Remembering His Dad’s Brush With the Babe

How a little boy from Essex met The Great Bambino. All it took was a kick in the head.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Lilley.

Growing up, John Sylvester Jr. didn’t realize his dad was a celebrity. But one day, when Sylvester Jr. was in third grade, My Weekly Reader had a story that featured his father alongside none other than Babe Ruth, the great baseball hero of the era.

“That’s my dad,” Sylvester Jr. told his classmates.

The senior Sylvester’s brush with the Babe occurred in October 1926, when he was 11 years old. A horse had kicked Sylvester in the head, causing life-threatening complications. Unsure if the boy would pull through, his doctors said he needed something to live for.

Sylvester lived in Essex Fells and grew up idolizing Ruth. As it happened, Ruth’s Yankees were playing the St. Louis Cardinals that fall in the World Series. A newspaperman, George Buckley, arranged to have each team sign a baseball for the bedridden New Jersey boy. Ruth’s note read, “I’ll knock a homer for you on Wednesday.”

On the promised day, Ruth hit not one, but three homers, leading the New Yorkers to victory in the fourth game of the series. The Yankees eventually lost the series, but Sylvester came up a winner. Newspapers reported his miraculous recovery.

With the series over, Ruth returned to New York. On his way to Bradley Beach to play an exhibition game, he took a detour, making a surprise visit to the stricken boy.

The story added to the Ruthian legend and made a reluctant celebrity of young Sylvester. “My father shunned publicity,” says Sylvester Jr. of the episode. “He only spoke of it when asked, but never bragged.”

Sylvester Jr. shared some of the fame—like that day in third grade when his classmates read about his dad. “The next day, I brought the signed baseball and photos into school,” he recalls. “When I got home, Dad put it all in his dresser next to his socks.”

At a 1930s game at Yankee Stadium, Ruth posed with the boy, then supposedly asked the gathered newspapermen, “Who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?” When Sylvester graduated from Princeton in 1937, he carried a sign that read, “Who the hell is Babe Ruth?”

Sylvester Jr., now 66, says the two men reconnected when the Babe was dying. “My father visited him. We’re lifelong Yankee fans.” Ruth died of cancer in 1948; Sylvester died in 1990.

The Ruth/Sylvester tale has been depicted numerous times on film, most recently in I’ll Knock a Homer for You, a 2013 documentary by Andrew Lilley and Loose Gravel Films.

Lilley holds screenings of the film around New Jersey and can be reached at [email protected].

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