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L.A. THEN AND NOW

This charge against Babe Ruth was off base

In 1927, Long Beach police arrested the Yankees slugger for an autograph show he'd done for kids in San Diego. He was acquitted of violating state child labor laws.

March 28, 2010|By Steve Harvey

When you think of Babe Ruth, you might picture a newsreel shot of him bashing a home run in Yankee Stadium and then trotting around the bases on those surprisingly skinny legs of his.

But two Southern California cities also "had a part" in the Babe's colorful career, author Tim Grobaty points out.

Long Beach police arrested the Sultan of Swat on Jan. 22, 1927 -- for the crime of autographing baseballs for kids.

There was more to it than that, of course.

But not much more.

As Grobaty tells the story in his book "Long Beach Almanac," Ruth was in town to perform three shows at the old State Theater near the Pike amusement park.

"The show was basically an appearance onstage," Grobaty said. "Ruth would invite kids up to the stage, give them a few batting tips, hand them each an autographed baseball and send them on their way, their lives forever altered by the experience."

But hours before he was scheduled to appear, theater manager Roy Reid went to Ruth's dressing room to inform the star that San Diego had issued a warrant for his arrest.

The city had charged Ruth with violating child labor laws during a show there. Officials said he allowed children onstage without first obtaining work permits for them.

The scene in Ruth's dressing room was tense when he got the news.

"The Babe was entertaining himself by juggling a few autographed balls," the Press-Telegram reported. "Reid told him the warrant had been certified and that it was about to be served. For a minute the Babe continued his juggling."

Then the Yankees slugger said, "They forget how much I've done for kids. I've done nothing that would harm them. I've only tried to give them a little bit of sunshine."

Ruth was in a better mood when he arrived at the police station to post his $500 bail.

"It took only a few minutes for the Babe to go through the formalities of arrest," the Press-Telegram said. "Desk Sgt. Joe Hale counted 25 crisp $20 bills that Ruth handed him."

The sight of Ruth in a modified version of his uniform "drew quite a throng of the curious to the station," the newspaper said.

A Feb. 11 court date was set in San Diego.

Truth be told, this wasn't the first time the Babe had been pinched.

In 1921, he spent half a day in jail after being cited for speeding through Manhattan at a devil-may-care 26 mph in his maroon 12-cylinder Packard. (Upon his release, he reportedly drove nine miles to the stadium in 19 minutes, averaging a bit under 30 mph, but he did not attract the attention of traffic cops, wrote biographer Leigh Montville.)

Few questioned the need to obey speeding laws, but the San Diego warrant seemed "a stunning example of bureaucracy gone amok," Grobaty wrote.

In fact, Ruth was allowed to return to the Long Beach theater later that day and perform three sold-out shows for delighted youngsters.

A Long Beach official viewed the proceedings and said he saw "nothing which violated the state labor laws."

The charge was ironic in that Ruth was famous for visiting sick kids in hospitals, including a boy named Johnny Sylvester. The youth was gravely ill after being kicked by a horse but had a miraculous recovery after the Babe made good on a promise to hit a home run in his honor.

Months later, Ruth was with two sportswriters when a man approached him, identified himself as Johnny Sylvester's uncle and thanked him profusely, according to biographer Montville.

After the man left, Ruth asked the writers: "Who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?"

(The Babe wasn't so good with names.)

As for the Long Beach shows, a parent who took his boy to see the Babe told the Press-Telegram that days later "that kid of mine was tossing his autographed ball in bed when I got home at midnight. If Babe needs a witness, let him call on me."

Babe didn't need to. A few weeks later, a San Diego judge acquitted Ruth of the charge, ruling, in effect, that the kids were not members of the cast.

The Babe wasn't in court that day. He was in Los Angeles making a baseball movie, "The Babe Comes Home." He was portraying a famous home-run hitter who plays for the Los Angeles Angels.

Unfortunately for Southern California fans, that would be the only time Ruth ever wore a uniform that said "Los Angeles."

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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