Myths and Memories Play Peoria
Saturday last I was sitting in my seat in Peoria, Arizona watching a game between San Diego and Oakland. The stadium announcer cut through the between inning chatter to announce that Julia Ruth Stevens was sitting in the “accessible” section (formerly known as the handicapped section) behind row 106. That happened to be the row next to ours. I did not understand the significance of this until the announcer continued by saying that Julia Ruth Stevens is the daughter of Babe Ruth. I looked over with interest and saw (what I learned later to be) a ninety year old woman sitting in a wheel chair. Somewhat to my surprise she stood up and waved at the crowd. Also , somewhat to my surprise, I noticed that 90 year old Julia Ruth Stevens is a beautiful woman, in wonderful shape, with a graceful face and reddish hair.
I had seen Mrs. Stevens before, on television, throwing out the first ball at the last game at Yankee stadium (the house that Ruth built) just a few months ago. I found out that she lives in the Phoenix area. What she was doing at the ballgame, I don’t know. Given the lack of fanfare, other than the announcement about her attendance, I assumed that she just wanted to see a ballgame. Although I understand her to be legally blind, she watched the game, and every pitch, at least until friend Broyles and I left an inning early from the one sided contest (Oakland scored 17 runs).
Mrs. Stevens is the daughter of Ruth’s second wife, the actress Claire Hodgeson. She was nine years old at the time those two married was adopted by Ruth. Ruth had one natural daughter of his own who, according to her web site, is still living. Ruth’s first wife had perished in a fire during the couple’s separation. Ruth would have been 26 when her adopted father died of cancer in 1946.
As my friend Broyles said, “she’s always been Babe Ruth’s daughter. “ Yes she has been. What must that be like, to have your own identity so subsumed by a parent ? In Mrs. Steven’s case, it has advantages, and probably not many distractions. During the game, a few people came over to introduce themselves, get autographs and have their picture taken with her. I admit that I snapped a picture of her from a distance. Why ?
The human species is insecure. They so want to be identified with greatness of any sort that they will seek a signature from an adopted daughter of a man who has been dead for almost 63 years. Not one person in that park, other than Mrs. Stevens, had ever seen Babe Ruth play baseball. All they knew was that he was the most famous athlete in America who ever lived. Note that I said “in America” the American boxer Muhammad Ali is better known worldwide. I am not criticizing anyone for this adulation of Mrs. Stevens. I am very sad that I did not go introduce myself to her. I would have liked to have met her, but I did not know if she wanted to be bothered.
What has her life been like ? Is she introduced to everyone as “the daughter of babe Ruth ?” Did she ever feel like screaming,” I am Julia Stevens, I have had my own life and it has been wonderful, ask me about my life, talk to me, not my ghost of a father, long gone.” ? She must have. Yet, most of the time she was probably thankful for the doors it opened and the free tickets it got her. She has probably never paid for a ticket in her life.
Still, I always feel sorry for the children of celebrities. The son of John Quincy Adams comes to mind. George Washington Adams. Can you imagine ? It is not bad enough that your dad was President of the United States, that your grandfather was President of the United States, but they have to go and name you after the most admired man who ever lived in this country, George Washington. A man that both his father and grandfather knew and admired. Think he ever felt pressure to perform ? Perhaps that is why he died a hopeless alcoholic. No one in the world could live up to those kinds of expectations.
Mrs. Stevens was lucky in one respect, no one ever expected her to play Major League baseball, but her whole life has a kind of side show aspect to it. Step right up and see the bearded lady, the three headed dog, have your picture taken with the tallest man in the world. She is a curiosity, and curiosities often have a hard time being human. Perhaps not Mrs. Stevens, but if not, she has overcome a lot. I hope that she is her own self and that the vicarious adulation people feel for her dead father has not interfered too much with her long life. I actually suspect that it has not, she certainly let the stadium management know that she would be at the game. Oh, and one other thing, she wore a stylish baseball warm up jacket with a number three and the name “Ruth” on the back. That may tell the story on its own.