There are many great American sport stories — too many to quantify — but did you know that one of the most famous occurred right here in the beloved borough of Essex Fells?
It was back in 1926 and dealt with an Essex Fells Elementary School student, Johnny Sylvester, and the greatest player of baseball, George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr.
Johnny was born on April 5, 1915, in Caldwell and their family eventually moved to Essex Fells. He attended our cherished Essex Fells Elementary School. Johnny was quite a talented and able little athlete, and he loved baseball and loved the Yankees so much that he was nicknamed “the Babe Ruth Kid” at school.
During the summer of 1926, the Sylvesters rented a house at the Jersey Shore, and while there, Johnny was severely injured while horseback riding when his horse stepped into a hole, throwing the young boy. Trying to stand up, the horse, then quite unintentionally, kicked Johnny square in the head, resulting in his developing osteomyelitis in his skull, a serious condition that is caused by an infection that leads to bone deterioration, a fatal diagnosis. Despite his injuries, Johnny still focused on his favorite team and told his father, “I wish I could see Babe Ruth wallop a homer before I die.”
Because of his love of the Yankees and the “Sultan of Swing,” the family sent telegrams to the Yankees and to Ruth himself, who was then playing in the 1926 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. “The Babe” sent back to Johnny a package from St. Louis that included two baseballs, one autographed by members of the Yankees and the other by the Cardinals. Ruth inscribed on the Yankee ball, “I’ll knock a homer for you on Wednesday,” Game 4 of the Series. (Notes: Interestingly, Johnny also received an autographed football from Red Grange and an autographed tennis racket from Bill Tilden! Further, in 2014, the actual baseball sold at auction for $250,641!)
Ruth did hit that homer in Game 4; in fact, he hit three. Newspapers began to report that with the news, Johnny’s condition began to improve! This event made Johnny “the most famous little boy in America.” In a follow-up note on Oct. 9, Ruth wrote to “my sick little pal” that he would “try to knock you another homer, maybe two today,” but alas, Ruth went homer-less, and the Yankees lost the series. Later, on Oct. 11, 1926, Babe Ruth himself visited Johnny at his home in Essex Fells, at which time the young boy said, “I’m sorry the Yankees lost.”
This amazing story has been told and re-told quite often in the popular culture (e.g., the films The Babe Ruth Story (1948) and The Babe (1992), and in many books, including a wonderful one written by long-time Essex Fells resident Charles Poeckel Jr. entitled, Babe & The Kid: The Legendary Story of Babe Ruth and Johnny Sylvester, The History Press, 2007).
Later, after graduating from Princeton University in 1937 and having served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in WWII, Johnny eventually became a successful businessman in New York. Johnny died in 1990 at age 74.
On June 22, 2008, Mr. Poeckel was responsible for inviting Julia Ruth Stevens, the Babe’s daughter, along with Johnny’s son, John Dale Sylvester Jr., to Essex Fells to unveil a plaque honoring the Babe’s visit to the Borough at the site of the Sylvester home, now located in the parking lot of St. Peter’s Church.
And now you know another bit of our “hidden history”!