‘Little’ Johnny, Babe Ruth and His Promise
Baseball is rich with legend and lore. At the center of many of the most well-known stories is Babe Ruth. The Big Bam’s 1932 called shot off Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root is still contested today. But in the 1926 World Series, when New York Yankees faced off against the St. Louis Cardinals, details about Ruth’s promise to a hospitalized young boy, Johnny Sylvester, have, over the elapsed decades, become muddled.
Charlie Poekel’s book, “Babe and the Kid,” sets the record straight. Eleven-year-old Johnny, kicked in the head by a horse and considered at death’s door, was a huge New York Yankees fan. His father, a well-connected New Jersey executive, got word to the Yankees that his son’s spirits would be lifted if the team could do something special for Johnny.
The Yankees received the message and sent an autographed ball to Johnny in care of his father’s New York office. One side read: “We’re glad to know you knocked the bug for a home run.” On the ball’s other side, Ruth wrote, “I’ll knock a homer for you on Wednesday’s game.” The Cardinals also sent an autographed baseball that included 14 players and Rogers Hornsby’s signature: “Hoping you will soon be batting 1,000 percent in good health.” Historians consider Hornsby baseball’s best-ever right-handed hitter; the “Rajah” hit .400 or better three times.
Although many accounts have Ruth at Johnny’s bedside when he made his promise, on game day October 6 the Bambino was in St. Louis where he hit three home runs and led the Yankees to a 10–5 victory that tied the series 2–2. Johnny’s doctors noticed that his temperature miraculously dropped two degrees, and within a few days, the boy was back home. Then followed an even greater surprise for Johnny. Ruth strode into Johnny’s room where he spent about half an hour. When a shocked Johnny finally could form words, he expressed regret that the Yankees lost the series. Tactfully, Sylvester didn’t mention that Ruth made the seventh game’s final out when he was caught stealing, the greatest baserunning blunder in the sport’s history.
While the Ruth baseball was Johnny’s most treasured possession, Lou Gehrig sent a signed game-used ball; Wimbledon tennis champion “Big” Bill Tilden and football great Red Grange, the University of Illinois’ “Galloping Ghost,” gifted an autographed football and a tennis racquet. Each wrote personal letters to Sylvester.
As Johnny grew into adulthood, he attended Princeton, starred on the university’s varsity hockey team, and once scored a hat trick, three goals in a single game. In 1942, his application to serve as an apprentice in the U.S. Navy was accepted, and he spent most of World War II in the Pacific Theater as a lieutenant commanding submarine chaser 520s that patrolled offshore for enemy activity.
Johnny ended his naval service in 1945, and two years later, April 27, 1947, the nation celebrated “Babe Ruth Day.” Attention then returned to the by-now familiar Ruth-Sylvester saga. Ruth, however, had recently been in New York’s French Hospital for 81 days; no visitors allowed. Cancer had cut Ruth’s time short. The Daily News brokered a reunion — 21 years after their initial meeting — that included Ruth, Sylvester and his wife Marita. Babe to Johnny: “The last time I saw you, you were a skinny little kid.” Johnny to Babe: “I’m all grown up now, thanks to you.”
A few minutes of friendly banter followed as Johnny pulled out the ball that Ruth signed. Seeing the signatures again, Ruth spoke wistfully about his 1926 teammates. When their time together ended, Johnny observed to Marita that Ruth had lost weight and, dressed in pajamas and bathrobe, was gaunt. As he took one last look around before leaving Ruth’s apartment, Johnny said: “Ain’t he a swell guy.”
On a sweltering August 19, 1948, thousands lined up around St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pay their final respects to Ruth. Inside, at a service presided over by His Eminence Francis Cardinal Spellman, and assisted by 44 Roman Catholic priests and 12 altar boys, sitting front and center was Johnny Sylvester, linked forever in baseball lore to Babe Ruth.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.