The copy boy and the sultan
Not long before my dad passed away, we were sitting together when he told me a story I had never heard before. I suppose each of our lives is filled with such little-known stories of small adventures and large, of hopes and dreams, of everyday events that unexpectedly turn out to be extraordinary waymarks. This was one of those stories that needed to be told. Not because it was anything earth-shaking or world-changing, but because it was a good story.
The year was 1933, as Dad remembered it. He was working as a copy boy for The Tampa (Fla.) Times. Eighteen years old, he had just started out in the newspaper world. One day, in the normal course of business, an editor asked him to cover the local midweek wrestling match. His assignment was to bring back the basics: who won, who lost. This was something even a copy boy couldn't mess up. Dad was glad for the assignment; it came with two free tickets.
So, there he sat in the stands the next night with a friend, waiting for the match to begin. The crowd stirred, and my dad looked down to see a big, barrel-chested man take a seat in a box at ringside.
It was Babe Ruth. (The Babe happened to be in the middle of one of his widely noted holdouts. Even in 1933, it seems, ballplayers weren't always happy with their contracts.)
Dad gulped an "Oh, my gosh" as he realized the implications. He turned to his friend and told him that he was somehow going to have to drum up the courage to go down there and ask Mr. Ruth for an interview. "Why?" his friend wanted to know.
Dad explained that if word ever got back to the newsroom that Babe Ruth had been at the wrestling match and my dad hadn't tried to approach him, his name would be mud.
So, with a measure of trepidation, Dad made his way down and leaned over behind Babe Ruth's box.
"Mr. Ruth?" he haltingly intoned. "I'm Bill Moody with The Tampa Times. Could I possibly ask you a
Ruth took one look at this skinny kid from Riverview, Fla., and smiled.
"Sure, bub," he said, "Come on in and have a seat!" Babe Ruth was friendly and forthcoming. In just a few minutes, my dad had enough for about 300 words. He filed the story, and the Times ran it the next day, with a byline. AP picked it up and carried it on their wire service. Not long after, Dad was promoted to cub reporter; and later he became the newspaper's youngest city editor, before moving on to other endeavors.
When my dad told me this story, he wondered out loud how much that encounter with Babe Ruth meant to the direction of his working career. Had Ruth realized he was giving the kid a break? Or was he just being a nice guy? My dad seemed to think it was both.
MY FATHER and I were sitting together again a couple of nights later when a short clip about Babe Ruth came on the television. There was one particular black-and-white photo of the greatest ballplayer in history jammed in the middle of a throng of fans, wearing a flat-brimmed straw hat, standing a head taller than everyone else, with a smile from ear to ear.
I have to agree with my dad. Babe Ruth probably did realize he was giving that skinny kid from Riverview a break. He was probably also just being a nice guy.