By Steve Sears
Major League Baseball’s Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, Babe Ruth, may have spent a lot of time at “The House that Ruth Built,” the original Yankee Stadium, but he also traveled often into the Garden State during his playing and post-playing career, and in his declining days.
Ruth was known to frequent Donahue’s Restaurant in Wayne, along the old traffic circle in the Singac area. Bill Hurtt, now 75 and living in Florida, was raised near the restaurant with his brother, John.
“My brother knew him,” says Hurtt. “He was born in 1920 and I was born in 1935. They used to cut school and go see the Yankees (at Yankee Stadium) – sit out in the bleachers,” he says with a laugh.
John Hurtt was 14 years old and a busboy when Ruth, in Bill’s words, would “hang out” at the eatery. Called “Jack” by his family and friends, Ruth would refer to John as “Jackie Boy.” “It was him (Ruth) and a few Yankees,” says Hurtt. “Babe Ruth had the run of the place. He was friends with Jimmy Donahue, the owner, and the Babe used to go right into the kitchen, make his own sandwiches, and he’d eat in the kitchen with the help.”
Hurtt humorously recalls one story his brother told him. “There was a party, and Ruth called ‘Jackie Boy’ over and said, ‘Get us a tray with water.’ My brother comes back with a tray filled with an inch of water, all slopping around (in the tray)! Everybody roared. Ruth meant a tray filled with glasses of water. They made a big thing about that.”
Perhaps Ruth’s most notable area appearance was in 1942, when he presented the Riverdale School baseball team with new baseball uniforms and equipment. “He often stayed at Bert Lamb’s Hunters Inn on the corner of Hamburg Turnpike and Newark Pompton Turnpike and got to know the Riverdale kids,” says Tom Riley, an area historian. Riley also says the Ruth even hopped behind the Hunter’s Inn bar and served locals.
“My brother used to tell me Ruth was a monster, a big hunk of a man,” says Hurtt. Ruth, who died on August 16, 1948, was in the mid-1940s no longer the “hunk of a man” he once was, he starting to show signs of his bout with cancer. But, he had enough of the Babe left in him to make his last, colossal hitting show in Bloomingdale in the summer of 1946.
“Yes, Babe made many appearances in our area. The difference is ‘at bat’. On July 18, 1946 he actually put on a hitting exhibition at DeLazier Field,” says Riley. Russ Van Atta, a friend of the Babe and a former Yankee pitcher, tossed balls over the plate and Ruth clobbered them. “It’s one thing to appear on stage, or wave to the crowd from a car, it’s another thing to hit rockets over the houses (on Park Avenue) in right field like he did at DeLazier,” adds Riley.
Ruth was among 1,467 fans – two times the normal games attendance – that were present that day at the game between the Bloomingdale Troopers and Carbondale Pioneers. Afterwards, a table was placed behind home plate, and he further excited the kids in the throng by signing autographs.
Bill Hurtt puts it best. “He was king at the time in the Metropolitan area.”