Children's book features Babe Ruth, bygone era

March 31, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

It's a truism in publishing that no children's book is really successful unless the parents like it, too. So "When Willard Met Babe Ruth" by the poet Donald Hall (Harcourt Brace, 1996, $16) is bound to be popular. Dads will love reading it. Little League players will love hearing the story over and over and reading it themselves.

The watercolor illustrations in this book, for kids age 7 and older, were done by Barry Moser and are evocative of a time long past.

For the year is 1917 and the place is rural New Hampshire. Willard Babson, 12, is a baseball fan as is his father, Sheridan, a farmer and, when the occasion demands, a left-handed pitcher.

One afternoon when Willard and his father were bringing the sheep in from pasture, a roadster came speeding down the dirt road. A young man was driving. In order to avoid hitting the animals, the car veered to the side of the road and landed in the ditch. No one was hurt, but Willard's father had to use his oxen to help pull the car back on the road. That's how Willard and his father met Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox and his wife, Helen.

The Babe was impressed as he watched Willard herd the geese across the road. "Kid, you catch baseballs the way you catch ducks (Babe could never tell the difference between a goose and a duck), pretty soon we'll be playing together," said Babe. He also gave Willard a glove. Willard took the Babe's glove to bed with him, along with his hot-water bottle.

As a special treat, Willard's father took him to see the Red Sox play a double-header against the St. Louis Browns on July 17, 1918. At the Fenway Park game, Willard watched Babe throw some warm-up pitches. Babe looked up and saw Willard and his dad.

"Hey kid. Aren't you the kid with that big duck in New Hampshire?"

"You gave me your glove," said Willard. "It was a gander."

"This is to go with the glove, kid," said the Babe, flipping Willard his warm-up ball as he strode toward the mound.

Newspapers began referring to Babe as "The Colossus." That year the Red Sox won the World Series.

Willard, who was now 13, wrote a poem called "The Ballad of Babe Ruth." It was printed in the weekly newspaper and he won a subscription to "Youth's Companion" from the local 4-H Club.

Later Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees. Willard found it difficult to love Babe Ruth but hate the Yankees, who won everything.

In 1921, when he was 16, Willard quit school to work on his father's farm. The prices of milk and wool went down, down, down and small farms were having problems making ends meet. That year, Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs.

Three years later Willard, who was now called Will, got married. He and his wife had a baby girl and they named her Ruth. Will began writing for the local newspaper. He liked to tell Ruth about the man she was named after. He told her how grandpa's oxen had pulled Babe Ruth's roadster out of the ditch.

When Babe Ruth got a salary raise in 1931, someone asked him how it felt to make more money than President Hoover.

"Why not? I had a better year than he did," said the Babe.

But it was only a few years later, in 1934, that people began to say that Babe Ruth, at age 39, was getting too old for the game he adored. He only hit 22 home runs that year, the same year that Will became the managing editor of the local newspaper.

Then, on Ruthie's 10th birthday, she got three mysterious tickets. She got tickets to baseball game that would mark Babe Ruth's return to Boston. He had been traded to the Boston Braves.

"I never thought we'd ever see Babe Ruth again," said Will's father. But not only did Will, his father and his daughter get to see Babe Ruth, they got to talk to him in the locker room.

By that time, Babe Ruth was 40 years old and fat. It took him a minute to remember Will. "Hey," he said. "Were you that kid with the...goose?" Nobody told him it was really a gander.

Babe Ruth wrote a message to Ruth on her score card. "Happy Birthday from Ruth to Ruth," he wrote. "If I hit one today, it's for your birthday, OK?" he added.

That day he hit his 709th home run and it won the game.

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