ST. PETERSBURG — The world called him the “Sultan of Swat” and the “Great Bambino.” Former St. Petersburg Mayor Al Lang called him “the greatest thing to ever happen to St. Petersburg.” But 97-year-old Julia Ruth Stevens simply calls Babe Ruth “daddy.”
With a worn New York Yankees cap to shield her from the sun, Julia Ruth Steven, the last living child of the “greatest baseball player of all time,” insisted that she sit on one of St. Petersburg's last remaining green benches Sunday before leaving the St. Petersburg Museum of History's Schrader's Little Cooperstown exhibit, which chronicles the history of spring training baseball in St. Petersburg and the impact legends like Babe Ruth made on the area. Stevens signed a baseball Sunday to display alongside her father's, and will receive a rare key to the city today in honor of the 100th anniversary of spring training in the area and St. Petersburg's first “Babe Ruth Day.”
“Babe Ruth put St. Petersburg on the map. When he came here, he was as big as The Beatles, but all by himself,” said Tim Reed, baseball historian and cochair of the St. Petersburg Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth. “He fell in love with the city and the city loved him. That's why Al Lang Stadium is called 'the other house that Ruth built'.”
Babe Ruth Day will start with a spring training game between Team Canada and the Baltimore Orioles, Ruth's home city, a proclamation from the mayor and a presentation from the numerous organizations and charities Ruth worked with over the years. Ruth played baseball in St. Petersburg with the Yankees from 1925-1935, but frequently visited the area in his retirement, spurring not only tourism but headlines on everything from what he caught fishing to what he scored golfing.
“Daddy just loved St. Petersburg, and some of my best friends and my best memories I made here,” Stevens said. “But that's the trouble when you live as long as I have, there aren't many people around that remember things the way you do.”
The last time Stevens' was in St. Petersburg was for her best friend's wedding in 1943. But every January through March when she was growing up was spent frequenting football games with her father, fishing in the bay and running around the Jungle Hotel Country Club as Ruth perfected his swing. Ruth and Stevens danced to Cab Calloway at The Coliseum, and during one spring training season an alligator chased Ruth off the field of the waterfront park at Crescent Lake.
Now her family's penthouse apartment at the Flor De Leon, which was across the hall from Lou Gehrig's apartment, is a senior living community. The Jungle Country Club has been transformed into Admiral Farragut Academy and the Royal Hotel where she used to spend the spring is now Stetson University College of Law.
“The changes are tremendous. I can't recognize anything except Central Avenue,” Stevens said. “But I really wish Daddy could see the city now. I think he would like it.”