The Man Who Saw Babe Ruth Hit a Homer

Roland Springborn always wore a suit to the office. It draped scarecrow like off of his tall, slight frame. The elbows of the coat and back of the trousers were worn shinny and thin. Under the coat, which he took off and carefully put on the back of his chair, he wore 3, sometimes 4, layers of pastel colored t-shirts. I never asked him why. That was something I could never ask Mr. Springborn. For the best part of a year, one morning a week, he was the oldest intern in the office of Senator S. I. Hayakawa. 

The long awaited appearance of the Washington Nationals in the World Series turned my thoughts to Mr. Springborn. A native of the district, he would have been immensely proud. But his team was the Washington Senators, and his players were the icons of the game. You see, in 1980, Mr. Springborn was the same age as the Twentieth Century.

In the office at 8 AM sharp, before me, he always perked up when I arrived. His desk was directly across from mine, so we mostly faced each other. He was a talker and while his stories quickly wore thin on the others in the office, I didn’t mind listening and learning from him. I marveled that he had lived in the district the first 65 years of the century and probed him for the history he witnessed. Like my grandpa Blackwood, he was born before human powered flight. With all the questions I asked both of them, I never asked what they thought when the first time he saw an airplane. I thought of Mr. Springborn when I read the Wright Brothers flew exhibitions over the Potomac. A man with a lively curiosity at 80, I am sure he didn’t miss that opportunity.

Mr. Springborn lived in Arlington and took the bus to the city for his assorted internships. He had retired in the last 60’s from a job in the bureaucracy. His age and retired government employee status somehow allowed him to use public transportation cheaply. I soon learned that there was a very specific reason he only worked the morning shift. He was all about lunch. He had a voluminous knowledge about the different cafeterias in the various federal buildings. He had a weekly schedule that got him to a different cafeteria every day based on their specials of the day. The soup on Tuesday at Treasury. The spaghetti at State on Thursday. Precisely at noon, with a smile and a wave, he put on his coat and headed out so that he didn’t miss the specials. Lunch done, he headed back home across Potomac. A nap and then time to listen to the Baltimore Orioles on the radio. Having outlived most of his peers, this was his life, seemingly full with his assorted office mates as regular players in his each day.

While I knew he was a fan of the original Washington Senators and he had often gone to games at old Griffith Stadium, the door to his love of the game flew wide open one day when I showed up at work with my O’s hat. I was off to a game in Baltimore after work that day.

“Oh, they almost won that Series last year. I like them but they are not as good as the old Senators.”

The Senators and baseball left DC in 1961 a fact that still pained Mr. Springborn. From childhood he had gone to games. 

“My favorite player was Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Boy he could throw a fastball.”

If you are a baseball fan having someone say such a thing in an offhand way is startling. Johnson is a Hall of Famer who played all 21 years of his career in DC starting in 1907 … 1907. Of course, he was a DC boy’s hero. I looked it up. Johnson still has the all-time career shutout record, 110. 

Mr. Springborn knew what it was like to go to Griffith Stadium before any baseball park had lights. He talked about seeing the players outside the park on the trolleys and how during the games the players would talk to people in the stands. And then it hit me. Good lord, I thought, did he see the 1927 Yankees, possibly the most iconic team in the history of the game. I broke into his stream of conscious baseball recitation and asked.

“Mr. Springborn, did you see the 1927 Yankees … Ruth … Gehrig?”

“Oh sure,” he said, “saw Babe Ruth hit a home run off the Big Train.”

For a time, I just fell back into my chair as he continued on with the description of the day and the homer. I honestly don’t remember what he said. I remember him smiling at me and pointing out in a direction with his left arm like he was gesturing to the outfield wall at Griffith Stadium. I was conscious that that was exactly what he was doing. He was seeing it, reliving it, transmitting the moment to me. There was no film. No picture. This was it. It was something real in the memory of an 80-year-old baseball fan telling a story to another baseball fan. Generations apart, I was now the keeper of the day the Babe hit the homer off of the Big Train.

When I left DC, Mr. Springborn was still our intern. The longer he was there the more he became sort of the great grandpa for the entire office. We fretted when he called in sick and rejoiced when he came back to work. Some stories I heard a dozen times, but I took each one in as if it was discovering a hidden treasure. On my last day with him, Mr. Springborn and I exchanged addresses. I wrote him a few times from my various addresses and he always responded with a nice update in his shaky scrawl. 

As such things go, eventually the letters stopped. I could guess that time finally caught up with my baseball pal. Thing is, I knew in the moment they happened that every conversation with Mr. Springborn was something special, something I would always hold close. For that I am grateful.

So, tonight when I turn on the World Series from Mr. Springborn’s beloved Washington DC, I will sip a cold beer and again recall my time with the guy who saw Babe Ruth hit a homer.

Play ball! Mr. Springborn.

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