The 1926 World Series: A Humanist Miracle

One of the leading arguments for the existence of supernatural power is sometimes called the “argument from miracles.” There are many reports of phenomena not fully explained by scientific principles, or contrary to generally accepted scientific principles, that are taken as evidence for a power that can bend nature to its control—a deity.

There are deep philosophical debates about such things and their meanings, which you can read here, and there are people who simply refuse to believe that miracles actually occur in the first place—who say, therefore, there is nothing to debate.

I take a different approach. I do believe there is good evidence for occurrences, for instance at Lourdes, that cannot be readily explained. But Christians and other God-believers have no monopoly on miracles—humanists have at least one as well that we should never stop talking about. Besides, ours is more fun.

Johnny Sylvester was an eleven-year-old boy in the summer of 1926 whose chief interests in life were baseball and horses. One day when he was out riding, his horse stepped in a hole and fell, tumbling Johnny to the ground. That wasn’t so terrible, but the kick in the head Johnny took while the horse struggled to regain his feet was much worse—especially when osteomyelitis developed. That’s an infection of the bone resulting from inflammation; back in 1925, before the discovery of penicillin, it frequently caused death.

In fact, one of the most tragic cases of osteomyelitis had unfolded just a year earlier, when Calvin Coolidge Jr., the sixteen-year-old son of the sitting President of the United States, had imprudently gone out to play tennis without wearing any socks. He deserved the painful blisters on his feet that followed; he didn’t really deserve to die from playing tennis without socks, but that is exactly what happened once the osteomyelitis set in. President Coolidge was devastated, as any parent would be; he lapsed into a depression from which some say he never truly recovered.

So when Johnny’s parents heard that Johnny had developed the same condition that had killed the President’s son just a year earlier, they were stunned. As they watched their lively eleven-year-old sink deeper and deeper into lethargy, they were at their wits’ end. By early October, doctors told them that Johnny would probably be dead within a week.

“Is there anything you want? Is there anything we can do for you? Is there anything that would make you happy, that would give us back our old sparkling Johnny?” Well, Johnny murmured, he sure would like to have a ball from the World Series that was just starting. Back when he’d filled his days with baseball, his buddies called him “the Babe Ruth Kid” because he was a good hitter, and Johnny knew that his hero Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees had made the Series.

Johnny’s father worked at a bank. He talked to someone, who talked to someone, who talked to someone, and next thing you know the president of the bank is on the phone, talking to someone in the Yankees organization. When rain interrupted game three of the World Series, being played in St. Louis, a policeman entered the Yankees dugout and asked them to sign a baseball for a dying kid back in New Jersey. They did; Babe Ruth took up half the ball with a written promise to hit a home run for Johnny the next day.

That night, the precious ball was whisked by air mail (then a highly novel procedure) back to New Jersey. According to Charlie Poekel’s delightful Babe and the Kid, only a quirk in the schedule prevented the plane on which it was carried from being piloted by Charles Lindbergh, who became rather famous for a different flight a year later.

Babe Ruth didn’t know much about air mail, but when he stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning the next day he knew he had made a promise to a little boy. The Cardinals’ pitcher had just struck out the first two batters, and a lot of ballplayers would have taken the first pitch to get a look at what kind of stuff he had. Ruth swung, at a high fastball. The next person to touch that ball was standing in Grand Boulevard, far beyond the right field fence. Promise kept.

Ruth must have been feeling pretty good about keeping that promise when he returned to the plate in the third inning. He felt good about his swing-at-the-first-pitch strategy, too.  This next ball shattered the plate glass window of the Wells Motor Car Company, 515 feet away from home plate, beyond the right-center field fence.

In the sixth inning, with the pitcher working much more carefully, Ruth failed to knock the first pitch out of the park. He worked the count to 3-2, then belted what beat writers called the longest homerun ever hit in the city of St. Louis. It cleared a twenty-foot wall 530 feet away. Damon Runyon, who was present, said it “traveled farther than most folk could carry a baseball in a basket.”

No one had ever hit three home runs in a World Series game before. (Ruth did it again two years later and only three others have done it since.)

In the eighth inning, Ruth walked on four pitches. The Cardinals had been humiliated enough for one day.

The signed baseball and the news of Ruth’s exploits on his behalf reached Johnny’s sick room later that day. The result was, well, a miracle. Johnny didn’t die. He was beside himself with excitement, saying over and over that he couldn’t wait to get back to school to show off the ball and tell the other kids about Babe Ruth hitting three home runs, which had never been done before, just for him. As if that weren’t enough excitement, a few days after the Series ended, there was a knock on the front door, and there was the great man himself, coming to give Johnny some encouragement.

Johnny’s recovery wasn’t instantaneous, but within a few weeks he was back in school. He lived a long and productive life, with children, grandchildren, and even a couple of patents for packaging machinery issued in his name.

Unquestionably, there was a miracle. Doctors said the kid was going to die, an intervention occurred, and the little osteomyelitis germs went away. Just like Lourdes.

So was Babe Ruth a God? You can’t prove he wasn’t. He certainly did things on the baseball field that experts thought no mortal could ever do. One contraindication is that the Johnny Sylvester World Series ended when Ruth, the slowest runner on the team, was thrown out trying to steal second base. No other World Series has ever ended that way, and it’s not the sort of thing a God would do. Another contraindication arose a year later, when a well-dressed gentleman approached Ruth before a game, introduced himself as Johnny Sylvester’s uncle, and expressed his heartfelt gratitude for all that Ruth had done for the boy, who was now doing fine. “I’m certainly glad to hear it,” replied the Babe. Then, when the gentleman walked away, Ruth turned to a friend and asked “Now who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?” I don’t think a God would have done that, either.

The human mind can affect the human body in ways we are not even close to understanding. Placebos shouldn’t work—but they do, in a surprising number of cases. I don’t have the slightest doubt that people who work themselves up with the belief that God is going to help them, as Emile Zola portrayed so vividly in Lourdes, can sometimes achieve amazing results. So could Babe Ruth, but that doesn’t make him God.

There’s one other humanist miracle here. It’s called penicillin. It was discovered two years later, perfected during the 1930s, and put to use savings thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War II. It was called the “miracle drug.” It would almost certainly have saved President Coolidge’s son. It was developed by a marvelous humanist sacrament called the “scientific method,” and it outperforms Babe Ruth and Lourdes combined by about a million to one.