It’s a treasured piece of MacJannet folklore: The great Babe Ruth, the most dominating figure in the history of Major League Baseball, once visited the MacJannet American School— better known as “The Elms”— at St.-Cloud, outside Paris.
That such a visit actually took place seems indisputable, as the two photographs reproduced in this issue attest. In one, the Bambino provides a star-struck student with a lesson in how to hold a bat while the boy’s delighted classmates and teachers look on. (The woman at right, who seems less impressed, may be Donald MacJannet’s new wife, Charlotte.) In the other photo, Ruth chats with Donald MacJannet while the main Elms building looms in the background.
When Charlotte MacJannet donated these photos to Tufts University in 1993, her cover letter remarked, “During his visit, Babe Ruth hit a baseball, from where he and Donald were standing, over the roof of the school, a superb home run.” This brief snippet by Charlotte constitutes the only known firsthand account of Ruth’s visit to The Elms.
Precisely when did this memorable visit take place? (Charlotte’s letter mentions only that it occurred “during the mid-1930s.”) More important, how did Donald MacJannet manage to attract such a superstar to his unpretentious school? Those questions, long shrouded in mystery, may finally have been answered, thanks to some detective work by your intrepid Entretiens staff.
For one thing, Donald MacJannet enjoyed an extensive network of high-powered contacts. As proprietor of what was virtually the only American-style school and camp in Europe, he appealed uniquely to American movers and shakers— business executives, diplomats, army officers, show business celebrities who were stationed in Europe with school-age children. (For a list of celebrity parents at the MacJannet school and camp, see Les Entretiens, Spring 2014.) The 1982 Herb Jacobs biography of Donald MacJannet, Educator of Kings, mentions Ruth’s visit only in passing, citing him merely as one of the school’s many notable visitors.
“MacJannet brought many visitors,” Jacobs wrote, “usually for lunchtime talks and informal question sessions. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, the famous ‘Labrador doctor,’ told of his experiences treating fishermen on that icy outpost. His son, Wilfred T. Grenfell, was later a teacher at the school for a year and a [camp] counselor for three summers. ‘Babe’ Ruth, the New York Yankees’ home run king, gave the boys a lesson on what a bat could do in the right hands. General Henri Gouraud, military governor of Paris, spoke at the school and donated his library of books in English inscribed to him by American authors. The Nazis later burned all the Elms books. The famous and witty French scholar André Maurois spoke twice, in English. Two famous fliers appeared. Though Charles Lindbergh signed a photo but did not come, Amelia Earhart, first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, came to the school. She was brought by Colonel Frank Lahm, then military attaché at the U.S. embassy in Paris.”
Still, what attracted Ruth to The Elms? Biographies of Ruth are less than fastidious about such details, tending to rely on secondary sources. In Babe Ruth: A Biography (2006), Wayne Stewart writes:
“In 1934, after making a trip to Japan to play against some Japanese college teams and All-Stars, the Ruths decided to return to the United States via Europe because he had never trekked to that continent. Ruth found Paris to be a disappointment because, accustomed to being recognized and idolized by fans everywhere, he complained that he wasn’t noticed there, mumbling, ‘Nobody gave a damn.’ It would seem that instead of seeing the sights, Ruth was more concerned about being seen.”
Here we find a likely motive for Ruth’s visit to the Elms: ego-gratification. As an institution full of baseball-happy American boys, The Elms was perhaps the one place in Paris where people did give a damn about Ruth— where he was guaranteed to be appreciated and adored. (If indeed Ruth really traveled from Japan to Paris, perhaps he was also groggy from the trip, whether by train or plane.)
As for the date: Karl Wagenheim’s 1974 biography, Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend, mentions a visit Ruth paid to Paris early in 1934, probably in January. It says that one day Ruth went over to the “American Boys’ School,” where he knocked out fly balls in the playground. At first glance this would appear to refer to some school other than the Elms.
But a Google search turned up an Associated Press dispatch from Paris, dated January 18, 1935, concerning Babe Ruth’s visit to that city. This dispatch, it’s clear, must have been the source of the description in Karl Wagenheim’s biography. That book had Ruth visiting "the American Boys’ School,” which suggests a specific institution. But this AP dispatch says Ruth visited “an American boys school.” One can comfortably conclude that this school was indeed the MacJannet American School at St. Cloud (although, to be sure, the MacJannet school admitted girls as well by this point).
This conclusion is supported by the clothing worn by the adults pictured in the photos. The men are wearing coats; the women are wearing fur coats. It’s clearly winter.
On the date of his visit, Ruth was three weeks shy of his 40th birthday. His fabled career with the New York Yankees was already over; the team had traded him to the Boston Braves after the 1934 season. His last Major League game, on Memorial Day 1935, was barely four months in the future. In the twilight of his career, this aging hero offered a priceless experience to the students at The Elms; and they, in their adulation, provided him with something of value as well.