When I was a boy, my father owned a tailoring and dry-cleaning store scarcely a block away from Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia Athletics who subsequently moved to Kansas City and now reside in Oakland. Pop was the team tailor and as such he repaired torn uniforms and ripped flags, and cleaned and pressed the players' uniforms and street clothes.
Recently, a nostalgic sportscaster said that there probably were no more Babe Ruth stories left. But he was wrong. There is still one—mine.
One early July day in the mid-'20s, the New York Yankees were in Philadelphia for a Saturday doubleheader. Pop and I had picked up a lot of suits for pressing, among them two belonging to Ruth himself.
It was customary for my father to go through the pockets and to brush out the cuffs of the pants before pressing each suit. He was routinely going through Ruth's pockets when he felt a small box. It contained a diamond stickpin. Hurrying to the phone, Pop called Steve Monaghan, the club attendant, and said he would return the pin himself.
When the second game ended, Pop waited to give the players time to shower and dress, then entered the clubhouse, went directly over to the Babe and returned the stickpin. Babe offered Pop a reward, but my father refused. Ruth, seeing Pop so determined, thanked him, shook hands with him, and then Pop went back to work feeling pleased at having met Ruth in person under such pleasant circumstances.
About an hour later, my parents were in the back room when they heard a commotion out front. Pop hurried out and was stunned to find Babe Ruth autographing baseballs, cards, pieces of paper—anything. When the crowd cleared, the Babe walked over to Pop.
"Mr. Waxman, I've come to thank you again, and please forgive the interruption of your business," he said. Pop, speechless, just mumbled.
Mama had come out front and heard Babe's words. In her less-than-perfect English she asked whether Babe would care to come into the back room for some gefilte fish.
"I sure would. Ma'am," he answered.
The threesome went into the dining room. I followed, astonished. Mama brought out the fish which was garnished with sugared carrots. She set up three plates and silverware, and also served homemade challah. Putting two large portions of fish on the Babe's plate, she cut a large slice of challah and nodded to Pop to go to the closet.
"Mr. Root, a schnapps, maybe?" she asked. Babe grinned and nodded yes. Pop brought out the bottle and glasses. Babe gulped down the fish, then asked if he could have another piece, more challah, another drink. When Babe had had his fill, he leaned back in his chair.
"Mama, that fish is sensational," he said. "You'll have to give me your recipe. And don't forget the instructions on how to bake this—what do you call it?—this challah bread." With that he pulled out a large black cigar from his pocket and offered one to Pop. My father shook his head politely, saying that he couldn't smoke until after sundown on the Sabbath. Babe sputtered apologetically and put the cigar back in his pocket.
Then, inadvertently, I started a fuss. "Pop, how come when the Babe comes to bat, and you're watching the game, you say things in Yiddish like "Brech a foos'?"
Babe looked at me. "What's brech a foos?"
"Break a leg," I answered. Pop was ready to rip me apart. I ran to Mama's side, just in case. The Babe roared, and tears rolled down his face. I continued, "And the other Yankees—you curse them too when they come up to bat. That's not being a good sport." Pop was livid. The Babe's big frame shook as he asked, "What does he say about the other guys?" But before I could answer, Mama clamped a hand over my mouth.
My mother tried to explain that my father's fanaticism as a hometown rooter sometimes caused him to make comments about the players of the opposing teams. Babe put his arms around Pop and Mama, asking that they go easy on me. Giving me a wink, he handed me a dollar and advised that I scram. Rising from the table, he kissed Mama on the cheek, shook hands warmly with Pop and prepared to leave.
Ruth then asked my mother whether she had ever seen him play. Mama shook her head.
"Why don't you and Harry come to the ball park on the Fourth?" He bade them goodby and blew a kiss to Mama on the way out of the store. The Fourth was on a Monday, and Mama asked Pop to take her to the game. He agreed. They sat in the stands near home plate about three rows back. His first time up, the Babe flied out. But on his second at bat he caught hold of a fastball and it sailed out of the park. Even the Philly fans cheered. As he neared home plate, Ruth looked to the left .where Mama and Pop sat. As he crossed the plate, he doffed his cap. My mother beamed like a young girl, sure the gesture was meant for her alone.
I've since heard it said that Babe Ruth hated fish, but if he did, he didn't show it at our house. A couple of weeks after the game, two packages from the Babe arrived in the mail. There was a silk shawl for Mama, a watch for Pop. Inside were identical notes: "You've already opened the packages, so you can't send them back." And an extra note to Mama: "Dear Mama: What new Yiddish curses has Poppa dreamed up against the Yankees?" Mama laughed, Pop grinned and I just stood there and watched.