth biographer Robert Creamer wrote. “... The calm, considerable attention the big man gave the young hell-raiser from the waterfront struck a spark of response in the boy’s soul.”

Unfortunately, after leaving St. Mary’s as a young man and beginning his pro baseball career, Ruth fell back into bad habits. His deathbed letter noted, “Out on my own…free from the rigid rules of a religious school…boy, did it go to my head. I began really to cut capers.”

The Babe gambled, womanized and drank. His first marriage failed.

‘Once religion sinks in, it stays there’

(AP) This undated file photo shows Babe Ruth, who visited Utah in 1927.

“I strayed from the church, but don’t think I forgot my religious training,” he said. “I just overlooked it. ... Once religion sinks in, it stays there — deep down. The lads who get religious training, get it where it counts — in the roots. They may fail it, but it never fails them.”

Ruth always remembered who helped him. “No one knew better than I what it meant not to have your own home, a backyard, your own kitchen and icebox. That’s why…I’d never forget St. Mary’s, Brother Matthias and the boys I left behind. I kept going back.”

With the advent of child protective services and smaller foster homes, institutional orphanages went away. St. Mary’s in Baltimore closed in 1950. South Salt Lake’s St. Ann’s Orphanage transitioned into an elementary school in 1955.

Kearns-St. Ann Catholic School’s current principal, Dominique McCarthey Aragon, also knows something about history. Her great-great-grandparents Jennie Judge Kearns and Thomas Kearns bought the land and funded construction of the old orphanage that she now operates as a school.

Aragon was thrilled to learn about Babe Ruth’s historic connection to the place. Today, she and her St. Ann team — just like many other teachers in Catholic and public schools — guide their students using the same basic method that worked for the great baseball star at his Baltimore Catholic school in the early 1900s. What is it?

Babe Ruth’s daughter knew. A news reporter once asked her why Brother Matthias had such an impact on her father. She replied, “When Babe was 23 years old, the whole world loved him. When he was 13 years old, only Brother Matthias loved him.”

Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book of 2022.