On Saturday, March 7, 1914, George Herman Ruth planted his feet in the batter's box of the baseball diamond at the Cape Fear Fair Grounds in Fayetteville, N.C., and slammed a pitch.
The confident rookie, who had just signed with the Baltimore Orioles, sent the ball soaring 350 feet, hitting his first home run as a professional baseball player.
Fayetteville has never let go of that historic moment. Babe Ruth is still reverently referred to, his name inserted into local newspaper articles and spotlighted at a couple of local museums.
In 1951, the city memorialized the Babe's home run by installing a North Carolina Historic State Marker on Gillespie Street, at the site of the long-gone Fair Grounds.
The centennial of Babe's home run is fast approaching, and to commemorate the event, the local Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex (part of the North Carolina Museum of History) will hold a rededication ceremony at the marker March 7. The highlight of the next day's Babe Ruth Day Festival will be a vintage baseball game with a Babe Ruth impersonator and costumed re-enactors. The game will follow 1864 rules — bare-handed ball. Spectators are welcome.
Ruth's presence in Fayetteville in 1914 was due to the persistence of Hyman Fleishman, an avid baseball fan and Fayetteville merchant who was originally from Baltimore. He knew the Orioles' owner and with some pleading, persuaded him to have the team stop in Fayetteville en route to spring training in Florida.
Fayetteville's bad weather limited the players' outdoor practice, but on March 7, the ground dried and the sky cleared enough for some of them to leave their rooms at the Lafayette Hotel (built in 1825 in time for a visit from the Marquis de Lafayette, for whom the city is named).
The players walked a mile to the Fair Grounds. They divided into two teams, the Buzzards and the Sparrows, and they played an intersquad game. It was in the last of the seven innings that Ruth hit that long home run to right field.
He was later quoted as saying, "I hit it as I hit all the others, by taking a good gander at the pitch as it came up to the plate, twisting my body into a backswing and hitting it as hard as I could swing."
Until that day, the longest homer that Fayetteville baseball fans had seen locally was the one that All-American Jim Thorpe hit during a Giants game at the Fair Grounds. But Babe Ruth's ball landed 60 feet farther than Thorpe's.
Jack Dunn, the Orioles' manager and owner, had spotted Babe Ruth and signed him to an Orioles contract, plucking the young southpaw from Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. In Fayetteville, team members joked about how George Ruth was Dunn's new baby. They began to call him "Dunnie's Babe," which sportswriters soon shortened to "Babe." That's another source of pride for Fayetteville's baseball buffs, who say that it was in their city that Babe Ruth got his nickname.
Hyman Fleishman's young son, Maurice, was the batboy for the Orioles during that intersquad game in 1914, but of course it wasn't until much later that Maurice realized the significance of what he had witnessed. At the time, Maurice was almost 13 years old and Babe Ruth was 19. A love for baseball gave them something in common.
"They became friends and they stayed in touch," said Steve Satisky, 65, a retired Fayetteville pawn hop owner who is Maurice Fleishman's nephew. "Uncle Maurice often talked about Ruth. He had photos of himself with Ruth and Connie Mack and other players from that era. Baseball was THE sport for everyone growing up here."
The Fayetteville Area Transportation & Local History Museum has an exhibit on local Jewish history, including a wall panel focusing on Maurice and the Babe.
Not only was Babe Ruth's journey to Fayetteville the first train ride he had ever taken, the Lafayette Hotel provided him with his first elevator ride. He spent his pocket money bribing the elevator operator to let him run it. Up and down. Up and down. He couldn't get enough of that elevator. (The hotel no longer exists.)
Trains also excited him. According to "The Life That Ruth Built," a biography by Marshall Smelser, Ruth would watch the 5 a.m. train chug through town and then he would return to the Lafayette to wolf down a triple breakfast order of ham and wheat cakes. Babe also went for bike rides with the local kids. In many ways, that's what he was. A kid.
Ruth wouldn't recognize Fayetteville today. The city percolates with tourist attractions, from Heritage Square's house museums, the Museum of the Cape Fear (a regional history museum), and the 97-acre Cape Fear Botanical Gardens to the Civil War, American Independence and Gaelic Beginnings Heritage Trails.
Perhaps most spectacular, especially for visitors interested in military history, are the dioramas, military equipment, sound and lighting effects and memorabilia at downtown's Airborne and Special Operations Museum, and the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg was not established until 1918. Its 55,000 personnel make it America's largest Army installation. Visitors can pass freely through the base. At the onsite Sicily Drop Zone, according to a jump schedule, visitors can observe paratroopers' airborne training.
As Ruth once said, "I got to some bigger places than Fayetteville…but darn few as exciting."
It's a city that lives up to its motto: History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling.
If you go
Fayetteville, N.C., is 350 miles south of Baltimore, about a 5 1/2 -hour drive. Amtrak offers service with tickets starting at around $74 each way. US Airways and Delta offer connecting flights from BWI-Marshall Airport starting at about $425 round-trip.
Babe Ruth Centennial Celebration, March 7-8. Events include a rededication of the Babe Ruth marker commemorating the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's first professional home run and a Vintage Base Ball game played by 1864 rules. The game takes place at 11 a.m. March 8 at Arnette Park, 2165 Wilmington Highway, Fayetteville.
For more information, contact the Fayetteville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Call 888-622-4276 or go to VisitFayettevilleNC.com.