Sports

Iconic Baseball Moment Immortalized in Film

Babe Ruth and young Johnny Sylvester, for whom the Babe said he would hit a home run. (Photo courtesy Andrew Lilley)
Babe Ruth and young Johnny Sylvester, for whom the Babe said he would hit a home run. (Photo courtesy Andrew Lilley)

 

Many devout baseball fans know the tale of Babe Ruth and an 11-year-old boy named Johnny Sylvester.

But for those readers who may not be familiar, allow me to pass along the story.

Johnny Sylvester grew up in New Jersey as a New York Yankees’ fan in the 1920s, so naturally his favorite player was the larger-than-life Babe Ruth.

While on a summer vacation with his family in 1926, Johnny was riding a horse when he sustained what appeared to be a life-threatening injury. The horse stepped in a hole, and its leg struck Johnny in the forehead as both he and the animal fell to the ground.

With today’s medical advances, even that sort of blow to the head would have been treatable. But in the mid-1920s, doctors questioned whether the young boy would survive.

As the months progressed, Johnny developed a bone infection, and doctors got to the point of almost giving up, saying that really the only thing that could save him would be a will to live.

Sure enough, the 1926 World Series provided that will.

The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals squared off that year’s World Series, and Johnny was sure to tune in to each game from his hospital bed. Meanwhile, one of his father’s friends, George Buckley, had some contacts throughout professional baseball and had an idea to cheer up the ailing boy.

‘Knock a Homer for You’

During a rain delay of Game 3 in St. Louis, Buckley arranged for a police officer to go into each dugout and have the players sign a baseball to Johnny. When the ball came to Babe Ruth, he signed as follows next to his name: “I’ll knock a homer for you in Wednesday’s game.”

It’s one thing to make a promise like this, but legends are born when an athlete comes through on this promise. And boy did the Sultan of Swat deliver!

In Game 4 at Sportsman’s Park, Ruth hit not one, not two, but three home runs to help the Yankees to victory. The third home run traveled an estimated 550 feet, making it the longest home run in Sportsman Park’s history up to that time.

Though the Yankees wound up losing that World Series in seven games, the story of Ruth’s promise to an 11-year-old boy began circulating through the media. And as it did, slowly but surely Johnny’s health began to improve. He was eventually fully cured and went on to live a full life before his passing in 1990.

Documentary Film

This type of romantic story surely had the makings to be retold through film, so who better than one of Johnny’s own family members?

Andrew Lilley, Johnny’s great nephew and a filmmaker for Loose Gravel Films, had the inspiration to put together a documentary centering on the iconic baseball moment. His mother worshipped at Our Lady of Czestochowa, Sunset Park, and he grew up playing baseball in New Jersey.

He had heard the Babe Ruth story directly from Johnny, but by having access to other family members and a plethora of information from various museums, he was able to paint a vivid picture of the incomparable story.

“I think it’s an intriguing story on a few different levels…for baseball fans because of the baseball aspect of it but also for people looking for an interest story,” Lilley said.

“Johnny said it himself that Babe Ruth saved his life. There’s an interesting mystery there.

“When we think about how Johnny did get better, we’ll never know for sure, but there’s always that mystery there and I think that’s an interesting part of the story.”

Through a series of interviews, including snippets from Johnny himself, and old footage of the 1926 World Series, the film “I’ll Knock a Homer for You: The Timeless Story of Johnny Sylvester and Babe Ruth” was released in 2013. It was named the Best Home Grown Documentary at the 2013 Garden State Film Festival and was shown that same year at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Film Festival in Cooperstown.

When looking back at this enduring baseball moment, the romanticism of the sport is celebrated, and the film captures that essence.

Today, as social media has taken over the landscape of the game, a promise from a player to a kid to hit a home run would not carry the same weight as it did in the mid-1920s by the player who was the biggest name in baseball – and very well might still be even to this day.

Babe Ruth was a legend, and the story of his promise to Johnny Sylvester just further adds to his legacy.

For more details about the film, visit www.LooseGravelFilms.com or www.facebook.com/KnockAHomerForYou. Lilley also screens the film in the tri-state area, and may be contacted by email at Andrew@LooseGravelFilms.com.


Contact Jim Mancari via email at jmmanc@gmail.com.

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