Babe Ruth's birthplace in Baltimore, Maryland is now a museum
George Herman Ruth Jr. was born in 1895 at 216 Emory Street in the Pigtown section of Baltimore, Maryland. Ruth's parents, Katherine (Schamberger) and George Herman Ruth Sr., were both of German ancestry. According to the 1880 census, his parents were born in Maryland. His paternal grandparents were from Prussia and Hanover. Ruth Sr. worked a series of jobs that included lightning rod salesman and streetcar operator. The elder Ruth then became a counterman in a family-owned combination grocery and saloon business on Frederick Street. George Ruth Jr. was born in the house of his maternal grandfather, Pius Schamberger, a German immigrant and trade unionist. Only one of young George's seven siblings, his younger sister Mamie, survived infancy.
Many details of Ruth's childhood are unknown, including the date of his parents' marriage. As a child, Ruth spoke German. When young George was a toddler, the family moved to 339 South Woodyear Street, not far from the rail yards; by the time the boy was 6, his father had a saloon with an upstairs apartment at 426 West Camden Street. Details are equally scanty about why young George was sent at the age of 7 to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage. As an adult, Babe Ruth reminisced that as a youth he had been running the streets and rarely attending school, as well was drinking beer when his father was not looking. Some accounts say that following a violent incident at his father's saloon, the city authorities decided that this environment was unsuitable for a small child. George, Jr. entered St. Mary's on June 13, 1902. He was recorded as "incorrigible" and spent much of the next twelve years there.
Ruth (top row, center) at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1912
Although St. Mary's boys received an education, students were also expected to learn work skills and help operate the school, particularly once the boys turned 12. Ruth became a shirtmaker and was also proficient as a carpenter. He would adjust his own shirt collars, rather than having a tailor do so, even during his well-paid baseball career. The boys, aged 5 to 21, did most work around the facility, from cooking to shoemaking, and renovated St. Mary's in 1912. The food was simple, and the Xaverian Brothers who ran the school insisted on strict discipline; corporal punishment was common. Ruth's nickname there was "Niggerlips", as he had large facial features and was darker than most boys at the all-white reformatory.
Ruth was sometimes allowed to rejoin his family or was placed at St. James's Home, a supervised residence with work in the community, but he was always returned to St. Mary's. He was rarely visited by his family; his mother died when he was 12 and by some accounts, he was permitted to leave St. Mary's only to attend the funeral. How Ruth came to play baseball there is uncertain: according to one account, his placement at St. Mary's was due in part to repeatedly breaking Baltimore's windows with long hits while playing street ball; by another, he was told to join a team on his first day at St. Mary's by the school's athletic director, Brother Herman, becoming a catcher even though left-handers rarely play that position. During his time there he also played third base and shortstop, again unusual for a left-hander, and was forced to wear mitts and gloves made for right-handers. He was encouraged in his pursuits by the school's Prefect of Discipline, Brother Matthias Boutlier, a native of Nova Scotia. A large man, Brother Matthias was greatly respected by the boys both for his strength and for his fairness. For the rest of his life, Ruth would praise Brother Matthias, and his running and hitting styles closely resembled his teacher's. Ruth stated, "I think I was born as a hitter the first day I ever saw him hit a baseball." The older man became a mentor and role model to George; biographer Robert W. Creamer commented on the closeness between the two:
Ruth (top row, left, holding a catcher's mitt and mask) at St. Mary's, 1912
Ruth revered Brother Matthias ... which is remarkable, considering that Matthias was in charge of making boys behave and that Ruth was one of the great natural misbehavers of all time. ... George Ruth caught Brother Matthias' attention early, and the calm, considerable attention the big man gave the young hellraiser from the waterfront struck a spark of response in the boy's soul ... [that may have] blunted a few of the more savage teeth in the gross man whom I have heard at least a half-dozen of his baseball contemporaries describe with admiring awe and wonder as "an animal."
The school's influence remained with Ruth in other ways. He was a lifelong Catholic who would sometimes attend Mass after carousing all night, and he became a well-known member of the Knights of Columbus. He would visit orphanages, schools, and hospitals throughout his life, often avoiding publicity. He was generous to St. Mary's as he became famous and rich, donating money and his presence at fundraisers, and spending $5,000 to buy Brother Matthias a Cadillac in 1926—subsequently replacing it when it was destroyed in an accident. Nevertheless, his biographer Leigh Montville suggests that many of the off-the-field excesses of Ruth's career were driven by the deprivations of his time at St. Mary's.
Most of the boys at St. Mary's played baseball in organized leagues at different levels of proficiency. Ruth later estimated that he played 200 games a year as he steadily climbed the ladder of success. Although he played all positions at one time or another (including infield positions generally reserved for right-handers), he gained stardom as a pitcher. According to Brother Matthias, Ruth was standing to one side laughing at the bumbling pitching efforts of fellow students, and Matthias told him to go in and see if he could do better. Ruth had become the best pitcher at St. Mary's, and when he was 18 in 1913, he was allowed to leave the premises to play weekend games on teams that were drawn from the community. He was mentioned in several newspaper articles, for both his pitching prowess and ability to hit long home runs.