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Original Issue

Uncle Abner and the Babe

When my grandchildren finally reach the age of deep and serious concern about life, I am going to choose just the right moment to make a startling philosophical observation.

"My dears," I shall say, "it was your grandmother's vanity and pride that caused Babe Ruth to make off with one of her most cherished possessions."

And then, assuming that no little childish voice will spoil it all with, "But Grandma, who is Babe Ruth?" I will proceed to divulge a carefully guarded secret of my past.

At the age of 10 I was a confirmed braggart. I bragged about my capabilities, my possessions and my baby brother. One day I bragged about my ancestry, and that was the beginning of the whole episode that led to my terrible loss.

It was on the school playground and our fifth grade girls' gym class was in the midst of a Softball game. It was going badly and I was up at bat. That it was the end of an inning should be obvious because, under the playground rules, batting order followed the importance of the players, and the end of the batting order marked the end of the inning. That is, first chosen of the two sides got to be pitcher, second chosen was catcher, then first baseman, second baseman, and third, shortstop, and then all the fielders. And if there were still more players to be chosen, they made up what was for some reason called the outfield. They played the fence.

Naturally the best players were chosen first and got the best positions, and naturally I was chosen last and was the farthest out of the outfield. The question as to whether I should be chosen at all had been settled the first day of the school term when one captain, no doubt with her mind bent on winning the game, had complained, "Do I have to choose Alice Doubleday?" And Miss Harrington had answered, "You have to keep on choosing until every last girl is on a team, I don't care who she is."

So I stood up to bat, last in the batting order with two down and me to go. The ball was pitched at me three times, and three times I shut my eyes tight and swung with all my might. The inning was over; our team took the field. I skipped along beside Myrtle, the captain, and tried to think of some apt remark, preferably in the sports area, that I could make to erase the scowl on her face. I blurted out the only important sports fact that I knew. I said, "My great-great-uncle Abner Doubleday invented baseball." She scarcely paused as she took her position on the mound. "I'd rather be able to play the game than have an ancestor who invented it." Then, more forcefully, she said, "Why do you always have to be on my team? Why don't you go over on the bench and be sick or something?"

I said, "Why, I like to play. I love baseball."

She said, "Yeah? Well, if you like baseball so much, why don't you learn to hit the ball?"

"I can't see the ball."

"You could see it if you didn't shut your eyes every pitch."

"I have to shut my eyes. The ball comes too fast. It might break my glasses."

Myrtle apparently gave me up as hopeless, for she never discussed my athletic ability again, but our conversation forced me into an action that otherwise I never would have taken. Having bragged that my Uncle Abner invented baseball, and having bragged that I was myself enamored of the game, and having met with stony unbelief, I had somehow to prove myself.

When we had all filed back into the schoolroom, Miss Harrington read from a note in her hand: "All those who wish to attend the baseball game at Harkey Park will now be excused." About three-fourths of the class arose and left the room. I was with them. My reasons, actually, were mixed. It was 2:30, and if I could get away from school one hour early, even if I had to go to a baseball game to do it, I was ready. Besides that, I had learned that a man by the name of Babe Ruth was to play on the town team and that he was so important to the game of baseball that this was the sole reason we children were allowed to miss part of the school day.

I carried with me my composition book and my new gold-banded fountain pen just given me for my birthday. I was going to play the role of ardent baseball fan to the hilt. I was going to get Babe Ruth's autograph.

In those days, it was the custom with baseball players to augment their income between seasons by barnstorming. The Babe was then at the height of his fame, and the ball park was packed with enthusiastic fans, not so much of the team as of the famous home-run king. We children were herded into a section behind the home-team bench.

I opened my composition book and brought out my pen.

"What are you doing with your school books?" said Myrtle disgustedly. "Are you going to do your homework here?"

"This isn't my homework," I said, "I'm going to get Babe Ruth's autograph."

Myrtle said with tired conviction, "You don't have the nerve."

Up to that moment, Myrtle was right. I didn't have the nerve to approach so famous a man especially since I could see the long line of players I would have to walk past, but now I knew my course was inevitably set. I unscrewed my pen and set the cap on the end. I stood up and looked at the bleachers full of fifth-graders. Cries of' 'Get one for me, Alice," and "Me too, me too," made my head reel. Recklessly, I promised them all.

I made my way along the chicken-wire backstop until I came to the gate. No guard was there to bar me, so before my courage could desert me I lifted the hook and walked in. But when I reached the bench I had to stop at the first player and ask, "Which one is Babe Ruth?" This seemed to be vastly humorous. Everybody laughed heartily, and someone pointed to the end of the bench. With as much composure as I could manage, I approached the great man who sat apart, his hulking body looming over little legs. He had a big ugly face and a very wide nose, but his eyes were kind, and he said, "You want to see me, sister?" I held out my composition book and my pen. "Here," I said, and then I could not utter another word, the moment became suddenly too overwhelming. On the other side of the fence my classmates were crowding and trampling one another, trying to see over each other's shoulders as the great man signed his name. He wrote slowly and carefully in a beautiful, even hand. He finished with a flourish and, smiling, handed me my book and pen.

"There you are, sister," he said, "Now don't go home and sell it."

I hesitated, thinking of the extravagant promises I had just made and then I handed it all back. "Write some more," I said, "Write on all the lines."

The Babe's jaw dropped as the other players burst into loud guffaws. But he wrote methodically and sweepingly all the way down the page, even skipping every line so that the autographs could be cut apart.

When he finished a second time his face was a little drawn. "That O.K. now?" he said. Unsmiling now, he handed me my composition book, capped my pen and, absentmindedly eying the outfield, felt in the direction of his shirt and slipped the pen into his pocket.

I stood aghast. My pen! My birthday pen! With the gold band, and my name, Alice, engraved on it! How would I ever scrape up the courage to ask for my own pen back? While I hesitated, the Babe looked at me with much less encouragement than he had at first. "Something else on your mind, little girl?" he said, and there was just enough coolness in his voice that I shook my head. "No sir," I answered, "Thanks. Thanks ever so much, Mr. Ruth." I walked backwards to the wire door, hoping he would suddenly notice my pen in his pocket and call me back, but he never did.

When I got back to the bleachers I tore out the page from the composition book and just handed the whole thing to Myrtle and told her to divide up the autographs herself. I was sick at the loss of my pen and worried about the way I was going to admit that loss at home.

But I had not reckoned with the great name of Babe Ruth. When, next day, fully expecting a scolding at the very least, I confessed the matter to my father, I found that seizure of my property by the home-run king had some element of glamour to it. My father was not only not angry, he was highly amused and, apparently, even a little pleased. Furthermore, he insisted on my repeating the story on every occasion until all our friends and relatives knew of it. As for me, I did not forgive Babe Ruth for many years, and my only consolation for a long time was to go over in my mind an imaginary scene back in the Babe's dressing room when he discovered my pen in his pocket. With what chagrin he would clap his hand to his brow and exclaim, "Where did I ever get hold of this fine new fountain pen with the solid gold band around it?" For the Babe was, they said, in spite of his rough appearance, a man of considerable esthetic tastes.